Patti Catalano - Running For
Her Life By Robert Preer -
Once famed as the top US
female distance runner, Patti Catalano Dillon declined into despair and
homelessness. Now, she's back -- hopeful and ready to compete again.
Slowed by age and injuries, as well as long
battles with bulimia and depression, Patti Dillon saw her record-breaking
running career come to a halt when she was in her mid-30s. A short time later,
her third marriage also ended, and she was laid off from her position as a
job-training specialist at a Native American center in Jamaica Plain. In the
winter of 1989, she found herself homeless. She lived in her car, trying to
stay warm and parking overnight on streets where she thought she would be
Like many runners of
that era, Dillon had gravitated to the Bill Rodgers Running Center. The small
shoe store, located first in Cleveland Circle, then on Beacon Street, and now
at Faneuil Hall Marketplace, was and still is a hub for elite runners, who go
to chat or to meet for training runs. Dillon went because she had nowhere else
to go. Sometimes apatron would note the long, straight black hair, parted in
the middle, or the distinctive high cheekbones and brown eyes and ask if she
was Patti Catalano or Patti Lyons, names Dillon had run under in the late 1970s
and early 1980s. Lyons was her maiden name; Catalano, the name of her second
husband and coach. She was once the country's greatest female distance
She had held the American record for almost
every distance from 5 miles to the marathon and world records for the
half-marathon, 20 kilometers, 30 kilometers, and 5 miles. She was the first
American woman to run a marathon faster than 2 hours 30 minutes. She placed
second in the Boston Marathon three years in a row, earning a card in the game
At the peak of her success, she was one of
Boston's favorites, introduced to standing ovations at Boston Celtics games.
Her achievements came at the height of the first running boom, and they helped
to open the doors for the legions of women who would discover long-distance
running, a sport from which they had been barred. Women were first allowed to
enter the Boston Marathon in 1972.
But when customers in the store asked if she
was Patti Catalano or Patti Lyons, she said, no -- that she was her sister. "I
was embarrassed," she recalls today. "Patti Catalano was a runner. I
Jack Coakley, a wheelchair racer and
longtime Bill Rodgers Running Center employee, remembers Dillon during this
time. "She was very lonely, very withdrawn," he recalls. "It's hard to imagine
she was that way."
ON A CLOUDLESS AUTUMN MORNING AT HARKNESS
MEMORIAL STATE PARK IN Waterford, Connecticut, about 30 youngsters, ranging in
age from 6 to 15, hover around "Coach Patti" at the start of a recent weekly
practice of the Connecticut Home School Harriers. The running club, organized
by Dillon and her fourth husband, former cross-country star Dan Dillon, is made
up entirely of home-schooled children from the area. Included are the Dillon
children, Raven, 7, and Aaron, 10, who are taught by their mother and their
Not surprisingly, Aaron and Raven have a
knack for running. Both have done well in the club's time trials, and Aaron ran
his first cross-country race in October. Raven is a miniature version of her
mother -- the same facial features, long legs, slender frame, and
Patti Dillon, 50, runs in the park early in
the morning, before her family awakes. Her face is weathered, her dark hair
flecked with gray. She describes her life as "a roller-coaster ride, screaming
with your hands up." Today, the ride has leveled off, but as she savors the
joys of her latest life passage, she also is preparing to reenter the arena
that brought her the earlier ups and downs.
"I'm aiming for a full comeback," she
Her target is the December 14 Honolulu
Marathon. Her coach is Bill Squires, a founder of the Greater Boston Track Club
and mentor of four-time Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers. Squires believes
she can run a 3:10 to 3:20 marathon, which should be good enough to win her age
With the Home School Harriers, Patti
Dillon's running is confined to sprints around the park to shout encouragement
or give a hug to children who are struggling. After the workout, the Dillon
clan piles into the family SUV for the drive back to its modest Colonial on a
quiet street in New London. Patti and Dan, a sound engineer, got together 11
years ago, as she was preparing to leave Boston. They say they fell in love on
their first date, and they were married within a week.
As she angles the vehicle into the driveway,
Patti Dillon blurts out a commentary on her life: "Here I am -- the house in
the suburbs, the two-car garage, the kids, a dog, a cat, and a husband who
works so I can stay at home. Who would have believed it?"
Patti Dillon's journey from homelessness to
the suburban ideal is almost as improbable as her ascent to the top of the
running world 2 1/2 decades ago.
She grew up in Quincy's working-class Houghs
Neck neighborhood, the eldest of nine children. Her father was
second-generation Irish from Dorchester and an all-Navy boxer. Her mother, a
Micmac Indian, had run away from home in Nova Scotia when she was 11 and wound
up in Quincy working as a nanny after lying about her age.
Dillon lied about her age, too, to get a job
as a nurse's aide when she was 14. She worked after school full time and used
her earnings to help support her family and to cover her tuition at Sacred
Heart High School in Weymouth and buy cigarettes. The school's athletic
offerings were minimal, and other than a couple of years on a swim team, Dillon
had no athletic experience.
She says she got little support from her
parents. She cannot recall being hugged or told she was loved. She does
remember her father hitting her mother as well as her and her siblings. He died
when she was 19. Her mother died several years ago.
After graduating from high school, Dillon
got a job at Quincy Hospital as an aide. She was 40 pounds overweight and
smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. "I was very insecure and quiet as a
mouse," she recalls. "I was ripe for the weaknesses to develop into a
One day, Dillon glimpsed a former high
school classmate at the hospital. The woman had beautiful long hair, a trim
figure, and was smartly dressed, Dillon remembers. "I wanted what she had. She
inspired me to take a long look at myself and do something about it."
Like many other people in the 1970s, Dillon
started by buying Kenneth Cooper's Aerobics, a book that had launched a
fitness craze back then. The book said running was a good way to lose weight,
so Dillon decided to give it a try. "The book said to wear your most
comfortable shoes," she says. "My most comfortable shoes were my Earth
Earth Shoes -- heel lower than toe -- are
probably the last thing a beginning runner should wear. But on March 28, 1976,
just days before her 23d birthday, Dillon stepped out in them from the Quincy
YMCA and jogged a block to Mount Wollaston Cemetery, which is circled by a
1-mile road. She ran the loop seven times. A police officer stopped her once to
ask if she was OK, and she assured him that she was. In fact, for the first
time in her life, she felt she could breathe.
"It was an overwhelming, joyful feeling,"
she says. "It was what I would live for."
Her feet aching and blistered, she returned
to the Y, stood under the shower, and wept.
Soon she acquired some athletic shoes and
began entering local road races. She won them all. In the fall of 1976, six
months after those loops around the cemetery, she entered her first marathon,
the Ocean State in Rhode Island, and won that, too. She had had no professional
training. And she retained some old habits: She was still smoking a pack a day
when she won her first marathon and did not give up cigarettes until 1978.
She was married briefly during this period,
but the marriage was annulled.
In 1977, she finished second in the
inaugural Bonne Bell 10-kilometer road race for women, now the Tufts Health
Plan 10K. Her back-and-forth duel with winner Lynn Jennings established her as
a force on the Boston racing scene.
The next year, she met Joe Catalano, track
coach at Quincy High School, who promised to take her to the next level. He set
her on a strict program, which included strength training, high mileage, and
speed work. He got her to quit smoking. In 1980, they were married.
Dillon stepped onto the national stage in
late 1978 in the Honolulu Marathon, where she set a course record. She would go
on to win that marathon in each of the next three years, breaking her course
record each time.
She won a sponsorship from Nike in 1980, and
it allowed her to devote full time to running. She set the US marathon record
for women in October 1980 in New York City, then broke it the following April
in Boston. She set the American 15K record for women in Jacksonville, Florida,
on a Saturday and the next day set an American 5-mile record in Boston.
"There was a period of time when Patti was
almost invincible," says Rodgers.
Grete Waitz, who outran Dillon in the 1980
New York Marathon, says, "She was a very tough competitor. She gave it her
The other great female runners of the era --
Joan Benoit, Allison Roe, Jacqueline Gareau -- were soft-spoken portraits of
serenity in motion, barely touching the ground with their graceful strides.
Dillon was high energy, jumping and clapping at the starting line, fierce and
focused on the course.
Tom Derderian, author of a history of the
Boston Marathon and coach today of the Greater Boston Track Club, says there
was desperation in Dillon's running. "In contrast to other people, she didn't
have a college degree to fall back on," he says. "She didn't come from a
wealthy family. Running for her was an all-or-nothing thing, to rise up."
Some of Dillon's best times and most
wrenching losses came in the Boston Marathon. In 1979, she was the favorite but
was unable to match a surge at 17 miles by Benoit. In 1980, Dillon thought she
was leading late in the race but was actually behind Gareau. When a male runner
pointed out Gareau ahead, Dillon made her move, but it was too late. Most
accounts of that race overlooked their duel because of the furor over impostor
In 1981, Dillon was leading at Cleveland
Circle, 4 miles from the finish. A large crowd was there, spilling into the
street and creating a narrow corridor for the runners. A mounted police
officer, trying to control the spectators, suddenly shifted sideways into the
street, and Dillon slammed into the horse's hindquarters.
She bounced off and was caught by Derderian,
who was running behind her. She regained her balance, but shaken and bruised,
Dillon could not stay with New Zealand's Roe, who surged a mile later.
Dillon set an American record but again was
second. She remembers crossing the finish line and wanting a hug from her
husband and coach. Derderian says that Joe Catalano greeted her with arms
crossed, and said: "I don't know what to do with you, Patti. You ran an
American record. I just don't know what to do. Please stop crying."
In the three years that followed, both her
marriage and her running went into decline. Today, she says she learned a lot
from Catalano, but his regimens were too strict: "There wasn't any room for
Then came the injuries: first her hip and
hamstring, then a ruptured tendon in her foot, then a stress fracture in the
same foot. Barely more than 100 pounds when she was competing at the top of her
game, Dillon was up to 150 pounds by 1983. She rallied the next year, when for
the first time the Olympics would have a marathon for women. She dropped 40
pounds but failed to qualify in the trials that spring.
During this time, Dillon also was
confronting the eating disorder that had haunted her from the start of her
running. She was routinely downing large quantities of food, then throwing up.
She was constantly exhausted, dehydrated, and full of guilt.
One day, she read a "Dear Abby" column on
bulimia. "I said to myself, 'I do that.' I thought it was my own little
She sought help at a hospital clinic but
left after someone recognized her. She tried a second time but left again when
she felt a receptionist gave her a scornful look.
"I knew I had a problem, and I had to fix
it," Dillon says. "I told Joe, and it wasn't well received. I told Nike, and it
wasn't well received. Pretty soon I was tainted. I heard the rumors. 'Patti's
got a problem.' "
She says she finally overcame bulimia not
with counseling or support groups but with prayer. She ceded her fate to a
higher power, asked the Lord for strength, and found it. Her faith deepened
several years ago, when she became a born-again Christian.
She made one last attempt to revive her
career. In 1985, she won the Rio de Janeiro Marathon, the last time she would
run 26.2 miles. She married for a third time in 1988. When it ended in early
1989, at the same time that she lost her job, her home became her 1983
She views the four-month period of
homelessness as a painful but necessary period. "It gave me time to think,"
Dillon says. "I got closer to God."
She and Dan Dillon were married in 1992.
After their children were born, Patti Dillon quit running altogether. She gave
away or lost most of her trophies. A few are in a glass case in the dining
room, but the most prominent awards in the house are blue ribbons for baking
that her children won at a local fair.
Dillon has never been invited back to the
Boston Marathon to run or to participate in the festivities. "They really don't
want to embrace second place," she says. "They have Billy. They have Joanie.
They have Johnny Kelley. They have winners."
But she is remembered where she had her
greatest successes. Last year, Honolulu Marathon organizers invited her to
return to be inducted into the race's hall of fame. With her family, she spent
a week in December being feted. "I'm so honored," she told the Honolulu
Advertiser when she arrived. "I'm tickled, flattered, humbled. I consider
myself incredibly blessed."
She ran part of the course one day with Dan,
and the memories returned. She vowed to run the marathon the next year.
Squires, her coach, says he has brought her
along slowly, concentrating on quality runs and adequate recovery. By early
fall, she was running 17 miles at a 7:20 pace, which, if she maintains it for
26 miles, would probably win her a trophy in Honolulu. "I want her to run the
race, but I don't want her to run it in four hours," Squires says. "That's not
She agrees: "I don't want this to be a death
As anyone who has ever stepped to the
starting line of a marathon can attest, a race of that distance is a gamble,
and it is no less so for Patti Dillon now than it was 25 years ago. Derderian
says her venture is realistic but risky: "It's a delicate thing. When do you
Dillon says she has moved beyond the days
when the outcome of a race could turn her life upside down. The big differences
now, she says, are her faith and her family.
The Home School Harriers run on a stunningly
beautiful loop that hugs the shoreline overlooking Long Island Sound. The
tranquil setting, far from traffic, has sweeping expanses of lawn, formal
gardens, and stands of stately trees.
Dillon takes great pride in the running
achievements of her children and in the members of the club. At the Connecticut
Home School Harriers workouts, she organizes a time trial once a month.
She herds the kids to the starting line, but
instead of "Ready, set, go," she shouts, in her thick Boston accent, "God bless
you. God bless your effort. And God bless this course." A pause, and then, "Hit
And off the runners go.
To learn more about Patti Catalano today, go
Robert Preer is a
freelance writer who lives in Milton.
© Copyright 2003
Globe Newspaper Company.