The Girl Who Could Fly
She was overweight, a chain-smoker, a working-class 23-year-old who couldn't see a future for herself. Then pioneering marathoner Patti Dillon began to run.
Patti Dillon was a girl from the neighborhood, nothing more than that. She grew up in Quincy, a gray working-class town on the south shore of Boston. She went to school at Sacred Heart. She worked two jobs. College was not an option.
This life never struck Dillon as something she should run away from, but she did anyway. She ran fast, too, becoming the best female distance runner in America, at a time -- the height of the running boom in the 1970s -- when that really meant something. It meant even more to her.
"If you were going to beat me, you were going to have to spit blood," says Dillon, who was known during her competitive-running days as Patti Lyons-Catalano. "Because that's what I was going to do. I was going to spit blood. I wasn't going to make it easy for anyone to beat me."
Twenty-five years ago, that kind of attitude from a woman was still a shock to the senses -- and there were plenty of people from the neighborhood who let her know that, yelling epithets at her when she was out training, throwing rocks at her head. But for Dillon, her drive had little to do with competitiveness -- or even the women's movement, for that matter. Dillon ran, and ran hard, because she didn't have any other choice. It was the only way she knew how to get attention.
When the starter's gun cracks Monday for the 106th Boston Marathon -- the race that has been called "running's Holy Grail" -- Patti Dillon isn't sure if she'll be watching.
"I try to watch," she says from her home in New London, Conn., where she lives with her third husband and their two young children. "But it's a busy time in our lives now. A couple years ago, we were in Home Depot when we heard the marathon on the radio. We said, 'Hey, the marathon. OK, where's plumbing?' "
Which goes to show how much Dillon's life has changed. Because there was a time when she defined herself by the Boston Marathon. Defined her marriage by it. Even more so because something always held her back there, on her home turf -- her own fears, the Fates, who knows what. Three years in a row Dillon was the favorite, and three years in a row she finished second -- emotionally spent and wracked with feelings of guilt.
The problem wasn't the running. In her prime, Dillon was nearly unbeatable -- she held every American record for women from five miles to the marathon, including world records at 30 kilometers and the half-marathon. But Boston was different -- the cheers louder, the expectations simply huge, both for success and failure.
"Sometimes I just felt I was never supposed to be there," says Dillon, now 49, who last month was elected to running's hall of fame at the Road Runner's Club of America in Alexandria, Va.
Dillon describes herself today as "friendly as a puppy dog," and it's an accurate self-assessment. Her laugh is easy and infectious, and 30 seconds after meeting someone new she's excitedly inquiring about their background and interests. But it wasn't always so. In fact, her friendliness, and the self-confidence it suggests, runs counter to everything Dillon learned growing up in Quincy, a town in decline ever since the shipyard began hemorrhaging jobs in the 1960s.
"I worked since I was 14," says Dillon. "I scrubbed floors, I cooked, I did a lot of things" -- including raising her eight younger siblings, the youngest of whom was born when Dillon was 16. And Dillon, like her town, suffered from crippling insecurity. It didn't help that her mother, Freda -- a Micmac Indian who ran away from her reservation in Nova Scotia at age 11 -- used her oldest daughter as a sounding board for her own resentment and self-hatred.
"I was always told I was stupid and ugly and couldn't do anything," Dillon says, sighing. "My mother would say, 'Why would you want to take the SATs? You can't get into a college. You are who you are.' That is how I was raised. And I believed it."
In high school, Dillon was known only for her silence, earning a nickname she hated: Still-Mouth. She became a cheerleader in hopes of being popular. It didn't work, and she was forced to quit anyway. Such activities were just "showing off," her mother said, and she was needed at home.
Then her father died and the always-tense household broke into open warfare. When Dillon was 19, her mother kicked her out, intent on re-establishing herself as the undisputed matriarch of the family. Dillon got an apartment and a job as a nurse's aide at Quincy Hospital, but she was scared. "I was all alone for the first time, all by myself," she says. She began to sink into depression, comforting herself with large quantities of junk food and beer. At her low point, Dillon was 40 pounds overweight. She was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and spent her evenings drinking in bars, watching people have a good time. She was desperately unhappy.
A month shy of her 23rd birthday, she decided she had to do something.
"I read in a book that you can burn the most calories by running, so I decided to run," she says. "I didn't know what I was doing. I read to wear comfortable shoes, and my Earth shoes were the most comfortable I knew of, so that's what I wore."
The first time Dillon ran -- seven miles around a cemetery near her apartment -- her muscles screamed and her arms jumped with spasms. She figured she must be doing something right.
Six months later, Dillon ran a marathon -- Rhode Island's Ocean State Marathon -- and won. She was still smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and gorging on doughnuts every morning.
Still, it never dawned on her that she was a natural. She kept at it for another reason.
"When I won that first marathon, in 1976, suddenly there were people all over me, who wanted to know who I was," she says, her voice rising. "All this attention! And I was, like, 'Wow! This is pretty cool.' People liked me. People really liked me. Oh, I sound like Sally Field, but that's just how I felt."
But it seemed too simple: All she had to do was run. So she ran very hard.
"I picture a lion when I think of Patti," says Jacqueline Gareau, the great French Canadian runner who won the Boston Marathon in 1980. "Every time she was on the starting line I remember her clapping her hands, so hyper, just going all the time. She was always very fierce, very hungry."
She wasn't the only one. The running boom and the women's movement were both at their height in the 1970s, and women runners -- restricted from competing at distances longer than a mile and a half until 1971 -- rushed to road racing with the zeal of missionaries, producing a clutch of elite athletes who were determined to prove they belonged.
They knew it wasn't going to be easy. It had been only a few years earlier, in 1967, that Kathrine Switzer, signing her entry application "K.V. Switzer," surreptitiously entered the Boston Marathon, warded off an attempt by race officials to pull her off the course and triumphantly crossed the finish line – as dozens of spectators booed and taunted her. (Switzer was immediately suspended by the Amateur Athletic Union, U.S. track and field's sanctioning body, for, among other transgressions, "traveling without a chaperone.")
But Switzer was out there for show. The women who followed her wanted to win. And they ran fast -- faster than many people thought women could ever run. In a little more than a decade, the women's marathon record dropped by an hour, with Norway's Grete Waitz pushing it to two hours and 27 minutes in 1979 -- fast enough to win all men's Olympic marathons before 1952. To many observers, these women seemed like they came from another planet. Dillon, even after she had won in Rhode Island, was one of the awestruck.
"I didn't think I could ever run with them," she says. "I mean, how do you beat Grete Waitz? It just seemed impossible."
Female marathoners of the 1970s were indisputably of a type. Waitz, Kim Merritt, Allison Roe: They were all tall, angular golden girls, with an unnerving earth-mother calmness, and a long and languid stride -- the picture on a Greek vase.
Dillon stood in stark contrast, and she knew it. She was short and boxy. She looked rumpled, no matter what she did with her clothes. And she ran as if the cops were after her.
How could she possibly compete with Waitz, who'd been in serious training since age 16 and who set world records the first three times she ran the marathon?
That's where Joe Catalano came in. Catalano was a 28-year-old Quincy high school track coach and second-tier competitive marathoner when he noticed Dillon working out at the local YMCA in 1978. Soon, he was her coach.
"I was very unsure of myself," says Dillon. "So when Joe said, 'You should give yourself a chance, you can be really good,' I said, 'What do you mean, really good?' I honestly didn't know what he meant."
Catalano took his new job seriously. He taught Dillon about diet, got her to start a speed-training regimen and badgered her to stop smoking -- which didn't sit well with his fledgling pupil.
"I couldn't believe it," she says, laughing. "I remember thinking, 'I have to stop smoking? Why?' I didn't know anything."
Dillon, who would marry Catalano in 1980, compensated for her lack of knowledge by overcompensating. After sponsorship through Nike's Athletics West team allowed her to quit her day job, Dillon became one of the first women to run up to 150 miles a week, pushing her body to its limits.
"When she was there, she was really there," says Gareau. "She put 100 percent of everything she had into it. She was very competitive. She trained hard. She was very focused, very, very thin."
As it turned out, too thin. Determined to be what Catalano said she could be -- the best in the world -- Dillon tried to fit herself into that physical ideal she saw running next to her. And she didn't see anything wrong with how she was accomplishing it.
"Being a woman and being service-minded, I always wanted to please," she says. "You know, you hear, 'Coach wants you thinner. You really need to be thinner.' And I'd say, 'I can do that. I can definitely do that.' "
She did do it -- until she was barely over a hundred pounds, a mere wisp at 5 feet 4 inches tall. When she realized what she was doing, she was shocked -- at first.
"I read about bulimia in a Dear Abby column," Dillon remembers. "And I thought, 'Oh my gosh, that's me!' "
Without her husband's knowledge, Dillon went to the food-disorder center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "But I was recognized," she says, "so I left."
She would go back some other time, she thought. But she didn't. After all, it seemed to be working.
1980 was Dillon's year. She won 12 of 16 major races, including the Bermuda International Marathon and a record third consecutive Honolulu Marathon (she would win in Honolulu again in 1981). She beat Gareau in a pressure-cooker atmosphere in Gareau's hometown of Montreal by posting the second-fastest woman's marathon ever recorded. She won the 10-kilometer Bonne Bell Race with an American record. In West Virginia, in front of 70,000 screaming fans, she set the world record for 20 kilometers.
But despite it all – the splashy Sports Illustrated spread, the "Runner of the Year" awards, the trip to Japan where she remembers being "received like a baseball star" -- there was always Boston to keep her doubts gnawing away at her.
Even now, Dillon speaks of the Boston Marathon with awe, as if remembering a vivid dream. She offers no excuses -- never has.
"Joanie ran a really terrific race," she says of her first race there in 1979 -- not mentioning the painful bursitis in her foot that prevented her from responding to Joan Benoit's challenge at 16 miles.
The following year she was back, and late in the race thought she had the thing sewed up -- when a male runner called out to her.
"It was in Kenmore Square, near [Boston University], and he yelled to me, 'Patti, there's someone ahead. It's Jackie, the Canadian girl,' " Dillon remembers. "And I thought, 'What?' I really thought I was leading. I looked ahead, and he called to me, 'Yellow shorts! Yellow shorts!' And I kept looking and looking, and sure enough I saw them. Oh, my heart just went right to my throat. All I could think was, 'I have to catch her.' " Dillon ran the last few miles as if she were on fire -- male runners actually jumped out of her way -- but it was too late.
Dillon vowed to be back again the next year, and vowed to chase Gareau to the ends of the earth (she would catch her at the Montreal Marathon), but the brave front was only that. "I always felt like I was just this little local girl, but everyone was expecting me to win," she says. "It was a lot of pressure, and when I lost I felt like I had let everyone down."
The third consecutive loss at Boston, in 1981, was the backbreaker. Once again, Dillon was in the lead late in the race, running strong with New Zealand's Allison Roe in hot pursuit -- and the crowd growing and surging in anticipation.
"Twenty years ago, it wasn't like it is now," Dillon says. "You didn't have barriers to keep people back."
What happened next has become Boston Marathon lore.
"The fans were lining each side, the road getting ever narrower, with each [person] leaning out to get a look, to the point where spectators were almost banging heads with those on the other side," says Tom Derderian, a writer and college track coach who was running right behind Dillon. "People would lean forward, and then pull back as the runners came through.
"So you had this narrowing canyon of spectators, and there's this [police officer] on a horse, and there are trolley tracks," Derderian continues. "The horse is sliding around and getting agitated because it can't get its footing on the tracks, and, of course, runners are coming through very fast. And between the crowd and the runners and the noise, Patti runs into this horse's ass -- boom! -- and bounces into me. I caught her, as anybody would, and after a moment she got her feet under her."
But the impact had knocked the wind out of her, and Roe, who had been just a few steps behind Dillon, got around the smash-up and was gone.
After Dillon came through the finish line, second place again, a photographer snapped a shot of her with two of her sisters, holding onto each other, all three crying uncontrollably. In the background is Catalano, looking disgusted.
"Joe was not happy with my performance," Dillon says.
That's putting it mildly. Catalano was angry. He had created Dillon. He'd taught her how to train, how to eat, how to win. And now look what had happened.
"It was kind of a strange relationship," says one observer who knew the couple. "He was very hard on her."
It only got worse from there. Dillon, a vocal proponent of making the sport professional (which it now is), got suspended by the AAU for speaking publicly about the under-the-table payments that race promoters used to lure top runners to their races.
"It was a very contentious issue, between the old guard of amateur athletics and those pushing for professionalism," says Derderian, author of “Boston Marathon: The First Century of the World's Premier Running Event.” "There had been under-the-table payments for years, but now the money was big enough to be pushed out into the open. [Dillon] was one of the first to speak up."
But with the Boston loss, the suspension and then a rash of injuries that kept her out of the 1982 season, Dillon's marriage became increasingly volatile.
"I tried many times to leave him," Dillon says. "And he would do things to stop me. Just stupid husband-wife stuff, nasty divorce stuff. It was ugly and awful." Catalano did not return calls seeking comment.
For Dillon, the injuries were almost a relief. They gave her a chance to rethink her life.
"Whatever it was, it wasn't there anymore," she says of her competitive desire. "I just didn't really want to do it anymore."
Still, it was difficult to just walk away. And in 1983, after the International Olympic Committee instituted a women's marathon beginning with the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, Dillon made one last push.
She was back in training, and also finally confronting her bulimia -- and getting little support from her husband.
"It was a very difficult time for me, and I needed my husband so much, but he was driving me so hard," she says. "I was finally trying to clear up my food disorder and my training wasn't going well, and one day he said, 'If I knew you were like this, I never would have married you.'
"I was crushed, absolutely crushed."
It was also exactly what she needed. She finished far back in the pack at the Olympic Trials, but she left her husband that week.
Today, Dillon lives in Connecticut in a large, Cape-style house, with her two children and a menagerie of pets ("It's a zoo!" exclaims 5-year-old Raven). Her husband of 10 years, former cross-country runner Dan Dillon, works as a free-lance sound engineer.
Nearly 20 years removed from her running career, Dillon now seems more like a fan than one of its pioneers. When Jacqueline Gareau, with whom she battled in two of the era's truly great races, comes up in conversation, Dillon says to herself, "I have a picture of her with Aaron [Dillon's 8-year-old son]. I need a picture of her with Raven. I have Raven with [Olympic champion] Frank Shorter. I have to get a picture of my daughter with Jackie, too."
Dillon's focus now is her children, whom she home-schools.
"Danny has these wonderful memories of being hugged and loved and talked to when he was a kid, and I had the opposite," she says. "But we both arrived at the same place as parents. We want our kids to be responsible and loved -- and to come back to us after they go out in the world. That's what we hope for."
With this busy life, the Boston Marathon can easily slip under the radar.
"It was a good time to be there," she says of her three years in the race. "It meant something, I think."
And she is missed by the running community. "I wish there were more American women like her around now," says Derderian. "Fewer women now see themselves as being on the edge, doing something important. They just see it as a sport, or a fitness exercise."
Was Dillon cursed at Boston? Derderian, for one, isn't quite willing to call it that.
"It's a big race with the best athletes in the world," he says. "It's just once a year, and the chances of things being just a little off are strong. All three years she ran races that would've won almost anywhere else."
Whatever the case, Dillon seems to be at peace with her Boston Marathon record. After all, it wasn't the trophies she wanted out of her running but something else. And, in the end, she got it.
She recalls one afternoon around 1980, when she was out on the track at Boston College and the school's football team tromped onto the field for a workout. "I was out there doing repeat miles," she says. "It was a hot day, and I was already there when they came out." Dillon just continued with her workout and made no effort to even acknowledge the football players' presence.
"They did their warm-up, and I was running," she says. "And they did their workout session, and I was running. Then they did their practice, and I was still running. I could see them watching me now and again, glancing over as they took breaks. Wondering who the heck I was. Finally, they finished and I was still going. But instead of leaving, they came over and lined up along the right side of the track and clapped and clapped and cheered me on.
"It was great," she says. "I think I danced all the way home."
-- By Douglas Perry
Published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2003.