Patti Catalano Dillon was one of the fastest women in the world and the greatest female distance runner in the United States in the late 1970s – early 1980s. She won her first race, the 1976 Ocean State Marathon, only six months after she started running, then smashed her time at the same race the following year. She soon was breaking everyone else’s records as well, setting world records in the 5 mile, 20k, 30k, and half marathon, and American records in the 10k and 15k.
Her 2:29:33 finish at the NYC Marathon in October 1980 was the first time that an American woman broke 2:30. As one of the first female runners to sign a professional contract with a sponsor, she was a pioneer in women’s distance running.
Her successes came at a cost, however, which she talks about frankly in this episode. She’s risen above the obstacles that she’s faced over the years, and her story can serve as an inspiration to us all.
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“I was kitty whist and pitchers of beer. Nice life.”
At 23, Patti was working as a nurse’s aide when a former classmate came to the hospital to visit a sick relative. She had “graduated from college, she had a job, navy blue suit, nice cream shirt, had a briefcase. She had cut her hair and she was like la-di-da,” Patti recalls. In comparison, she thought, “My life stinks.” She was overweight and unhappy and decided to do something about it.
She read in Ken Cooper’s book, Aerobics, that jogging burns the most calories. “I didn’t know what jogging was,” she says. “I had to look it up. It was running. And I thought, why don’t they just say running? Why did everything have to have a new name?” So she started running.
The first time she ran, she wore Earth shoes, Daisy Dukes, and multiple sweatshirts to sweat more and lose weight. She had run for seven miles when a police officer stopped her to ask what she was doing and “the spell was broken.” If it hadn’t been for that, she would have kept going.
“I thought, ‘If this is all I have to do to feel this way, I’m doing it.’”
After that run, she went to the locker room at the YWCA, and remembers, “I cried in the shower as soon as that water hit my face. I wept in the shower and I felt so good. I never felt that in my whole life. It was profound.”
Physically, the good feeling didn’t last: “The next morning when I reached over for my cigarettes, I couldn’t barely move. And I thought, ‘oh, I hurt so much.’” It took her three weeks to run again, and she was still sore. But she ran the same seven miles again.
“I have to run a marathon to prove I can run a marathon to run this marathon?”
Patti started hanging out with a group of guys at the Y who were runners. After hearing them talk about the Boston Marathon, she decided that she wanted to run it and was shocked to learn that she would have to qualify. But if that’s what it took, she would do it. She finished the Ocean State Marathon in 2:53:40, earning her BQ. She missed Boston the following spring due to injury, but went on to run it three times, finishing second each time.
She kept racing, asking people what she should do to get faster and following their advice. “I’m doing pushups and situps, like a thousand a day,” she says. Then somebody suggested, “What if you quit smoking?” She remembers, “I went home, grabbed my cigarettes. I went upstairs, opened the window, put my ashtray there and I lit one cigarette after another. And I’m thinking, do I stay in this life or do I go to this life? And both cause me anxiety. I don’t know what to do. So after I smoked the pack, I said, ‘I’m done, I’m done.’”
“I didn’t know my secret had a name until I read it in ‘Dear Abby’ in 1981.”
She was able to quit smoking, but one thing that Patti couldn’t give up was junk food. She tried, but, she says, “I missed my cheese puffs; I missed my cake; I missed my ice cream. So I ate it and now I got rid of it.” It wasn’t until she read about bulimia in an advice column that she realized that she had an eating disorder.
She felt “bad shame, guilt,” but when she went to an eating disorders clinic and the receptionist recognized her, she made up a story about picking up brochures for her sister and left. She told someone that she had bulimia and “it spread like wildfire.” But nobody reached out to help her, and she was dropped by her sponsor. She tackled her eating disorder on her own, and ultimately prevailed, using the discipline she’d acquired as a runner.
“I really want to feel good; I really want a healthy body. I want to be able to move. I want to be able to do things at my will.”
After she got healthy, Patti went on to further racing success, including realizing her goal of running in the first Olympic Trials for women in the marathon in 1984. Even greater accomplishments were becoming a mother to five foster children and a biological son and daughter, born when she was in her forties. She and her husband started a running school for home-schooled kids because she “wanted to impart the joy of running.”
Patti Catalano Dillon has faced and overcome many hardships throughout her life. She’s always believed that you need to find “what you want to do with your life and live it passionately. You know,” she says, “mine just happened to be running.”
“It was always the best I could do for that day. So if it’s always the best you can do for that day, there’s no regret.”
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association’s Hotline at 800-931-2237 or visit their website.
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“Thank you” to Patti. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.