There are origin stories, and then there’s Patti Catalano Dillon’s origin story.
A Hall of Famer and former World and American Record holder for distance running — with titles from everywhere from Montreal, to Honolulu, to Rio de Janeiro — Dillon became the first American woman to break the 2:30 mark in a marathon, and the second woman in the world to reach the mark. A five-time winner of the Ocean State Marathon and runner-up at the New York City and Boston Marathons, she’s been described by the Associated Press as “the queen of U.S. women distance runners.”
Incredibly, she did it after taking up the sport at 23 years old, at a time when she described herself as 40 pounds overweight and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.
“I started smoking in the seventh grade, sneaking my dad’s cigarettes — oh, they were horrid,” laughs Dillon.
“I didn’t drink until I was 20. And then I fell into a habit. I went out with the girls after work — I worked the 4-12 shift [at the Quincy City Hospital] and would go out after work […] It became a lifestyle.”
It wasn’t until picking up a book by Dr. Ken Cooper, Aerobics, that Dillon considered running. Her debut came at the local cemetery, where she hoped to avoid being seen.
“I had knee socks, Earth shoes, cutoff jeans with fringe, and I had the neoprene belt […] and I wore three heavy sweatshirts — the kind that don’t breathe,” says Dillon.
“A police car came up and [the officer] asked me, ‘what are you doing?’ […] I thought I was going to be arrested or something. [I got back from my run and] looked in the mirror, and […] I had a white face, red patches, black and maroon circles under my eyes. I thought, no wonder he stopped me; I should be dead!”
“I’m sweating, and I’m breathing hard, and I’m spitting up brown phlegm. I’m cleaning out my lungs. Every run is hard.” – Patti Catalano Dillon
She fell in love, and soon enough, she was winning marathons — for a time, still hanging on to her old habits.
“I lived in two worlds; I lived in the running world for a couple hours a day, and then I lived in my world — and, you know, you wake up in the morning; the ashtray’s right there; you have your pack of cigarettes. I never connected the two,” she laughs.
By the late 1970s, Dillon was one of the best distance runners on the planet. Profiles began in People magazine, Sports Illustrated, and on ABC News. In a span from 1976-1981, she won five Ocean State Marathons, four consecutive Honolulu Marathons — setting a course record each time — and five Newport Marathons.
“If people are there, and they’re cheering me on, I’m going to do everything I can to make you happy — and so that means looking good and running fast,” she laughs.
“It was thrilling for me; it was exciting, and I fed off of it […] If I had to go through a brick wall to get it, gosh, I was gonna do it.”