COURTESY OF THE HONOLULU MARATHON
Runner Patti Dillon is a member of the Honolulu Marathon Hall of Fame.
Hurdles define marathoner’s life
A life overcoming obstacles leads Dillon to the Distance Running Hall of Fame
MYSTIC, Conn. » Patti Dillon has beaten depression, bulimia and homelessness. But she's so nervous about her induction ceremony at the Distance Running Hall of Fame that she says, "I don't want to go."
Of course, that's not true.
One of the things Dillon loves about running is the camaraderie, and many of her friends will be in Utica, N.Y., today to celebrate with her and her fellow 2006 inductees, University of Hawaii assistant track and cross country coach Gerry Lindgren and Marty Liquori.
"Once I get there I'll be OK," Dillon says, "But ..."
The apprehension may have to do with Dillon, now 53, still possessing the outward spirit of a happy-go-lucky little girl, but combined with a sad reality that she didn't have a normal childhood and how that affected her later.
The drama of Dillon's life story is matched only by her greatness as a runner. She had a stunning record of accomplishment (she won the Honolulu Marathon four times in a row), combined with just missing the pinnacle in her hometown (second at the Boston Marathon three times). Her career was shortened by injuries and "just life happening," as she understates it.
Although she never won at Boston, she was influential in the race finally accepting women, Honolulu Marathon president Jim Barahal said.
"Patti being from around Boston and running fast times and her aggressive style of running paved the way," Barahal said. "She was in the forefront."
She grew up in Quincy, Mass., the eldest child in a family of nine kids, expected to watch over the rest and provide for them by working a variety of odd jobs while in high school. She did not have a good relationship with her parents, who did not express love, she says. Both parents have died (her father when Patti was 19), and she says she does not communicate with any of her brothers and sisters now.
"Maybe in the future," she says, "but right now, it's just us -- (daughter) Raven, (son) Aaron and (husband) Danny."
As a young woman more than 30 years ago, she was an overweight, unhappy nurse's assistant who smoked cigarettes, drank a lot of beer and constantly ate junk food.
One day, she decided to run, pretty much out of the blue. She'd heard it was a good way to lose weight.
What she didn't realize is that she would become addicted to the rush of accomplishment following a good, hard run. And that she was very fast.
"I loved that feeling," she says. "Not of running itself, but after the run. Whatever it took, I wanted to get there."
She ran with a rare competitive fury, at first to beat back her own childhood demons, then to become a champion. In a few months, she began entering races and winning them -- even though she hadn't yet given up smoking.
In the early 1970s, very few women ran in the streets. Like Lindgren says happened to him a couple of years earlier across the continent in Washington state, Dillon says she often drew the attention of police when she trained.
"The police asked me, 'What are you doing?'," she recalls. "At the time I didn't think it was abnormal."
Her talent definitely was.
In 1978, Dillon (then known as Patti Lyons) won her first of four consecutive Honolulu Marathons. She says the victory built her confidence and increased her hunger for more success.
Dillon began to train longer and longer distances, as well as cross-train with weights -- unheard of at the time, especially for women.
She began to receive recognition and appreciation she'd never felt before.
"I got so much positive feedback, and that was new for me," she says.
The results also included world-record times in distances from the half marathon to 30,000 meters, as well as a slew of American marks.
But the victory that eluded her was the one she wanted most: the Super Bowl of marathons, Boston. She was second three times.
The day after her fourth Honolulu win, in 1981, she severely injured her back bodysurfing. She would never be the same as a runner -- and that was just one of her problems.
"It came at a time when I was an emotional wreck, when I was battling my food disorder," Dillon says.
She was on the verge of ending her tumultuous relationship with her coach and husband, Joe Catalano.
Her third marriage (she was briefly married to someone else prior to Catalano), in the mid-1980s, was to a man she describes as a "recovered heroin addict," and Dillon says they lived in a condemned building. She divorced again, and around the same time, Dillon lost her job and lived in her car for several months, driving around and parking at different places overnight to avoid her ex-husband.
Dillon pulled herself out of that situation largely through faith; she and Raven live by the acronym FROG: Fully Rely On God -- and, clearly, her fourth and current husband, Dan Dillon, a championship-level runner and business owner, is also a major factor in her happiness. When they married, Patti told Dan she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom; Dan's only demand was that Patti register to vote.
Patti home-schools Aaron and Raven, and she is also their running coach. Both children have won several age-group championships.
Patti and Dan both continue to run a lot, Patti up to more than 100 miles a week. Her goal is to make it to the U.S. Olympic Trials for the marathon -- which would be an incredible accomplishment, considering Dillon will be 55.
"You have to be very goal-oriented and have your goal in your heart," she says.
The Dillons live in New London, Conn., where the running scene is strong and its tradition rich. Among Patti's friends is John Kelley (The Younger), a Boston Marathon winner and Olympian, like his late father, John Kelley (The Elder). The Younger lives in New London and owns a shoe store in Mystic.
Dillon, a Honolulu Marathon Hall of Fame member, plans to return to Hawaii this December, but not just as an autograph-signer. She wants to run the race again.
When Patti Dillon reflects on her life of continually conquering challenges, her thoughts often go back to that day on the beach in Honolulu in 1981.
"Even though the injury ended my (competitive) career, it led to more important things," she says.
And then she smiles at Raven.