Four weeks ago on a country road outside the Norwegian town of Lillestrom, 13 miles from Oslo, a slight, dark-haired American runner drew abreast of Grete Waitz, the world's best female marathoner, after two kilometers of a 13-km. race called Norgeslopet. Waitz, somewhat surprised at being challenged, glanced sideways at the intruder and said, "What are you doing?"
"Trying to beat you," said the American, grinning as best she could under the circumstances and moving into the lead.
That American, Patti Catalano of West Roxbury, Mass., is the second-best female marathon runner in the world. She didn't beat Waitz that day. No woman has ever beaten Grete Waitz on the road. But Catalano did have the rare pleasure of leading Waitz for almost two kilometers, and when the time came to pay her dues—that is, to watch both Waitz and Ingrid Christensen, a Norwegian 3,000-meter specialist, go zooming by—she took it in relatively good spirit. Later she said, "I wanted to yell, 'Hey, wait for me! Don't leave me alone!' "
Which is not to say that Catalano takes defeat in stride. Not at all. She had resigned herself to losing to Waitz because that's a fact of her life right now. But finishing third was not part of her plan. With Waitz out of sight, but Christensen "three telephone poles ahead," Catalano took off after second place.
"At eight kilometers I was right behind her," she said. "At nine I was almost beside her, and at 10 I went by like she was standing still. I held my breath so she wouldn't hear me breathing as I closed in."
Ever since Waitz, the former schoolteacher from Oslo, ran her first marathon in New York in October 1978, breaking the world record by 2:18, the rest of the world's women have been running for second place. Last year, also in New York, Waitz lowered her record by an almost unbelievable five minutes, to 2:27:33, and still she is thought to be far from her full potential as a marathoner.
Happily, however, for the rest of the best women marathon runners—Joan Benoit, Lorraine Moller, Marty Cooksey and Jacqueline Gareau, all of whom have won major races in the last two years—Waitz concentrates on track and cross-country and runs few marathons.
Until last spring Catalano, 27, was one of the best. Now she is indisputably the best of the rest, the one female who, barring a calamity, should be able to keep Waitz in sight during the New York City Marathon this Sunday and the only one who could possibly give her a fight.
The Boston Marathon in April was Catalano's breakthrough, the race that convinced her she could run with the best. She didn't win it; she finished second to Gareau—third, if one counts Rosie Ruiz—but her time (2:35:08) was her best to that date, and it permanently rearranged her head.
Thirteen days later, on May 4, she won the 15-km. Midland Run in Far Hills, N.J. over a field that included Gareau and Moller. On May 17 she married Joe Catalano, her coach, and did two eight-mile training runs. On May 18 she ran a women's American record for five miles (26:14) in the National Fire Protection Race on the streets of Boston. On May 25, in front of a crowd of 70,000 in Wheeling, W. Va., she set a 20-km. world record (1:08:36.7) on a course that Bill Rodgers has said is "the toughest 20K course I know of." On May 31 Catalano finished second behind Waitz, who established a world record 30:59.8, in the L'eggs Mini Marathon in New York, but her time (33:03) was at that point her best for 10 km., and she said, "I wasn't discouraged to see her so far away. I was happy to see her at all."
In June Catalano set an American record for 15 km. (49:42) in Oregon's Cascade Run Off, and on Sept. 6, in Montreal, she ran the second-fastest marathon ever by a woman (2:30:57.1), in the process beating Gareau, who then had the fourth-best time on record. On Columbus Day Catalano set an American record for 10 km. (32:24) at the Bonne Bell race in Boston.
In the Montreal marathon, Catalano had started out last in a field of 68 runners, only four of whom were women. At five miles she caught her first glimpse of Gareau, and at approxmately 15 miles, she passed her. "From 17 to 23 miles I didn't see a soul," Catalano says. "There were no spectators, no cyclists. I never knew my times. I was trying to console myself the last five miles: 'You won. You're going to get a new PR [personal record], a 2:33 or 2:34.' Then I saw Joe with half a mile to go, and he told me, 'You can get under 2:31.' "
Her eyes were clamped shut, and her mouth was open in a grimace of both pain and joy as she literally grabbed the tape. Less than a minute later Gareau crossed the line and the two fell on each other's necks and laughed and hugged and cried as 6,000 spectators cheered. En route, Catalano had set a world record of 1:45:24 for 30 km. In fact, her pace up to 23 miles was faster than Waitz's had been when she set the marathon record, a fact that leads different jocks to different conclusions about Catalano's potential. Her husband says, "I think the day will come when Patti can race with Grete." Catalano herself says, "It may take me a year. It may take me two, but I'll get there." Others, like Guy Thomas, the director of the Maple Leaf Half Marathon in Manchester, Vt., are more cautious. Thomas concedes that Catalano can improve but points out that Waitz can, too. "Grete can run under 2:25 easily," he says. "Patti couldn't do it easily."
Johan Kaggestad, the Nike shoe representative for Norway and the Catalanos' host while they were in Oslo for the Norgeslopet, says, "It will be hard for Patti to beat Grete. Grete has been in constant training since she made the Norwegian National Team at 16. She has hardly missed a day of training in nine years."
It should be noted that no one who knows Catalano at all well is saying she can't do it. After all, she never even jogged until 4½ years ago and quit smoking for good only 2½ years ago, but she can now run 26 miles 385 yards faster than all but one woman in the world. So, who's to say what she might be able to do? There is obviously more at work in her than talent and slow-twitch fibers. These days Catalano is like a captive spirit that has been set free. "I'm having my childhood now," she says, her brown eyes shining with delight. "I've never had so much fun before."
Patti Lyons was the oldest of nine children in a working-class family in Quincy, Mass., an old town on the shore south of Boston Bay whose economy was dominated by a shipyard and wrecked when the shipyard closed in the early '70s. Her father, John, worked in the boiler room of the Food and Drug Administration building in Boston, and was also a caretaker of stray animals at the Boston Animal Rescue League. Her mother, Freda, now 48, is a Micmac Indian who ran away from her reservation in Nova Scotia when she was 11 years old and has been on her own, indomitably, ever since. "She made her living by baby-sitting," says Catalano. "She'd show up at the door and people took her in. She raised people's children when she was only a child herself."
Oddly, a similar fate became Patti's. John Lyons always held two jobs and, in addition, went to school at night. Freda Lyons never had fewer than two jobs, and sometimes three—hairdresser, florist, caterer, etc. Because her parents were seldom at home and because Patti was five years older than the second Lyons child, it fell to Patti to run the house-hold and look after the other children, the last of whom was born when Patti was 16.
Patti's sport at St. Ann's parochial school was swimming, which occupied her from the third to the eighth grade. "At my school you could only swim or bowl," she says. "I grew up on the water and I liked to swim, so I joined the team because they got to swim more times." At 12 she held a New England age-group record for the 100-yard breaststroke, but by 13 she had tired of swimming laps, and her interest in participating in athletics died. By lying about her age, soon thereafter she got a job as "salad girl" on the night shift in the Quincy shipyard commissary. Eventually she was promoted to coffee girl and worked from five to nine every evening. Beginning at 16 and continuing through her last two years as a reluctant student at Sacred Heart High in Weymouth Landing, Patti was an aide in a nursing home, a cheerleader until she could no longer find time to go to games, and mother and father to her eight brothers and sisters. Needless to say, she had little time to think about her future, or even about her present.
"I thought I wanted to be a nurse or a teacher, but I didn't really want to be either," she says, her face clouding over as it often does when she thinks of the past. "I had a good education, and I knew how to do a lot of things. I knew how to cook and how to clean and how to take care of children and how to deal with money, but I didn't know how to think. Parochial school didn't teach you how to think for yourself."
When she was 18, her adored father died and her world, such as it was, fell to pieces. Tensions that had always existed between mother and daughter now exploded in bitterness. The issue was usually the other children: "One of them would ask if he or she could sleep over somewhere, and I'd say, 'Are you kidding? It's a school night. Do your homework and go to bed.' And then whoever it was would ask my mother, and she'd say yes, and I'd argue, 'But it's a school night....' "
The low point came the Christmas after John Lyons' death when Patti found her mother in the kitchen stuffing the turkey and crying because none of the children had given her a Christmas present. "It was bad," says Catalano, explaining that her siblings had come to prefer her over their mother.
Finally Freda kicked Patti out of the house. "Now I think she was trying to teach me in her own way that there was more to the world than one town," says Catalano, "but then I hated her."
Feeling angry, abandoned and hurt, Patti moved to Sandwich on Cape Cod where she got an apartment and a job in a nursing home. Out of loneliness, she began spending her evenings in bars. "First it was Saturday night," she says. "Then it was Friday and Saturday. Then it was Thursday and Friday and Saturday, and so on. I got into some bad habits."
She would send the younger children presents when she had the money ("Can you imagine? I was spending $20 a night. On drafts!"), and once in a while she would stop at the house to see them, but she'd go no farther than the sidewalk out front. "I'd pretend I was just passing by, and I'd say, 'Well, how are things?' We'd talk a little while, and then I'd say, 'Well, I've got to go now.' "
Meantime, she was gaining weight and hating it. At her peak she weighed 148 pounds, which on a 5'4" frame is fat. She would diet on grapefruit and eggs, and then she would gorge on Twinkies. Furthermore, she had been smoking since she was 14 and was now up to two packs a day.
After 18 months on Cape Cod, she moved back to Quincy where she became a nurse's aide on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift at the Quincy City Hospital, but the style of the rest of her life remained unchanged. Every night after work she went to a bar where her friends were mostly young women who were married and unhappy or getting divorced. "I thought I was having fun," she says.
Finally, while sitting on a bar stool one night, Patti suddenly realized that she wasn't having fun, that she didn't like her life, that she was in the wrong place doing the wrong things with the wrong people. She couldn't quite say what she should be doing, but for starters she decided to lose weight. The next day she bought a bike and launched a four-pronged attack on her overweight body: she rode, swam, walked and ran. Her debut as a runner was bizarre. Knowing only that runners were supposed to use comfortable footwear, she donned her favorite Earth shoes, sweat pants, a sweat shirt and a skin diver's belt and ran seven miles around the perimeter of a Quincy cemetery.
The next day she was unable to get out of bed, and the day after that she could only roll out onto the floor. It was two weeks before she could walk properly and three before she could run again. But she had lost three pounds, so she did it again, with the same results.
"It took me almost a year to stop coughing up brown phlegm," she recalls. "The first three or four miles were really awful, but I'd work through them. Then I'd come home and smoke some more." Eventually she stopped biking and swimming and walking, but she kept on with her running.
Before long she fell in with a group of Quincy YMCA male runners who were training for the Boston Marathon. She was awed—"I couldn't get over it. Twenty-six miles!"—but not so awed that she didn't decide to do it herself someday. That was April 1976. In June she learned that if she was to run in Boston the next spring, she first had to qualify in another marathon. So she picked out the Ocean State Marathon in Newport, R.I., then four months off, and set about training for it the only way she knew how, which was running as hard as she could. Her companions from the Y told her to slow down, that all she needed was a 3:30, but she paid them no mind.
In August she married one of the Y runners, a man 10 years older than she. "I was self-sufficient, being raised the way I was," she says, "but I was weak emotionally. I was having family problems and finding myself at the same time, and using him to lean on because he was a good protector. But running does something to you. It brings out something in you, builds your confidence. It makes you aggressive."
In September, with the Rhode Island race a month away, she bought her first pair of real running shoes and quit smoking. In October she won the women's division of the Ocean State Marathon in 2:53:40, which happened to be only 40 seconds slower than her husband's time in the same race. They separated shortly thereafter. Soon Patti was back to eating and smoking and gaining weight. "I wasn't an athlete then," she says. "I'd go to races and meet people and have a good time, but I wasn't serious."
About this time Joe Catalano, who is four years her senior and a 2:23 marathoner, came into her life. A runner for 16 years and coach of the Quincy High track team, Joe lived alone then in the three-story house on Water Street in which he had grown up. His mother had died, his father had remarried and moved away, and his brothers and sisters were grown and gone.
"A guy told me about this girl who ran out of the Y who ran really fast" says Joe. "One day I'd finished a workout and Patti came into the parking lot there, and I was introduced to her. I told her if she ever wanted any help or if she wanted to work out at the high school she should let me know. Then I didn't see her again for about a year."
"He was a skinny little thing with long arms and long legs," says Patti. "I weighed more than he did." Then, grinning at Joe, she adds, "I thought you were a jerk." Joe rolls his eyes heavenward.
Patti missed the Boston Marathon in 1977 because of a cyst on her leg that required an operation and sidelined her for seven months. In June, however, she started all over again, and in October she called on Joe for help in getting ready for a 10-km. race in Boston that was two weeks off. He put her on a crash course of mostly speedwork, and she finished second in 34:50, beating 1976 Boston Marathon winner Kim Merrit in the process. "That was really fast then. Now it's commonplace," she says.
Patti was on her own once more that winter, back living unhappily in her mother's house and going through a divorce. Again she qualified for Boston and again an injury kept her out—this time it was her hip—and again she started smoking and gaining weight. She topped out this time at 135.
In the midst of her confusion she met up with Catalano once more and rented a room from him on the third floor of the big, empty house on Water Street. He was her coach at first; then he became her friend and confidant through a very difficult period. Through it all he never stopped urging her to take herself seriously. According to Patti, it went like this: "Joe would say, 'You have something there. Use it! Look at you. You're too fat. You have to keep your body in good shape even if you're injured. You can't go back. You have to make changes. I'm not going to waste my time with you if you're not going to make a serious commitment.' So I finally said, 'O.K., I'm going to be an athlete.' So I went on a diet and I quit smoking, for the last time, and I began doing light jogging, eight or nine miles, for my health, and gradually my hip started getting better."
Now two years later, Patti weighs 104 pounds. She runs considerably more than 100 miles a week year round and as many as 150 two weeks before a marathon. She is strong from working with weights three times a week at the Sports Medicine Resource Center in Brookline and supple from being rubbed down twice a week by her trainer, none other than Boston Marathon organizer Jock Semple. She is fierce on hills, because every Friday she runs the 600 yards up Boston's notorious Heartbreak Hill 10 times, aiming for a clocking of 1:46 or 1:48 at first and then trying to do the 10th ascent as fast as the first. "Joe makes me cry sometimes, but I know I have to go through it to get where I want to go," she says.
"The difference between Patti and some of the other girls is that she's stronger," says Joe. "She's done hard work all her life and that's made her able to do more, train harder, without breaking down. I don't think there's any girl that trains as hard as Patti does. Also she has desire. If you don't have that, you don't have anything. She really wants it now."
Until recently either Joe or Patti, or both, had to work at least part time at Bill Rodgers' Running Center in the Boston suburb of Brighton, to make expenses. In 1978, when Patti had won a free trip to the Honolulu Marathon by placing in the top five of the Nike Marathon in Eugene, Ore., she and Joe experienced a moment of giddy unreality—basking on a Hawaiian beach 5,400 miles from home, while living on food stamps. Now, however, both are subsidized—Joe as a coach, Patti as a runner—by Nike through its team. Athletics West, which, along with providing shoes, running clothes and travel expenses to some races, gives them a monthly stipend in return for consulting and clinic giving.
"Things have really smoothed out in the last month and a half," said Joe in September. "We're our own boss at last. We can run our own lives." And now that Patti is a bona fide gate attraction for any race promoter, things are likely to get even smoother, because she'll get more liberal expense allowances.
Joe and Patti live in a basement apartment in West Roxbury. They train together every day, along the banks of the Charles in the mornings, through the streets of West Roxbury, Brookline and Newton in the afternoons. As Patti's running has become the focus of their lives, Joe's has suffered a little from neglect. "He's having a hard time," says Patti sympathetically. "You need a coach, and Joe doesn't have one. because he's too busy coaching me."
"I try to get out of it what I put in." says Joe, "but my main goal is to help Patti be as good as she can."
In trying to explain her breakthrough last spring, Patti says, "I had to be more relaxed mentally and emotionally to perform well. It's so easy now, so relaxed."
"I have what I want now."
She points across the lunch table at Joe and laughs. He rolls his eyes.
Most good distance runners are—at least outwardly—calm, soft-spoken and measured in their demeanor, as if they are hoarding their energies for a later, more important date. Joe is like that. Patti, by contrast, practically vibrates. She talks with her hands, even when she's running. She laughs easily and often, and she very nearly becomes airborne when something pleases her, as many things do these days. She's also as friendly as a puppy, a trait that doesn't always sit well with people she's beaten to the finish line, perhaps because they've seen evidence of another side of her. Kaggestad glimpsed it when he trained with Patti on the forest paths near his farm outside Oslo. "When it was impossible to run side by side, she always tried to move up," he says. "That's the competitive mentality."
After her second-place finish in the Norgeslopet, Patti tried to explain her relationship with Waitz. "I told her, 'I'll stay with you as long as I can.' Right now that's only a kilometer or two. But she understands. She said, 'You'll be getting stronger.' I'm learning from her. She's the best in the world. Heck, what do I have to lose?"