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."