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Sarah Pileggi
October 27, 1980
An unhappy childhood had Patti Catalano running from the world. Now she's the best U.S. marathoner and running after Grete Waitz
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October 27, 1980

No.1 Is No.2...and Closing

An unhappy childhood had Patti Catalano running from the world. Now she's the best U.S. marathoner and running after Grete Waitz

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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."

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