1980 – Patti Catalano Dillon

6-Sep-1980 – Montreal International Marathon – 2:30:57.1 – Nike Mariah
Date of birth: 27-May-1949
Nationality: American
World Record duration: 2 months, 10 days

The athlete:                
In 1976, Patti Catalano Dillon was at a crossroads in her life. Unfit, and unsatisfied with her nursing studies, she decided the first step was to literally take one. Picking up jogging, she began increasing her mileage and speed. Her first marathon effort came six months later at the Ocean State Marathon in Honolulu. Incredibly, she won in 2:53:40, well below the qualifying cut-off for men at the Boston Marathon.

She would rapidly dedicate herself to running, first quitting cigarettes and then her nursing job. Such was her determination that in 1979 she set her best time yet at the Boston Marathon despite running on an injured foot. Catalano Dillon began setting world and American records at distances from five miles all the way to the marathon. It was around this time that she would get sponsored by Nike, one of the first American women to receive this honour.

It was in late 1980 at the Montreal International Marathon that she cemented her place in this list. In a field of only 68 she started last, but began moving up positions. By mile 15 she took the lead from Jacqueline Gareau, and for almost the rest of the race was alone at the front. She knew she had won, but had been training to try and break through the 2:30 barrier and become the first American woman to do so. The crowd kept her motivated, and for the first 20 miles she was on track to achieve her goal.

In the last six miles however the course made a loop through one of the quieter parts of the city, and Catalano started fading without the cheers from the sideline. It was only with half a mile to go that her husband and coach Joe yelled to her that she was on track to go faster than 2:31. She had nothing left in the tank by the finish, grabbing the tape with her eyes shut and mouth grimacing when she crossed the line to win. Catalano said that she was devastated to not have run faster than 2:30.

Although not recognised as such at the time, her win would also count as the marathon world record by the Association of Road Running Statisticians (ARRS), an independent group created years later by many former racing officials and supported by researchers from across the world. This is because the New York City Marathon course used when Grete Waitz broke the world record was found to have been short. Although only results from the 1981 were invalidated, the ARRS points out Waitz ran on the same course. This would also apply to the second-place finish Catalano achieved at the 1980 New York City Marathon, where she finished in 2:29:34 and became the first American woman to go faster than 2:30, noting the above issues. You can read more about these issues in my article here.

Catalano’s achievements list would be further bolstered the next year, Catalano setting the new American marathon record when she finished second at the Boston Marathon. It was a race she could have won, but due to poor crowd control she collided with a horse. It was only after that point she was overtaken by eventual winner Allison Roe. Catalano would suffer an enormous setback when she cracked her coccyx in a surfing accident in 1981 after winning the Honolulu Marathon for the fourth time. She would spend the next year recovering, and looked to recover her previous form. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, and she failed to make the 1984 Olympics.

She would still go on to win again, at the 1985 Rio De Janeiro Marathon, beating tough competition including former world record holder Joyce Smith. Catalano would retire as one of the legends of women’s distance running. She also rediscovered her Native American heritage in later years, and is currently looking to train a select team of indigenous women for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The shoes:                   

Catalano’s first pair of serious runners were the Adidas SL76 in green and yellow, which she got in 1976 when her friends suggested she upgrade. She would eventually switch to Nike in 1979, which leads us to the pair she wore, the Nike Mariah. Catalano Dillon herself was kind enough to correct me after I had initially thought that she had worn the Nike Eagle. The Eagle was an uncompromising racing flat, weighing as little as 145 grams. Although featuring similar overlays to the Eagle, the Mariah had full-length air cushioning which made it one of the most popular shoes of its generation, Nike still making them as late as 1985.

Looking at photos of her competing at the 1980 New York City Marathon, we can see not only is she wearing the Mariah but a Special Make Up (SMU) made by Nike which replaced the beige upper with back and blue with a white swoosh. Mike Sekinger, who regularly posts images from his incredible Nike collection in the Nike OG group on Facebook, provided me with a photo of Catalano Dillon and her first husband that clearly show the SMU. It was not the only SMU Nike made of the Mariah, much more vibrant than standard.

Despite newer Nike racing flats adopting the Mariah name, the original version from 1980 has not been brought back. The Adidas SL76 however continues to be one of the brand’s most popular models and is regularly brought back in many colourways including the original green and yellow.

First Ladies of Running by Amby Burfoot
Mike Sekinger via Facebook