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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, December 7, 2002

Marathoner wins long road home

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

ABOVE: Patti Dillon joined the Honolulu Marathon Hall of Fame at a marathon week dinner at Oahu Country Club

BELOW:Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers and Olympic gold medalist Frank shorter were among guests at a special marathon week dinner.

Photos by Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

When Patti Dillon ran her first Honolulu Marathon in 1978, she had a clear goal in mind: a return trip.

"I was at (Kapi'olani) Park looking at all these plaques and trophies with the names of the past winners, and someone told me, 'You know, if you win, they'll have to invite you back next year,'" Dillon said.

To make sure she'd be back, Dillon — best known by her former names, Patti Lyons and Patti Lyons Catalano — not only placed first among women, she set a course record for the 26.2-mile course of 2 hours, 43 minutes and 10 seconds. She repeated the feat the next year (2:40:07).

And the year after that (2:35:26).

And the year after that (2:33:24).

Ultimately, four consecutive years of setting course records was enough to secure Dillon's sweetest return to Hawai'i — induction into the Honolulu Marathon Hall of Fame.

She was inducted Thursday night at the annual marathon week dinner for special guests and elite athletes.

"I'm so honored," said Dillon, who flew in from Connecticut with her husband, Dan, and children Aaron and Raven. "I'm tickled, flattered, humbled. I consider myself incredibly blessed."

Not that she needed an honor to come back.

Over the years, marathon week in Honolulu has become a de rigueur stop for many legends of the sport. On hand for Dillon's induction were Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter, four-time New York and Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers, Boston champion Greg Meyer, middle-distance record holder Mary Slaney, and former marathon world record holder Alberto Salazar.

Rodgers called the marathon's appreciation of history "a powerful thing" for the community and the sport of marathoning.

"Our sport is unique, in a way, because even though a lot of people participate for health or fitness reasons, they don't really know who the elite runners are anymore," Rodgers said. "It's not like the big-money sports that have a lot of exposure and support. That's why what Honolulu does is so neat."

Along with Rodgers and others, Shorter is often credited with inspiring the American running revolution of the 1970s. Shorter said maintaining ties between the sport's past and present would play a key role in the re-emergence of elite American runners on the world stage.

"It's very important that up-and-coming runners see that it did happen in the past and it can be repeated," he said.

The Thursday event originally was to have included a special reunion of the top four marathon finishers from the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich: Shorter, Karel Lismont, Mamo Wolde and Kenny Moore. Race director Jonathan Cross came up with the idea shortly after Wolde was released from jail in his native Ethiopia.

Imprisoned during a period of political upheaval, Wolde had been in contact with Moore, a screenwriter and journalist. Though stricken with cancer, Wolde wanted to make the trip with his second wife, Aberash, who supported him during his 10-year imprisonment.

"In Ethiopia, it's considered the ultimate compliment to show your wife the world," said Cross. "That's why he wanted to come."

Though Wolde succumbed to his cancer soon after accepting the invitation, the association honored its commitment to bringing Aberash to Hawai'i.

A flight delay kept her from attending Thursday's event. Instead, fellow Ethiopian Gezahgne Abera, the 2000 Olympic marathon champion, accepted a plaque on Mamo Wolde's behalf from Moore, who offered a moving tribute to his friend and rival.

Still, the night belonged to Dillon, who with eight-time Honolulu Marathon winner Carla Beurskens continues to be the dominant woman in the event's history.

Dillon almost didn't make it to Hawai'i in 1978.

She finished second to Julie Brown in the Nike Marathon in Oregon. The winner of that race was invited automatically to participate in Honolulu two months later. Brown declined; Dillon jumped.

Her victory in Honolulu helped catapult her to the top of the sport. In a career cut short by injury, Dillon held records in the 5-mile, 10K, 15K, 10-mile, 20K and marathon distances. She was the first American woman to finish a marathon in under 2:30.

It had been a curious road to elite status for Dillon, who started running in her 20s as a way to lose weight. She ran, and won, her first marathon when she smoked two packs a day.

The end of her career also began in Hawai'i. In 1981, she fractured her tailbone in a bodyboarding accident at Sandy Beach. That began a string of injuries that eventually ended her career.

The years that followed brought a battle with bulimia ("I had first heard about it in 1980 in a Dear Abby column and I thought, 'Wow, this is me," she said) and a four-month period when she was homeless.

"I had left my husband and (money for my job) had dried up," she said. "I lived in the trunk of a car for four months, but it was a blessing. It gave me time to think, and I was in the best shape of my life. I never lost my enthusiasm or joy for running."

Dillon emerged from those ordeals to find a better, happier life. She was about to leave her native Boston for Colorado when, stopping to say goodbye to friends, she ran into Dan Dillon, a formidable distance runner and longtime friend.

"He gave me this unbelievable hug," Patti Dillon recalled. "I asked him how his wife was, and he said he had gotten divorced. That was on Tuesday. We got married on Saturday."

Ten years, six states and two kids later, Pattie Dillon said she's still running and still counting her blessings.

"I ran with Dan and the kids from (Kapi'olani Park) to Diamond Head early this morning," she said. "It's one thing to tell about being here in Hawai'i. It's another to be able to show them. This was the race that started everything for me."