Snowshoeing with the champions

A couple winters ago, Patti Dillon, bored with her regular exercise regimen, decided to try snowshoes designed for running, so she went online, researched several brands, found a model she liked and or-dered a pair.

The man who took her order over the phone, who happened to be the company president, half-seriously suggested that Patti might want to compete in a race scheduled a few days later.

“Why not?” Patti thought.

When the snowshoes arrived, she tried them out a couple times on a pancake-flat field behind her house in Windham, then showed up at the race in Massachusetts. To her dismay, the 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) course went up and down a steep, icy mountain.

“Within minutes, my legs were burning and my feet developed horrible blisters,” she recalled. “The whole race I was shouting, 'Crap! Crap! Crap! Crap!'"

Instead of dropping out, Patti gritted her teeth, passed snowshoer after snowshoer, and crossed the finish line in first place, which qualified her for the national championship the following week in Vermont.

Patti didn’t want to go through another excruciating ordeal, but her daughter, Raven, said, “Mom, if you don’t go, you’ll regret it the rest of your life.”

So Patti drove to Vermont, where some of the nation’s top racers were gathered at the base of an even more formidable mountain.

Patti adjusted her pace this time, avoiding not just blisters but involuntary expletives, and wound up third.

In less than a week, she had gone from rank beginner to national bronze medalist — astonishing if it weren’t for the fact that this was Patti Dillon, better known by her previous married name, Patti Catalano, nee Patty Lyons, “the queen of U.S. women distance runners,” a member of the National Distance Hall of Fame, the first American woman to break 2 hours and 30 minutes in the marathon who won the Honolulu Marathon four years in a row, placed second in both the New York and Boston marathons (three years in a row), has held American road records in the marathon, half marathon, 30 kilometers, 15 kilometers, 10 miles, and 5 miles, as well as world records in the half-marathon, 30 kilometers and 20 kilometers.

Earlier this week, I joined Patti and her husband, Dan, on a snowshoe ramble in the same fields where she first tried the sport. Dan, by the way, is a two-time All-American in cross-country, a two-time New England champion in track and cross-country who ran on several national cross-country championship teams.

Mercifully, the pace was moderate, but every so often, Patti, unable to restrain herself, sprinted ahead, her trademark long, dark hair flying just as it did decades earlier when she raced as the hometown favorite before cheering crowds at the Boston Marathon (she grew up in nearby Quincy, Mass.).

Patti brings exuberance to just about everything that strikes her fancy.

A few years ago, she decided to raise rabbits, and before long the family was driving to shows from coast to coast and breeding champions. Along the way, the kids also won a slew of ribbons at county fair baking competitions.

Then it was furniture restoration. The barn Dan and their son Aaron built is filled with chairs and tables.

Following her success at snowshoeing, Patti is working with a trainer and, at age 64, hopes to whip herself back into competitive running form.

“Patti,” I said, “You never do anything half-way.”

She and Dan have lived and raced all around the country. They moved to New London in 2003, where we met and became friends, and then bought and restored their charming, eclectically furnished country home in rural Windham, just south of Willimantic.

“This is our dream home,” she said. “I can run out the back door and go for miles and miles on trails, and not see another person.”

Such was the case during our 90-minute workout, which took us along the ice-choked Shetucket River, where the only signs of life were animal tracks in the snow.

“We’ve got everything here: Deer, coyote, fox, fisher cats …” Dan said.

You don’t have to be a national bronze medalist, or even a casual fitness enthusiast, to enjoy snowshoeing, a more forgiving alternative to cross-country skiing: Step into a pair and simply start walking.

Here in Connecticut, the carpe diem paradigm is especially critical — you never know how long sufficiently deep snow will last, so don’t procrastinate.

Sure enough, a couple days after our Windham jaunt, warm weather and torrential rain made the snow slushy and sloppy, so now we must wait for another worthy storm.

If you’re Patti or Dan Dillon, though, not to worry — there’s always something to keep them occupied and active.  

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