By Gail Jennes
Updated April 20, 1981 12:00 PM

Once she was a nurse’s aide and an inveterate barfly, dropping $20 a night on beer, junk food and cigarettes. But beneath her Twinkies-fed chubbiness lurked the body—and soul—of a runner. In just five years Patti Catalano, 28, has transformed herself from a 5’4″, 148-pound basket case into America’s best woman marathoner—second in the world to Norway’s Grete Waitz. “And the gap is closing,” says men’s marathon champ Bill Rodgers. “Patti races so well and so often she’s set a standard for what women can do in the sport.” Already she has run the 26.2 miles in just two and a half hours, only 20 minutes slower than the fastest men at the distance.

Still, Patti has never won the historic Boston Marathon, which she tackles for the third time April 20. In her 1979 debut, Patti gave “only 80 percent of what I could,” but still finished second in the women’s division. Last year she was runner-up again, but achieved a breakthrough in attitude. When her closing surge failed to catch winner Jacqueline Gareau, Patti was “mad because the race was over. It was the first time I didn’t quit on myself and say, ‘It’s okay to be second.’ ” This year she will settle only for victory. “There are no important second places,” says her coach and husband, Joe Catalano, 31. “Unless we can win, we’re not happy.”

For marathoners, of course, there is no victory not preceded by pain. Often injured in her brief career—her recovery from a 1977 knee operation took seven months—she works out twice a day and logs a minimum of 90 miles every week. Before major events she runs 40 more. Last Christmas Day, when the wind-chill factor in Boston was an arctic—60°, Catalano defiantly ran 16 miles.

Such discipline had to be learned, but Patti has known hard work all her life. Growing up in Quincy, Mass., she was the oldest of nine children. Both her parents held at least two blue-collar jobs at a time, while Patti cared for her siblings, worked nights at a shipyard commissary, and somehow kept up with her studies. “My friends knew all the popular songs, but I knew how to make money, take care of kids, cook and clean,” she recalls. When her father, John Lyons, died in 1971, Patti, then 18, took complete charge at home. “It was difficult for my mother,” she says, “and eventually she wanted her authority back. I said ‘No.’ Finally she kicked me out.”

After a month in junior college (“where I discovered boys and booze”), Patti began working as a nurse’s aide—and stuffing herself. “I was locked into a lifestyle,” she says. “Most of the girls I knew were married, separated or divorced and on welfare. They moaned and groaned about the guys and their kids. One night, as I sat on the bar stool, I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute, there’s something more to life than this.’ ”

So on March 28, 1976 she donned a sweatsuit, a weight belt and Earth shoes, and huffed and puffed around a Quincy cemetery; after seven miles, she was ready to move in. “I couldn’t walk for two weeks,” she recalls. But she stayed with it and started to work out with some YMCA marathoners. “Their togetherness,” she says, “was what I’d been looking for.” That summer she married one of them, Boston transit worker John LaTora, and by October had won her first race. Dogged by injuries, she periodically lost control of her weight. But after her marriage broke up in late 1977, she rented a room from Joe Catalano, a wiry high school track coach who insisted she make a commitment to running. The following spring she saw Gayle Barron win that year’s Boston Marathon. “I was all pumped up,” she recalls. “I told Joe, ‘Yes, I’ll quit smoking. Yes, I’ll lose weight. Yes, I’ll be an athlete.’ ”

In 1979 Joe quit his job to coach Patti full-time, and at first they had to scrape by on food stamps. Today, subsidized by Nike shoes as consultants (they conduct a dozen clinics a year), the Catalanos share a modest apartment in the West Roxbury section of Boston. “Our life is too hectic for us ever to have kids,” says Joe. “We hope Patti can run for the next 10 or 15 years.” She concurs: “Running makes me feel good about myself. I like to push my body beyond its limits time after time, and being aggressive takes me away from the pain.” Though, paradoxically, she speaks of “running with hate,” there is a kind of innocence in her outlook as well. “I’m having my childhood now,” Patti says. “I’ve never had such a goodtime.”