What if now were then, if the women had a separate start at the Boston Marathon, as they will Monday morning in Hopkinton? Maybe Patti Dillon would have been able to keep better track of Joan Benoit in 1979. Maybe she would have seen Jacqueline Gareau up ahead of her in 1980. Maybe she would have heard Allison Roe's footsteps behind her in 1981.
"You never knew where your competition was, who was where," says Dillon, who spent her prime years playing hide-and-seek with the rest of the elite women's runners.
Though women had been officially welcome at Boston since 1972, they were equal but not separate, weaving their way through a thicket of middling men, many of whom were either trying to pace off them or get their picture in the papers. "I'd tell them, `Hey, the race is up there,' " Dillon says.
To be a female contender then, at the peak of the running boom when the fields were soaring in size, was almost like running blindfolded. If you had short hair and were surrounded by males, nobody noticed you. "I had a few races where I thought I was first and I wasn't first," Dillon says.
The 1980 race was one of them. "People kept telling me, `You're the first woman' and I thought, `Darn right,' " Dillon says. "Then, around Cleveland Circle, I heard from a masters runner that Jackie was up ahead and I got the chills. Now, I'm on the hunt. It's like I'm in a crowded mall, shooing people away. I finally saw her going into Kenmore Square and she was smoking."
Dillon couldn't catch Gareau and she had no chance at Rosie Ruiz, who had jumped into the race a mile from the finish and was mistakenly crowned victor. "I felt bad for Jackie," says Dillon. "She missed out. You can never relive that moment. She's winning, and then they say, you didn't win."
The next year, it was Dillon who was winning, having shaken Benoit and Gareau and Julie Shea. Then came the bump-and-run with a police horse at Cleveland Circle that threw Dillon off stride.
"That damn horse," Dillon says, chuckling. "I was glad Tom Derderian caught me, because I don't think anyone would have believed it. But I never fell, because the street was so packed with people."
Perhaps Roe would have overtaken her anyway. The New Zealander's time -- 2:26:46 -- chopped more than eight minutes off the course record. "When I crossed the finish line, it was so quiet that I thought I must have done really badly," says Dillon.
Instead, she had set an American record of 2:27:51, which would have won every previous women's race and three subsequent ones. But Dillon mourns not for laurel wreaths unwon. She was a nurse's aide from Quincy who came from nowhere to the front of the pack in three years and matched strides with the greatest women of her day.
"I'm so glad I was there," says Dillon, who'll be honored at the Champions' Breakfast tomorrow. "It was absolutely great. I felt as though I was part of the heartbeat."