January 20, 2024 4 min read 7 Comments
Gary Patton steaming toward a gold in the 800 in 2019 for the USA in Toronto. He has been a world champion in both the 800 and 1500 and has 61 national championship wins in running events. Photo by Rob Jerome.
By Ray Glier
Gary Patton's impulse had always been to believe what people said about his height, that he was relegated to being athletically inferior because he was not tall. Gary was 4-foot-11 through most of high school before surging to 5-foot-5 in the 12th grade. He had reconciled with himself that he couldn't achieve in sports.
Then, in his late 50s, the playing field began to level. Patton was a middle distance runner and height doesn’t matter as much as consistent stride, lung capacity, craftiness of pace, sturdy legs, and willpower.
Patton also thrilled at the cross-training that lubricated all his joints and kept him mostly injury free while others his age broke down. That earnestness to train further nullified the height bugaboo.
Gary started beating runners his own age. It is a remarkable thing, a beautiful thing, when self-doubt melts away.
Patton, 78, has 61 USA Track & Field Masters national wins and still holds the American record in the M65-69 outdoor 1500.
Gary pokes at himself saying he is growing older slower than men his age, but there is something else significant at work here. Patton runs with a figurative receipt clenched in his hand.
“Receipt” is typically the jargon of the vengeful, like University of Colorado football coach Deion Sanders or Detroit Lions football coach Dan Campbell, who claim the receipts they hold tight are payback for someone slighting them on their climb.
Gary’s receipt is something very different.
It is a receipt to himself. It’s what he owes himself for all those years he didn't push through the self-doubt.
“There was always something in the back of my mind that I was back to being a 15 or 18-year old kid that was so inferior to everybody else physically. There was something that kept telling me I didn't measure up to some other folks based on my younger years," Patton said.
“When I started really competing on a large stage nationally and internationally, and got really good at it, something in the brain said ‘You can do anything anybody else can do’. I'm just more self-confident now.”
Understand, Gary did not become suddenly unstuck in life overall in his late 50s when he achieved status in running. After all, he was a successful civil engineer (Iowa State) in his hometown of Rock Rapids, Iowa. Intellectually, Patton could compete. It was the athletic thing that gnawed at him.
Gary had a physiological issue growing up. He was shorter, 4-foot-11, through most of high school. When it was determined the growth issue had an under-lying cause and he got treatment, Patton grew to 5-foot-5. He was still smallish, which meant he had to be gritty in what sports he did play. That grittiness is contributing to his success now.
“Physically, I wasn't anywhere near as good as other kids and I had to put forth a lot more effort trying to keep up,” Gary said. “Once I got on a level playing field physically, I think I had more drive because nothing had been handed to me on a silver platter.”
Speaking of silver, we might be talking about Patton even more boldly if not for the man in his same age group, Hans Smeet of the Netherlands.
“He's the reason I have a lot of silver medals,” Patton chuckles.
Smeets, who is a year younger than Patton, ran the 1500 in 5:24.54 in 2023. Gary’s best time was 5:29.99. They were 1-2 in the world.
Still, Gary has his share of gold medals, including for the 800 and 1500 in the World Masters Athletics championships in 2011. Head-to-head, Patton defeated Smeets one time, in a thrilling 3000m race in South Korea in 2017.
“The 3000 is not really his race,” Gary said in typically humble manner.
Patton’s sweet spots are the middle distance runs of 800 and 1500, but he will show up and run the 3000 and 5000. Gary has set 14 American records in various age groups from 800-meter races to 3000-meter races.
“I'm kind of a glutton for punishment,” he said.
What helps explain Patton’s winning across the running disciplines is his training. He can pinball between stair-stepping, swimming, weights and, of course, running. The cross-training, he says, maintains the flexibility and allows him to run no more than 15 miles a week.
“Limiting over-use, plus strengthening muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints in ways not specific to running,” Gary said about the benefits of his brand of cross-training. “They all come into play in different ways when running. The cross-training also relieves the boredom of running every day. I can get motivated to go do something that I hadn't done the day before, or the day before that.”
Patton said he has this “unrealistic” goal of running another 10-15 years. It is not so unrealistic when you consider his mother lived to be 99 and he is in fine shape.
It is also not unrealistic when you consider Gary holds tight to that personal receipt. It provides the self-confidence and fuel every athlete needs to keep going.
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Gary collecting points for the SoCal Track Club with a gold in the 1500. Photo by Rob Jerome.
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