They're a long-running hit

In a little over three years California's Sue and Pete Petersen have raced in more than 40 marathons, and Sue at 35 has become a world-class competitor
November 19, 1979

The rest of the country is hardly walking, much less running, when Sue and Pete Petersen hit the streets of Laguna Beach, Calif. on a mission of born-again health and family unity. Every morning they are out there jogging 12 miles or so through deserted streets, America's most notable running couple, waging the foot soldier's battle against fatty tissue and outdated thinking.

It was only a little over three years ago that the Petersens looked at their slightly jellied midsections and went for a leisurely jog on the beach. A short time later they ran their first marathon and discovered the joy of ignoring pain from blisters and cramps. They have not stopped since. They're husband and wife evangelists for the running boom who have competed side by side in 43 marathons. They believe in the maxim: the couple that runs together stays together. For $2.50 you can buy a poster of them embracing at the finish line.

To be a TV star named Farrah and have a poster of yourself is not such an accomplishment, but it is something else for a couple that lives just off Main Street and worries about the kids' teeth. Pete is a 39-year-old third grade teacher. Sue is a 35-year-old housewife whose previous athletic achievement was shaking a cheerleader's pompon.

Sue is the star. She is the AAU women's national champion and has won 23 marathons, including eight of her last 11. Admittedly, she is not in the class of Norway's Grete Waitz, the world's top woman long-distance runner, but then Sue is not in the Norwegian's age group, either. Waitz, 26, won the New York City Marathon in October with a world-record time of 2:27:33. Sue Petersen is nine years older, and her best time is 2:42:32. That ranks her among the world's top 10 women marathoners. Her achievements help refute the anachronistic attitude that women cannot compete in long-distance running. One of the reasons Sue runs is to further the campaign to include her sport in the 1984 Olympics. If a home-maker, former cheerleader and mother of three children can become one of the world's best long-distance runners in less than three years, with little more damage than an occasional blister, then it is time to change the rules.

This fall Sue has run for women's rights all over the globe. On Sept. 22 she raced in the Avon International Marathon in Waldniel, West Germany. In October she finished seventh in the New York City Marathon. The race in Germany was a women-only event and thus the first full marathon in which she competed without Pete alongside. "It had to happen sometime," says Pete. "She's not getting any younger, but she is getting better. She should go now while she still can perform."

The only other time that the pair was separated in marathon competition occurred in early 1977, at Santa Monica, when they still were new to the sport. They were racing together, and near the end of the 24th mile Pete got a stitch in his side and slowed. He told Sue to keep going. She hesitated. The scene was right out of Casablanca: Bogart and Bergman at the airport.

"I'm not going to leave you," Sue said to her husband.

"Go on," ordered Pete. "Get going."

She pulled ahead. For the last two miles tears ran down her face.

Most nights the Petersens are asleep by 9 p.m., and during the winter months they are up at 4:30 for their morning run, chasing the elusive six-minute mile. Their dream is to work together someday as physical-fitness consultants to corporation executives. To prepare for that eventuality, Sue is back in college, studying toward a bachelor's degree in physical education at Cal State-Long Beach. Her professors treat her like a celebrity.

Even though they share an affinity for the academic world, the Petersens seem an odd sports coupling. Sue was an athletic klutz when she was growing up in the town of Torrington, Conn.; Pete was a sprinter good enough to earn a track scholarship to one of the country's top college programs, at San Jose State. Actually, their friends do not find it strange that they took up long-distance running relatively late. Marathoning requires nothing so much as dedication, and the Petersens can be compulsive about their beliefs, as Sue's mother discovered when her daughter and son-in-law waged a campaign to get her to stop smoking. They would sneak up to her driveway at 5 a.m. and insert antismoking literature in her newspaper. While she was away on a trip, the Petersens papered her home with posters depicting the horrors of cigarettes. She quit. She had to. She knew they wouldn't.

Because they approach running primarily as fun, however, the Petersens' training and racing schedule is a bit odd. They enjoy training, so they do a lot of it, and they enjoy racing, so they do quite a bit of that also. Pete says that no woman in history has run as many quality marathons as Sue has in as short a time. When she started, people assured her that at her age she could never expect to achieve a time of 2:45. Last year, within a span of three months, she bettered 2:45 three times.

Before the Petersens began running, Sue lead a pleasant but unexciting life exchanging recipes and getting a suntan at the beach. She had made the transition from high school cheerleader to Orange County housewife—from sis-boom to the blahs. At first, she thought running would be a bore. Pete had not run since his college days, but one afternoon at Laguna Beach he suggested they try a little jog down by the water. They finished feeling exhilarated.

"You know," said Pete. "Someday before I die, I'd like to run a marathon."

"You're kidding," said Sue. She did not have an exact idea of how long a marathon was. "Oh well," she said. "I'm going to do it with you."

In their first marathon, never before having run farther than three miles, Sue turned to Pete at the 10-mile mark and said smugly, "This is a piece of cake." A few miles later the cake had crumbled. Sue was in agony. Pete kept running back to aid stations to get more water for her, and several times she was about to quit. The frazzled couple kept mumbling to bystanders the litany of marathoners: how much farther? Finally, when Sue had decided that nothing was worth such pain, the finish line appeared, and they crossed it together for the first time. "Never again. Never again," they agreed. Their time was 3:43.

"But afterward," says Sue, "an amazing thing happens. You forget about the pain and agony and everything that happened in the race. You just remember having done it. And to top it off, I won the women's division. I thought, 'Wow, I've done it. Now I want to do it again!' "

And that is how the couple went from three miles a day to 120 a week, with calisthenics thrown in. "We do it for the fun," says Sue. "But we do it also to stay in shape. I've never been a competitive person. I just enjoy getting out there and running. If I win, fine. If not, it's not the end of the world. Mostly, we enjoy running, we enjoy being around the people, and we know it's good for our bodies."

That's for sure. Their skin is clear, their bodies hard, their eyes bright. Of the two, Sue is the more animated, as talkative as a child discovering new wonders. She is excited about the changing consciousness of women, having grown up in an era when perspiration was almost a sin for her gender. Now she takes delight in opening mail bearing the address: Pete & Sue: The Marathon Couple.

"I think that deep down Pete fears I'll tire of it," says Sue. "Running was his love as a kid. He is probably afraid that I'll burn myself out or something. He doesn't realize that now it's very important to me, too. I look at what it's done to my body." A few years ago Sue was the object of gentle chiding because of her solid legs. Pete called her "Steinway Sue." These days they can laugh about the gelatin that once bobbed about her waist. Now she wears a size 5. Pete is tall and thin, the spare sort of man who grabs hold of a project and sees it through. The couple's 42-year-old house is meticulously well kept, despite having been in a constant state of restoration and renovation since they moved in 11 years ago. In the garage is a resplendent 1951 MG. Pete says he can fix just about anything if he can find a book to give him directions. Sue, it seems, is another of his projects. Running alongside her, he has a sense of pride. He never urges her to go faster.

As athletes, the Petersens admit to being almost elderly, but they say the calendar cannot outrun their legs. "Our dream is never to stop," Pete says. "We'll just keep going nine miles an hour until we drop. You know those times in high school, those times when you had such good fun, such good times that you couldn't believe it? That's the kind of time we're having now: going for our run and then to the beach to splash each other with water. That's fun."

When they first met, Pete was a Marine and Sue was dating a dental student and thinking about marriage. Often she practiced writing the names-to-be: "Dr. and Mrs...." By comparison, Pete looked to be a poor catch. He had a burr haircut and still had several years to go in the service, but he had a sense of humor and he was industrious. Sue forgot about the dental student and married Pete. That was 13 years ago. They lived at the Marine base in Jacksonville, N.C. She worked as a legal secretary, and they saved every penny they earned for the down payment on a house.

Since then, they have been in it together, through reveille, the house payments, the kids, and now the running. Says Sue, "What happened to Pete and me is that for the last three years, every step we've taken has been side by side. Your body cycles start to get in tune. We run as a team and it adds something. There are times when I feel sorry for the young girls running. They feel like they have to do well every time. And if they don't, they drop out to save themselves, rather than just finishing. To us, finishing is the most important."

Two things bother the Petersens. One is possible damage to Pete's ego. His friends can call him "Sue's husband" with impunity, but he does not chuckle quite as heartily when strangers do the same thing. Sue, meanwhile, occasionally encounters resentment from women runners who think it unfair that during races Pete is alongside, helping her to keep to a pace. "I've been upset by comments a few times," she admits. "The thing they don't understand is that if I wasn't running with Pete, I would be out there running with some other man. All the women race alongside the men. I think some of them resent that their husbands don't run with them. However, many of them are divorced. And you'll find a lot of them are women's libbers. They're waiting for the day when there will be women's marathons and men's marathons. None of this togetherness stuff."

When Sue went to Cincinnati this spring for an 18-mile road race, it was the first time she had been away from her husband—and she didn't enjoy it. "I'm just not into feminism, which surprises people," she says. "I don't need to be more independent. I guess I'm just a contented cow, really. I'm happy. Running is important, but it's not the most important thing. My family is." It took several months of persuasion before Pete convinced her that traveling overseas was the best way for her to help the cause of women's marathoning.

Pete says Sue has come out of the kitchen and "is keeping up with the 21-year-olds." Their next goal is a time of 2:40. Sue is not being altogether altruistic in lobbying for the inclusion of the women's marathon in the 1984 Olympics. By then she will be only 39, which was Jack Benny's age. "I'm not over the hill yet," she says.

If Sue does get a chance at the Olympics—and not many housewives have—one of the questions she will encounter is how being in love affects her running. In boxing, managers will not let their fighters near a woman for months before a bout. The Petersens are not that strict about training. Last year in Eugene, Ore., on a rainy afternoon the day before a marathon, they retired to their motel room and enjoyed a bottle of wine and the delights of young lovers. The next day they turned in their fastest time ever.

Tangible rewards for being the nation's premier running couple have already begun to accumulate. Clothing manufacturers give them running outfits, and they are asked to speak at clinics. After a race in New York City they were invited to Studio 54. They almost did not go because they thought it was an art gallery.

Morning at Laguna Beach is the Petersens' favorite time and place. They come down out of the hills after their workout, and then they wade into the Pacific, splashing water at each other and laughing a lot. Behind them the sun is rising. The air is clean. No wonder they love it so.

PHOTOAfter their customary predawn workout, Sue and Pete frolic in the surf off Laguna Beach. PHOTOThe Petersens go out for a jog en famille, with twins Kirsten and Wendy, 11, and Hans, 8.

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