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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.