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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.