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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deserted streets, America's most notable running couple, waging the foot soldier's battle against fatty tissue and outdated thinking.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.