Beth Petersen admits she’s aging a bit, occasionally dozing off when watching her favorite TV shows. “I am slowing down,” Petersen says. Back in the day she completed seven marathons in one year. More than once she knocked off a half marathon on Saturday, then capped the weekend with a 26.2-miler on Sunday.
But her marathon mania has been limited to just one in each during the past two years. It’s understandable that Petersen doesn’t crank out the long stuff like she once did. The womn from Glendale, Calif., is after all 84 years young.
Petersen is the oldest of the 81 Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon legacy runners, the 50 men and 31 women who have completed the race every year since its 1998 inception. And she’ll be there come June 4, 2017 for the 20th edition of the race that changed the road-racing landscape.
“I have to,” Petersen says, the verve in her voice as sprite as the spring in her step. “I’m a legacy runner.”
Petersen, who has walked all 55 of her lifetime marathons, will also step to the starting line for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Los Angeles Half Marathon on Oct. 30.
Even more fascinating is that Petersen didn’t walk her first marathon until she was 56 years old. She has compiled her road-racing milestones despite being diagnosed with emphysema caused by second-hand smoke, asthma and battling chronic bronchitis.
Petersen’s 63-year-old son, Randy says, “She’s always been tough. She’s always had drive.”
Petersen was born on Sept. 21, 1932 during the height of the Great Depression. She was raised in Sedro-Woolley, Wash., a small town 72 miles northeast of Seattle. She attended a private elementary school that was so small all the students met in one room. Her family lived on a 120-acre cattle farm and owned another 200 acres across town that was used for cattle grazing.
Petersen wasn’t athletic as a child, passing on P.E. in high school.
“I heard you had to take showers and change clothes. I was too embarrassed to do that,” she recalls. “I didn’t know how to take a shower. We didn’t have one at home. We just had a tub.”
The genesis of her walking career dates back to 1984. She and her husband of 25 years had divorced two years earlier. Meanwhile, a new member of her church started a running group.
“Having gone through the divorce, my mind was a little cloudy,” Petersen says. “I thought, ‘Maybe I should join that.’”
She did and quickly found out she couldn’t run. A medical transcriptionist, she had inhaled smoke for years courtesy of a doctor who lit up Pall Malls.
But the man who started the church running group encouraged her to walk. So she did, never dreaming marathons were in her future.
“As they say,” says Petersen’s 51-year-old son, Gary, “the longest journey begins with a single step.”
About two years after joining the church’s running entourage, Petersen traveled with a group of runners to Hawaii for the Honolulu Marathon. Having never been to Hawaii, she planned to enjoy a vacation while hanging with friends.
“That’s when I discovered people walked the marathon,” she says. “When I was looking out my window from the hotel, I saw people walking and said, ‘Well, I can do that.’”
Come 1988, she walked the Honolulu Marathon, finishing in more than seven hours.
However, Petersen didn’t complete her next marathon until 1992 because of her chronic battles with bronchitis. In fact, she was hospitalized for 10 days in 1989 with acute respiratory failure and was put on a life-support system for awhile during the stay.
“They were worried about whether she was going to recover,” Randy says. “She was in pretty bad shape.”
Petersen credits a doctor’s care and the use of an inhaler twice a day for turning her health around.
Petersen, who stands 5 feet 4 inches and weighs 117 pounds, has never remarried. Walking not only keeps her body fit, it’s the center of her social calendar. On Monday nights she walks with a group from a Pasadena running store. Fridays are reserved for a group workout at a YMCA. Since 1984, on Sundays she meets walkers with a marathon training program.
She starts almost every day with a 4-miler outside her front door at sunrise.
“Then I can get on with all my errands,” says Petersen, who cleans her own home and tends to her yard. She reads three daily newspapers and subscribes to numerous magazines.
Her fastest marathon was 5 hours, 45 minutes. Last year, at 83, she finished Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego in 6 hours, 43 minutes.
When Petersen showed up for Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego back in ’98, she planned on being a legacy runner. Never mind that she was 65 years old.
Regarding aging gracefully, Petersen says, “Keep busy, keep a lot of friends, keep social. And I can’t say eat right because I don’t eat right. I have a horrible diet. I eat tons of ice cream and buttered popcorn.”
As for Rock ‘n’ Roll Los Angeles—the music, cheerleaders and costumed aid stations—Petersen gives it two thumbs up. Of the bands, the 84-year-old rocker say, “Oh, they’re good. I always wave at them when I go by.”
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