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Jeanne Peterson, elite runner from Massapequa, dies at 51

Jeanne Peterson, right, with her twin sister, Karen

Jeanne Peterson, right, with her twin sister, Karen Peterson. Credit: Christine Cappello

For Jeanne Peterson, running just came naturally.

Long-distance runners can sometimes have a complicated relationship with the grueling sport. Some days they love it, some days they hate it. But for Peterson, it was only love.

"She was so driven and loved it so much," said twin sister and frequent racing partner Karen Peterson of Massapequa. "It was a God-given talent. It was just so natural. The girl was an amazing athlete."

Jeanne Peterson, a Massapequa native who won the Philadelphia Marathon in 1995 and ran in the Olympic Trials twice, died July 21 at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, her family said. She was 51.

"She was very good," said Regina Ronan of Massapequa Park, a friend and fellow marathon runner. "She was dedicated. My husband, Gary, remembers that in high school she was running 10 miles in the morning and 10 miles later [in the day]."

Jeanne Peterson was a star runner at Massapequa High School and graduated in 1987. She went on to the University of North Carolina, where she won two ACC championships in the 10,000 meters and graduated with a degree in physical education.

Peterson won the Philadelphia Marathon without ever having run one before. In high school and college, she was told she was too small to run the 26.2-mile race. Undeterred, she entered and won in 2 hours, 39 minutes, and 54 seconds. Her twin sister finished second.

"We just knew in our hearts we could do it," Karen Peterson said. "She was so resilient and had so much perseverance and always great tenacity."

As so often happens, Jeanne Peterson was bit by the marathon bug. She placed seventh in 2:35:19 at the 1996 Olympic Trials, short of the threshold to make the team. She also ran in the Olympic Trials in 2000, this time placing 33rd in 2:48:14, according to the Association of Road Racing Statisticians website.

She represented the United States in the marathon at the 1997 World Championships in Athens, Greece. All told, Jeanne Peterson ran 14 marathons, Karen Peterson said.

"People think, how do you train for a marathon?" Karen Peterson said. "To be quite frank, it was so natural to us. It was like nothing. We’d go out there, running for hours. It would be like a walk in the park. When we ran the Philadelphia Marathon, we had never done any kind of intensive training or anything like that. We just did our daily run. We never missed a day."

Born July 27, 1969, at Mercy Hospital in Rockville Centre, Peterson returned to live in Massapequa over a decade ago. She taught physical education in Florida at multiple Catholic schools and lived briefly in Atlanta, where she taught and worked in retail for Nike. She also worked at the Super Runner's Shop in Huntington, her sister said.

Jeanne Peterson was a devout Catholic, endlessly committed to her faith.

"She was a gentle soul who was in love with the Lord," said Robert Ashmead of Massapequa, a fellow parishioner at St. Rose of Lima Church. "She was a loving person to each person she met. She was a listener and would be consoling to anyone who had an issue or a problem. She lived her faith."

In addition to her twin sister, Jeanne Peterson is survived by parents, Helen and Al, of Massapequa, sisters Mary Nowotarski of West Islip, Patty Hoffman of Florida, and Christine Cappello of Massapequa, brothers Al of Brooklyn and Tom of Massapequa Park, and 11 nieces and nephews. Jeanne Peterson was buried at St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale, Karen Peterson said.

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