Junior Erin Finn made sure to triple-knot her shoes before the 6,000-meter course at the NCAA Women’s Cross Country Championships in Louisville, Ky.
She had lost her spikes in a race before during her Michigan career. That time, her coach, Mike McGuire, told her to drop out. But this was the national meet. Dropping out was not an option.
As Finn took off from the starting gun, she quickly positioned herself in the leading pack of the 254 athletes. She paced herself and only made moves in reaction to others. Finn was running smart.
At the 2,000-meter mark, however, Finn lost her spikes after being clipped in the ankles by a runner behind her.
A few more feet, and she lost the other shoe, too. Finn was left in her socks.
“For maybe a millisecond, one of the choices I had was to give up,” Finn said. “I could have quit, I could have gone back to get more shoes, or I could have just kept going. But I didn’t consider anything else. I went forward. My teammates were relying on me. And I knew it was going to hurt just as much on the inside to quit compared to the pain running barefoot.”
Fifty meters after losing her shoes, Finn lost her socks.
Yet 4,000 meters later — at the finish line — Finn became one of just seven Wolverines in program history to become a two-time All-American, placing 19th with a time of 20:10.2.
And she did it barefoot.
To put it in perspective, if this had been any other course, it wouldn’t have been that much of an issue. Most cross country meets are held on golf courses where the grass is kept and the ground is soft. However, Louisville’s course is held at Tom Sawyer State Park, where there are sections on gravel and over pine cone-covered grass. The course definitely was not “conducive to barefoot running.”
“I don’t think during the race anyone realized I was barefoot,” Finn said. “But there’s a long gravel straightaway with a tiny bit of grass on the side. So when I got there, I was staying to the side. But (McGuire) was there, and he was yelling at me to get on the gravel. But then our graduate assistant coach noticed my feet and told him. (McGuire’s) face just dropped.
“I was a little annoyed when he said to get on the gravel before he knew. I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ I was almost trying to avoid him the entire time before then because I didn’t want him to tell me to drop out. I couldn’t drop out.”
Despite her dedicated performance, Finn only felt frustrated when she finished. She had been so focused on running and dealing with the pain that she didn’t think she had even finished in the top 40.
And after a stellar season in which she won three regular-season meets and claimed the individual title at the Big Ten Championship — becoming just the second Wolverine ever to claim the title twice — Finn wanted to win.
“I was extraordinarily frustrated,” Finn said. “I was shooting for a top-10 finish. I was really angry and in a lot of pain. I was questioning why this had to happen. I didn’t think I was as high up as I was. As time went on and I talked to my coach, mom and teammates, that’s when I found out I was All-American. I still wanted to be higher, but they all made me feel proud that I continued to fight.”
After her race Finn’s phone was flooded with texts and calls from her former teammates, coaches and friends. All of them were telling her how proud they were of her. It was the only thing that made Finn shift her perspective.
“There was nothing in me that wanted to learn anything out of this,” Finn said. “I just received so much support, and that’s what made me realize I can fight through hard times. And I have and I will continue to do so. McGuire said that it was one of the toughest performances he’s ever seen — and he’s coached so many great athletes. He doesn’t compliment that often, so when it happens, it means a lot.”
The No. 6 Michigan team finished in sixth place, led by the barefooted Finn.
Despite everything, Finn doesn’t hold a grudge against the girl who clipped her because Finn knows it wasn’t on purpose. Rather, she recognizes that what happened is the “name of the game.”
Though, half-jokingly, Finn would like that girl to walk a mile in her shoes.
Or, rather, run 4,000 meters barefoot over gravel and pinecones.