Jennie Finch is no stranger to athletic achievements. As the University of Arizona's ace pitcher, Finch set a NCAA record by winning 60 consecutive games. In the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, Finch's 72-mile-per-hour fastball helped to clinch gold and silver medals for the United States. Suffice it to say, "dead last" is not a common phrase in Finch's vocabulary—but that's just where she found herself in the 2011 New York City Marathon.
"Running a marathon is something I considered doing after my playing days were over," says the former softball star who retired in 2010, "but I didn't expect it to be so soon." However, when Timex approached Finch to run the marathon to support the New York Road Runners' Youth Programs, she couldn't say no. The first catch? Finch would start the marathon in last place behind more than 47,000 runners. The number of people she passed would equal the dollars Timex donated to the charity. The second catch? Finch was pregnant with her second child.
Finch believed that 26.2 miles for a cause was an offer too tempting to turn down. Finch agreed to run the autumn race, which would fall fewer than six months after her due date. "I had my son June 19, and three weeks later I started jogging," she says. Balancing marathon training with caring for an infant and toddler wasn't easy. Finch says she had her fair share of swollen soles and sleepless nights. "What carried me through my training was the thought that this money was going to kids in the inner city," she explains.
Finch's regimen included running 40 miles per week with three days of spinning? classes to take stress off her joints. The California native had performed grueling workouts as a softball player, but running was never one of her passions. "The longest I'd ever run before was six miles, and I thought that was the pits," she laughs. Soon, Finch was completing double-digit runs on a weekly basis. "Running 18 miles for the first time, I was like, holy cow, this is crazy!"
The insanity paid off when Finch toed the starting line on Nov. 4, 2011. "Seeing all the people take off, I was in chills," she says. After every single runner had crossed, it was Finch's turn to start. Running with her coach and a pacer, Finch concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and passing as many people as she could—all while holding back tears of overwhelming emotion. "I probably cried 15 times during the race," she says. "I saw a guy with a T-shirt that said 'For Mom' and started bawling."
Finch powered through the painful final stretch by imbuing it with personal meaning. "I dedicated the last four miles to my husband and sons, and my grandmother who's 91 years old and does the stationary bike for two miles every day." When the finish line came into view, Finch started sprinting like she was rounding third base. "My coach was saying, 'Every person is a dollar. Get 50! Get 100!'" Finch describes crossing the finish line as a mixture of relief and disbelief. "I was like: I'm done?! My husband kept laughing at me."
More: 10 Post-Race EssentialsHer finish time of 4:06 was fast enough to raise $30,000 for her charity. Finch caught the running bug during the race, and plans to finish a half marathon and possibly another full marathon in 2012. "I learned that you can do anything if you put your mind to it," she says. "It was so empowering."
Catch the running bug and sign up for your next race.
Jessica Sebor is Florida-based writer, runner and the editor in chief of Women's Running magazine.