In Sue Finney’s first XTERRA at New River Gorge in 2005, she wore a sports bra and a bikini bottom that tied on the side. She had just graduated from college and was working as a river guide for the summer. Knowing that she had been an excellent runner and pole vaulter at Kent State, some of the other river guides convinced her to enter the race.
“The swim was ok because as a raft guide, I knew the river’s current,” remembers Finney. “And I did well on the run. But the bike! I wasn’t a cyclist and that race was my first time on a mountain bike. I had to walk most of the trail and came in close to last place. Someone handed me a gel and I was like, ‘What’s this?’ I didn’t know you ate during a race.”
Fast forward to 2018 and you will see Sue Finney’s name at the top of the results in many of the XTERRA Southeast regional races. She’s still a wicked fast runner, but she’s also known for her excellent skills on the bike.
Finney admits that it’s fun to look back and see how far she has come in 13 years, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually as well.
After that first XTERRA, Finney decided she would do it again the following year, only this time she would train.
“I decided I wasn’t going to make a fool out of myself again so I bought a bike,” said Finney. “And the bike ended up saving me.”
At the time, Finney was in an unhappy relationship and her long rides became a way to escape. When she met other mountain bikers, she decided to enter some races and found a whole new community and a brand new feeling of self-worth.
“I was 24 years old and everything in my life was just OK, and I let just OK be good enough,” remembers Finney. “But the bike made me fierce. I was like wait, I don’t want to just be in this OK situation that isn’t super healthy. Even if I can’t find another person to date, then I’m OK on my own because I’m happy doing what I’m doing. The bike gave me this sense of worth and independence. I really enjoyed my bike life and I enjoyed the people I was with.”
By 2007, Finney was focusing seriously on XTERRA and earned the XTERRA Mid-Atlantic Regional Champ title. This measure of success encouraged her to want to get even better and she decided to work on her swimming technique.
“One of my friends was a pro kayaker, and when I found out he was a good swimmer, I asked him to help me because I was so terrible.”
They met twice a week to swim, and soon, they added mountain biking to their schedule.
“We were best friends for about two years. It was always ‘Dave and Sue.”
Today, these best friends have been married for 10 years and have three children. And while the couple has their happily ever after, it hasn’t always been easy. David travels a lot, the couple owns a gym where Sue works, and training with young children requires a lot of coffee.
“I stopped XTERRA for about eight years when I was having babies,” said Sue, who never stopped exercising. She ran almost every day with a baby in a stroller and went mountain biking up until the day her first daughter was born.
“The doctors were monitoring me closely and I was super healthy. Running was uncomfortable but I was fine on my bike and super careful. Pregnancy was strange. I couldn’t run, but I could bike and do burpees.”
When Finney’s children were a little bit older, she got back into running, only to break her foot.
“I was really bummed but that’s when my husband surprised me with a new mountain bike. He said, ‘I think you should go back to XTERRA.’”
Finney’s foot healed, but new challenges lay ahead. While competing in the pole vault in college, Finney broke her back, and now she was suffering from arthritis in her vertebrae as well as a bone spur. At last year’s XTERRA Knoxville, Finney fell because she couldn’t lift her foot over a rock.
“My brain was telling my leg what to do but my leg never got the message,” she said. “I was starting to fall a lot. Once I fell so badly in a parking lot that I needed stitches. When it got so that I couldn’t lift my toes anymore, my doctor said, ‘It’s time.’”
Last October, Finney had back surgery.
“It was scary because it took four days to get the feeling back in my foot. So for those four days, I was like, ‘OK, am I going to be kicking butt in XTERRA next year, or am I just done?’”
Luckily, after four days, Finney knew the surgery was a success and fully committed to healing as quickly and as well as possible.
“I guess I just like a challenge and I made recovery my new challenge,” she said. “I remember putting on my shoes and saying, ‘OK, I’m going to make it to my neighbor’s driveway and back.’ And that was like, so exciting. The cul de sac I lived on was a quarter mile loop and I remember saying, ‘I’m going to make it all the way around without having to stop.’ I just kept making new challenges.”
Finney approaches XTERRA the same way. “It all started with doing one XTERRA,” she said. “Then it was, let’s do an XTERRA and not feel miserable the whole race. Then it was, OK, now I want to place in my age group. Then, now I want to make the podium overall.”
This year, Finney wants to leave her mark at regional and national championships. She’s already checked off one of those boxes at XTERRA Oak Mountain, where she placed third in the 35-39 age group. Only Sian Crespo and Kristen Wade were faster. She won her age group at XTERRA Fort Yargo and was second overall behind XTERRA Pan Am Champ, Margo Pitts. At XTERRA Knoxville, Finney was the top female athlete overall.
However, unlike years before, when her goal was to beat other athletes, Finney’s battle is only against herself now.
“I don’t race against other people anymore,” says Finney. “When I was younger, I knew who my competition was and who was out there and what times I needed to get. Now I enter every race with the attitude that I have to cross that finish line knowing I did my personal best. I just focus on me, and as a result, I’m starting to trust my own flow on the bike and get into my own zone. Riding a mountain bike is like a dance. You want it to be smooth like a waltz and not rough like clog dancing. You gotta get into a zen mode with your bike to keep your breathing calm and rhythmic and hit your lines.”
Not only has this calm approach improved Finney’s times, it’s also causing her to have more fun.
This year, Finney is headed to Maui to the XTERRA World Championship, where she refuses to stress about how anyone else is performing.
“My focus and goal in everything is to see what my potential is. I know there is so much more in me. And I’m really excited to go to Worlds. I love the friendliness of XTERRA. That friendly face can help calm you down when you’re nervous. Or that little joke from the time before can just make you laugh.”
Last year at XTERRA Tsali, Finney didn’t compete but showed up to support some members of her gym who were in the race. After the race, some XTERRA athletes Finney didn’t know were standing around and talking about where they were going to eat.
“Instead of just ignoring us because they didn’t know who we were, they said, ‘Hey, you’re going to come join us, right?’”
That's one of the reasons Finney has stuck with XTERRA, because she says flow is more important than performance.
“XTERRA people are my kind of people,” says Finney. “Growing up, my back door was open to anyone and everyone. The more the merrier. And XTERRA is that same way. When you do something hard, you gain a connection. You have that in common, cause wow, that really hurt. In XTERRA I’ve been really, really bad and I’ve also been decent. And no one treated me differently based on how I did and I really like that. Actually, I really respect that.”