It is all about crossing the finish line.
For runners of any level – leisure to competitive – that notion is ingrained at the start of every run. They are ready to endure the physical, mental, and emotional challenges ahead in order to cross whatever figurative or literal finish line lies ahead of them.
On a hot, humid, and blindingly bright Friday afternoon last fall, the Saint Mary's College cross country team competed in the University of Notre Dame's National Catholic Invitational. More than 20 women's teams from NCAA Division I, II, III, and NAIA Catholic colleges and universities from across the country took to the running paths. All of those harriers had one thing in mind – cross the finish line.
Shanan Hamilton and Angela Bannan were two of the Belles competing in the championship 5k, and the pair stepped up to the starting line along with 160 other student-athletes. Emotions were high. Admittedly, heat is not a condition in which Shanan performs well. Angela was preparing to run her first collegiate 5k race. In the closest event to a home meet the Belles have most years, the pair had friends and family in attendance to show their support, adding to the pressure of wanting to run a great race. The starting gun fired, and the pack was off and running.
One mile into that event, Angela had a 15-second lead on Shanan. At the 4k mark, that gap grew to nearly 30 seconds. And then something happened. Angela began struggling – to anyone present, it was evident that the heat and humidity had affected her in the worst possible way. Struggling to continue forward and keep on her feet, Angela staggered ahead with less than a quarter of a kilometer to go. Somewhere between that 4k mark and the end of the race, more than 30 runners passed Angela – some well before that visible challenge of the final quarter of a kilometer, and some while the next event transpired.
Shanan caught up to Angela. She knew something was wrong, and she did not hesitate to help.
"I didn't even realize is was Angela or even anyone on our team at first," said Shanan. "I really didn't even think twice about it. I knew she [Angela] was so close to finishing, so I thought 'I can do this.'"
Instead of going into a final kick to close out a physically challenging 5k on an incredibly hot day, Shanan came to her teammate's aid. She wrapped her arm around Angela and worked to guide her ahead. There were stumbles and near-falls. Angela became less responsive with each step. Shanan adjusted how she was helping Angela as she grabbed ahold of her left hand and secured her arm more fully around her teammate.
"I was talking to her the whole time," Shanan added. "I just kept repeating 'come on, we've got this' and 'we're almost there'."
A distance that should have taken either runner less than 30 seconds to cover felt like an eternity in its nearly two minutes of transpiring. With hundreds of spectators lining the chute – some shouting encouragement to the pair, others failing to hold back tears at the sheer emotion of the moment – the pair made it, and Angela was quickly tended to by the awaiting medical staff.
"The first person who came up to me was another runner in the race from a different team. She told me what I did was great. I didn't think it was a big deal. I didn't think people were even watching us. In the moment, I couldn't see myself not helping. I was just in the right place at the right time."
To anyone watching, however, it was a big deal. It was one of those defining moments of what makes sports worth it. It was the best of humanity. It was raw and real and left an indelible impact on those present.
"When you look back on running, you never want to say 'I didn't finish a race.' Even if I'm walking, even if I'm crawling, I'm going to finish the race. I had to make sure Angela finished that race."
In the official results, Angela was listed with a finish one place ahead of Shanan. The results, however, did not matter. The need of a teammate was more important than any race result could ever mean for Shanan. It was all about crossing the finish line.