Minutes after crossing the finish line, Nancy Van Hemert and Mark Rogers stood together, their arms raised and hands clasped in celebration.
Two people who hadn't met before the weekend stood unified thanks to the feat they both accomplished.
Both runners won their individual challenge of the Isle Casino Beat the Elite challenge, crossing the finish line at the Quad-City Times Bix 7 road race ahead of any of the elite winners.
"I feel great. The weather was in our favor, the crowd made the difference," Van Hemert said. "People cheering the whole way; this community is fantastic."
Rogers — who had a 3.3-mile head start — crossed first with an unofficial time of 30 minutes, 47 seconds, while Van Hemert — with a three-mile head start — finished in 31:32. Both were well ahead of men's elite winner Silas Kipruto, who won the seven-mile race in 33:03.
Van Hemert, a Muscatine resident, is the ninth winner in the 13th year of the challenge, which was formally called the Race for the Jackpot before changing sponsors. Rogers, who is the chief financial officer of Genesis Health Systems, is the first corporate winner, which was a new addition to the race this year.
"I met Nancy (Friday). We spent some time together this morning," Rogers said. "A sweet lady. I was hoping she would get to me so we could push each other, that would have been the dream. I just didn’t look back."
Rogers setting the pace helped Van Hemert push herself to try and pass him, and both moved well on the course. Rogers reached Palmer College at about 25:18, while Van Hemert reached the top of the Brady Street Hill at about 26:43. From there, it was smooth sailing.
"About half an hour before I ran, I got the jitters, so now you’ve got to go to your mind to get your mind in a good place," Rogers said. "I had a good strategy but in the first mile, I ran too fast, but then I knew that and rebounded. I felt good coming in."
For Van Hemert, the race itself has always been special, but has become even more important recently. She had surgery to remove a brain tumor in May of 2013, only to run her fastest ever Bix time 11 weeks later. She recently developed seizures as a result of the scar tissue from the surgery and had stopped running before being selected last month to run the challenge.
After meeting with her doctors and taking careful precautions to ensure her safety, she got back to running and felt no complications during her run Saturday.
"I heard cheers the whole way, people were cheering the whole way and even the runners ... it’s just fantastic. It kept me going, it really encouraged me," she said. "I was being watched over, that’s for sure. Support from so many people, encouraging me, knowing where I was running at all times, the right medication, the right weather, everything fell into place."
Van Hemert will donate all of the $2,500 prize money, with a portion going to the Muscatine Community YMCA in memory of Lisa Kuhn, a Muscatine woman who was struck and killed by a car while riding in a bicycle fundraiser in West Liberty, Iowa, on June 25.
The other portion will go to a Lutheran seminary in St. Louis, where her son, Thomas, is studying to become a minister.
Rogers' prize money is going to Genesis Hospice Care.
"It means everything to me," Rogers said. "When I crossed the finish line, there was a group of Genesis people, many of them dealing in hospice care and these are the people that medically, emotionally, physically take care of the terminally ill patients with serious illnesses and they do it with compassion. I’m very proud of them for the compassionate work they do and I’m proud to work for Genesis."
The last month has been nothing but positive for Van Hemert, and she said she is now confident enough in managing her health to resume running again as she once did before her health issues.
"It means that with the right people, with the right support, anything is possible when people set their minds to it and never give up," she said.
It's a much better ending than last year, when Beat the Elite runner Travis Allen collapsed about three blocks from the finish line due to heat exhaustion, and this year couldn't have gone any better for those involved.
"That's what Bix is all about, it's moved so many people in different ways," race director Ed Froehlich said. "Maybe you're heavy and you want to lose a little weight or you want to reach a goal, you can do all that here. Over the years, many people have told me how it's changed their lives."