At the starting line of this year’s Pittsburgh Marathon, Laura Mazur and Jessica Robertson were total strangers. By the finish, they had forged a bond that elevated the souls − and soles − of runners, athletes, sports fans and the general public.

The marathon was a first for Jessica, who lives in Pittsburgh. For the first 12 miles, she ran with a supportive group of friends and family who entered the half-marathon. But when the group turned toward the finish line after mile 12, she was alone and realized how daunting the second half would be.

“I started crying,” she said. “I told myself this was the stupidest idea I ever had. I started spiraling.”

Laura, who lives more than four hours away in New Bremen, Ohio, was a veteran of a dozen marathons. Injuries set her training back, though, so she wasn’t surprised to be running off her pace. In fact, she thought she was the last runner because she could hear the support vehicles behind her.

“Once they get so close, you look back every now and then,” Laura said. “That’s when I saw her, right in front of the last police car, walking. I said, ‘Girl, get up here. It helps to share this with someone.’ I told her I’d finished before and I’d finish again.”

But Laura wouldn’t stop running, which forced Jessica to jog to her. “We promised that we wouldn’t leave each other and said, ‘Let’s do this,'” Jessica said.

The next 12 or so miles included the women swapping words of encouragement and FaceTiming with Jessica’s mom for extra support. “What a sweet lady,” Laura said.  Jessica said she shed “tears at nearly every water stop. The people were so kind.”

Among the kindest were members of the Steel City Road Runners at Mile 25, offering hugs and cheers. One of them snapped a photo just as the pair decided to hold hands all the way to the finish line. Everyone thought they were old friends, rather than simply fast friends – in a manner of speaking.

The photo and a video of the two crossing together went viral as a testament to the power of friendship and camaraderie under adversity. But as Laura noted, “I didn’t even know Jessica’s last name until I was talking to her mom after the race and wanted to have a way to find her on Facebook.”

Jessica’s only goal was to cross the line, “to show my daughter that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. Little did I know that this would go viral or I’d have a new friend or that so much good could come out of signing up for a marathon. I didn’t expect the love.”

The pair scheduled a reunion a month after the race “to talk about it without the stress of the race, in real clothes, not all sweaty,” Laura said. They’re planning to run together again, though they hadn’t decided on a race. They’ve kept in touch long-distance but looked forward to a second reunion at the Musials.

“People need to look for the positive in life more and recognize it more. They don’t see it as much as they used to,” Laura said. “It’s great to put something positive out there and get people inspired over an event, or even just a little moment.”