Two Minnesota high school runners have emerged as heroes after being disqualified from the state cross-country race where they helped a competitor who fell.

Their act of kindness broke race rules and disqualified all three runners, but also unleashed a deluge of social media posts praising the girls and lambasting league officials who enforce the rules.

Kailee Kiminski, one of the state's top Class 1A runners and an Esko High School senior, and Tierney Winter, a Waterville-Elysian-Morristown High School junior, never expected such a public fuss over a simple act.

"It was just an opportunity to help someone," said Winter.

Winter, who started the race gunning for at least a top 25 finish but fell back at the end, was about 50 meters from the finish line Saturday at St. Olaf College in Northfield when Jessica Christoffer, a freshman from Jackson County Central, slowed, then stumbled to her knees.

Winter didn't think twice about helping a stranger. She stopped, lifted the girl to her feet. "We're almost done," she told her. "Come on. Let's finish this race. We're almost there."

And then Kiminski came along. A top runner who took eighth place in last year's state meet and won her sections race the last two years, she was aiming for a top-five finish this year, but had fallen behind the leaders. Seeing the struggling runners, she decided it wasn't about where she placed anymore.

"It's much bigger than just a race. It's more important to help people," she said.

Winter said a race official told her to let go of Christoffer because national race rules prohibit runners from interfering or aiding another runner. But neither girl was thinking about the rules. "I just didn't want to leave her," Winter said.

After crossing the finish line, the girls hugged. They weren't thinking about medals or race times or finishing strong. It was about being strong together.

They reveled in instant friendship. And then they learned they were disqualified.

"I'm OK," Kiminski said. "It's a rule."

Some social media posts touted the girls as role models, others criticized race officials for disqualifying them.

But Dave Stead, executive director of the Minnesota State High School League, explained that the national cross-country race rules are in place to ensure fair competition for everybody in the race.

And race officials made the "very difficult decision" to disqualify them. But the girls may be recommended for an award that recognizes athletes who go "above and beyond."

Already the single act of kindness has won more headlines than a state championship, said Esko High School principal Greg Hexum. "What inspires people about sport … is this other part, sort of the camaraderie that comes along with competing side by side."