Eric Ashton surged down the final stretch of the race course into Habersham Marketplace, briefly the only runner in view.
The Columbia resident's victory Saturday in the 8-kilometer race at the Beaufort Twilight Run looked easier than the start would have suggested. Ashton and friendly rival Jay Upchurch, who have battled in numerous races the past five years, ran together for close to 2 miles Saturday before Ashton pulled away.
The 45-year-old Ashton, who won the 8K for the second consecutive time, finished in 25 minutes, 18 seconds, besting his 2012 time by almost 20 seconds. Upchurch finished in 25:35 after not competing in the race the previous year.
"This year was a little more competitive," Ashton said. "We were pretty much stride for stride the first mile and a half."
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Michelle LaFleur, a 40-year-old from Savannah, finished seventh overall in the 8K and was the top female finisher.
The fifth-annual Twilight Run, which added a 5-kilometer race in 2011 and this year introduced the Beaufort Challenge for runners to race both distances back-to-back, avoided the poor weather that plagued the area earlier in the day, and runners enjoyed cooler temperatures than past years.
Mo Love, a Savannah resident, won the inaugural Beaufort Challenge, finishing the 5K in 18:02 and the 8K in 29:47. The 33-year-old, a former collegiate runner from Michigan, now trains for several races each year. He said running both races Saturday provided a nice workout.
"I thought it would be a nice challenge," Love said. "I thought it would be fun."
Ashton and Upchurch picked up where they left off previous races. Upchurch remembers vividly the time he outkicked Ashton down the stretch of the 2011 Cooper River Bridge Run to finish with a better time.
But the James Island resident said Ashton has been the more consistent runner.
"He's just running really strong," Upchurch said. "The pace was a little too hot for me, so I had to back it off. And he got me."
Bluffton's Seth Tucker, who finished third in the 8K, earned an award for being the top local finisher. The 26-year-old from New York, who ran at Ithaca College, competes as part of a racing team from Palmetto Running Company, which has locations in Beaufort and Bluffton.
Tucker was running the Beaufort race for the fourth time.
"I love this course a lot,' he said. "It's really picturesque."
Prizes were awarded for winners in each age group, as young as ages 1-9. Seven-year-old Beaufort resident Jack Sumner won his age group in the 8K, finishing in 43:40. He raced for the first time at age 5 and ran a 5K back in January.
The racing melted into an afterparty, with live music and an oyster roast after the sun went down. Host Robert Espinoza presented Riverview Charter School students with a check for $50,000, representing money raised from the 2013 event.
The race and oyster roast had raised more than $100,000 for the school the first four years, according to race organizers.
And the race has repeat business.
Ashton and Upchurch were among those who vowed to be back in future years.
"They've definitely got something special, that's for sure," Ashton said.
Note: Results from Saturday's Beaufort Twilight Run will be available at www.beauforttwilightrun.com.