FRIENDLY rivalries brought the best out of Zo Gardner and Bug Hall for surprise wins in the North Devon Schools Cross Country Championships.
Both athletes showed strength and stamina with last-lap flourishes to win the intermediate races at Kingsley School in Bideford.
They even surprised themselves by overhauling club-mates and training partners who have regularly beaten them in the past.
Bug was buzzing after crossing the line first in his "best race ever".
Ned Oliver, of Holsworthy, looked relaxed as he opened up a significant lead during the first half of the boys' race.
But Bug, representing West Buckland, found the energy for a storming finish over the testing terrain.
"When I was going up the hill on the last lap I thought there was nothing to lose and I just went for it," said Bug.
In his first year in the age group, he did not expect to pass Ned, who held on for second ahead of West Buckland's Xan Wesolowski.
"He usually beats me," said Bug. "He's a really good runner and it's a surprise that I beat him."
It was a similar story for Zo in the girls' race against Daniella Jewell, her friend from Bideford College and training partner at Bideford AAC.
"I have never beaten her before in a race and I have known her since primary school," said Zo. "It's probably the best race I have had around this course.
"It shouldn't have been that good because I didn't train this week – maybe that helped.
"It's my last year running for the school and I wanted to put in a lot of effort."
That effort was clear as she dug in through the trees to take the lead late on.
Daniella, crowned Devon under-17 champion five days earlier, had to settle for second, with Sara-Jane Vanstone, of Torrington, third.
The winding woodlands was the section of the course where many of the races were won and lost.
Miles Rees, of Ilfracombe College, timed his effort to perfection to become Year 7 boys champion.
After sitting in behind Toby Craven, of Torrington, and Sam Watts, of West Buckland, he made his move among the trees on the final lap.
Easing away from his rivals, the boy from Berrynarbor showed the finishing finesse needed for his preferred discipline of 800m on the track.
In the junior boys' race, Sean Hudson displayed the strength and energy he usually needs playing football in midfield for Barnstaple Youth.
The Braunton Academy pupil trailed West Buckland's John Morgan and Bobby Talbot-Adams, of Bideford College, as they entered the woods for the final time. But Sean kicked away from his rivals to open up a lead of eight seconds as he crossed the line.
Just six seconds had separated Holly Martin from Erin Silvester the previous Sunday at Exeter.
And Holly, of Holsworthy, held the edge this time, too, winning the Year 7 girls' race in style.
Erin, representing the Park Community School, was runner-up and Anna Downs, in third, gave Chulmleigh a podium place.
Martika Gallagher gave Park their best result of the day with a strong display of front running in the junior girls' race.
She held off the challenge of West Buckland's Annabel Heath and Eevee May Banbury, of Shebbear, her club-mates at North Devon AC, to win by eight seconds.
The turnout for the senior age groups was disappointing but the winners were motivated by their own personal rivalries.
"I didn't want to lose to a bunch of girls," said Ben Medland, who, as one of only three senior boys, was racing girls from the senior and inter categories.
Ben eased away from the field to give West Buckland their first victory of the day.
And the second followed moments later when Eva Matson, 16, brought the senior girls home – one place ahead of her twin Poppy. While Poppy is happier in the sprint events, Eva had the endurance to claim bragging rights.
"The whole family runs so we are very competitive," said Eva, who admitted she found the going tough
"It was awful. It was so tiring I thought I was going to die – but I pulled through."
Despite the muddy conditions, almost 300 athletes from 11 schools pulled through, getting stuck into some competitive racing over the popular course.