Fire in the belly. Pepper-eating contest in Fort Mill was almost a dead heat.

Their eyes started watering around the time they ate the Peaches and Scream hot pepper. A glass of cold milk and a roll of paper towels sat next to the contenders. Sweat and tears ran down their faces.

Nearly a dozen pepper-eating stars from around the world made their way Saturday to Fort Mill for the inaugural Smokin’ Ed’s Pepper Eating Challenge at the Puckerbutt Pepper Company.

The most sought-after pepper, however, was Fort Mill’s own Carolina Reaper, the world record holder since 2013 as the world’s hottest pepper. Ed Currie, owner of Puckerbutt, stood proudly by as the contenders grimaced while they ate the Reaper.

Eleven competitors started the challenge with laughter and confidence. Their faces turned bright red and they started to sweat. As camera crews filmed a documentary about the event, an overheated competitor took off his shirt.

One-by-one, competitors dropped out. The crowd cheered.

The announcer told one participant that while he “so very, very impressed, he was also so very, very worried.”

As a scare tactic, the announcer told the group the pepper they were about to eat “tastes like hatred and pain and vitriol and evil.” A hot pepper chocolate bar didn’t ease the burn as they ate through a dozen rounds of peppers.

The two lone hold-outs, a man and a woman, raced to “clean their mouths” as they chewed swiftly. Dustin Johnson of Las Vegas finished his pepper seconds before Bella Peters of Cleveland, Ohio. Johnson won the $1,000 first prize and trophy that looked like a pepper.

While she didn’t take top prize, Currie decided Peters also deserved accolades and wrote her a check for $1,000.

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Tracy Kimball is a visual journalist for The Herald, covering York, Chester and Lancaster counties. She has worked at The Herald for 11 years. She graduated from Winthrop University and has lived in Rock Hill for 20 years.