Triple Dusi champ Andy Birkett entrenched his status as a Dusi pacesetter by winning The Unlimited Non-Stop Dusi on debut on Friday in a breathtaking second half solo charge to set up an 11-minute victory over the first K2 home, Under-23 stars Kwanda Mhlope and Lance Kime, while Robyn Kime won the women’s title, also in a K1, smashing an hour off the old record.
Birkett made a crucial break at a sneak portage that he had found going over Nqumeni Hill roughly halfway through the 110-kilometre race from Camps Drift to Durban that split up the front bunch and set up his solitary grind into the finish at Blue Lagoon.
“I had planned a lot of my race, but then, four days before the race I got a phone call from a veteran Dusi paddler, who I think knows the valley better than anyone else, telling me about this portage at Nqumeni, saying that this path was worth a minute and a half.”
“I had to race down into the valley after lectures one afternoon to check it out, and sure enough, it looked good,” he added.
During that stage of the race Birkett was locked in a fierce tussle with the crews of Lance Kime and Kwanda Mhlope and the pre-race favourites and defending champions Thulani Mbanjwa and Sbonelo Zondi.
“When we came to the Nqumeni Hill takeout I had to hold back so that the other two crews got ahead of me, and I was able to sneak into that path unseen. And yes, it worked!” he said.
Kime and Mhlope managed to stay in contact with Birkett, but Mbanjwa and Zondi fell out of contention, Mbanjwa battling with a persistent shoulder injury, and beset by ongoing technical problems with their boat.
Once he got a sniff of the lead Birkett paddled and ran his way to the front and steadily widened his lead, using the impressive conditioning base that helped him with The Unlimited Dusi title with Jason Graham just a fortnight before.
“None of us had enough time to properly recover from The Unlimited Dusi, but my running was really strong today which was pleasing. No-one goes through a race like this without going through bad patches. I went through five, and you just have to tell yourself to hang on, and focus on getting to Durban in one day, not about winning or records.”
Birkett was within reach of Hank McGregor’s K1 race record by the end of the haul across Inanda dam. However than dissolved when he overtook the mis-timed water release from Inanda dam after completing a lightning fast portage over the hill.
“My seconds told me that the record might be on, but I completely ignored it,” said Birkett. “All I wanted to do was finish the race in one day, and stayed focussed on that. When I overtook the water, it made the race even harder, but I like that. It made it even more of a challenge and put more pressure on me to stay focussed.”
Birkett’s meticulously worked out strategy for the race involved the use of a particularly light race boat that he was not able to drag on the portages like the other top contenders, and instead he lost some time on the long downhills by carrying his K1.
“It was a gamble all right having a light boat, and I had to nurse it. It was the right decision in the end and it was a brilliant boat to have for a race like this,” he added.
Team Best Kayak Centre colleagues Lance Kime and Kwanda Mhlope were ecstatic with their runners-up finish, and showered praise on the juggernaut K1 performance by Birkett.
“Andy is just a phenomenal athlete and what he’s done today is just incredible,” said Kime. “Coming into it we knew he would be right up there especially with him being such a strong runner, but we thought we might be able to get away from him on the river, which to a degree we did but he was just stronger and smarter than us today.”
The youngsters had to dig deep in the dying stages of the race as they were reeled in by the flying Trautmann brothers Kelvin and Matt.
“We blew a gasket going across the dam and were absolutely shattered towards the end,” said Kime. “At the N2 bridge we couldn’t believe it when we saw the Trautmanns just there. That extra adrenalin rush then got us going again and it was basically a flat out sprint to the finish line from there and we were very glad to finally get to Blue Lagoon.”
The result was another brilliant one for the Trautmann siblings who ground their way back into the top three in the second half of the race.
“We didn’t feel very good in the beginning,” said Kelvin Trautmann. “The plan was to try be up there at Guinea Fowl but the guys flew out the blocks and we were already four minutes behind at Guinea Fowl. It’s a long race though and whilst you’re obviously racing against others you’re actually only really racing against yourself. It’s all in your head.”
“We took out for the Burma Road portage with Craig Turton and Jasper Mock├® and by the time we got to the top of Burma we’d caught Thulani Mbanjwa and Sbonelo Zondi!” said Trautmann. “From then on it was all about trying to put the hammer down as much as possible and get out of sight of the others.
“It would have been great to have caught second place and if it had been a little longer maybe we could have,” he added. “But we were taking on water and just couldn’t quite close the gap. We finished second in our previous attempt but we were definitely quicker this time despite things being a whole lot hotter and there being less water this year.”
The women’s race quickly turned into a lopsided contest as K1 and K2 Dusi champ Robyn Kime staged a superb race to finish 14th overall in a gritty display of well paced paddling and running. The seasoned K2 crew of Debbie Germiquet and Carmen Blackeney finished second. Kime lopped an hour off the previous women’s K1 record set by Hilary Pitchford.
Maties student Kime stressed that she was also focused largely on finishing her first Non-Stop. “Its great to have won in my first outing but that definitely wasn’t the focus today. It’s such a tough race so there’s never a huge ladies field but just to have gotten to the finish is something I’m really chuffed with,” she said.
“I went out quite hard in the first five to 10 kilometres to try get ahead of the bulk of the field and then I latched onto a group’s wave but they were quite a bit faster than me so I had to drop off and then it was just a lonely day on my own where I just had to try focus on keeping going,” she said. “Its great though because it’s a lot slower than Dusi so you get to take in the beauty of the valley as your try settle into a steady rhythm and keep grinding away.
The record field of 121 boats, including a new record 30 K1s, were treated to good water and clear conditions early on. However as the heat became stifling and the the field started catching up the water releases, the race got tougher and more than two dozen crews either withdrew or failed to make the 2:30pm cut-off at the Inanda dam wall.
1 Andy Birkett 8:11.15
2 Lance Kime/Kwanda Mhlope 8:22.31
3 Matt Trautman/Kelvin Trautman 8:25.01
4 Thulani Mbanjwa/Sbonelo Zondi 8:39.10
5 Craig Turton/Jasper Mocke 8:45.57
6 Thomas Ngidi/Roland Smith 8:50.13
7 Lucas Mthalane/Loveday Zondi 9:07.36
8 Mark Mulder 9:10.23
9 Gavin Shuter/Zonele Nzuza 9:10.24
10 Trenton Lamble/Mark Michell 9:16.46
1st woman ÔÇô Robyn Kime 9:43:42 (14th overall)