South Africa’s iconic Dusi Canoe Marathon, one of the largest in the world and covering 120 kilometres between Pietermaritzburg and Durban over the course of three days, starts Thursday and finishes Saturday.
A fascinating duel is expected in the men’s race, while a new women’s champion is set to be crowned. The event, now into its 64th edition, alternates between K1 and K2 races. This year it is the turn of the K1s and the two men most favoured to lift the prestigious title this time around were partners in 2014 when they powered to an impressive victory in their K2: four-time champion Andy Birkett and Sbonelo Khwela.
Multiple marathon world champion Hank McGregor has opted to paddle the event with his wife, Pippa, this year, so that leaves him out of the title equation. Yet, even if he was chasing the title, he would be less favoured than either Birkett or Khwela. That’s because of the unique challenge the Dusi poses, with lengthy portages, some optional and some compulsory, making it a canoe marathon unlike any other. The powerful McGregor is less suited to the nature of the Dusi than either Birkett or Khwela.
Birkett has been in strong form early in the season, recording a number of victories. His focus on marathon racing over the past two years has made him a much improved paddler. He is also a good runner, but Khwela is feared for his running ability and is a strong paddler too.
Having prepared for the Dusi together last year, they have huge respect for one another and even they fear one another. ‘Wow, it is a much scarier task now that I know him so well, now that I know he is such a tough bugger, and I know he is so strong mentally,’ Birkett reckoned.
The battle between the duo, who share a sponsor in Euro Steel, should be tight and it is one that is being eagerly awaited by canoeing fans. However, they are far from assured winners; the Dusi has a way of throwing a spanner in the works. In fact, that happened in the last K1 race in 2013 when Lance Kime took advantage of swims taken by Birkett and Khwela to claim a surprise victory.
Then, last year, he partnered with 2008 K2 winner Thulani Mbanjwa and was expected to challenge for the title, but a rudder problem shortly after the start took them out of the running.
Kime cannot be discounted again. He offers a well-balanced package, while Mbanjwa, who had gone off the boil a little in recent years is back in form and could upset the applecart. Again, it cannot be stated enough: in the Dusi, because of the nature of the race and the terrain, anything can happen.
Khwela and Mbanjwa came out of the development ranks, which have produced many fine competitors over the years and those ranks can once again can be expected to make up at least half of the top 20 finishers.
When Kime won the men’s race in 2013, it was a truly historic feat as his sister, Robyn, emerged as the women’s winner. This time, though, she has not entered the race. Neither has her K2 winning partner of 2014, multiple champion Abbey Ulansky. Czech star Anna Adamova, who teamed up with five-time runner-up Abby Adie last year, has not returned for another crack at the title, while Adie has opted for a social paddle with her father. That leaves the women’s race wide open.
A number of other leading contenders are also out of the running: Jen Theron, who finished third in 2013, is pregnant. Jenna Ward, third at the ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships in Oklahoma City last year in the under-23 age category is preparing for the Absa Cape Epic mountain bike race, as is Bianca Haw, who placed fifth as an Under-18 paddler in the last K1 Dusi.
In their absence Abby Adie’s fellow Natal Canoe Club star Laura O’Donoghue, who teamed up with Adie to finish sixth in the women’s K2 race at the 2014 ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships, is well positioned to put in a strong challenge for the title. An excellent all-round athlete, she has the make-up to fare well in the Dusi. Adding motivation to her challenge is that the event will be her last competitive one as she is soon to make a move to Zambia.
Standing in her way will be a number of Natal Canoe Club paddlers, including the very experienced Hilary Bruss (CPS Seedlings), Brittany Petersen, Jordan and Cana Peek, and Tamika Haw, who placed third with her sister Bianca in a K2 last year.
Bruss (nee Pitchford) is the most experienced of that quintet, having finished on the Dusi podium previously. She was also the winner of the Classic Marathon World Series in 2011, and looks the most likely to battle O’Donoghue for the title.
Whatever happens, the 2015 Dusi Canoe Marathon will throw up two very different, but two very interesting title clashes for the men’s and women’s title.
Picture of Birkett, Khwela is courtesy of Anthony Grote/Gameplan Media