In what is being billed as the most competitive field for a K1 title ever, the elite paddlers lining up for the start of The Unlimited Dusi Canoe Marathon in Pietermaritzburg on 14 February will all have one eye on triple champion Andy Birkett, who has entered his familiar pre-Dusi zone, poised to become the first paddler since 1977 to win four back-to-back Dusi titles.
The happy-go-lucky 23-year-old sheds his impish demeanour at the same time as he shaves off his mop of curly hair, entering a highly focused and meticulously planned routine keeping him away from the limelight in the run up to the race, and allowing him to execute a plan that he has made his top priority of the year.
What gives his opponents in the star-studded field even more cause for concern is the fact that Birkett has changed his training regime to allow him to cherry-pick the parts of the build-up that worked best for him in his three previous victories.
“I have looked at my past training programs, and I have tried to take what I like from each year. If you stop making changes, you stop improving, and I feel like I still have room to move forward,ÔÇØ said Birkett.
The Team Best 4 Kayak Centre star is passionate about striking a balance between hard work in training, and having fun on the river. “The minute it stops being fun then I will quit,” he said.
Birkett shot to stardom with his Maritzburg College coach Jason Graham in 2010, when they outsmarted a strong field to clinch the K2 title. Graham, who is 10 years older than Birkett, defied the pundits by retaining their K2 title last year in a lopsided win over Hank McGregor and Len Jenkins.
In between however Birkett has steadily carved a place for himself in Dusi folklore, winning the K1 title in 2011, and then cementing that by winning on debut at the tough The Unlimited Non-Stop Dusi last year, where he won outright in a K1 kayak in another clinically executed strategy.
This year Birkett will line up against a brutally tough field in A batch that includes former Dusi winners Ant Stott, Thulani Mbanjwa, Len Jenkins and Hank McGregor, as well as his old friend Graham, together with Sbonelo Zondi, Shaun Rubenstein, Cam Schoeman, with substantial pressure from the emerging youngsters like Lance Kime, Don Wewege, Kwanda Mhlope, Gavin Shuter and Murray Starr, as well as the Czech Republic stars Jakub Adam and Michael Odvarko.
Birkett however, much like Graeme Pope-Ellis, who was the last person to win four back-to-back titles during his reign as the Dusi King, will be unphased by the intensity at the start, and will instead back himself to attack at key stages on each of the three stages. Many of these will be portages like Campbell’s Farm, Cabbage Tree and the notorious Burma Road portage on the final stage.
Birkett likes to play his cards close to his chest as the summer season builds towards The Unlimited Dusi. He didn’t get drawn into a scrap with Jenkins and McGregor in the Best 4 Healthcare 50 Miler, and has been conspicuously low key in all of his pre-Dusi races.
However the full 120-kilometre km race requires a unique balance of strong river skills, intimate course knowledge, exceptional running ability with the boat, and speed and guts across flatwater to triumph. Birkett, who is also an adventure racer with Team Jeep, has the balance of skills to compete in all these departments. His record over the past three years underscores that.
He enters next week’s race seeded fourth, due to his conservative tactics in the Dusi seeding races. Every elite paddler knows that the defending champion, poised on the brink of a fourth consecutive win, will be the man to beat.
The Unlimited Dusi starts on 14 February at Camps Drift, and ends at Blue Lagoon in Durban on 16 February.