Andy Birkett bagged a fifth consecutive win at the N3TC Drak Challenge on Sunday to equal Ant Stott’s record for the most overall race wins.
Birkett raced away from his FNB Dusi partner Hank McGregor in a gruelling duel on the lowest river in the race’s 25-year history.
He started the day with a two-minute lead over McGregor, thanks to a split-second incident in the Underberg Gorge on Saturday, and on the shortened 19-kilometre final stage he ground away relentlessly to take his fifth title by almost three and a half minutes.
‘I was looking over my shoulder to see how far back Hank was,’ said a delighted Birkett at the finish. ‘In one of the long pools I was counting my strokes to try and work out how far behind me he was. The gap stayed at around two minutes, but I think Hank must have made a mistake or two because I managed to get ahead around the Heaven and Hell rapid.
‘It’s probably better to be on your own when you are racing on a low river because you can concentrate on picking your own lines,’ he added.
Birkett said that it had been a pleasure to be racing against the man he will be partnering in the FNB Dusi in a few weeks’ time. ‘It has been really nice racing against him, and training with him,’ he said.
Lance Kime was rock steady in third, as he had been for the entire race, while Carl Folscher had a blinder on the final stage, leapfrogging up to fourth overall.
The women’s title race captivated the massive crowd that flocked into Underberg for the weekend of paddling, trail running and mountain biking events.
Jenna Ward started the final stage from Callaway bridge to Hopewell Farm alongside 2012 winner Robyn Owen, making a comeback to domestic river marathons as part of her preparations for the upcoming Coast-To-Coast adventure race in New Zealand.
Ward and Owen slugged it out on the taxing low river, often duelling for the prized slip on a bunch of male paddlers taking part in the race. Owen managed to get the advantage of getting clear of Ward early on, but the tenacious Ward ground back on her own.
Ward was then able to exploit a similar opportunity later in the race to get clear of Owen, and then concentrated on not making any mistakes in the Lower Gorge to claim the women’s title to go with her Berg and Fish titles.
‘It’s taken me 10 years to finally win the Drak!’ she gushed at the finish. ‘It was just a matter of focusing on your own race because there were so many rapids you could get stuck in. If you lost concentration it would have been over,’ she explained.
‘I got stuck behind one of the guys in one of the rapids at the top and Robyn managed to pull away from me. I thought my race was over but it took two kilometres of hard paddling to catch back up.
‘Then another group of guys came past us and I managed to get onto their wave and she didn’t. That gave me a hundred metres gap and I pretty much kept that down to the finish.
‘Those are the opportunities that you have to take advantage of,’ explained Ward.
She added that women’s canoeing was enjoying a boom, with a large number of female athletes contesting every major paddling event. ‘It was super to have Robyn back with us, it is so great for the sport, and makes the event so much more exciting for everyone,’ she said.
Ward added that the win was a massive confidence booster going into the final few weeks of the build-up to the FNB Dusi next month.
‘This was really the first time that I could judge myself against the other girls, because I have been racing mixed doubles while I’m waiting for my Dusi partner Vandi Kizsli to arrive from Hungary,’ said Ward.
Maties student Alan Houston topped off his birthday weekend by winning the U23 men’s crown, while in the U23 women Christie Mackenzie was the strongest paddler in the tough low river and managed to edged ahead of Cana Peek on the final stage to take the top honours.
The junior boys trophy was won by Maritzburg College’s David Evans, while Epworth’s Cara Waud took the girls equivalent from a highly competitive field of schoolgirls.
Pictures of Birkett, Ward and the low-level uMzimkhulu river courtesy of Anthony Grote/Gameplan Media
Stage and overall time
1 Andy Birkett 1hr 21min 18.69sec, overall time 2:44:24.35
2 Hank McGregor 1:22:41.13 2:47:45.73
3 Lance Kime 1:24:40.66 2:49:51.13
4 Carl Folscher 1:23:36.23 2:51:22.59
5 Siseko Ntondini 1:24:16.73 2:51:44.88
6 Sbonelo Khwela 1:23:50.16 2:51:46.04
7 Ant Stott 1:24:34.15 2:52:01.02
8 Alan Houston 1:25:31.84 2:55:17.36
9 Andrew Houston 1:25:31.38 2:55:18.57
10 Msawenkosi Mtolo 1:25:55.17 2:57:07.69
11 Adrian Boros 1:26:15.50 2:57:23.90
12 Stewart Little 1:27:29.39 2:57:35.07
13 Banetse Nkhoesa 1:25:06.26 2:58:20.73
14 Jason Graham 1:25:51.11 2:58:21.43
15 David Evans 1:28:41.44 3:00:32.89
16 Mmeli Cele 1:30:45.70 3:02:36.50
17 Brandon Van Der Walt 1:27:14.18 3:02:42.26
18 Loveday Zondi 1:30:57.73 3:04:24.83
19 Nqobile Makhanya 1:28:46.61 3:04:25.50
20 Craig Heenan 1:29:35.14 3:04:52.83
1 Jenna Ward 1:33:42.93 3:09:10.50
2 Robyn Owen 1:35:09.98 3:10:36.60
3 Bridgitte Hartley 1:36:46.77 3:16:21.79
4 Christie Mackenzie (U23) 1:36:45.27 3:16:23.03
5 Cana Peek (U23) 1:39:25.50 3:18:38.32
1 Alan Houston 1:29:45
2 Stewart Little 1:30:05
3 Maswenkosi Mtolo 1:31:12
1 Christie Mackenzie 1:36:45.27 3:16:23.03
2 Cana Peek 1:39:25.50 3:18:38.32
3 Jordan Peek 1:48:32.16 3:35:52.24
1 David Evans 1:28:41.44 3:00:32.89
2 Hamish Mackenzie 1:34:13.84 3:06:17.98
3 Sam Butcher 1:34:15.47 3:13:08.63
1 Cara Waud 1:47:07.84 3:37:53.82
2 Amy Peckett 1:46:56.77 3:37:53.97
3 Cayleigh Shaw 1:51:26.34 3:50:39.31