Andy Birkett won Day One of the 64th edition of the Dusi Canoe Marathon in the men’s race while the women’s race was won by Laura O’Donoghue on Thursday.
The opening stage of the Dusi was a frenetic one as records aplenty tumbled at the hands of a fierce contest at the front of the men’s field which ultimately saw four-time winner Birkett claim the race’s early advantage.
After a chaotic opening first few kilometres, normality finally returned on the Campbell’s Farm portage as pre-race title favourites Birkett, Lance Kime, Sbonelo Khwela and Thulani Mbanjwa – termed the ‘Fantastic Four’ ahead of this year’s 64th edition of the iconic 120km adventure – charged ahead of the chase pack.
The lead went back and forth between Kime, Birkett and Khwela throughout and ultimately stole the lion’s share of the limelight however all four put in powerful performances that saw the quartet all surpass the stage’s previous record, set by Khwela in 2013.
“I actually thought that Sbonelo was going to be about three minutes ahead by the end of the first stage and I also thought that Lance was going to beat me but I knew I had to try and just hang in there,” said Birkett afterwards.
“It’s great to take the record back from Sbonelo,” he chuckled. “Sbonelo took it from me two years ago and I was quite disappointed I’d lost it so it’s nice to have it back!”
Characterized by its lengthy portages and with Birkett entering the clash with a right ankle strain, many watched the opening stage curiously to see just how well the former Under-23 Marathon World Champ would fare in the middle and latter stages of the contest.
The young talent’s astute tactics once again shone through as he carefully marked K1 defending champion Kime and major stage one running threat Khwela before a surge over the final kilometers handed him a useful twenty-five second lead going into Friday’s 42km second stage.
“Lance (Kime) and I were together for the whole day right up until just before the finish. Sbonelo was ahead of us just after Campbell’s and Lance and I were just trying to push the pace to minimize the damage that Sbonelo inflicted on us on Guinea Fowl portage,” explained Birkett afterwards.
“We managed to catch him and from there we got to Finger Neck and Sbonelo put in just behind us and we managed to put in a little bit of time on him on the water.
“With my ankle and how little running training I have actually done I am stoked to be ahead on day one, I’m completely shocked to be honest!” he added.
Having worked well with Birkett throughout the stage, Euro Steel’s Kime crossed the line in second place ahead of an exhausted and somewhat disappointed Sbonelo Khwela (Euro Steel/Red Bull) in third.
““We always expected the portages to swing in the favour of Sbonelo; he’s a brilliant runner so that was expected,” said Kime. “Having seen Sbonelo’s form in the pre-races though, his paddling is also really strong so I didn’t expect that we would catch him so quickly on the water. Having two of us together did play a big role though; it’s easier both mentally and physically because you can ride each other’s wave!”
“This year all of the guys were really well prepared for the race and especially the paddling and I knew that I had to pick up my game with my paddling,” added Khwela. “My plan was to relax a bit on the paddle and make sure that there wasn’t too much of a gap so I could catch them on the run.”
“At Guinea Fowl I thought that it was my chance to put the hammer down and try make the guys struggle and I put in first after Geoff’s Road but just before Mission Rapid I don’t know what happened, my body just shut down and I started getting cramps in my arms.
“The guys caught me and I couldn’t even stay on their wave because I was so tired!”
As Khwela would know all too well after his stage three title challenge ending mishap, a lot of racing is still to be done and lots can still happen so the race is still alive.
For Birkett though, the buffer is a handy one as he now looks to fend off the charging chasers on Friday’s second stage.
“I’m going to have to paddle scared and instead of trying to chase the guys as I had thought I would have to do coming into the race. I have to try and keep what little lead I have,” said Birkett.
Albeit a little off the lead three’s pace, Build it/Williams Hunt’s Thulani Mbanjwa was fourth across the finish line ahead of an impressive Andrew Houston (Seed Co.) in fifth.
Yet another strong presence by Martin Dreyer’s Computershare Change a Life Academy paddlers in the overall top 20 was mirrored by the setup’s junior competitors as Mpilo Zondi and Msawenkosi Mtolo followed Michaelhouse’s Alan Houston across the line in the Under-18 boys race.
O’Donoghue seizes the moment
With a wide open women’s field at the 2015 Dusi Canoe Marathon, it was anyone’s game as the seeded women’s batch set off from Camps Drift on Thursday and it was O’Donoghue who powered to a commanding win in the opening stage while surprise-of-the-day Under-18 star Cana Peek ended second after a steaming hot day greeted paddlers.
O’Donoghue, who has three second place finishes to her name, had a slight mishap early in the race but managed to make up for it through the rest of the stage and is happy with the way the rest of the day panned out after her brief swim at Taxi Rapid.
“I had a really good day today and I am really excited by my result!” the Euro Steel ace said. “Tomorrow I still want to race as hard as I can but it is always nice to have a gap like this.
“I always knew that Day One was going to be my day to create a gap and so I raced as hard as I could and I am really happy with the result that I got,” a satisfied O’Donoghue mentioned.
The impressive Cana Peek, who is only in her first year of Under-18, managed to get through the day cleanly and the 16 year old felt that she could not have had a better day on the river with her second place overall coming as a welcome surprise.
“I definitely enjoyed today, it was a great day and I didn’t have any trouble besides for a few rudder issues at rapids but other than that it was the perfect day for me on the river,” she mentioned.
Young Peek felt the compulsory longer portage at Campbell’s Farm played into her hands as she revelled in the running more than the paddling during the day’s racing.
“The running for me was the best part because it gave me a chance to relax my shoulders and I was having a little bit of cramp in my right arm!”
Cana managed to cross the line just under eight minutes ahead of her older sister Jordan and beating her sibling was as much of a surprise as finishing second but capped off a great performance from the scholar.
“Beating Jordan was a bonus!” the Euro Steel athlete said. “We joked about it often but I didn’t think that I would ever beat my sister and then just by accident I took the win between us today!”
With a large deficit between herself and O’Donoghue, Peek has a strategy going into the next two days of racing but is not putting too much pressure on herself because she is aware that there is a lot of racing to still be done in the ladies race.
“I am going to just take the race as it comes but I do have a game plan for myself and I know which rapids are coming up and which portages I am going to do but I will take it as it comes because we know that anything can happen in this race,” the Epworth pupil said.
Nqumeni portage is always a talking point however the reopening of the original path won’t be an option for a strong downhill runner like Peek who sees the traditional route as an opportunity to get the long strides in on the less steep hill.
“If you are good at taking on the technical steep road then the original Nqumeni path will be an option but for me I like to stretch my legs on the longer downhill so I think I’m going to stick to the more traditional option so it won’t be a huge change,” a jovial Peek mentioned.
Jordan Peek claimed third spot on the podium while former adventure racer Jane Swarbreck finished fourth and the experienced Hilary Bruss (CPS Seedlings) rounded out the top five. The younger Peek sister naturally also claimed the Junior Girls stage win while her sister sits behind her in the Under 23 category.
The second stage of the Dusi Canoe Marathon takes place on Friday 20 February from Dusi Bridge to Inanda Dam. More information can be found at www.dusi.co.za
Day One results:
1.Andy Birkett 2:36.26
2.Lance Kime 2:36.51
3.Sbonelo Khwela 2:38.21
4.Thulani Mbanjwa 2:42.01
5.Andrew Houston (U23) 2:50.12
6.Zonele Nzuza 2:52.29
7.Owen Gandar 2:54.20
8.Murray Starr (U23) 2.54.22
9.Banesti Nkhoesa (U23) 2:54.22
10.Mhlonishwa Hlongwane (U23) 2:55.58
11.Jacques Theron 2:56.00
12.Carl Folscher 2:56.10
13.Murray Haw (U23) 2:56.54
14.Mthobisi Cele (U23) 2:59.30
15.Nqobile Makhanya (U23) 2:59.33
16.Richard Cele 2:59.58
17.Sboniso Shozi (U23) 3:00.41
18.Nhlanhla Cele 3:00.42
19.Alan Houston (U18) 3:00.55
20.Travis Wilson (U23) 3:02.04
1. Andrew Houston 2:50.12
2. Murray Starr 2.54.22
3.Banesti Nkhoesa 2:54.22
4.Mhlonishwa Hlongwane 2:55.58
5.Murray Haw 2:56.54
1. Alan Houston 3:00.55
2.Mpilo Zondi 3:04.05
3.Msawenkosi Mtolo 3:07.09
4.Thabani Msiya 3:08.09
5.Charles Houston 3:10.14
1.Emanuel Zaloumis 3:32.06
2.Tumelo Elephant 3:44.57
3.Alex Masina 3:47.55
1.Laura O’Donoghue 3:13:57
2.Cana Peek (U18) 3:30:21
3.Jordan Peek (U23) 3:38:11
4.Jane Swarbreck 3:40:51
5.Hilary Bruss 3:42:03)
6.Jenna Ward (U23) 3:43:30
7.Natasha Bulbring 3:53:27
8.Donna Tutton 3:56:11
9.Christie Mackenzie (U16) 3:58:08
10.Marion Young 4:05:17