The thrilling N3TC Drak Challenge in partnership with FNB on the weekend served to give a very important perspective on the mental and physical preparation for the 2020 Dusi Canoe Marathon from 27-29 February, despite the fact that it is a Ki1 race on a different river.
Defending Dusi champion Andy Birkett rewrote the Drak history books after he won his seventh consecutive Drak Challenge title over the weekend and has now bumped himself further up to the tier of river legends in South Africa.
Not only does Birkett do it with a humble smile, he does it effortlessly and that is what his two day paddle down the Mzimkhulu River looked like as he coasted to a lopsided seven minute victory over long-time rival and friend Hank McGregor.
Significantly for Birkett however, was the performance of his Dusi partner on the second day of the Drak Challenge.
Khumbulani Nzimande produced a monumental effort to rise three places from eighth overnight to fifth overall by posting the second fastest time on the final stage, helping him to his best result at the Drak Challenge.
One of the year’s most consistent paddlers has been Stew Little and despite him finishing in fourth this year at the Drak Challenge there is no doubt that the Dusi is the main goal for the Underberg local.
His Dusi partner Jacques Theron finished inside the top ten which underscores that they are in good shape with four weeks until the Dusi kicks off at Camps Drift.
Another K2 crew that showed they are hitting their straps at the right time are the Houston brothers, Alan and Andrew.
They finished fourth and fifth respectively at the Drak Challenge and they will be a threat at the Dusi this year and could well push for a podium should they stay fit throughout the race.
From a women’s perspective despite Jenna Ward’s dominance of the two days, there was one performance that stood out and might sound a few alarm bells for the leading Dusi combinations.
Sprint queen Bridgitte Hartley put in a ferocious display on day two where she blitzed her way up the field to finish in third place overall after a disappointing open day on Saturday left her a distant sixth. She produced the fastest time by a woman by five minutes on Sunday’s second stage.
In addition to getting her onto the podium for the fourth time in successive years, Dusi pundits are ramping up talk of her combination with Tracey Oellermann.
The Drak also gave us another glimpse into the form of Dusi K1 champion Christie Mackenzie. Mackenzie had to fight off a resurgent Hartley but managed to seal second spot behind Ward which again shows that she is in fine form.
The concern for Mackenzie is that her partner Cana Peek hasn’t been in racing mode as of yet. However with a 2018 winner’s medal Peek understands what it takes to win the Dusi.
Also outing their hands up this past weekend were Tamika and Bianca Haw.
Both are renowned for their running ability but they both showed that they can mix it up with the paddlers as Tamika finished fourth and Bianca sixth.
This result will give them confidence that they can compete with the best women paddlers but they are also strong runners which might give them a slight edge.