Classy field set to contest Drak Challenge

9 January 2014

With the N3TC Drak Challenge set to serve as the 2014 South African K1 River Championships on 18 and 19 January, the event has drawn a field filled with world class talent, led by three-time Drak and marathon world champion Hank McGregor.

New champions are set to be crowned with last year’s men’s winner Graeme Solomon not expected to enter and women’s champion Michele Eray overseas coaching the United States national canoeing team.

McGregor missed the Drak Challenge last year because he was in Australia to contest the Perth Doctor Surfski World Cup in preparation for the ICF World Surfski Championships in Portugal. He had won the previous three Drak titles from 2010 to 2012.

With his close friend Grant van der Walt, a two-time under-23 marathon world champion, defending the title, the Durban-based star is looking forward to a tough battle for the honours. There will be many more tough paddlers to contend with, however.

Under-23 world champion

Andy Birkett, the under-23 marathon world champion, will be on the starting line. Thanks to a sponsorship from Euro Steel, the three-time Dusi champion is now able to concentrate full time on paddling and should be in excellent shape.

Birkett and his Dusi partner, Sbonelo Zondi, have both committed to the Drak Challenge, but they will lack the experience of some of the other contenders.

“This will be my first Drak in five years as it just hasn’t been a part of my Dusi build- up for the past few years,” Birkett said when he announced his entry in December.

“I usually prefer to train more and race less before Dusi, but this time I’ve learnt to use racing as part of my training. I’ve really enjoyed taking part in more races recently and I’m really looking forward to being back at Drak again too.”

‘The river is just amazing’

He also praised the picturesque race, saying: “The river is just amazing. Paddling through the gorge and some of those pools is just unbelievable. Even to be able to head up there before the race and trip that section is well worth it because it is just so beautiful with the mountains in the background, and the river is so much fun all the way down.

“The river, the venue, the clean water – it is just such a special setup up there in Underberg and all these factors make the Drak a really awesome event.”

‘Very technical’

Zondi, too, said he was looking forward to the Drak, even though it does not necessarily suit his skills’ set. “I enjoy the Drak because it is totally out of my strengths. There is no running with the boat in the Drak, like there is in Dusi, and the river is very technical, so I really enjoy the different type of challenge the Drak is for me.

“The race has a bit of everything. Day one is very technical and you have to drive the boat very well and then on day two you then have to prove your strength on the flatter sections. All in all it is very exciting.”

Late entry

Three-time champion Len Jenkins entered just before Wednesday evening’s deadline and could pose a threat, although there are suggestions that he might take on the race socially.

He won the event in 2004, 2006 and 2008 and held the race record until Grant van der Walt bettered it in flooded conditions last year. Jenkins finished second for the fourth year in succession.

Internationals

Czech star Jakub Adam, who will team up with former K2 marathon world champion Cam Schoeman for the Dusi Canoe Marathon, will add some international intrigue to the event, as will the Australian duo of Josh Kippin and James Morfitt.

The Australians have already competed in the Hansa Fish, Lowveld Croc and 50 Miler, as well as a number of surfski races in South Africa, but it will be a last South African event for Kippin. Morfitt could yet take on the Dusi, the Non-Stop Dusi and the Umkomaas Canoe Marathon.

Women’s race

Adam’s sister, Anna Adamova, who finished second in the K1 women’s class at the Marathon World Championships in September 2013 and third in the K2s, is an immensely powerful paddler and could pose a threat to the leading South African paddlers in the women’s division, but her lack of experience on the uMzimkhulu River around Underberg in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg will be against her. She will also arrive only days before the event.

Adamova, though, believes her Dusi partner Abby Adie should win the race. Adie has already won the Drak three times – in 2010, 2011 and 2013 – and will be aiming to become the first woman to win the event four times.

‘Unpredictable’

“I always enjoy myself up there so much,” she said just before Christmas. “The technical rapids are great and the unpredictable nature of the river, which this year’s (2013) flood showed once more, adds a real element of the unknown to the race.”

She also identified a number of other potential winners. “[Dusi champion] Robyn (Kime) is always a big factor and having not seen her paddling for a while, no one really knows just how strong she is at the moment.

“If it’s low then Hilary (Bruss) will be deadly through the technical stuff.

“Then, of course, there’s Michelle Burn who won KZN Mixed Doubles with her husband Ollie recently and is just so consistent on that river. With her surfski background, she is super strong, especially on the flat sections, and could well be up there as well.”

Dark horse

The dark horse, though, is Abbey Ulanksy (nee Miedema), a two-time winner of the Drak, who now lives in Canada. Ulanksy will arrive in South Africa only days before the race, so little is known of her preparations for a crack at the Dusi title with Robyn Kime, but her pedigree (seven Dusi titles) cannot be ignored.

The N3TC Drak Challenge 2014 starts on 18 January at Castleburn outside Underberg and finishes on 19 January at Early Mist Farm close to Coleford.