20 February 2012
Defending champions Andy Birkett and Jason Graham won The Unlimited Dusi canoe marathon title in emphatic fashion on Saturday after turning in a superlative performance of running and paddling on the 36-kilometre final stage from Inanda Dam to Blue Lagoon in Durban.
Hank McGregor and Len Jenkins had to settle for second place, with the ‘Dream Team” of Thulani Mbanjwa and Sbonelo Zondi in third.
The three-day event covers 120 kilometres and is raced between Pietermaritzburg and Durban on the Umsindusi and Umgeni rivers. It is one of the largest canoe marathons in the world, and regarded as one of the toughest.
After a meticulously constructed preparation campaign and a flawless three days of racing by the pair affectionately known as “Team Fun”, Birkett and Graham extended their overnight four-minute lead to a final margin of victory of nine minutes, giving Birkett his third Dusi title in a row.
The duo celebrated their win in trademark fashion by standing up in their kayak as they crossed the line and diving into the waters of Blue Lagoon.
During the three days of the race, the pair clinically mastered the full rivers, taking some brave lines down dangerous rapids such as Tops Needle, before a Herculean run over the notorious Burma Road portage put the result beyond question.
“Graham has shown such incredible commitment the whole way through training and especially over the past three days and I cannot thank him enough for everything he has put in to getting us to where we are today,” said Birkett. “We are thrilled with the win and to have shared it with Jas has been so awesome!
“Also, a huge thanks must go to the rest of the guys who gave us such a tough time throughout the race. Day one was one of the toughest days of racing I have ever experienced with the lead changing hands seven times, which just goes to show how tough it really was out there.
“It was awesome to be able to race against guys like this and it definitely makes the win that much sweeter.
“There are lots of things which can go wrong in Dusi and Jason and I were very lucky the entire way this year and didn’t have any issues,” Birkett added. “We took a couple of risks today, which we probably didn’t have to, but I’m glad we did because it was loads of fun.
“I am definitely glad it’s all over now, though, and that I don’t have to get up at three o’clock tomorrow morning to go train, but it has been a fantastic journey with Jason.”
Having tried to convince his younger partner to opt for a younger talent after their 2010 victory, Graham was flattered that Birkett insisted he wanted to paddle with “Gramps” again and it once more proved to be a rewarding decision for both paddlers.
“I like to think it was a mature decision by Andy, but I said to him shortly after the finish that this is now most definitely the last time!” insisted Graham.
“It’s been an incredible experience and to have beaten the reigning marathon world champ, the freakish talents on Len (Jenkins) and the phenomenal running abilities of Thulani (Mbanjwa) and Sbonelo (Zondi), it was just such a great race and I’m just so chuffed with how everything worked out for us.”
Despite giving it their all, Birkett’s Team Best 4 Kayak Centre team-mates Hank McGregor and Len Jenkins simply had no answers to the leader’s relentless onslaught and instead had to turn their attention to maintaining their second place as Thulani Mbanjwa and Sbonelo Zondi launched a remarkable charge through the middle section of the final day.
“I thought we had a really good Burma portage. We managed to run almost the entire way to the top, but by the time we got to the bottom I could not believe it when I turned around and saw Bungee (Thulani Mbanjwa) and Sbonelo right there!” said Jenkins.
“We had a great race, though, and well done to Birkie and Jason on their fantastic race,” he added.
McGregor was just as astonished by the effort of Mbanjwa and Zondi, who ran like men possessed up the notorious Burma Road portage.
“With Len dragging the boat, I was running behind, and when you’re out there your senses become very alert, and suddenly I heard the sound of a rudder blade coming up behind us, and I simply could not believe it!” said McGregor. “Bungee and Sbonelo were running with the boat like they’d stolen it! It was absolutely incredible!
“We got a massive fright when they put in right behind us and from then we knew we had to go flat out. Luckily we managed to get away from Bungee and Sbonelo again and come home second, but well done to them!
“We tried our hardest and had a really good race, but at the end of the day we were just out-paced, out-raced and out-run! Andy and Jason deserve their win through and through and it’s an honour to have come second to two great champs,” he concluded.
A special effort on the final day may not have been enough to put Mbanjwa and Zondi back in the hunt for title they would have so dearly loved to win, but their closing stage performance will leave a far sweeter taste in taste in their mouths after a disappointing and frustrating first two days.
“It has been a really disappointing Dusi this year for us. We had really hoped to do a lot better, so it was unfortunate we had so many issues on the first two days, but we had a great day today and we are really happy with how we finished,” said Mbanjwa.
“Third is not ideal, but it is definitely a lot better than fourth, which is where we started the day, so I guess we can at least take that out of it,” he added.
Having combined for the first time in last year’s The Unlimited Non-Stop Dusi, the Mbanjwa and Zondi pairing is still relatively new to the paddling world. However, all the signs indicate a promising future for the duo.
“I’m so grateful that Thulani agreed to paddle with me this year. He is such a great guy and knows so much, and I have learnt so much from him over the past few months,” said Zondi.
After their valiant day two effort the under-23 crew of Lance Kime and Kwanda Mhlope couldn’t hold off the challenge of Mbanjwa and Zondi on the final day but came home in a deserved fourth place and in the process sounded a warning of what may lie ahead for the two talented youngsters.
In the ladies’ race Team Best 4 Kayak Centre’s Robyn Kime and Abbey Ulansky smashed the overall race record to go with their new stage records on each of the two preceding days as they cruised to a second victory in a row. Their team mates, Abby and Alex Abby finished second, ahead of the experienced crew of Debbie Germiquet and Carmen Blakeney.
“It’s been a great three days for us and it’s really great to have won. It’s been such a privilege to have paddled with Abbey again,” said Kime. “She knows the river so well and I have learnt a lot from her tactics, especially with her having been mentored by Graeme Pope-Ellis.
“We started off with some faster guys today and so fell off the wave quite early on, but we felt really good, so we decided to run Burma,” said Ulansky.
“Robyn then drove beautifully yet again, but we decided not to risk it too much, and so we portaged Pumphouse Weir – it just wasn’t worth the risk – and then got together with a couple of other boats over the last little stretch home.”
Despite having achieved a convincing victory on only two months of training, it is unlikely Ulansky will be back in the boat again for next year’s K1 race. However, a return at some stage is almost a certainty for the Dusi Queen.
“It’s been great to have come out here (from Canada). I’ve had a great time with Robs (Kime) and it’s been fantastic to have stayed with Wendy Pope-Ellis on her farm again,” said Ulansky.
“I’m really pleased I came and, who knows, maybe one day I can come back with my husband and take on Robs in the mixed doubles race, but for now I think I’ll hand over my crown,” she chuckled.
Murray Haw and James Speed put in a remarkable performance on the final day as they moved up a further place to finish eleventh overall and deservedly claimed the under-18 boys’ title ahead of schoolmates Donavan Wewege and Murray Starr.
In the junior girls’ section, Bianca Haw and Jordan Peek led from start to finish and finished fourth in the women’s race as well.
- Andy Birkett/Jason Graham 7:43.02
- Hank McGregor/Len Jenkins 7:51.58
- Thulani Mbanjwa/Sbonelo Zondi 7:54.24
- Lance Kime/Kwanda Mhlope (u23) 7:59.23
- Craig Turton/Jasper Mocke 8:01.47
- Shaun Rubenstein/Steve Farrell 8:12.27
- Shaun Biggs/Ben Biggs 8:15.12
- Piers Cruickshanks/Mike Stewart 8:17.28
- Lucas Mthalane/Mmeli Cele 8:19.06
- Mark Mulder/Dave Chaplin 8:21.57
- Robyn Kime/Abbey Ulansky 8:41.59
- Abby Adie/Alex Adie (U23) 8:59.25
- Debbie Germiquet/Carmen Blakeney 9:31.16
- Bianca Haw/Jordan Peek (U18) 9:48.17
- Tamika Haw/Jen Hodson 9:52.13
- Brittany Petersen/Kerry Shuter 10:16.29
- Jenna Ward/Kerry Segal 10:20.41
- Mandy Rawlins/Debbie Lewis 10:42.58
- Lorna Oliver/Angela Scruby 11:00.09
- Diana Rietz/Nicky Taylor 11:54.11
- Lance Kime/Kwanda Mhlope 7:59.23
- Brandon van der Walt/Clinton Cook 8:29.46
- Skhumbuso Ngidi/Nkosikayise Cele 8:38.04
- Abby Adie/Alex Adie 8:59.25
- Jenna Ward/Kerry Segal 10:20.41
- Murray Haw/James Speed 8:24.19
- Murray Starr/Donovan Wewege 9:08.44
- Nqobile Makhanya/ Sboniso Shozi 9:11.27
- Bianca Haw/Jordan Peek 9:48.17
- Brittany Petersen/Kerry Shuter 10:16.29
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