KZN Marathoners head south for SA Champs challenge

After a record-setting performance last year, the KwaZulu-Natal team will again be out to dominate the South African Canoe Marathon Championships, which take place in the Western Cape this weekend.

In 2015, Pietermaritzburg’s Natal Canoe Club hosted the event and KZN paddlers walked away with 48 K1 medals and 18 national age group titles, to go along with 31 K2 medals and 12 national age group victories.

Among the gold medallists was Andy Birkett, the under-23 K1 marathon world champion in 2013, who edged out Hank McGregor, who had endured a long flight back from the Molokai Challenge in Hawaii, for the K1 title.

The Natal Canoe Club star won his sixth FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon crown earlier this year, when he and Lance Kime won in a record time, and will, no doubt, be keen to add another South African title at Zandvlei.

It’s going to be a tough challenge. McGregor, who missed the KZN Canoe Marathon Championships, because he had headed to Hawaii, where he won the Molokai Challenge, will be competing as an independent entry. And he is the three-time defending K1 champion of the ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships, having won in Copenhagen in 2013, Oklahoma City in 2014, and Győr, Hungary, last year.

McGregor had previously decided to skip the World Marathon Championships, but friends and family persuaded him to take on the South African Championships, which serve as the trials for selection to the national team.

“They said I should see if I can make the team, and then the World Champs are in September, and I could make the final decision before then.

“If I don’t go to trials, I won’t have that option. First of all, I have to see if I am good enough to make the team and then make a call after that. It’s one step at a time. If not, why not? At the moment, I feel as if I still have what it takes, so let’s hope I produce the goods.”

Birkett admitted it is hard to gauge what kind of form he is in ahead of the weekend’s racing, saying: “I don’t know. In marathon racing, it is always difficult to gauge if you are where you need to be. There is so much more to the racing than just fitness, in terms of tactics, so it’s not just about the training and how strong you are.”

He said he had, however, enjoyed being part of a strong group of paddlers training for the SA Champs. There has been a really nice group this year with [Czech star] Jakub [Adam], Jean [van der Westhuyzen], me and Louis [Hattingh], all pushing one another and all at very similar speeds. It has been beneficial to have a nice squad like that.”

Birkett and Hattingh lifted the K2 title at the KZN Championships and will team up again in Cape Town. They had spent barely any time together ahead of the KZN Champs, but have since managed to put in some time in the boat and there has been some improvement, Birkett said.

“We have played around with paddles. I wouldn’t say it has improved drastically, but I have had to get used to sitting in the back for a change. Just shut up and paddle hard!”

One of the reasons McGregor has decided to give the South African Championships a go is his K2 partnership with his good friend, Jasper Mocké, who lives in Cape Town. The pair won World Championships gold in 2014 and were silver medallists last year.

“Come down and have a fun weekend and see what happens and make a call after that,” McGregor said of teaming up with Mocké again.

Birkett has not paddled Zandvlei before – “It’s going to be a big surprise for me, whether it’s speed or wind or rain. Who knows? We will have to see” – but McGregor has. Conditions, he shared, could vary wildly.

“It is quite an exposed course, so depending on the weather, wind can turn it into a surfski-type race. It’s pretty much the first port of call when the wind hits Africa, coming from the South Pole. If it is windy, I think the surfski paddlers will definitely have an advantage.”

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