Sbonelo Khwela is a title contender and plans to hit his rival hard on land. He is also aiming to make history by becoming the first black man to win the Dusi K1 title. Picture: GAMEPLAN MEDIA/ANTHONY GROTE
Sbonelo Khwela is a title contender and plans to hit his rival hard on land. He is also aiming to make history by becoming the first black man to win the Dusi K1 title. Picture: GAMEPLAN MEDIA/ANTHONY GROTE

If the Dusi Canoe Marathon was an out-and-out paddling race, KwaZulu-Natal’s Hank McGregor would win it at a canter. But the 120km, three-day race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, beginning today, demands a lot more than paddling. McGregor, 38, will tell you that in no uncertain terms.

"The Dusi is not a paddling race. If it were, I think I would have won it a lot more than two times," said McGregor. "This race demands supreme fitness due to all the running.

" Factor in the technical component and all the unknowns and you get to understand what the Dusi is all about.

"For us locals, the race is part of our paddling culture.

"You could equate it to the Comrades Marathon.

"We enter because we don’t want to miss out on the adventure. But it does test you to the limit," McGregor said.

"I feel good and will give it my best even though deep down I don’t think I can win it. The running with the boat on the shoulders zaps the energy levels.

"But that doesn’t mean I won’t be trying to cross the line first on Saturday. I’ve got to pin my hopes on dealing my main rivals a blow when we’re paddling and then, when we portage, try and stay with the likes of Andy Birkett and Sbonelo Khwela who are both stronger runners than me ."

Eight-time world canoe marathon champion McGregor is seeded No1 after winning the final pre-Dusi Campbell’s Farm to Dusi Bridge race that included Birkett and Khwela.

Defending champion Birkett, who completed his first Dusi at the age of 13, is chasing a seventh win to draw level with Martin Dreyer. The late Graeme Pope-Ellis won 15 titles.

Birkett is the first man in the race’s 66-year history to post a winning time under eight hours, achieving the feat in 2015.

"Hank beat me and a number of Dusi contenders in the final warm-up race and that means I’m going to hedge my bets on the outcome, although I have been peaking at just the right time," Birkett said.

"Whoever pushes the right button at the key moments will probably end up crossing the line first in Durban.

"Running-wise, no problems… and the paddling is up where I want it to be. Now it’s just about staying relaxed and healthy and hoping for the best result," he said.

Local hope Khwela is aiming to become the first black paddler to win the solo K1 race.

"I’m ready to go, have been for a while now. My goal is to create a bit of history, but to do that means getting the better of Andy, who is the man to beat on past results," said the 29-year-old Shongweni resident.

"I’ve tasted success with him as my partner in the K2 section in 2014 and realised a dream, now we’re men alone vying for the same outcome. And then there’s Hank staking a claim on paddling skills alone. He’s a living legend. It’s going to be a huge thrill dicing him at running and paddling.

"My aim is to hit my rivals hard on land and then to let my paddling do the rest. I’m quietly confident, " he said.

The women’s race looks set to be a contest between Euro Steel teammates Abby Solms and Bridgitte Hartley, with the former chasing an elusive K1 title after she broke her Dusi duck in 2016 with a K2 victory.

Solms has won all her build-up races, making her the favourite for overall honours.

Hartley makes her K1 debut. She has been working very hard on familiarising herself with conditions and the unique challenge of portaging.

The first stage of the Dusi is from Camps Drift to Dusi Bridge and covers 42km.

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