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The 60th edition of the Berg River Canoe Marathon gets under way in Paarl on Thursday morning with a field brimming with enthusiasts keen to test themselves over the four days and 240km to the West Coast fishing town of Velddrif.
As the race celebrates its sixth decade of existence, it continues to evolve and adapt, embracing its traditions while conforming to the strict Covid-19 protocols negotiated with Canoeing SA to enable the milestone edition of the race to take place, after the 2020 race was cancelled due to hard lockdown regulations.
Among the changes, the race now starts on a Thursday instead of a Wednesday, and the first overnight stop on the opening stage is at Delsma Farm instead of Zonquasdrift, affording the race better facilities and amenities and making the stages more equal in length.
The race date had to be rolled out by a month as the nation went into its third-wave hard lockdown, forcing elite athletes to tailor their training plans, while affording the more social Berg paddlers an extra month in which to train.
The fields for the men’s and women’s titles are the strongest in many years, as the attraction of winning the plum 60th edition Berg titles and the generous prize pool has lured the elite paddlers to Paarl.
Hank McGregor reshaped the men’s race when he put in his entry a few weeks ago. The nuggety 42-year-old star is not only the race’s most decorated champion but also an 11-times marathon world champion. After a frustrating 18 months during which swathes of events have been cancelled under the lockdown, he is hungry to compete in one of his favourite races.
Between McGregor and a 12th Berg title lie 240km of river full from the winter rains and a field loaded with former champions.
East Londoner Andy Birkett will be hard to beat. The 2014 Berg winner is also a former world champion, and after being dumped out of the national marathon team at the nationals in Cape Town has set his sights on the 2021 Berg title with ominous determination.
Both will be pushed hard by 2019 Berg champion and current national marathon champion Hamish Lovemore. The under-23 star is McGregor’s training partner at Blue Lagoon in Durban, and it will be fascinating to see whether they form an alliance to control the front of the race.
Early on, the front bunch is also likely to include elite racers Jasper Mocké, former winners Robbie Herreveld and Jacques Theron and Graeme Solomon, who slipped in an 11th-hour entry this week, Paul Marais, Jeremy Maher and Wayne Jacobs.
The women’s race promises to be just as thrilling a contest. Triple Berg champion Bianca Beavitt will start holding all the cards, delighted that the Berg has returned to a solo format, but will find herself under serious pressure from Dusi runner-up Jordan Peek and on-form Border star Nikki Birkett.
In what is already a milestone edition of the race, a number of significant new marks will be made on the race.
Giel van Deventer stands poised to become the first person to complete the tough ultra-marathon 50 times. He will be joined in the legends batch by Jannie Malherbe, starting his 48th Berg at the age of 82 years.
Ralph Teulings will be starting his 37th consecutive Berg, and will be part of a small private ceremony at the start to honour Edgar Boehm who died last year after having completed a record 45 consecutive Bergs.
Lisa Scott, when she reaches Velddrif on Sunday, will move clear of Jean Wilson and Helen Boehm’s women’s record of 12 Berg finishes.
The race will livestream the first part of the opening stage and the closing part of the finish stage, with regular updates on its social media channels.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.