Words & Photos: www.drak.co.za
The new Under 23 marathon world champ and triple Dusi winner Andy Birkett has added spice to the N3TC Drak Challenge by adding his entry to the two day 65km classic that will play host to the SA K1 River Championships for 2014.
Ever since the Drak Challenge and the Dusi traded places in the national calendar Birkett has traditionally sat out the Drak he focusses on his Dusi preparations.
This year, the likeable 23 year old has thrown his hat into the ring, and based on his recent form, will be a force to be reckoned with as the countries top K1 river racers vie for the prestigious race title, and with it the national singles title.
Both Birkett and his partner for the K2 Dusi Sbonelo Zondi have committed to racing the Drak, which is always a singles (or k1) race, meaning that they will out their K2 Dusi training on hold for the week of the Drak Challenge.
"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," said Birkett.
"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."
Birkett has opted to spend a significant chunk of December and January in Underberg, training on the clean waters of the uMzimkhulu.
"It will be great to get back up there in a few weeks’ time to do some training with Sbonelo (Zondi). It is one of the most beautiful parts of the country and I just love that river," said Birkett.
While Birkett makes no bones about prioritising the assault on the Dusi K2 title in February, he has vowed to be totally committed to the two days racing in the Southern Drakensberg in January.
"Without a doubt Drak is a training race for me. It’s a part of my Dusi build-up," said Birkett. "I’ll still look to go as hard as I can and if I get a good result then I’ll be really stoked but I’ve got to keep the bigger picture in mind.
"I haven’t raced in a K1, or on the uMzimkhulu River for that matter, for quite a while so I’m really excited to be able to take on the Drak in my single.
Birkett and Zondi will hole up in a house outside Underberg after Zondi's wedding in December, where they will train on the river and the steep hills around Underberg. Birkett says the attraction of the technically challenging river is hard to resist.
"The river is just amazing. Paddling through the gorge and some of those pools is just unbelievable," said Birkett. "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," he added.
Birkett's win at the World Marathon Championships in Copenhagen has significantly enhanced his status in the paddling community, some of whom had pigeon-holed him as a Dusi specialist. A podium finish in Underberg will undoubtedly cement his standing as a class all-round paddler.