Words: Dave Mcleod | Photo: Anthony Grote
Underberg – As entries poured in against the normal entry deadline on Wednesday night for the N3TC Drak Challenge Canoe Marathon, Len Jenkins became the third champion from the past decade to throw his hat into the ring, but with veiled hints at racing the two-day race socially.
Jenkins won the title three times, in 2004, 2006 and 2008, and held the race record until Grant van der Walt exploited last years flooded rivers to lower Jenkins' race mark that had stood for a decade. That runner-up placing was Jenkins' fourth consecutive second place finish in this popular race, underscoring his continual threat to the race title.
Last year he showed that he has lost none of his edge when he went toe-to-toe within eventual champion Grant van der Walt in a thriller of a race that was eventually decided by a bold passing manoeuvre in the Lower Gorge, less than ten minutes from the end of the race.
Since that race Jenkins has spent much of the year travelling abroad, and discovering new forms of adventure racing in Alaska, including a new passion for pack rafting that he has been testing on the upper reaches of the Orange river in Lesotho.
Jenkins likes to downplay his chances and tries to "fly under the radar" before big events, making it hard to assess his form coming into major competitions.
"I'm really just chilling out at the moment," said the Maritzburg engineer. "I might just do the race socially."
Elite paddlers will have heard that patter before, and particularly if the current full rivers continue for the next ten days, making the race a fast arm-wrestle with the uMzimkulu River, then Jenkins will factor squarely into contention for the race, which this year will decide the SA K1 River Championships.
With 15 Drak finishes to his name already, ranking him eighth on the prestigious Drak Trout list, the 33 year old said he was keen to return to the uMzimkulu again for another Drak Challenge, albeit under the guise of a social paddler.
Guaranteed to be starting in the seeded A batch, the rest of the elite racers in that batch will be fully expecting Jenkins to revert to his favoured race strategy of bolting to the front from the start, and setting a relentless pace to preserve that advantage.
Jenkins popularised the gamble of starting the race without fitting a splashcover, and completing first few hundred metres of rapids without a splashcover before pausing to fit it, pumping out any water that might have spilled into his cockpit.
While he has been conspicuous by his absence at training at his club at Camps Drift in Pietermaritzburg, his time tripping the rough waters of the Orange will ensure he is in shape for the race.
Expect to see him lead the race under Castleburn bridge. If stamina plays a major role in the race this year he may flag during the latter stages. But a Drak without the enigmatic Jenkins would somehow seem incomplete.
The N3TC Drak Challenge 2014 starts on 18 January at Castleburn outside Underberg and finishes on 19 January at Hopewell Farm close to Coleford. More information can be found at www.drak.co.za