Underberg - Overnight leaders Andy Birkett and Abby Solms were in a league of their own throughout the second stage of the 2016 Drak Challenge as they completed the successful defence of their men’s and women’s titles.
In a day that saw then men’s top 10 shaken up dramatically when second placed Hank McGregor was forced to withdraw early on battling with a stomach ailment, Birkett (Euro Steel) stayed out of trouble, kept things simple and powered away from the rest of the star-studded field.
“I am thrilled to have won it again,” said Birkett.
"It feels special to have been successful in the last few races because I actually gave the race a break because I was having such bad luck on it!"
“My plan was to go hard for 10 or 15 kilometres to try and extend the 10 second lead I had over Hank (McGregor),” he added.
"I thought something was wrong because right from the start I was able to suddenly put a lot of time between myself and Hank. It must have been tough for him to even start if he was feeling that bad."
"It was only when I got to Callaway bridge at the end of the Gorge that I was told that Hank had pulled out in Underberg. But then I knew that Len (Jenkins) was working with Owen Gandar and I had to keep up the pace to make sure they didn't catch me."
Birkett said that he was unfazed by racing the final stage on his own.
"That is something that the Dusi has taught me," he said.
"Most of the time during a Dusi you are on your own so you have to try and race your own race and monitor yourself. You just get used to it."
With the Dusi just a month away Birkett said the win was a positive but guarded against reading too much into it.
"The year that I won the Dusi with Sbonelo (Khwela), he was beaten on the Drak by (women's race winner) Abby Solms. The Dusi is totally different. Just throw in a tough portage and everything changes."
Jenkins wrapped up the second place, with Gandar bagging the biggest result of his career by clinching the last spot on the podium.
It was a day of high drama on the men's leaderboard, as surges by classy athlete coupled with mishaps and swims on the technically demanding river saw the top 10 rankings shuffled regularly.
Perhaps the performance of the day belonged to Michaelhouse schoolboy Jean van der Westhuyzen. The former junior K2 marathon world champ was in irrepressible form as he scorched down the 38km finish stage to improve his overnight seventh position to fourth overall.
He leapfrogged the in-form Andrew Houston - who finished fifth - with Eastern Cape star Greg Louw sixth, outsprinting Thulani Mbanjwa.
Visiting Czech republic star Jakub Adam was having a superb second stage, racing through the top 10 on the long testing stretches of flatwater, until he fell out at the Heaven and Hell Rapid 20 minutes from the end of the race, costing him six places in the highly competitive race.
Cape surfski star Jasper Mocké, who was eighth overnight, tumbled back to 19th after breaking a paddle in Glenhaven rapid.
Mocké finished just behind the women's champion Abby Solms (Euro Steel) who wrapped up a compelling performance on the tough two day race that saw her win the women's title for a sixth time by 16 minutes, finishing in 18th place overall.
Solms was in unstoppable form, and after shaking off the attention of the other female contenders early on in Day 1, she relentlessly ground away at the front of the women race and immersed herself impressively in the men's race.
On Day 2 she found allies in Brent Chiazzari and Trenton Lamble, and she managed to stay with fast pace set by the Dusi K2 pairing that saw the trio slice through the front of the field.
"I couldn't have asked for a better Drak," enthused Solms afterwards.
"I have never had such a strong final stage."
Solms not only extended her remarkable run at the popular race to six wins in seven starts, but she has a real spring in her step as she sets her sights on the Dusi challenge with her Czech partner Anna Kožíšková, who arrives in South Africa on Wednesday.
"I can take so much confidence from this result. I feel like my training has gone really well, and the bulk of the training is done. Now we can start to do the Dusi specific work."
Under-23 world marathon champs double silver medallist Jenna Ward was the second woman home ahead of Donna Tutton and the in-form junior Cana Peek.
The 62km two-day race was well supported by around 550 paddlers, who warmed to the news of the well timed rains and the allure and hospitality of the Southern Drakensberg community that hosts the event.
More information can be found at www.drak.co.za
SUMMARY OF RESULTS
1. Andy Birkett 2:23.14 3:58.21
2. Len Jenkins 2:25.16 4:01.11
3. Owen Gandar 2:26.22 4:02.33
4. Jean van der Westhuyzen (U18) 2:27.01 4:04.40
5. Andrew Houston (U23) 2:27.48 4:04.54
6. Greg Louw 2:28.11 4:06.03
7. Thulani Mbanjwa 2:28.29 4:06.03
8. Brandon van der Walt 2:28.06 4:06.38
9. Jakub Adam (CZE) 2:28.13 4:06.43
10. Siseko Ntondini (U23) 2:29.35 4:09.40
11. Alan Houston (U23) 2:29.34 4:09.41
12. Ant Stott 2:31.23 4:09.55
13. Damon Stamp (U23) 2:32.05 4:11.39
14. Sbonelo Khwela 2:31.43 4:13.10
15. Thomas Lovemore (U23) 2:31.29 4:13.11
16. Banetse Nkhoesa (U23) 2:33.02 4:14.28
17. Brent Chiazzari 2:33.14 4:15.51
18. Abby Solms (1st Woman) 2:33.22 4:15.59
19. Jasper Mocké 2:38.45 4:16.25
20. Trenton Lamble 2:34.49 4:17.24
1. Abby Solms 2:33.22 4:15.59
2. Jenna Ward (U23) 2:42.42 4:31.58
3. Donna Tutton 2:46.24 4:37.10
4. Cana Peek (U18) 2:56.24 4:50.55
5. Tamika Haw 2:51.19 4:51.17
6. Jane Swarbreck 2:50.09 4:51.17
7. Catherine Atkinson (U23) 3:00.13 5:02.13
8. Lauren Felgate (U23) 3:05.11 5:08.58
9. Hayley Arthur 3:02.51 5:10.25
10. Debra Lewis 3:13.20 5:24.13
1. Andrew Houston 2:27.48 4:04.54
2. Siseko Ntondini 2:29.35 4:09.40
3. Alan Houston 2:29.34 4:09.41
4. Damon Stamp 2:32.05 4:11.39
5. Thomas Lovemore 2:31.29 4:13.11
1. Jenna Ward 2:42.42 4:31.58
2. Catherine Atkinson 3:00.13 5:02.13
3. Lauren Felgate 3:05.11 5:08.58
1. Jean van der Westhuyzen 2:27.01 4:04.40
2. Bailey de Fondaumiere 2:39.33 4:27.45
3. Craig Heenan 2:38.43 4:27.47
1. Cana Peek 2:56.24 4:50.55
2. Cara Ward 3:25.19 5:46.40
3. Lisa Meyer 3:27.26 5:52.58