Andy Birkett took a bold step closer to securing a ninth successive title at the N3TC Drak Challenge with a master class on a technical medium/low uMzimkhulu River to win the 26km first stage going away.
The East London-based marathon world champion broke away at the front with his Border training partner Matt Fenn before firing the afterburners to bag a forty five second overnight lead over Fenn, with Under 23 world champ Hamish Lovemore third, a further minute back, and Hank McGregor finishing fourth.
“When I woke up this morning and saw the sun and the mountains I felt like I was in my happy place,” said the Team Euro Steel ace Birkett.
The second place finish continues Matt Fenn’s giant-killing run after his shock win in the pre-Dusi 50 Miler race last weekend.
“I had a great start, I put my splash cover on early and just floored it,” said Fenn at the finish.
“I went hard for the first twelve kays till past Black Murray. The water was great – I wouldn’t ask for any more or any less,” he added. “It was technical but do-able, and a lot of fun.”
“Andy (Birkett) was on top form and Hamish (Lovemore) was super strong today,” said Fenn.
Former Drak champ and multiple world marathon title holder McGregor said the river conditions didn’t favour him, but this didn’t dampen his enthusiasm on the day.
“The river level didn’t suit the heavy guys like me!” said McGregor. “Often there is only one line when you are trying to overtake and it feels like you are going backwards at times.
“I can’t complain. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful valley,” he said.
Fenn was the first Under 23 paddler home, as no less than seven Under 23 paddlers raced into the top ten positions. Michaelhouse pupil Rob Butcher leads the junior race.
In the women’s race Christie Mackenzie posted a peerless first stage to canter away to a three and a half minute lead over perennial Drak performer Bridgitte Hartley, with Saskia Hockly in third and Andy Birkett’s wife Nix Birkett in fourth.
The tough 38km final stage on Sunday takes the paddlers from the overnight stop at Sinister Pool above Swartberg bridge to Hopewell Farm on the Coleford Road.
N3TC Drak Challenge Stage 1 – Castleburn to Swartberg bridge
SUMMARY OF RESULTS
1 Andy Birkett 1:32:28.22
2 Matthew Fenn 1:33:16.92
3 Hamish Lovemore 1:34:18.34
4 Hank McGregor 1:38:10.59
5 David Evans 1:38:11.40
6 Hamish Mackenzie 1:38:29.27
7 Bradley Boulle 1:38:30.61
8 Sam Butcher 1:39:55.41
9 Scott Little 1:39:57.35
10 Ross Leslie 1:39:59.80
1 Christie Mackenzie 1:47:53.23
2 Bridgitte Hartley 1:51:17.33
3 Saskia Hockly 1:52:47.38
4 Nix Birkett 1:54:51.90
5 Jordan Peek 1:58:02.28
6 Emma Hatfield 2:02:25.55
7 Tracey Van Der Walt 2:02:52.11
8 Hilary Bruss 2:03:57.14
9 Jessica Behn 2:08:40.40
10 Candice Murray 2:09:34.42