Defending FNB Dusi champ Andy Birkett looms large over the Ozzie Gladwin Canoe Marathon presented by Parklane Superspar this weekend, marking his return to top flight racing after a well-deserved break following his silver medal winning exploits at the ICF Marathon World Championships in September.
Birkett won the Ozzie Gladwin title last year in the K2 season with his eventual Dusi title winning partner Lance Kime, and also took the K1 Ozzie Gladwin title the year before, setting an interesting modern trend that victory in the early season Ozzie Gladwin tussle has led to FNB Dusi success in February.
The Pietermaritzburg based Euro Steel pro paddler underscored his solid training base by racing to victory in the Alan Gardiner Memorial race from Ibis Point to Dip Tank on the Dusi course ten days ago, but insists that it is still much too early to start gauging genuine Dusi form.
“Sure the eventual peak is the Dusi, with a few other big races between now and that,” says Birkett.
“You want to be in good form for the Ozzie, 50 Miler and the Drak; these are all big races before the Dusi, so it is quite a difficult task to work out just when to peak.
“I think after the Ozzie you have about eleven weeks to the Dusi, so it is an important race in the build-up and you need to gauge where you are in your running and your paddling and how much work has to be done.”
Often the Ozzie Gladwin is the first serious meeting of the FNB Dusi title contenders and the pace and intensity of the racing regularly exposes any chinks in the preparations of the athletes.
“I think every year I leave the Ozzie Gladwin disappointed at how useless I am, so it is an important benchmark and you know much work you have to do,” laughs Birkett.
“You can see where your weaknesses are and, importantly, you can gauge yourself against your competition,” he adds.
The key 1,5 kilometre run around the Albert Falls Dam wall always spreads the field and inevitably shortlists the title contenders.
Birkett is however quick to point out that the portage is quite unlike any of the Dusi portages and therefore shouldn’t be used to make too many Dusi form assessments.
“That run is always very fast and so the guys that have got good top end speed on their legs really test you at Ozzie.
“However, I would not liken it to any of the Dusi portages – even though there are some that are quick, they are not as quick as Ozzie,” says Birkett.
He also adds that the upper uMngeni River was familiar because it is a popular training ground in the build-up to the FNB Dusi.
“I really enjoy that stretch of river.
“We do quite a lot of training there in December and January before the Dusi if the uMsundusi River has no water, and it is a great river, so Ozzie Gladwin is always a fun event.”
Birkett believes the K1 title race may well shape up into a duel between himself and Euro Steel/Red Bull’s Sbonelo Khwela, whose running with a boat has seldom been matched.
Birkett said he was relishing a tight race with his former K2 Dusi winning partner. “Bring it on Sbonelo! I expect nothing less,” smiles Birkett in anticipation.
The 2016 Ozzie Gladwin Canoe Marathon takes place from Albert Falls Dam to Thornvale Farm on Sunday 27 November.