Dusi season kick starts with tough Umpetha Challenge

The hype ahead of the 2015 Dusi Canoe Marathon kicks into top gear this weekend with the Umpetha Challenge that serves as the first prime Dusi seeding race.

2014MbanjwaTopsNeedle500The 16km race covers the first section of the iconic Dusi route but unusually ends with a 2km portage up to the finish at the Bishopstowe Farmers Hall.

With the ongoing support of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Sport and Recreation, the race – entirely run by the NCC Development Team – boasts a huge prize pool of R36 000 of which R6000 ring-fenced for the winning K1 paddler in both the men’s and women’s race.

This is sure to attract most of the elite Dusi paddlers and will serve as the season’s first glimpse of form and intention in the build-up to the Dusi in mid-February.

2014 Dusi K2 champion Sbonelo Khwela, who won last year’s race with Andy Birkett, will be on the start line and a hot favourite to claim first prize. However he is wary about making bold long term Dusi predications from Sunday’s race, particularly as strength on the final portage will determine the top of the leader board.

“Getting back into portaging this early is a good thing, because it reminds you of what Dusi is all about and how tough it is to run with the boat and makes you train harder when you do start training for portaging!” said the popular EuroSteel athlete.

Khwela will line up alongside another Dusi icon Thulani Mbanjwa whose recent return to top form was highlighted by his best ever return from the two day Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon on the weekend.

The race will almost certainly be dominated by eager youngsters from the Computershare Change A Life Academy and the Lembethe Canoe Club who unashamedly target the Dusi style races. Many of them factor in a lot of running into their training regime which is sure to be evident on the run up the hills of Campbell’s Farm at the end of the race.

Four time Dusi winner won’t be defending the Umpetha Challenge title he won last year as he is taking a well-deserved break after the World Marathon Championships and Fish River Canoe Marathon with his girlfriend, Olympic bronze medallist Bridgitte Hartley as the couple holiday in the Eastern Cape.

The women’s race will feature several classy elite racers fresh from their exploits at the World Marathon Championships in Oklahoma City, in Abby Adie (NCC/Kayak Centre) and Laura O’Donaghue.

Adie has been almost unstoppable this season and has won a string of top-end events including the Sella Descent in Spain (with O’Donaghue), N3TC Drak Challenge (2014 SA K1 Champs), Non Stop Dusi, Umkomaas River Canoe Marathon, Berg River Canoe Marathon and last weekend’s Fish River Canoe Marathon.

Add to that mix the seasoned campaigner Hillary Bruss (Race Food/Pepto Sport), who has a strong multi-sport and trail running base to offset her time away from paddling, and the dice for the women’s podium will be intriguing.

As the season’s first Dusi race, the Umpetha is sure to attract a large field eager to take advantage of the water release from Henley Dam that will mirror water conditions for the Dusi Canoe Marathon, particularly with solid rainfall expected at the end of the week.

The race also boasts lucky draws of canoeing equipment totaling R5 000, stemming from a donation for long-standing development sponsor KFC.

For many novices aiming to complete their first Dusi Canoe Marathon this summer, the race is a must-do event which offers a chance to tackle iconic obstacles such as the Ernie Pearce Weir, Commercial Road Weir, Musson’s Weir and Taxi Rapid before testing their legs against the tough hills at Campbell’s Farm.

The race has been well supported in previous years when it was known as the NCC Development Race. Organised by the NCC Development team under Thuthukani Manyathi, the race scooped the prestigious KNCU One Day Race of the Year award last year, reflecting the success of the concept of handing the entire event to the NCC Development Team to teach them the skills needed to host a major event.

“It is collaboration between the club, the KZN Department of Sport and Recreation and the big team of men and women at the NCC Development Team,” said Manyathi.

“We rebranded the race the Umpetha Challenge based on the isiZulu word for Champion,” he elaborated.

“We were very proud when we won the Race of the Year award and this adds to the champion status of the event.

“We will see most of the paddlers hoping to be the 2015 Dusi champion on the water and we plan to make sure it is a champion event for every single participant!’