Se­cond means noth­ing for the King of the Berg

Hank McGre­gor is a one-man ar­mada who takes no pris­on­ers

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT - MIKE DE BRUYN

HANK MCGRE­GOR is primed to win the Berg River Ca­noe Marathon for an un­prece­dented 11th time.

The four-day pad­dling epic be­gins at the Mar­ket Street bridge in Paarl on Wed­nes­day and is due to fin­ish in Veld­drif just af­ter mid­day on Satur­day.

KwaZulu-Na­tal’s McGre­gor is the de­fend­ing cham­pion and it looks odds-on favourite to re­tain his ti­tle.

Ab­sent from the staged race in 2013 and 2014, the world­class per­former, who first picked up a pad­dle aged 11, de­cided to re­turn to the Cape last year and re­claim owner-

“My old man helped me come to grips with longdis­tance pad­dling and we had one heck of a dual. What I was able to learn from him paved the way for my first win four years later.”

ship of the man­tle held by fel­low Natal­ian Andy Bir­kett.

And he duly obliged to record his 10th vic­tory ahead of Bir­kett, who won’t be in the field this time round.

Lance King won the race for the first time in 2013, end­ing a bar­ren run for the lo­cals that stretched back to 2001 – Graeme Solomon tri­umphed that year for his only vic­tory to date to go with seven run­ners-up fin­ishes.

McGre­gor, 38, is with­out a doubt the King of the Berg and he doesn’t take kindly to fin­ish­ing se­cond best, not on this river any­way.

He made his de­but as an 18-year-old in 1996 and went head-to-head with his fa­ther Lee – who was a cham­pion swim­mer and surf-skier in his hey­day. The pair worked to­gether and with Lee fin­ish­ing fifth and Hank in eighth.

“That year was spe­cial for me,” said McGre­gor. “My old man helped me come to grips with long- dis­tance pad­dling and we had one heck of a dual. What I was able to learn from him paved the way for my first win four years later.”

His break­through in one of the largest fields ever as­sem­bled (225) was a clear sign of what was to come. He would go on to own the race from 2005 to 2012, break­ing Robert Her­rev­eld’s record of six wins.

Ste­fan Hugo is third best on the all-time list with five vic­to­ries. The leg­endary Cape mae­stro com­pleted back- to- back wins in 1976-77 be­fore bag­ging his hat-trick in 1980. He was back in the win­ners en­clo­sure in 1982 be­fore claim­ing his fi­nal vic­tory two years later.

There will always be con­tenders and pre­tenders in low num­bers but come the start, McGre­gor will look to as­sert his au­thor­ity from the first pad­dle-stroke – the way it has been in each of his tri­umphs, all ef­fort­less per­for­mances and with­out peer dur­ing his more than decade-long dom­i­nance.

He’s for all in­tents and pur­poses a one-man army who takes no pris­on­ers. He lives by the motto: “First is first. Se­cond is noth­ing.”

A lethal in­jec­tion of raw pace sep­a­rates the six-times world marathon cham­pion from the rest of the field. It is a sight to be­hold as he pow­ers off with brute strength, then a mar­vel at how he goes about toy­ing with the field once he’s set­tled into his race mode for the long haul.

He likes to stay in the lead group click­ing over the kilo­me­tres, never pan­ick­ing, un­til near the fin­ish­ing line when he acts again with an­other ef­fort­less surge that usu­ally leaves the rest fight­ing it out for podium fin­ish­ers.

That’s the way McGre­gor op­er­ates on the tree-line river, be it shal­low or full. Fast-flow­ing con­di­tions like right now suit him more as it means more pad­dling and less river-exits.

Low-level con­di­tions make for more portages, but that is no prob­lem for McGre­gor, as he has no qualm with a bit of run­ning work while car­ry­ing his ca­noe, as long as the time out of the wa­ter is short.

Over four days trav­el­ling some 240km from Paarl to Veld­drif, expect to see McGre­gor cross the fin­ish line first for his 11th tri­umph.

“I set my­self the goal of be­com­ing the first man to win the Berg 10 times and re­alised it last year,” he said. “Not be­ing in the race for the two years I was ab­sent be­cause of a clash in races and the birth of my first child in 2014 left me yearn­ing for a re­turn and a shot at an­other ti­tle last year.

“And boy, was it a tough race like no other I’ve par­tic­i­pated in and Andy pushed me all the way. Now for an­other shot at glory.

“My last-minute de­ci­sion to en­ter the race has been the right move, now I just have to get my mind fo­cused and let the rest take care of it­self. I’m ready for a duel with any of the other guys who feel they have the pedi­gree to deny me.”

The Kayak Cen­tre star, who last week­end in his surf­ski won the Mau­ri­tius Ocean Clas­sic again, will be keep­ing a close eye on the Cape con­tin­gent spear­headed by Si­mon van Gy­sen ( Kayak Cen­tre) and Solomon (Knysna Racing).

There is also the threat posed by the four in­ter­na­tional pad­dlers – Hun­gary’s Adrian Boros, Aus­tralia’s Josh Kip­pin and Bren­don Rice as well as the Czech Repub­lic’s Petr Mo­jzisek.

Mean­while, McGre­gor se­nior will also be com­pet­ing and will be gun­ning for an­other top-10 fin­ish de­spite be­ing in his mid-sixties.

JOHN HISHIN/GAME­PLAN

AN OLD HAND ON THE PAD­DLE: Hank McGre­gor is in search of a record 11th ti­tle in Berg River Ca­noe Marathon.

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