The race for the women’s’ title at the 2012 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon has been soundly shaken up by the entry of top surfski paddlers Michelle Burn and Danica Bartho, who will have to manage a jam-packed schedule in the frantic final few days before the race.
With the ICF World Flatwater Marathon Championships set to be staged in Copenhagen in Denmark the weekend before the start of the Eastern Cape’s major, Burn will be needing a Formula 1 pitstop-like turn around between events, as she races back from her European expedition in order to link up with Bartho for the Hansa Fish just days later.
With her paddle blades still damp and her World Champs result – whatever it may be – unlikely to have even sunk in yet, Burn will be forced to race back from Copenhagen to her hometown of Amanzimtoti on KZN’s South Coast to repack her bags, reprogramme her GPS for Cradock, and hit the road once more.
“I get back from World Marathon Champs on the Tuesday (24 September) afternoon, and with Fish starting on the Friday, it means it will probably be a 5am start for us on the Wednesday morning as we head for Cradock,” said Burn.
“There obviously won’t be a lot of time between arriving back from Copenhagen and leaving for Cradock, so we’ll probably have to get everything for Fish ready before I even leave for Worlds, and then just throw everything into the car when I’m back.
“It obviously isn’t ideal, but I’m just hoping I’ll be so tired from Worlds and all the travelling that I am able to sleep in the car the whole way to Cradock. Luckily there isn’t much East/West travel, and so I shouldn’t have to deal with too much jet leg either.”
Despite the chaos of the tight schedule, Burn is champing at the bit in anticipation of her first appearance at the Fish in three years, and is relishing the opportunity to sit behind the highly-respected Bartho for two days.
“I haven’t been to Fish in three years so. I absolutely love the Fish, but for the past few years I’ve always had lifesaving or some other sport event on at the same time, so I’m so excited to be going back there again this year.
“There aren’t any really long portages so it’s a real paddling race, the vibe down in Cradock during the race is incredible, and being a two-day race, everyone gathers on the banks of the river or in the campsite afterwards and swap war stories from their day’s paddle. It’s great!
“Danica and I haven’t ever raced in a canoe before, but we’ve done a fair amount of double surfski racing together, including the SA Surfski Champs in Cape Town in December last year.
“Every time we’ve jumped into a ski together we’ve combined really well, so hopefully it will be the same in a canoe.
“There will be a slight change for Fish as Danica (Bartho) is going to drive us down the river whereas I’m usually in the front of the ski, but we’ve got a very similar style and stroke rate, so I’m sure we’ll be able to adapt pretty quickly.
“I also prefer being in the back on the river and Danica is just so relaxed in a canoe, so I trust her entirely and hopefully a little of her calm nature can rub off on me too,” chuckled Burn.
Having always knocked on the door in recent years, Burn only really announced her arrival on the international surfski scene for the first time this year, when she stormed through the competitive women’s field of the ICF Surfski World Championships in Porto, Portugal to lead the race for much of the encounter and looking firm favourite to claim the inaugural women’s title.
A cruel twist in the tale saw the popular talent miss the final turn can as she headed for shore and, having to go back in order to go around it, opened the door for fellow South African and 2011 Hansa Fish women’s winner Michéle Eray to claim the spoils.
The incident is still one that strikes a chord of sadness and frustration in Burn but it has become something she has learnt from hugely and may well prove to be the extra motivation the 28 year old needs to challenge for top honours in her fast approaching Eastern Cape assignment.
“I still get a bit disappointed when I think back to Surfski World Champs, but I think I’ve decided now that it is just something that has already happened and there is nothing I can do about it now, so there is no point in getting myself down about it.
“Having been able to be up there, racing against the girls at the front, has definitely given me a lot of extra confidence and motivation. I now also believe that I can do it and when things get a little tough I know I can push that little bit harder.
Despite Burn needing to perform a carefully planned balancing act to prepare for September’s dual assignment whilst Bartho focuses purely on the Hansa Fish, Burn believes this is not an issue for the pair as their training programmes have not been all that dissimilar in recent weeks.
“It has actually worked out really well for Danica and I. With the training I need for Fish being so similar to that that I’m doing for Worlds, Danica has been able to do pretty much exactly the same training as me.
“Fish has a few short portages, just like marathons, and there are then some longer stretches of paddling, just like marathons, so our training has actually been very similar and so the main thing is just about us getting into a boat together and been able to combine as a pair.
“Danica pushing me all the way in the last Bay Union Surfski Series race last Sunday was also great to see as it showed just how strong she is at the moment and how well she is going.”
Known far better for their ocean-based feats, Burn has in fact also performed admirably on the river in recent years having claimed a third in the 2011 edition of the N3TC Drak Challenge but is not the least bit concerned about Bartho’s recent absence from river racing.
“I’m not phased at all that Danica hasn’t paddled a river race in a little while. She is such a natural paddler and I’m pretty sure it will be a lot like riding a bicycle for her.
“Also, even though she may not have raced all that much on the river recently, she has often come tripping with us when we prepare for Drak so she has still been in a boat on the river a fair amount.
“She is also just so super chilled on the river so even though she’s had a bit of a gap in her river paddling I’m sure she will just slot right back into things really quickly.”
With one goal on their minds and one goal only – to win – the Burn/Bartho combination is trying its best to steer clear of over analysing the rest of the women’s field and keep the focus on their own preparations.
“We haven’t heard too much about who else is going to be in the ladies race. At this stage we’re just trying to focus on our own race as much as we possibly can.
“We’ve both been training really hard almost all year now with Surfski World Champs and now I’ve got Marathon World Champs coming up and then Fish so it’s been a pretty long year so far and everything really is all on top of things in the build-up to Fish.
“Neither Danica nor I have ever won a Fish either so it really would be the cherry on the top and the perfect way to end off quite a busy little period for us if we were somehow able to walk away with a Fish title at the end of September.
The Hansa Fish River Canoe marathon takes place on Friday 27 and Saturday 28 September. More information can be found at www.fishmarathon.org.za
(With editing by gsport)