Pietermaritzburg — With the 2019 edition of the Dusi Canoe Marathon from February 14-16 shaping up to be a fascinating showdown, Underberg-based Stew Little , who finished second at last weekend's N3TC Drak Challenge, is right at the front of the young turks looking to edge onto the podium.
Turning 20 just after the Dusi, Little has been the standout performer in the early summer river races, and in particular in the pre-Dusi races that require exceptional running form. His performance at the Drak Challenge was also a major warning sign for the rest of the podium hopefuls.
Little shaded former Dusi winner Sbonelo Khwela and a top-class field to win the Ibis Point to Mbetjes Store seeding race with a performance that required a tenacious long portage from the Marianni Foley causeway over the Nqumeni Hill portage to set up the victory, and started the chatter about his potential for a Dusi gold medal this season.
"I was actually very surprised at how well my running went up against the other top guys," he said.
"They can run away from me but my transitions were good and I managed to hold their pace on the run," he said. "But let's be clear, it is still early season! It is hard to tell now."
The modest Varsity College student has his sights set on a top ten result, and really wants to try and dominate the Under 23 race, which is sizing up to be the most competitive class of the entire event.
The Dusi bug bit him when he was a Maritzburg College student, and was sent to watch the start of the race at the Ernie Pearce weir.
"My mate Reagan Turnbull was watching the start with me and turned to me and said 'Cmon lets do this Dusi thing' and that is how it all started," he recalls.
"That first Dusi was such an experience. I loved every minute of, but it was tough because Reagan went down with the Dusi Guts. He was getting injections but was tough enough to make it to the finish."
For the team Euro Steel paddler the Dusi is the annual highlight of his athletic calendar.
"It is such a great event, with all the hype. For a while I have made Dusi the race I would like to do well in," he said.
"It is a tough event. Day One's portages are hard but so important. It can be really hot or muddy which makes it harder.
"Day Three is exciting. I think there will be more water than last year, but I will still run Burma Road," he said.
He is fortunate to have some top-class training partners for the build-up to the Dusi.
"I will be training a lot in Underberg with Andrew Houston. Then I am part of Lee McGregor's MacSquad group in Durban, which is great even if they are not all focussed on the Dusi.
"My ideal Dusi would be lowish, so that the runs really count. I have never made the top ten, so that would be really great.
"Dusi is my ultimate race, I would really love to win it someday," he concluded.