Picture: Shan Pillay

Johannesburg – Andy Birkett stands poised to become the first paddler after the iconic Graeme Pope-Ellis in the 70s to win four back-to-back titles, should he successfully defend his Dusi Marathon crown this weekend.

The 23-year-old star had taken a low key build-up to the race, cherry-picking the best of his training regime from the past three years, and comes into the race relaxed and confident.

He will need all of that to get the better of a classy men's field that includes four former world champions.

Hank McGregor – winner in 2005 and 2006 – had been in rampant form this summer, and dominated many of the pre-Dusi races.

He had lofty plans for the year, including winning the first ever Surfski world championship title mid-year in Portugal.

Similarly, Len Jenkins, who dismantled most of the race records en route to victory in 2001, had been hard to beat in major races, winning the national crown at the Fish River Canoe marathon in October.

Thulani Mbanjwa won the race with Martin Dreyer, but he had never won a K1 title, a fact that doesn't sit comfortably for the product of the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

Ant Stott brings vast experience to the race and knows how to win this race.

Former Olympic sprint canoeist Shaun Rubenstein is tipped as the dark horse at the 2013 Dusi Marathon.

Rubenstein won the race convincingly as a junior and returned from the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing to claim an unexpected third place in a K1 in 2009.

Add to this mix the class of Shongweni-based star Sbonelo Zondi, a winner of Non-Stop Dusi and the pre-Dusi race at Albert Falls dam.

Lending an international flavour to the title race this year are the established world marathon championship medallists from the Czech Republic Michael Odvarko and Jakub Adam.

The pair had been training in KwaZulu-Natal for four months, and have adjusted to the quantum leap from their stock trade of flatwater marathoning to the unique challenges of this race.

Adam's sister Anna Adamova will race in the mixed doubles category.

The new kid on the block among the contenders is Lance Kime, who had emerged as a serious challenger to the established stars in the past six months.

The women's race sports a shorter list of contenders, but should be just as fiercely contested.

Robyn Kime comes into the race seeking her fourth title in succession.

She won a silver medal at the world marathon champs in Rome last year, and is now a seasoned Dusi tactician, having won two titles with another wise Dusi owl Abbey Ulansky.

Kime had spent less time tripping the rivers than she has in the past. In sharp contrast, Abby Adie is in the form of her life, oozing confidence after a near flawless build-up to the race.

Gauteng-based Jen Theron will be a serious podium candidate, while Hilary Pitchford will also be itching to get onto the water.

Pitchford missed last year's race due to a broken arm suffered just weeks before the start, and with full rivers predicted, her advantage will be in the big rapids, where she thrives.

Just under 1 600 paddlers have entered the race, including five K3s and a big field of largely social K2s. – Sapa