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It's the jungle for paddlers

CLOSE to a thousand canoes and kayaks of all shapes and sizes have signed up for Saturday's annual Liffey Descent (12.30) which, in its 51st year, remains one of the "must do" river marathons in the world.

Despite the economic downturn, a sizeable number of paddlers, from England, Scotland and Wales as well as the usual handful from South Africa and a few Australians will line up at the start line above the fearsome Straffan weir.

They will face 17 miles of thundering waters, swollen by an ESB flood, but that's not all. Challenges along the way include ten boat-crunching weirs, swirling rapids and the infamous stretch of undergrowth called "The Jungle".

Then there is the portage at Leixlip lake, where paddlers have to lift their boats off the water, run around the dam and then get back in.

First off on Saturday will be the super slick K2 boats, with Peter Egan and Carlos Lopez of Salmon Leap leading the home challenge. Last year, Egan and Lopez were in third place before taking a swim at Palmerstown and limping home sixth.

Not entered this year are the Louw brothers from South Africa, winners for the past two years.

In men's K1, veteran Deaglan ó Drisceoil was a surprise winner last year, beating Olympic paddler Gary Mawer, who set the Liffey's K1 record of one hour 55 minutes 37 seconds in 2001.

ó Drisceoil could well repeat that feat. Only a few weeks ago, he was first over-40 at the Sella Descent in Spain -- another epic race with a huge reputation.

Many times winner Malcolm Banks has also entered, although last year he opted for a K2 boat, finishing third with Barry Watkins.

Watkins this year has opted for the K1 class. Most recently he finished 13th in the 1000m at the European Sprint Championships.

In women's K1, Liz Shouldice is the one to watch. Shouldice, a wildwater specialist, competed in K1 for the first time last year. She won in 2:07.34 -- only 20 seconds off Michelle Barry's 1994 course best.

For spectators, the Liffey Descent is one of the great free shows, with the prime spots at Straffan bridge and at Wren's Nest, Palmerstown and Lucan weirs. Get there early!