Last weekend I forewent racing in favor of sweeping a trail race. While for road races it’s possible to drive around and pick up course markings, for trail races you usually need somebody on foot. So that was my job last Saturday – picking up course flags (plus a bit of trash), not sweeping runners. If a race has time cutoffs, though, you might be responsible for “sweeping” runners as well.
Since it was my first time sweeping a trail race, I’m far from an expert – but I thought I’d share a few things I hadn’t really considered before I tried sweeping.
You’re supposed to finish dead last
Ok, this one is obvious. But it feels a bit weird to be the last one on a race course and to finish (potentially) a long time after the last racers. On that note…estimate how long you think it will take you to sweep the course, and if possible compare that to race results from previous years. I planned to sweep at a leisurely pace and am not fast to begin with – so I expected this 15K course to take me ~3 hours. Meanwhile, the race organizers suggested the sweepers start 3.5 hours after the race start. Since I knew the racers wouldn’t need that much of a head start on me (in fact, they were all done by then), I showed up around 2 hours after the race start and was able to start sweeping then.
In the future, though, I would try to start even earlier. The racers would still have plenty of time, and also….
Holy crap it’s hot
Montana probably doesn’t get nearly as hot as wherever you live. But the sun rises early and gets intense long before noon, and it was after noon by the time I finished sweeping. If you’re sweeping a trail race during summer, expect it to get hot by the time you’re done, if not by the time you start. If heat really gets to you, you might decide you’d rather race than sweep.
You might not have to run the whole course
The race course I swept had some out and back sections, and also crossed dirt roads several times. Thus, I was able to get a ride past the first out-and-back and start running there. Once I was a mile or two from the finish, I met 2 other sweepers who had started later than me. They offered to finish sweeping and let me run back down the road – an easier route than the course.
Prepare to be self-sufficient when sweeping a trail race
Depending on how far behind the racers you are, aid stations might be packed up by the time you get there. (The volunteers had left all but one aid station by the time I arrived, but the water and electrolyte beverage were still there.) Bring whatever hydration and snackage you’ll need for the course distance. You might want a trash bag – I only picked up a few pieces, but one was a gel that stickied up my pack.
If you expect to be out longer than 2 hours or so, bring sunscreen – and remember to reapply. Bring bear spray if applicable to the race location. And one thing I didn’t pack but really wished I had – bug spray!
No, really, the flags get heavy
As we drove to my starting spot, the volunteer coordinator told me to drop my bundle of flags whenever I reached a trail/road intersection. “….Because those flags get heavy.” What, those tiny things? Yeah, once you are holding 20 or so, you will definitely feel it.
Would you want to sweep a trail race?
How much do you think that stack of flags weighs?