5 things to know about sweeping a trail race

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?

Linking up with Friday Five

20 Comment

  1. I bet this gave you a whole different perspective about running a trail race!
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    1. Hannah says: Reply

      Sure did!

  2. Super cool post! I had no idea about this

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      It was fun! BTW, your blog blocked my comment as a “suspected bot”.

  3. So are you listed as a participant too? Do you wear race bib?

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      No, neither one. Actually I didn’t have anything to identify me as the sweeper, for all anyone knew I could have been a rogue flag collector!

  4. Kim G says: Reply

    This is really good information – thanks! I’ve often wondered about all the logistics that go into being a sweeper for a race. When I ran the Chicago Marathon I was near the sweeper (I had a painfully slow race, lol). Thankfully I beat the sweeper van and I hope that’s the last experience I have with one, haha.

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      Racing the sweeper van sounds rough!

  5. It was so nice of you to do this! I have never thought about how much those flags must way — just that I really, really need them!

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      I’m sure they don’t weigh more than a few pounds, but I had to carry them for quite a while!

  6. Laurie says: Reply

    I have never swept a trail race, but I once ALMOST got swept! I would love to do this sometime. It’s really generous of you to volunteer in this way.

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      In the first couple miles I saw a few 25K runners headed back, and one lady asked “oh my gosh, am I last?” (she wasn’t.) We weren’t “sweeping” runners anyway, but I didn’t mean to inspire anxiety in anyone!

  7. I was excited to read this! I think there is a lot that go into trail races that we don’t often think about. Sometimes when I am running a long trail race I wonder if they have more than one person sweep the trail. Like someone does the first half and someone does the second half? Of course you would have to wait until everyone is done with the first half…

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      I guess it depends on logistics and how many sweepers you have – it would have been possible to split this course in two. There’s also a 25K distance of this race and I know one sweeper did the whole course, but she was also MUCH faster than me.

  8. Wendy says: Reply

    I’d love to do this! No pressure, just pick up the flags!

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      Definitely part of the reason I signed up for sweeping instead of racing.

  9. It’s amazing how much work and preparation goes into a race! I just turn up and run, but there is so much behind the scenes stuff. I think I would love to give sweeping a go. A way to give back to the running community. Well done for volunteering!

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      It was a great experience!

  10. I was wondering about this and all the logistics and details. Did they provide a bag for the trash and/or the flags? I assume the flags can be re-used at future races (?). Gosh, a 3-hour late start really seems like a long time!

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      No bags – but there were several road crossings where I could drop the flags for someone to drive by and pick up. There wasn’t much trash, and I don’t think picking it up was actually in my job description – I just figured I was the only one who would notice it anytime soon. Yeah, the flags are reusable.

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