No one ever wants to be last. But someone always is – the sweeper. Volunteers are an integral part of any race, and one of the most important roles is that of the sweeper. These are the people who follow the last racer. Their job is multi-faceted and super important. And super rewarding. Not only do you help ensure the safety of the racers, but you get to share in the experience and play a part in helping people do something they weren’t sure they could.
Noel Tavan has swept several races for Go Beyond Racing and shared these tips for anyone consider sweeping a race:
It’s important to clean up all of the markings – the race’s permit may depend on this. A tip to ensure you get all the markers is to put some distance between yourself and the last runner and/or your fellow sweeper in front of you so you have plenty of time to see a marker. If you do sweep an out and back course where you are picking up markings on the way back, take a close look at them on the way out to make sure they are not hidden by down trees or rocks, where you might miss them on the way back. Readjust markings as necessary for the runners return trip. Another tip is if there are two sweepers, have the person in front take all of the markings and the person in the back double check. Alternate positions so both sweepers carry the same amount of markings and share the load. I look back often to make sure I have not missed markings.
Sweepers can help ensure injured racers receive proper care in a timely manner. The sweepers should carry some sort communication devices (cell phone, emergency radio, etc.) as well as a map with closest road access. It is important that you are familiar with the course and have a good idea where you are on the course at all times. In case of an emergency, the sweeper should stay with the injured runner and wait for help, or try to reach the nearest aid station together. The last runner should always have a sweeper with or behind them. Sweepers should not be more than 15 minutes behind the last runner. I like to have them in view at all times and match my pace with theirs. That way, if an emergency occurs, it won’t take long before I reach the injured runner. Be sure to have the race director’s and the medic team’s contact information.
Leave no trace. I carry a trash bag and pick up trash along the trail. Trail runners are pretty conscientious, but sometime gel tops or wrappers get dropped. Be ready to get your hands dirty! You can bring gloves or wipes with you.
Sweepers arriving at an aid station is the signal to those volunteers that they can shut down and leave. Ideally, you should have the last runner in your site and maintain his/her pace before reaching an aid station. Volunteers at the aid station are grateful when you arrive as they can start taking down because all the racers are through. This is also true for the finish line; the sweepers’ arrival indicates that all runners are in. The closer you are to the final racers; the sooner help can be deployed if someone got off course.
Another aspect to sweeping is to motivate and reassure the last runner(s). Every runner is different so when coming up on the last racer, talk with them. Ask them whether or not they need company and how they are feeling. Some runners do not want the sweepers running right behind them because it makes them feel rushed and self-conscious. In that case, give them space. Other times, they are having a hard day and need the company. In those situations, feel free to chat with them. But remember to leave room between you and them so you can see all the markers. If the final runners are getting close to a time cut-off, you can make them aware and let them know what kind of pace/effort is required to avoid a DNF. Again, be familiar with the course. Runners often ask you how far the next aid station is or details on the course elevation and they appreciate it when you have the answers.
Sweeping is rewarding because you get to spend time on your feet while volunteering, and you get to see the course from a different perspective. It can also be challenging because your day is determined by the last runners’ day, and you never know how fast or slowly you will be going. Don’t expect to be running at your pace while you are sweeping. You will often walk or match the pace of the last runner. Sometime you will walk a lot. Another challenging part of sweeping is closing the gap between you and the last runner. For example, if the last runner gets cut off at an aid station, you have to pick up the pace so you can get behind the next runner as soon as possible. In that situation, ask the aid station volunteers how far ahead the next runner is so you get an idea of what kind distance you need to cover and how quickly you need to move.
Have a pack or way to carry the course markings. You will drop them off at each aid station, but there can be a lot of markings and you’ll need more than just your hands. Bring extra food and water for yourself in case you have to stop due to an injured runner, or the next aid station closes down early, or the aid station runs out of your favorite food (it happens!). Sometimes you may need to share your nutrition with a runner. Bring extra layers too. Remember you might be going very slowly and you could get cold. Have the contact information of the race director and the other sweeper(s) in case you need to reach. Carry a phone and a map (paper and electronic).
Great tips from an experienced sweeper – thanks Noel!
The sweeper volunteer positions are some of the first to get filled at our events. If you are interested in sweeping a race, you can sign up by clicking on the green Volunteer button on the race’s Ultrasignup page. Thank you to all the sweepers out there!
Photo is of Noel and Mamiko (another very experienced sweeper) coming in at the 2017 Mt. Hood 50.
Credit: Teri Smith/runnerteri photography