The Trail Sweeper
I was recently coerced into volunteering to serve as the sweeper on the baby Skyrun. This was not about giving back to the trail running community for me. I voiced my opinion on this endeavour rather strongly and made it clear that had it not been for my partner Gracia wanting to do it, I would not. The fact that this was the second year she was sweeping and the amazing stories she tried to share with me was lost on me and did nothing to convince me that this was something that I needed in my life. Selfish much? I did not get it. Who wants to do a race as slow as possible? My opinion has changed, and I am beyond grateful for the opportunity!
Skyrun is my favourite trail run. It’s a mental kick in the guts that no matter how hard you prepare for it will always leave you wondering why you even considered it and then you’re back again the next year. I had been preparing for the 100km run and had pulled due to my partners injury. The race had been advertised as 38km mountain run, the prepping had been done and this was well inside my wheelhouse. This hardly considers that I thought it was going to be a stroll behind the pack for a couple of hours and to say that I was super relaxed would be an understatement.
The Last one in!
Only 38km I hear you saying. That shouldn’t take long. Well no it shouldn’t, at least for the guys at the front (slightly more than 5 hours), not even for the mid packers (6 to 8 hours), and really not even for most of the slow runners (10 hours), but for the last placed runner and of course, the sweeper, it can take a lot longer and there is no hurrying up. You stay out there until the last person is in.
So it was that I spent over 13 hours on the course. accompanying runners over 38km, 2000 meters of climbing and descent, through forests, up hills, along ridges, across fields, down to the river, back up again towards the finish. The 38km run is spectacular with incredible climbs and probably the most amazing for me was that I could appreciate it more. Normally by the time you get to this section of the 100km your mind no longer appreciates the beauty that surrounds you. I had time to listen to runners and their sometimes sad sometimes really funny comments. Going up Bridal pass the athlete we were accompanying was taking loads of strain. Two runners who were clearly completely buggered cheered her on as if they were her biggest support group. It was amazing.
We had one major incident that really gave me a fresh appreciation of the dangers of mountain running and just how easy you could succumb. Without going into the details of the incident just consider hypoxia, shock, delirium and loss of vision on terrain that could have you disappear within minutes and I think you have a picture. The athlete was managed and safely taken off the mountain. The support crew with Clinton, Adrian and Stephanus were amazing in getting a vehicle to where we were. While her condition wasn’t life threatening had she not had assistance, I dread to think of the outcome.
But along the way, apart from chatting with my companion for the day, I had time to reflect on the abilities and skills necessary to the art of playing the sweeper. I certainly don’t lay any claim to skills in this field, but I certainly had the chance to observe at first-hand what those skills may be.
Adaptability: First, it is extremely important to be able to adapt your speed and pace to the slower runner. I am certainly not one of the fastest runners out there, but I can generally end up somewhere near the middle of the pack. But believe me, the slower runners (and “runners” may not always be the right word) are slow.
This is not about you and the biggest lesson for me was adapting pace to the time left and the athlete’s ability. When I see a nice descent, I love to bound down it, hopping between the rocks, letting my legs and feet find their way down. Not to be done when playing the sweeper. You reach the bottom, turn around and there they still are, at the top gingerly tiptoeing their way down, probably cursing you under their breath. This doesn’t make for good relations later in the day! If you really feel the need to do a little faster running I found that leisurely stopping to take a photograph or make a pit stop, and really taking my time about it, gave me the opportunity to then run after my companion and catch them after 2 or 3 minutes. This has the double advantage of letting you run for a bit and making it look as if they have gained a huge amount of ground on you, which is good for their morale. Breathing heavily when you catch up is a good aid in reinforcing this impression! The one run I had on the day was leading the support vehicle between the rocks with Clinton. I ran like it was my last run. So much fun in such a tough situation.
Patience: This is something you’re going to need a lot of. When your last runner stops to take in the view for the umpteenth time, asks you to take a photograph atop the small hill you’ve taken half an hour to climb up instead of just 10 minutes (in order to bear testimony to the athletic achievement, you understand), when he stays chatting to the volunteers at the aid station for far too long and you can see from the expression on their faces that they just want to pack up and go home. When they sit down, and you know you have to get them up really soon or they are going to fall asleep on the spot. When you are crossing a ridgeline with a steep drop off and you see there footing is very unsure and you throw up in your mouth just a little bit with just enough concern to make sure they do not step off the mountain. You have no time to think about your own condition and how you are doing. You are the sweeper, and this is just a walk in the park.
Good conversation: There is nothing, which makes time pass by quicker than good conversation. The problem is to know which are the right topics. Politics is definitely a non-starter. It can lead to some quite heated discussion and the risk of higher blood pressure with decidedly deleterious effects on performance. Similarly, economics is to be avoided since it will inevitably lead back to politics. Running and races are good topics but be prepared to listen to long, complicated stories of 4-5 hour marathons, which could have gone better if it hadn’t been for the weather, or digestive problems, or blisters or a myriad of other obstacles that lady luck threw at them. I personally love my own head space and detest making small talk when out on a trail. This was testing as its in my nature to look for the positive side in adversity and not what the runner may want to hear when they are struggling.
The Ability to Encourage: Yes, this is the most important of all. When you see your last runner dragging his feet, when he stops every ten metres on an uphill, when he walks down an easy descent rather than jogging down this is the moment that you can make the difference. A smile, a convenient phrase – “nearly there”, “just a few more minutes”, only a kilometre to the next aid station”. Believe me they appreciate it. Even if they know that you are exaggerating (it’s actually two kilometres, you’re absolutely nowhere near or it’s going to take at least twenty minutes) the kindly support can give them a boost and keep them moving. My sweep partner, Gracia, was amazing at encouraging the runners. The empathy shown and constant words of encouragement left me feeling rather guilty that I may just have been a little impatient.
At the end of the race when you finally cross the finish line, and your last runner lifts his arms in triumph acknowledging the applause accorded to the last man in, you just gently sidle into a corner and savour the reward of a good job done. Today I have a healthy new respect for sweepers. I reckon that theirs are the hardest yards in any trail or mountain race.
I have a new take on what it means to not be an asshole and be one with a team. I have a new take on what it means to be relied on during extreme adversity. I have a new take on that fine line between performance and trust that makes for a great team member.
To Skyrun, the race directors, support crew and everyone that made it possible I doubt whether the runners will ever know just how hard you guys work behind the scenes to keep them alive. Well done