On Saturday I volunteered at the Lake Martin 50 as the course sweeper. Basically, the sweeper follows behind the last runner on the course and picks up all the course markers and any trash left behind. I was the balloon lady at marathons.
The Lake Martin 50 is a part of the Southeastern Trail Runs organized by David Tosch and his wife Mary Jo. The races that David puts on are great—well-run, personal, and a lot of fun. David and Mary Jo work tirelessly to make sure that everything is just right, and it was nice to see them greet every runner by name as they came into the aid stations.
It was an eye-opening experience for me to watch my first 50-miler and to see all the work that goes into putting on an ultra. Everyone kept the race running smoothly while joking and having a great time. It is important for me to volunteer and give back to the ultra community, because everyone has been so helpful and patient with me.
Here are some things I learned about sweeping:
- Ultras are hard work – Checking in all the runners at the aid stations, cooking and making sure food is stocked, marking the course and sweeping afterward—there are a lot of moving parts to an ultra and many people that make the magic happen. It’s easy to take a well-run race for granted or complain about a bad one without ever thinking about what happens behind the scenes.
- It’s not easy to run solo – I’ve gotten spoiled running with friends and always having someone to talk with and watch their foot placement. Saturday was the first time that I was out solo on the trails, and it was weird at first. I had my Walkman to keep me company, but for the first two hours I really struggled mentally and walked more than I would have with a group.
- Be aware of your surroundings – Always running with friends shed a light on another problem I have—I’m not good at navigating on my own. I always obediently follow the person in front of me and don’t pay close enough attention to my surroundings. I realized this when I made a wrong turn on the final six mile loop of the course and unknowingly pulled the course markers for a section of the course that the final runners hadn’t reached yet. I caught my mistake and scrambled to correct it, but my inattentiveness could have made some runners really angry.
- Don’t expect to go fast… – You’re there to sweep and volunteer and enjoy yourself, not to set a PR. I cringed when I saw that one of my miles took 22 minutes, but that included stopping every few yards to untie ribbons, pick up flags, and pull signs out of the ground. Plus, it was impossible for me to run fast without stabbing myself over and over with the metal flag poles. My legs looked like a rabid raccoon got to them. And remember, you can only go as fast as the final runner.
- …but plan your run – I didn’t put much thought into the logistics of sweeping an ultra—specifically, where I would put all the course markers. Luckily the course crossed over a few roads and I was able to leave piles of flags at the trailheads, but I still ran along with this awkward gait trying to balance the signs and flags while not choking myself on the ribbons around my neck. Next time I will definitely use a hydration pack instead of a handheld to free up my other hand!
- It’s OK to not race – It was very strange to be running the course but not racing it. Being competitive by nature, many times I caught myself wishing that I had run the 27-mile “fun run.” But then I remembered that I love running for the freedom it gives me and for the beautiful scenery that I get to run through, not because of an official finishing time. That being said…
- I can run a 50 – I considered registering and running this as my first 50, but then decided that I wasn’t quite ready yet. After watching all the runners, I am confident that I can run a 50 this fall. It was encouraging to see people walking when they were tired without it being a big deal, and the final runners had such determination that it makes me want to be the same way. One girl had only ever raced a 10k before finishing her first 50. Kudos to her!
Have you ever swept a race?