Tuesday, April 26, 2022

10 reasons to be dead last

I swept the 35 miles of the Promise Land 50K trail. If you have a picture of a white-haired old gal with broom in hand whisking away sticks and stones, that's not it. Not that the white-haired old gal is wrong. It's simply the broom part is not even close.

A trail sweep is a runner whose job it is to stay behind the last competitor, taking down the plastic streamers that mark the way. The obvious reason is to have the course de-marked at the conclusion of the race. A less obvious cause is to deal with any human carnage that may occur: a runner who gets in trouble and may even need medical attention. My job is to do what it takes to stay with the runner and get him or her to safety.

Now that we got that definition out of the way, allow me a few minutes to lay down my top ten reasons to run a race without any hope of a personal best or age-group award. Sweeping is a task that necessarily demands last place.

10. The clock does not apply to me. When a race begins, the clock starts ticking. Competitors must cross the finish line before the clock strikes the final moment. In fact, the runners must arrive at designated aid stations within a fixed time limit lest they be forced to stop. Following the last runner often makes me late as well. But do I stop? Nope. My task is to find and follow the new last runner. Being late is A-OK.

9. The birds chirp louder. Because I run alone sans the chatter so common among runners, the hour following the break of dawn fills with a cacophony of ornithopic song. I am left to wonder what they are saying as one group antiphonally answers another. I almost feel selfish enjoying the private concert.

8. I can dawdle at aid stations. I can only imagine what it must be like to know you are last because I am running on your heels. I try hard to avoid becoming the race's Grim Reaper, being careful to stay in contact but just out of sight. So, when I get to an aid station, it's good if I chat and snack to give the runner more space as they head down the trail to the next aid station before I once again pursue.

7. The flowers are prettier and the streams more picturesque. I know intellectually that the flowers and cascading streams are not dependent on who views them. But it seems to me that the petals are brighter and the waterfalls more spectacular, putting on a show for those who are slow enough to notice.

6. Slow is expected. Yes, a sweeper stays behind whoever is running at the end of the line. That ensures slow, which is particularly helpful when a sweeper's speed is also slow.

5. Experience is gained as a collector of trail trash. Actually, ultrarunners are very good about not dropping a lot of trash as they scamper along forested trail. However, one only truly appreciates how well-marked a course is when tasked with taking down all those streamers, many of which have become hopelessly entangled among the branches. Thousands--literally--of streamers need to by freed one-by-one from the branches, being careful not to leave the knot. Once in my hand, the game becomes "How many can I stuff in the pockets of my shorts before resorting to the trash bag I carry in my pack?"

4. Taking down streamers adds a huge chunk of time spent on the course.
If I had to guess, I spend at least 25-30% more time on the trail when I do a solo sweep. It becomes an endless sequence of run 100 yards. Stop. Untangle. Pull. Stuff in pocket. Repeat. When my pockets bulge and my pack fills to overflowing, I wonder if those who marked the trail had been overzealous. Surely, we love a well-marked course, but streamers hung every 50 yards on single track with no side trails seems a bit of an overkill.

3. Pee with confidence. With the last runner ahead and no one behind, there is no need to hesitate when nature calls. This is reason to celebrate!

2. I am reminded to get out of my own head to help others. On the tough climb up Apple Orchard, I was feeling rough. I downed what calories and fluid I had on hand, thinking that might be the problem. But when I caught not one, but two struggling runners, I was forced to turn up the encouraging yet empathetic dial while avoiding the "way to chipper" vibe that can easily aggravate. Tending to their physical and emotional needs put my own in perspective and reminded me of my purpose.

1. Sweeping reinforces the idea of persistent patience. There is no doubt that sweeping is a way to serve the ultrarunning community. To hand the race director a course that requires no attention in the aftermath is a gift offered to help ease the mountainous responsibilities carried on the RD's shoulders. But as the sweep, I must accept the fact that I will be out there hours longer than it would take to race the course. I will run outside of the competitors' circle. And yet, those hours spent alone are both instructive and special. 

I think about the hundreds of feet that trod the path before me. Some sped along the course, like the top four men whom I intersected as I was at mile 14 and they were approaching 29 on the way to the finish. While mind-blowing, the truth of a 15-mile gap demanded a reasoned persistence in getting comfortable with the required hours ahead; to contemplate my own struggle and doubts for future racing, to miss the camaraderie of those who triumphed in personal achievement at the finish, to view the nearly empty campground marking the finish when I finally arrived, with nothing left to hint at the glorious finishes with equipment and trash bags packed tightly into the beds of pick-up trucks. 

In retrospect, it was Mission Accomplished. I was dead last, spending a long and hot 11 hours and 11 minutes along the rocky, steep and challenging trail. And, I would do it again in a heartbeat.

10 reasons to be dead last

I swept the 35 miles of the Promise Land 50K trail. If you have a picture of a white-haired old gal with broom in hand whisking away sticks...