Last month I returned to the West Highland Way Race for the seventh consecutive year. I have been involved in this race in three different ways – I ran it myself in 2015, I was support crew for runners in 2011, 2012, and 2016, and in 2013, 2014, and 2017 I have been part of the squad of race crew volunteers who make this amazing event happen. Specifically in these years, I have been part of the Sweep Team, who are a small but important group of runners outsourced by race control to look after the back end of the race. I’ve written ‘Race Reports’ of my sweeping experiences in the past (2013, 2014), but this year I’ve decided to take a more informational approach to my write-up of the 2017 West Highland Way Race. What does a sweep team actually do? How do we do it, and do we really need to be there? Read on for my thoughts on how to sweep an ultramarathon successfully, and how to avoid some common errors when planning for a task which can be surprisingly complicated…
What is a race sweeper?
A sweeper is a person, or team of persons, who stay at the very back of a race with the slowest participants to ensure their safety. Every organised race will have a sweeper or sweepers, but the longer the race, the more important they become. The reason they are there is to make sure the runners who are out the longest are given the support they need, to keep Race Control in touch with what is happening at the back of the race, and to provide additional support to marshals along the route. In the case of the West Highland Way Race, several of the team are also trained in Outdoor Emergency First Aid, and thus are able to respond professionally in a range of emergency circumstances on a route which in places can be very remote and exposed.
Sweepers are part of the Race Crew
The role of the individual sweeper when out on the course is very specific, but even when we’re not ‘running’ we are often required to be useful. Once the two sweepers have left each checkpoint behind the last runner, the remaining team members can help marshals to close the checkpoint, tidy up litter, and pack up race vans before moving on up the course to the next checkpoint. The nature of the West Highland Way Race means that sometimes there are several hours of dead time as the runners make their way up the route – occasionally we might be called upon to run back down the route to meet an injured runner or to provide other checkpoint assistance, but more often than not it’s a good opportunity for a cuppa or a snooze.
Organisation is key
Planning the execution of a sweep of a 95 mile trail race over a period of 35 hours is a real challenge, especially when the race is ‘point to point’ and your team of six sweepers are arriving by car from five different locations. Which cars do you use? Are people insured to drive other vehicles? How do you get people back to their vehicles at the end? How many miles are people capable of covering? What’s Plan B for every possible situation?
At the West Highland Way Race, experience has taught us that six is the magic number for the size of the race crew, and each member needs to be able to cover around 30-35 miles each, in two or three shifts. This means that we only need two cars for the duration of the race, and as long as most of the crew can drive vehicles that are not their own, we can share driving and running without the need for a dedicated driver. Any more than six people makes the car accommodations cramped and the logistics become more challenging. Sometimes the secret is just to keep it simple!
The final point on organisation, is that once you’ve agreed to a plan – stick to it once the race has started. Unless there’s a genuinely good reason to change plans on the hoof, the checkpoint teams and Race HQ will be relying on you being where you say you will be, and when. The sweep team race support plan is submitted to the Race Safety Officer in advance of the race, and it is generally assumed that this will not change on the day. We need to be a reliable asset to Race Management for the full 35 hours.
Make sure you’re fit
It goes without saying that if you’re going to cover 30-40 miles over the course of a weekend, then you need to be in reasonable shape. One of the unique challenges of sweeping, however, is the fact that you will very rarely be running or covering ground at your own pace. Due to being at the back of the race, much of your time on course will be spent walking, and walking very slowly in the latter half of the race. If you’re a fit road marathon runner, then you might need to do some hill walking to prepare your legs for the slog – walking for eight hours fatigues you in different ways than running for four hours does!
You’ll need to be mentally tough, too; do you know what 30 minute miles feels like when it’s 4am, you’re somewhere in the dark in the pouring rain, and you’ve been awake for 40 hours? It doesn’t feel good, but you’re not allowed to complain, ESPECIALLY within earshot of a runner. Your job is to provide support, not require it, so get ready to push through those mental barriers to do your job well.
Take the right kit
You’ll need to be prepared for anything, especially in a race which lasts 35 hours and covers a variety of terrains in a climate which is notorious for change. Last year at the West Highland Way Race the temperature hit 25C, but this year saw a ‘feels like’ temperature of 1C and 40mph winds for much of the second half of the race. Oh, and it also rained solidly for the last 24 hours of the race, so there was that too. In June. Welcome to summer in the Highlands.
Also bear in mind that you will be covering your miles in two or maybe three shifts – if it rains as much as it did this year, that’s three entirely separate sets of kit. Waterproof jackets work well to a point, but even the best ones start to fail after being subject to hours of heavy precipitation, and there will be no way to dry anything until you’re home again on the Monday. Pack ALL your winter weather gear, and then go to your friend’s house to borrow theirs as well. Don’t forget to pack some binbags too – multiple sets of wet and sweaty kit in a car boot for a couple of days smells just as bad as you might imagine it does…
You’ll also need some peripheral equipment – a head torch, a spare head torch, spare batteries, spare batteries for your spare batteries, a midgy net, anti-midge spray, torch, first aid kit, and a backpack big enough for the emergency equipment we have to carry (bivvy bags, emergency shelter, radio, emergency flares). What are you going to eat? Are you sure you’re going to want to eat that at 4am in Kinlochleven? Preparing to be on a sweep team is a mammoth effort, but worth doing well for your own comfort and sanity.
The runner always comes first
Sweeping a race, especially a huge challenge like the West Highland Way Race, is a very rewarding and enjoyable experience. But it’s not about you. Your number one priority at all times has to be the runners – from cheering them off on their way at 1am on Saturday morning, to coaxing the last one over the line 34 and a half hours later, your sole focus needs to be on their well-being and safety at all times. It’s not an opportunity for a free race entry, it’s not about time on feet training, and it’s not about the opportunity to recce a route or just have a nice day out on the trails. As a member of the Race Team, you are there to do a job.
It’s about making sure the back of the field are moving quickly enough to meet the cut offs in the early stages. It’s about keeping the appropriate distance from them so you’ve got them in sight, but they don’t feel pressure about being last. It’s about making sure you leave no-one behind. It’s about providing stern encouragement to keep going when the first doubts start to come in at half way. It’s about staying close behind them climbing the Devil’s Staircase in the darkness in order to provide them extra light with your head torch. It’s about making sure they’re eating enough in the latter stages when even their support runner is struggling to think straight. It’s about pushing them on relentlessly, yet kindly, in the last miles, when the tears are flowing and it hurts so much, but they still want it so badly. It’s about jogging into the Leisure Centre carpark a few steps behind and then subtly peeling off into the crowds to be invisible, so that nothing detracts from their moment of victory.
The final West Highland Way Race finisher of 2017. Photo by Christopher Burns.
Be flexible, and be ready for anything
There was that time one of our sweepers fell and twisted his ankle 12 miles in, and suddenly the careful mileage plan for everyone went in to the bin. Then there was that time when a car accident blocked the A82 and none of the support crews could get into Beinglas to fuel their runners. Or, what about that time someone got so angry at being timed out at Auchtertyre, that they threw a strop at the marshals and kept on running anyway? Or the one time that a runner was hallucinating so badly on Rannoch Moor that we had to carry them in to the next checkpoint, because he was so determined that the Mini Cooper blocking the path ahead was there to drive him home…
I have a lot of fond memories from my years as a West Highland Way Race sweeper, and I look forward to many more in future. It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve done outside of running the race myself, in fact, I’m sure I’ve been quoted as saying that I took a break from organising the sweep team in 2015 in order to run the race for a rest!
I firmly believe that everyone who runs ultramarathons needs to take a step off the trails to volunteer a few times a year. The satisfaction of giving back to your sport is huge, and the alternative perspective of seeing others execute their races is fascinating. It really builds the sense of community as well; ultramarathon communities are known for their family feel which keeps people coming back for more, and there’s nothing like volunteering at an event to whet your thirst to get back on a starting line yourself!
Have you ever swept a race before?
What’s your favourite way to give back to the running community?