Sweeping the trail

I like to volunteer. I especially enjoy volunteering when the activity includes one or more of my dogs and the outdoors.

One such volunteer activity is trail sweeping for ultra-distance trail races. Sweeping involves taking down trail markers (ribbons made from engineering tape, glow sticks, reflective tape) while always staying behind the last place runner and making sure they're doing alright. 

For seven out of the past ten years, I've swept the last twenty miles of the Cascade Crest Classic 100 Mile Trail Run, held in late August near the small town of Easton, WA. The course is beautiful and very challenging, traversing forests and mountains along the Cascade Mountain range in central Washington. The last 20 miles are particularly challenging. When I sweep this section, I'm moving on fresh legs; every time I do it, I marvel that the runners - who have already traversed 80 difficult miles, through the night - are able to do it. The runners have 32 hours to finish. Not all of them do. In fact, the one down side to this particular volunteer job is that I often have to be the one to tell a struggling runner who just misses a time cut off at the mile 80 aid station that they won't be allowed to continue on. That breaks my heart. Many years ago, I ran the Western States 100 Mile Trail Run, so I know all about the months-long investment in training, the emotional highs and low during the race itself, the physical struggles keeping your legs and stomach going, and the letdown when things don't go as planned. I don't like being the voice of reality, telling someone their dream - for this particular year and event - has come to an end.

When I first volunteered to do this job, the girls (my two Malamutes) joined me. What fun we had! Now, Finn is my sweeping companion, along with one or two other people since the dogs aren't any help pulling ribbons off trees.

Finn alongside trail to Thorp Mountain Lookout, a steep climb. The guy in the white shirt, Evan, is the last place runner at this point in the event.
This year, the weather is perfect, although because of the dry summer, the trail dust is thick. Having plenty of ripe huckleberries to eat along way makes up for the dust. Well, a little bit.

As volunteer jobs go, this one is way fun: I get to spend roughly six hours in the mountains with my dog on trails, chatting with aid station personnel who also volunteer year after year and provide me and Finn with food and water every five miles or so (Finn especially appreciated the left over bacon at the French Cabin Creek aid station, mile 90 while I enjoyed quesadillas). I also love getting to know some of the back-of-the-pack runners, encouraging them to keep struggling toward the elusive finish line.

When the sun's out - like this year - the vistas are stunning.

There are even some wildflowers still blooming at the higher elevations, between 4000 - 6000 feet.

Glenn Tachiyama, professional photographer, getting photos of each racer as they make the climb up to Thorp Mountain Lookout at mile 85 on the course.
As Finn and I climb up to the top of Thorp Mountain, we see Glenn Tachiyama, who positions himself along this stretch of trail every year to get great photos of the racers with a stunning backdrop, including Kachess Lake. Glenn snaps a photo of me and Finn.

Thorp Mountain Lookout, with wildflowers alongside the trail.

The out-and-back stretch up to the Thorp Mountain Lookout offers stunning views, but it comes late in the race and is really hard on tired, trashed legs. Back-of-the-packers really struggle here. There's an aid station at the bottom of this stretch - a sort of dog-leg off the main course - and it would be easy for a runner to just go through the aid station without doing the climb to the Forest Service Lookout. To make sure all racers do this stretch, there's a bucket of tickets at the Lookout; the runners have to take a ticket to prove they were there. My job as sweep is to take all the remaining tickets and flagging down after the last runner snags his ticket.

Finn pretends to enjoy the scenery as much as I do.

Finn and I have a blast. We'll be back next year. And the next year ... for as long as they'll let us volunteer.

Rebecca WallickComment