How Did 21 Runners Die in a Chinese Ultramarathon?

Ryan Fan

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I was not ready — I didn’t have trail shoes and my road shoes felt like slippers. I only wore a sweatshirt, t-shirt, and shorts. I didn’t even have food and water, and the three people I was with graciously offered me gels, food, and water.

But never during that ultramarathon-like effort did I doubt I would make it out okay — unlike the recent ultramarathoners who participated in a trail race in northwest China. According to Jenni Marsh and Eric Cheung on CNN, on May 22, 21 ultramarathoners died due to extreme weather in the Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon in the Gansu Province. While the race started with sunny conditions, but in the afternoon, the conditions changed drastically — there was freezing rain, hail, and gale winds.

As a runner and a Chinese-American, the news bought chills to my body. The casualties were severe, and I can only imagine how much the runners suffered. Among the dead, according to CNN, was Liang Jing, one of the best ultramarathoners in China who won the Ultra Gobi three years ago, a 400-kilometer race through the Gobi Desert. According to the BBC, Liang’s nicknames were “Liang God” and “General Liang.” Liang had only worn a thin jacket and shorts during the whole race. The BBC also notes Huang Guanjun, a high-profile hearing impaired marathoner, also died during the race. One friend noted Huang couldn’t even ask for help because he was deaf and could not speak.

One runner said the hail felt like “bullets hitting the face,” and many of the runners suffered from hypothermia. Many runners originally came to the event because of an incentive — each runner who completed the event was offered 1,600 yuan ($248).

But how did the race go so wrong?

Guan Cong and Timmy Shen at Nikkei Asia attribute the tragedy to the lack of safety standards in the trail cross country running world. While road races with very set expectations and requirements, the trail running world does not have the same standards, while navigating more treacherous terrain. Runners who ran the event said the race was not well-organized, and the organizers did not require windproof running jackets in compulsory gear. These standards do not age well in a sport that is gaining fast in popularity:

“Industry insiders tell Caixin that enthusiasm for the sport has outpaced careful planning and risk control…There are no uniform standards, and in practice, organizers come up with different rules and standards based on a race’s difficulty level.” Cong and Shen said.

Trail runs often happen in rural areas with high elevations, and now, hundreds of companies organize such trail running events to bring sponsors and raise profile. The industry relies largely on sponsorships from tour groups, brands, and local governments. The costs of putting on such events are also expensive, with one veteran organizer saying they range from 300,000 yuan to 5 million yuan.

The company that ran the event is called Shengjing Sports and Cultural Development Co. Ltd., who first started running the event in 2018. The executive team running the event was temporary and included many family members and friends of the company. Currently, authorities are investigating what happened, and the General Administration of Sport and the China Methodological Administration are involved in the investigation.

Veteran race organizer Wang Yan said the tragedy was largely due to the inexperience of the company. The event has rocked the Chinese trail running community, with Shen and Cong saying over four races were canceled or postponed indefinitely.

During the race, one shepherd named Zhu Keming heroically saved six trail runners from the weather, and arguably from death. According to Phillip Wang at CNN, Zhu was grazing sheep, but then the weather turned terrible. This kind of weather is “really rare,” in his words. Around 1 p.m., Zhu encountered a runner who could not run anymore and let him stay in the cave. Four other runners also stayed in the cave and Zhu carried one struggling runner into the cave. Fellow people from his village also aided in the research and rescue mission. Zhu became a viral social media sensation, but he said he did “a normal, ordinary thing” and he apologized for not saving more people from their death.

And then there’s the weather — how did it turn so bad? In mountains, Helen Davidson says it’s not uncommon for the weather to turn extreme. Local reports said the National Early Warning Information Center issued a warning of hail and strong winds beforehand. 1,200 people came to search and rescue all 172 race participants, and many of those responders were heroes in their own right.

Takeaways

Questions arise when reading about the tragedy:

How did no one see this happening?
Why did no one predict the weather?
How were local race organizers not prepared?

And then I have to hold myself back. Is casting blame really a productive step forward? Or is casting blame just a way of putting us more at peace and satiating our need for vigilante justice? I’m not saying no one should be held accountable, but there is a chance no one could have prepared for such a freak accident — and the ultramarathon community, both in China and across the world is reeling from the tragedy.

The lesson for all ultramarathon and even marathon events is to prepared for emergencies and the worst possible situations. I have run three marathons, and there were times in all three where I felt like I could barely move. Fortunately, they were all in cities and paved roads and I was not navigating mountains or adverse conditions, but I have what might be an unpopular opinion:

This could have happened in any ultramarathon trail race. The tragedy is indicative of a systemic need to raise standards across the ultramarathon worldwide community. One trail runner said the whole industry needs to raise its compulsory equipment standards, stronger oversight, and more medical support. Perhaps it is crass and insensitive to urge people to reserve judgment on race organizers, but for long cross country race organizers around the world to prepare better to make sure something like this never happens again.

Will Ford at Outside Magazine is intimately connected with the Chinese ultramarathon community and the question wasn’t if a tragedy like that could happen, but when that kind of tragedy could happen. Many ultramarathoners told Ford they were lost at high elevations without medical support and volunteers. And how China is going has dealt with the tragedy, politically, is the utmost caution. Politicians originally saw marathons and ultramarathon as a moneymaker and a source of revenue for tourism. A growing Chinese middle class bought into the trend, but now the government is responding with a crackdown — endurance and cross country events are being treated with restraint and being canceled.

I love running — but this is a lesson for the whole running community across the world. These races are not to be nonchalantly organized— they can go terribly wrong and they must prepare for emergencies. Or else, human lives are at stake.

Photo from watarukawa on Wikipedia Commons

Originally published on Medium on May 26, 2021.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

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