22nd May 2021 – Twenty one runners died after an extreme weather descended on a mountain trail race in Baiyin City in Gansu province, North West of China. The Huanghe Shilin (Yellow River Stone Forest) 100km trail race which features winding rocky path along the Yellow River, began that Saturday morning in sunny conditions. But within three hours of starting, the weather condition changed to freezing rain, hail and extreme winds, lashing participants in the high-altitude trail-ultra.
Temperature plummeted and runners started to suffer from hypothermia. Most competitors were actually wearing just shorts and T-shirts. The race was halted when some of the 172 runners went missing. A rescue operation was immediately launched with reported search party of 1,200 people strong. But the harsh terrain and terrible visibility forced the search operation into the night.
By Sunday morning, 151 of the 172 race participants had been rescued, with eight hospitalised. Another 21 were found dead.
Among those who perished was 31 year-old Liang Jing, one of China’s famous ultra-marathon runners. He regularly participated in 100km and 100miler trail races, and winning them. At the time of his death, his International Trail Running World Association (ITRA) ranking stood at 918 points, 8th in the world, making him the top ranked trail runner in China and Asia. Liang Jing also comfortably won the last year’s edition of this very race. He was described as one of the top ultra-endurance athletes in the world.
The sudden change of weather may have been the cause of the tragedy. But the organiser of this race have taken heavy criticism from the media and the running community. Could the race organiser have been better prepared for the conditions? There were weather warnings issued the day before the race but nobody expected the extreme conditions that followed. Were there adequate safety measures and assistance provided to the runners? Some pointed that the organising committee failed to provide enough tactical, rescue and security support for the event.
I have participate in a few ultra-trail races so I am all too aware of the many risks that come with running through trails in difficult terrain, thick forest or hilly elevations. Many things can go wrong and sometimes they are beyond our control. We can take precaution and prepare for eventualities but we are by no means a match for the elements.
In this event, many runners simply did not carry enough warm-weather gear because conditions in the previous editions of this race were mild. I read that despite the cold and the wind, some of the runners somehow found the strength and will to continue moving, while others passed the point of exhaustion, left behind and succumbed to hypothermia.
From my experience, gear checks in ultra-trail races are taken very seriously. Runners lacking compulsory items are not allowed to start, and spot checks also are made during the race, leading to time penalties and disqualifications if a compulsory item is missing.
The compulsory gear list usually includes an emergency blanket, simple medical kit consisting of painkillers, antihistamines, anti-diarrhea drugs, gauze and electrolytes, whistle, headlamp with extra batteries and mobile phone. Other items recommended are sunblock, cap for the sun, sunglasses, hiking poles and raincoat.
It was reported that the race had issued a list of both compulsory and recommended gear. The organiser had provided each runner with a GPS tracker that gave the runner’s location. Every runner was also given a racecourse track file to upload on their GPS watch. However, the race had none of the cold weather gear such as a down or waterproof jacket, or long trousers as compulsory items.
This tragedy has weighed heavily on ultra-runners all over the world. It could have happened to any ultra-runners that join the many trail-ultras around the world. Having participated in a few trail races, I can certainly relate to the danger and risk associated with the extreme nature of the sports.
In the past there had been a similar accident in France. It was 2009 and in a 100km trail race at the Grand Raid du Mercantour. Three runners died, in quite a similar fashion – a huge storm came exactly upon the course. Runners slipped and succumbed to hypothermia. The organiser was blamed for not stopping the race on time.
So how has this changed my perception and penchant for running a 100km trail ultra? Truthfully I am shocked that there were so many casualties. It has indeed been my aspirations to one day participate in a few selected beautiful and exotic trail events around the world. I just didn’t realise that running one could be so dangerous and life endangering.
I was also worried that my wife would read about this news and forever ban me from running any trail ultras. Surprisingly this news-feed never appeared in her radar and she has not mentioned anything about this.
Still, perhaps I need to revisit my aspiration for a 100km ultra?
Well, I will think about it.