Old Version
Special Report

Tragedy on the Trail

China has suspended ultramarathons after 21 runners died of hypothermia during a desert mountain race. A provincial-led investigation cites poor planning and management, while experts say lack of regulation is also to blame

By Xie Ying , Xu Tian , Xu Dawei Updated Aug.1

Runners compete in the ill-fated ultramarathon at Yellow River Stone Forest park, Baiyin, Gansu Province, May 22, 2021

Wang Jinming felt his arms and legs going numb. He struggled to get out his thermal blanket, but his incessant shivering made it difficult. It took him 20 minutes, only for the wind to rip it from his hands. Too weak to stand, he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled. Wang fought the gripping cold by constantly moving. He bit down hard on his lips as a way to keep from slipping into unconsciousness.  

“It was so horrible. I cry every time I think about it,” Wang told NewsChina from a hospital bed in Jingtai County, Northwest China’s Gansu Province. His hands and knees were covered with wounds.  

Wang was among the 151 runners to survive a sudden storm that struck during an ultramarathon held in Jingtai County on May 22. Twenty-one runners died of hypothermia as temperatures plunged, the icy rain and winds trapping them unprepared in the desert mountains during the 100-kilometer race.  

At a press conference on May 23, officials from the nearby city of Baiyin, which held the event, called the tragedy a “public safety accident” caused by “sudden extreme weather.” Many accused the organizers of poor emergency planning and inadequate safety measures.  

The results of an official investigation released June 11 placed the blame squarely on the event’s poor management and unprofessional operation. In total 27 officials and government employees were punished, while five employees from the event’s organizer, Gansu Shengjing Sports, were arrested. 

On June 2, China’s General Administration of Sport suspended all ultramarathons and other endurance contests in extreme environments that have not yet been officially regulated.  

Caught in the Cold 
The annual ultramarathon is held at the Yellow River Stone Forest park, which sits at an altitude of 1,300-2,300 meters. The course has a cumulative climbing distance of 3,000 meters and a 20-hour time limit.  

According to the official statement, the storm hit at about 21-30 kilometers from the start, in an area between checkpoints two and three where most of the runners were at the time. With 1,000-meter inclines, it is the most difficult section of the course.  

Unlike other checkpoints in the race, organizers did not stock checkpoint three with supplies due to the rough terrain.  

“It’s a desolate area with extremely steep slopes. It was hard for people to keep going or backtrack, especially when there were no supplies,” Wang told NewsChina. Wang recalled seeing six other runners between the checkpoints struggling through the wind and hail. “I told them to keep moving, but they seemed out of steam,” he said.  

Liu Xibing does not remember being rescued. “I only remember that I was pinned down by the wind and lost consciousness,” he told NewsChina. A video clip taken by another runner shows Liu in a short-sleeved shirt, lying on the ground and foaming at the mouth.  

Like many survivors, Liu was rescued by local shepherds. Others found shelter in mountain caves.  

Zhang Li said he turned back and his leg began to cramp. About three kilometers from checkpoint two, he took refuge in a stone cottage. “It was like a natural shelter and was finally crowded with over 40 runners,” he told NewsChina, adding that they were shivering and huddled together for warmth.  

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses more heat than it produces. As body temperature falls below 35 C, symptoms include uncontrollable shivering, exhaustion and loss of memory. When core temperatures reach 28 C, the shivering stops. This is extreme hypothermia, an excruciating state marked by a weakened pulse, shallow breathing, confusion and fading consciousness. If not treated in time, the victim falls into a coma that can result in death.  

“A rainstorm can make hypothermia even worse, and one of the biggest risks is it can make a runner lose consciousness,” Liu Yang, a physician and avid runner in Beijing, told NewsChina. “A runner may seem to be running as normal when they’re already confused and unaware of their actions... In that state, the runner could veer off course and go missing,” he said.  

Among those who died during the race is Liang Jing, a leading marathon and extreme endurance runner in China.  

Photographer Guo Jian told social media account Esquire Studio that he and his team planned to photograph Liang and other runners in the lead as they reached checkpoint four. However, no one arrived.  

It was after nightfall when rescuers found Liang’s lifeless body lying with another three runners in a shepherd’s hut. The shepherd had lit a fire, but it was not enough to save Liang and two others from hypothermia.  

Media reports said that among the six runners that initially took the lead in the race, only one, Zhang Xiaotao, survived.  

Firefighters from Gansu provincial fire station rescue a runner, May 22, 2021

Delayed Response 
Many participants told media that they noticed the wind picking up at the start. Violent gusts blew the hats off of runners’ heads.  

“The wind actually started before the race started, but it wasn’t enough to influence it... The first section is mostly valleys and gentle slopes, so the wind was not a factor,” Zhang Li told NewsChina.  

Runner Li Jian’an recalled that he felt the wind become stronger while approaching checkpoint one, but the rain was still light. By the time he arrived at checkpoint two, the rain became heavier and he began showing signs of hypothermia.  

The weather began changing at 8am, and over the next five hours temperatures would drop around 5 to 7 degrees C, the June 11 investigation report read. Winds registered force 6-7 on the Beaufort scale (39-61km/h), with the strongest gusts reaching force 8-9 (62- 88km/h). 
“My cap couldn’t block the rain out,” he told NewsChina. 

Considering the bad weather and the complicated terrain ahead, Li Jian’an and several other runners trailing behind the leaders quit the race at checkpoint two.  

Li said the leaders encountered the storm on their way to checkpoint three. He did not receive any notification that the race was called off.  

At about 1pm, Li overheard a phone conversation of a member of Blue Sky Rescue, a private, non-profit organization on standby for the race: “My experience tells me we have to stop the race now,” Li said he heard the rescuer say, adding that whoever he was talking to seemed reluctant, as the rescuer became upset and shouted: “I’m telling you, you’ve got to stop the race. I’ve already tried my best,” before suddenly hanging up, Li said.  

Photographer Guo Jian told Esquire Studio that he saw Liang Jing arrive at checkpoint two at around 10:40am. The wind was so strong that it blew over his camera equipment. At about 11am, one of his colleagues messaged the organizing committee to ask whether the race would continue, but received no reply. They proceeded to checkpoint four, as the terrain to drive to checkpoint three was too rough.  

Guo Jian and his colleagues arrived at 2:30pm, unaware of what was happening on the trail. They became concerned when none of the leading runners reached checkpoint four at the expected time. Guo saw the first runner at 2:37pm, escorted by one of his colleagues. The runner told Guo that course markers had been blown away, and he had run 2 kilometers in the wrong direction before rechecking the route with an offline map on his phone. As far as the runner knew, there were already around 16-17 others on the trail with hypothermia.  

Guo Jian said race personnel had not yet received news of the cancelation at that time, and only saw four runners reach the checkpoint. Three of them, including Guo Yuting (pseudonym), chose to continue the race.  

Guo Yuting later told news app Beijing Toutiao that she was forced to stop at 8:40pm. “I was at the 68-kilometer mark... I was already emotional over the sudden suspension when a photographer told me Liang Jing died in the race... I was stunned,” she said.  

The next morning, Guo Yuting learned that two of her other friends in the race had died.  

Shepherd Zhu Keming stands in the cave where he helped the six runners he saved to take shelter, May 24, 2021

Who Is to Blame? 
According to the Baiyin government statement, dispatched rescuers first reached the race site at about 2pm. Given the bad weather, the race’s organizers requested help from the Yellow River Stone Forest’s management committee, which dispatched its emergency rescue team and called off the race.  

Many runners told media that the rescue came far too late.  

“I saw that people started to ask for rescue in the race chat group at about 1pm, and SOS messages became more frequent around 2pm... but the official response was slow,” Li Jian’an said.  

Cheng Wenqing, a rescuer from the local fire station, blamed the slow response on the rough terrain. “We didn’t even know the specific location of the trapped runners... the signal kept breaking up,” he told NewsChina. “We were unfamiliar with this remote area and had to search along the course markers,” he added.  

According to Cheng, his team set off from checkpoint four, and the farther they went, the steeper the slopes were. Some lengths of the course ran along clifftops, Cheng said. The death toll would have been greater if it had not been for the assistance and guidance of local shepherds like Zhu Keming, who helped rescue six runners who sought shelter in a cave.  

According to photographer Guo Jian, full-scale rescue efforts did not start until 7pm after the local government requested assistance from provincial authorities.  

When news of the disaster broke, some on social media accused the runners of being inexperienced and underdressed for the unpredictable weather in the mountainous area.  

But those voices fell silent after media reported that five of the six runners that led the race early on, including former Yellow River Stone Forest winner Liang Jing and Huang Guanjun, gold-medalist marathoner at the 7th National Games for the Disabled in 2010 and the 7th China Special Olympics held in 2019, had died. Netizens turned their criticism toward the organizers, especially after Baiyin’s meteorology bureau told media that it had issued gale-force wind alerts on May 21 and notified the race’s organizing committee.  

“The committee didn’t notify us about the weather,” runner Zhang Li told NewsChina. Like many of the other athletes, Zhang prepared for sunburn and heatstroke. He wore long tights and sun sleeves under his T-shirt and shorts, and had a jacket and thermal underwear waiting for him at checkpoint six.  

Many runners told media that organizers did not require runners to bring jackets, something that experts said are a necessity for mountain races.  

According to Li Jian’an, the organizing committee held a pre-race meeting for participants where they analyzed the course and checked their equipment, but potential risks were not discussed. 

A physical therapist at the First-affiliated Hospital with Nanjing Medical University, Li complained about the lack of supplies at checkpoint three. “There weren’t any supplies. Only two people to log times. What if someone had an accident on the mountain? They should have arranged for some first-aid supplies at least,” he said.  

Lu Lu, whose father died in the race, posted on May 23 that her family received a call at dawn from the organizing committee, saying her father had gone missing without providing further information. She later spotted him in a photo posted online of three runners behind a boulder. Her father was lying on the ground and foaming at the mouth.  

In her post, Lu listed a number of issues about the race, including the delayed notification of victims’ families, the lack of supplies at checkpoints, poor preparation for the weather and timely release of details. According to her, the organizing committee did not confirm her father’s death with her until around 9:30am on May 23.  

Baiyin city officials held a second press conference on May 25 about medical treatment and compensation for the victims, but did not reply to any questions from media.  

Participants wait behind the starting line of the Yellow River Stone Forest ultramarathon in Baiyin, Gansu Province, May 22

Zhang Xiaotao (in yellow) was the only survivor among the race’s six lead runners

Race to Develop 
The tragedy drew public concern about the development of extreme sports and marathons, which boomed in 2015 after the Chinese Athletic Association (CAA) did away with the approval system and lifted restrictions on race registration. Official data showed that in 2019, 1,828 marathons were hosted on the Chinese mainland, nearly four times the amount in 2014.  

Although ultramarathons are less popular considering the greater challenge, their numbers also increased.  

“100-kilometer ultramarathons started to become popular five to six years ago, and many regions, especially in southwestern and northwestern China with unique landscapes and terrain, organize ultramarathons as a way to promote local tourism,” Wei Bi a sports medic with experience working such competitions, told NewsChina.  

The Yellow River Stone Forest park, for example, previously hosted three ultramarathons. Media reports said that Baiyin started promoting tourism in 2008 as the mining industry had depleted the area’s mineral resources, mainly copper.  

In a post on Sina Weibo, Xu Keyi as she identified herself on Sina Weibo, who has helped organize more than 10 ultramarathons, expressed her doubts as to whether the region was suited for such races, though most professional ultramarathoners consider the Stone Forest race below average in difficulty. “There are no shelters between checkpoints two and four, and the runners would be between a rock and a hard place at checkpoint three, so they should have provided more safety measures at checkpoint three,” she posted.  

“They managed to hold three [successful] races, but that might have been sheer luck... Extreme weather should be taken into consideration when holding a cross-country race in such a region,” she added.  

According to Wei Bi, most extreme endurance races in China are run by small companies that generally lack experience and want to keep costs low.  

According to Shangyou News, a news app run by the Chongqing Daily, Gansu Shengjing Sports only had around 22 employees. Many of the on-site personnel were temporary workers. 

Despite its small size, the company, established in 2016, had won the bids for the Stone Forest races for four consecutive years, each worth around 1-1.5 million yuan (US$156,300-234,500). 

The news sparked heated discussions, where many alleged the local government and the company had engaged in shady deals and kickbacks. However, no official source has addressed these allegations. Journalists have not been able to contact the company.  

“Given ultramarathons are less popular... governments don’t have enough of a budget and generally dedicate around 1 million yuan (US$156,300). But this isn’t enough,” said the manager of a longdistance race organizing company who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Local governments have a tendency to give the race to the lowest bidder and they won’t necessarily check whether the operator is reliable,” he told NewsChina, revealing that in recent years, less-developed or even poverty-stricken regions have held marathons in the hopes of attracting investment and tourism.  

The manager said that many organizers and operators hold longdistance races despite not having the proper resources. “Compared to regular marathons, ultramarathons are much more difficult to organize and operate, three to four times more difficult,” he said.  

“When they hold competitions, organizers should take local conditions into consideration. They shouldn’t be reckless and try to hold a 100-kilometer race [straight away]. Instead, they can start with shorter races and slowly accumulate experience to attract talented runners according to their own resources.”  

Ultramarathons were unregulated in China until this April, when the CAA included a set of standards for organizing them in its latest documents for marathon management. However, experts say the new standards are too general and hard to implement. It is still unclear as to which organization officially has the authority to supervise ultramarathon races, the CAA or the Chinese Mountaineering Association.  

“Long-distance races began in Europe and the US, which have accumulated years of experience in holding them and are well-equipped with supporting institutions... Some [Chinese] organizers only imported the race format while disregarding the supporting institutions and underlying spirit,” Wei said. 

Runners huddle under thermal blankets, May 22, 2021

A runner is treated for hypothermia at the People’s Hospital of Jingtai County, Baiyin, Gansu Province, May 23, 2021