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How 21 Runners Lost Their Lives in a Chinese Ultramarathon


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The last time anyone saw Huang Guanjun alive, he was climbing a steep rocky slope. Howling winds. The hail and rain pounded, but Huang heard nothing. He ran, as always, in silence.

It was midday on May 22, more than 24 kilometers in a 100-kilometer ultramarathon through the Yellow River Stone Forest in northwest China’s Gansu Province. One hundred seventy-two runners were roaming through canyons and sand and stone mountains, including Zhang Xiaotao, who waved to Huang when he passed him in the storm.

Zhang later posted on the Internet that Huang pointed to his ears, “which means he cannot hear.”

The next time Huang was seen was around 2 a.m. when, according to local reports, a rescue team found his body in a rugged area. When word reached the survivors, one of the runners shouted to a close correspondent: “He was deaf and dumb! He couldn’t even ask for help.”

Huang was one of 21 runners who perished when they were overcome by freezing temperatures, gusts of 32 to 46 mph winds and hail. The news shocked China and the wider ultramarathon world. The worst such incident in running history, caused widespread mourning and criticism of race organizers and halted numerous marathons and races across the country.

Rescuers carry equipment as they search for runners.

(AFP / Getty Images)

The victims were among the best runners in China: Liang Jing, 31, won the 400-kilometer Ultra Guppy race in 2018, running for three and a half days across a desert road that included a 4,000-meter night climb in extremely cold temperatures. He has won the Gansu race three times before, usually finishing in under nine hours. His fellow contestants dubbed him “Liang God”.

Huang, 33, was a marathon champion at the 2019 Chinese National Paralympic Games. In 2014, a reporter named Yan Jing A glance Huang to the local newspaper in Sichuan Province. She wrote that he was pale and skinny at the time, “like a student.” I noticed him in the marathon that year as he ranked second out of 40 runners from his hometown, Mianyang.

The report said that Huang, who was born healthy to a farmer, had heard and spoken about the wrong injection to treat the disease when he was one year old. He left school after the seventh grade, unable to keep up with the class. Learn computer and embroidery skills in a vocational school. He ran: 10 to 20 kilometers a day, made his way to the marathons, collecting a bag full of medals and certificates, which he showed the reporter one by one.

Running has become Huang’s faith and a reason to be confronted every day, he told Yan on the Chinese chatting app QQ. His username at the time was Lonely Running.

By this year, he changed it to Love Running. Dream of running. He became champion in his marathon time 2:38:29 in 2019. Gansu was his first 100k. Silently wait for the start.

Night photo of rescue workers helping runners.

Lifeguards help stumbling runners.

(AFP / Getty Images)

Trail running boom

Chris Van de Velde, racing director at Nordic Ways, an outdoor sports company that organizes cycling and jogging in the region, said running has blossomed over the past decade in Asia, but safety guidelines have not kept up, mostly due to budget woes. China.

Van de Velde said low-budget regulators often cut costs for equipment like GPS devices or have a professional rescue team on standby. At the same time, contestants and organizers became “somewhat satisfied” with the risks of the sport, he said, and held increasingly extreme events without preparing for the consequences.

One of the dangers of running down trails, especially in the mountains and during unpredictable weather, is hypothermia: when a runner’s body drops to dangerously low temperatures. This can happen even in non-freezing weather, especially with wind and rain. The first signs of it are shivering, followed by mental confusion, fatigue, blurred vision, and stiffness of the limbs.

Few runner deaths have occurred worldwide over the years, including in elite athletes in Germany, France, Spain, the United States and the United Kingdom The most common causes are hypothermia or falls off cliffs.

“I was always a little anxious,” Van de Velde said, “about what would happen if one day really bad weather or people got stuck up the mountain due to dehydration, hypothermia and grave dangers – and unfortunately now, in Gansu, it all came at a boost. One. ”

Cold start

The day looked cold and cloudy. But the contestants did not expect severe weather, according to Wandering in the South, a WeChat name for a race participant whose account was widely shared and reported by state media, although he chose to remain anonymous.

Organizers recommended that runners carry jackets, but did not require that, depending on the race Systems. Many passed their jackets over to the volunteers so they could take them on the night portion of the run.

At 8:20 am, Liang posted a video filled with the sound of raging winds on WeChat. “This wind is a little big,” he wrote.

At nine in the morning, the mayor of Bayen fired the start of the race shot. Contestants sped off, many of them wearing shorts and short sleeves.

At 9:56 a.m., Liang was driving at the first checkpoint, running in a white hat, shorts and a black jacket with the sleeves folded.

By 10:44 a.m., Liang had passed the second checkpoint, Guo Jian, one of the racing cameramen, said in a photo report compiled by Sanlian Lifewick magazine for Chinese business. The wind was so strong that it blew off some of his equipment.

At 11 am, it was raining. Guo asked if the organizers intended to stop the race. He received no response and headed to Checkpoint 4, taking a 60-kilometer road around Mt.

Checkpoint 3 It was on that mountain, claiming to climb 1,000 meters over eight kilometers, mostly on stone and sand. The road was not accessible by car. There was no supply station, just a yellow flag. The traveling runner wrote that most of the runners crawled up this cliff with their hands and feet. The weather worsened in the early afternoon. He said that the rain hit his face “like bullets,” and the wind was showering his wet body. Take out a thin thermal blanket. Torn by the wind.

The traveling runner soon lost the sensation in his fingers. His tongue was cold. He descended from the mountain, shivering in the fog, and felt a woolly vertigo settling in his mind. He kept saying to himself: “I must go down.”

Take refuge in a hut with a dozen other runners. They staggered one by one, and many of them were crying, saying they had seen others lying on the road, some frothing in their mouth.

“The winds on the mountain are very strong,” said Lu Jing, who is famous for being the first Chinese woman to climb all fourteen mountains of the world over eight thousand meters. Her voice in the video was barely audible over the storms. A tin blanket was draped over a blue windbreaker.

She turned back. The other contestants strewn in front and behind in the rain.

A man stands in a cave in Mylar blankets and dumped water bottles.

Sponsor Chu Kiming was hailed as champion to save six Ultramarathon runners. He stands in the cave where he takes shelter with the doomed runners.

(AFP / Getty Images)

The Good Shepherd

Zhang, the runner who overtook Huang in the storm, was trying to climb. He was fourth at the time. But the wind kept beating him. His limbs felt stiff and heavy, and his body slowly slid out of control. Last fall, he pulled the thermal blanket, pressed SOS on the Global Positioning System (GPS) and lost consciousness.

After two and a half hours, he found the shepherd Zhang, pulled him into a cave, changed his wet clothes and wrapped him in a blanket in front of the fire. It took an hour for Zhang to regain consciousness.

The sponsor’s name was Chu Kiming. He told the Beijing News that he was grazing nearly 30 of his sheep that day when the rainstorm started. He hid in a cave and fell asleep, but someone woke him up around 2 pm calling for help. It was a runner. Then another. Chu rescued six contestants, soaked in water, shivering, and injured, including Zhang.

The shepherd kept his fire burning, and fed her the pages he had torn from a book.

It is unclear when the race organizers were notified of the runners who had fallen, but by 2 pm, the city of Bayan had informed them of the bad weather. At Checkpoint 4, Guo, the photographer, saw a bunch of rescuers searching for the runners around 4:30 p.m., larger firefighting teams arrived around 7 p.m., they said they had lost their way.

“There is no sign here, there is no navigation, so only people who know the road can find it,” Guo said.

it was dark. The word was spreading all over China. State media reported that more than 700 rescuers roamed the mountain overnight. Headlights and light bulbs lit the ground.

The family receives a call

A woman in Guizhou City received a phone call during the night from the race organizers. They said her husband was lost, but they were working to find him. Her 21-year-old daughter, who is a college student, saw a video on the Internet of a unconscious runner, foam seeping from his mouth. He looked like her father.

The family has booked flights to reach Gansu, a poor province in need of the money the race brings. On board, the daughter wrote a note to be posted later on the Weibo website: “Why is the race being conducted without proper safety measures? Was the goal only to promote the local economy and tourism? I have so much why I want to hear the organizers explain one by one.”

Weibo commentators attacked the daughter online, questioning if she was real and accusing her of spreading rumors and pushing her by foreign forces to underestimate China. The daughter later finds out that the man in the video is not her father, even though her father died in the race.


21 runners perished when they were found by the researchers.

Zhang Shuxin, Baiin’s mayor, bowed and apologized at a press conference on May 23. “As the organizers of the race, we express deep guilt and self-blame, and express our grief for the victims and their families and the injured.”

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China, the party’s top anti-corruption body, is investigating the race. Meanwhile, Gansu authorities have offered about $ 150,000 in compensation for each family to the families of those who died. Many refused compensation, saying they wanted more clarification of what went wrong, according to local media.

None of the companies participating in the race or the local government of Gansu responded to repeated calls from The Times. A rescue team, several survivors, and direct contacts to the dead runners said they needed permission to speak to foreign media, and then they refused. Some survivors did not respond to requests for contact.

At least 60 upcoming road and track races have been canceled or postponed across the country.

Huang may have run into one of them.

He wasn’t as popular as some of the other contestants, but he was paid off. He struggled to find stable work, shift jobs in factories, as a delivery driver, and most recently he was chopping vegetables at a restaurant for about $ 400 a month, according to Wei Jing, a friend who helped Huang get sponsorship running and wrote about him online after his death. .

She said Huang tried to save the little he earned, eating instant noodles while traveling to the races, adding that he was “sunny” but disciplined.

In October 2019, he sent her a video of himself completing a marathon in Xi’an. He told her, “If it hadn’t rained, I would have finished at 2:35.” “Next month I’ll go to Shanghai and try 2:30.”

In the days leading up to the Gansu race, Huang toured the area with three of his friends. Treating himself to lamb in Lanzhou, he visited a historic castle and jogged the racetrack. On May 21, he posted a series of photos on WeChat: ancient jagged hills, a donkey in a valley, views of curly stone and yellow sand rolling into the distance.

He wrote “Nice View” with three smiling faces with starry eyes. In the center was a picture of himself standing over the hills, his eyes closed, his arms outstretched under an open sky.

Xiu Yang of the Beijing office of The Times contributed to this report.

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