In 2011 China hosted 22 marathons or ultra-long distance races. By 2019 – the year before the Covid-19 pandemic fully took hold – that number had increased to 1,828. Almost every city was showcasing a marathon or some kind of extreme running event – it was an easy way to attract tourists and promote fitness.
But on May 22 the lack of regulations around these races, combined with a spell of extreme cold-weather, had calamitous results, with the deaths of 21 runners taking part in a 100km trail race in western Gansu province.
It was the highest number of casualties ever recorded in a long-distance race. For comparison the Marathon des Sables – a well-established six-day, 251km trek across the Sahara Desert – has suffered two deaths in its 35-year history. A study by the University of Bologna on trail racing earlier this year cited 51 deaths in total among long-distance runners over the last 12 years – 35 during the races themselves, the remainder during training for the events.
So what happened in Gansu? The race there claimed the lives of several of China’s leading long-distance runners including Liang Jing – the winner of a previous iteration of the event – and Huang Guanjun, a deaf runner who won the marathon at China’s 2019 Paralympic Games.
A third runner in the leading pack, Zhang Xiaotao, only survived because a local shepherd found his unconscious body and carried him to a cave to warm up.
Many of the 21 victims are thought to have died of hypothermia caused by the unexpectedly severe conditions of strong winds, hail and freezing rain on an inaccessible part of the mountainous course.
The race – officially titled as the Yellow River Stone Forest 100km Trail Run – traverses an arid landscape where the lowest altitude is 1,300m. The trail, which has to be completed in less than 20 hours, alincludes numerous climbs, adding up to 3,000m in height gain.
Baiyin, the city responsible for organising the race, was established in the 1950s as a base for mining of non-ferrous metals. Most of the mines have closed in recent years, forcing the local economy to reinvent itself.
The mayor of Baiyin, who fired the starting gun on the race, apologised for the tragedy and said that local officials had launched an investigation. “We feel deeply sorry and guilty. We express deep condolences and sympathy to the families of the victims and the injured,” he said. Footage on state television also showed him bowing to cameras as an expression of his remorse.
Interestingly the Chinese media has been allowed to report on the tragedy relatively freely. Newspapers have conducted interviews with survivors and a few have even published versions of events that contradict the official explanations of the disaster.
State news agency Xinhua said there were four main questions still to be addressed. Why did the weather forecasters not give adequate warning of the awful conditions? Were the safety measures adequate? Did the organisers act quickly enough to call off the race? And was there an emergency rescue plan in place? “How is it possible that the race ended with more than 10% of its participants dead?” Xinhua asked. Other news outlets focused on the fact that the temperature had already dropped dramatically before the race had started and that the heat-saving blankets carried by the runners were ineffective, often shredding in the high winds.
There was also the question of why no one had checked to see if the runners were carrying suitable equipment. Many had put their warmer clothing in bags that were dropped at the half-way point on the course before they started the run. But it also meant that the athletes were unable put on warmer clothes on the morning of the race, even as the conditions turned colder.
The 172 runners paid a Rmb1,000 fee to compete, leading some newspapers to ask what the money had been spent on by organisers.
“This sudden tragedy should warn all of us how horrible it is to lose respect for professionalism. If we take the risks for granted just because a type of event has become a craze, we are destined to pay a price,” warned the Guangming Daily. “The finishing line in all of these marathons should be the safe return of all the participants. We cannot blame the weather for this tragedy,” the Peninsula Metropolis Daily added. It now looks all but inevitable that the government will intervene in outlining new regulations for future long-distance running races across China.
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