21 ultramarathon runners die after extreme weather besets high-altitude mountain race

·2 min read

Hail, freezing rain and gale-force winds during a high-altitude mountain ultramarathon led to the deaths of 21 experienced runners in northwestern China on Saturday, state media and the Associated Press reported.

The 62-mile Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon race began in sunny conditions that morning. By 1 p.m. the weather turned to freezing rain, hail stones and gale winds, the state-run Global Times reported. Rescuers confirmed that 151 of the 172 total runners were safe, via AP, and eight of those are currently hospitalized.

There are conflicting reports on if the extreme weather had been forecasted. A woman who worked for the race organizer, Gansu Shengjing Sports Culture Development Co., told Beijing News, a paper owned by the city government, that there hadn't been any predictions. A local branch of the National Early Warning Information Center warned for the past three days of hail and strong winds, however. 

21 runners die in sudden extreme conditions

Rescuers discuss the details to search for survivors in Jingtai County of Baiyin City, northwest China's Gansu Province, after sudden extreme weather during a mountain race. (Fan Peishen/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Rescuers discuss the details to search for survivors in Jingtai County of Baiyin City, northwest China's Gansu Province, after sudden extreme weather during a mountain race. (Fan Peishen/Xinhua via Getty Images)

The race had been run on the course at least four times prior, per the AP. It is an "extremely narrow" path with altitudes reaching 6,500-9,800 feet.

The most difficult section is from mile 15 to mile 22, where it climbs 3,820 feet. The path there is a mix of stones and sand, a runner told the paper via AP. He said his fingers grew numb and when he decided to turn back, he felt dazed. He made it back to safety amid rapidly dropping temperatures. 

Runners farther along fell off the trail into deep mountain crevices, per a report by CCTV. Most competitors were wearing thin shorts and T-shirts for nicer weather. 

Organizers called the race off and rescuers worked until 12 p.m. local time on Sunday. The search party was about 1,200 people. Runners were helped to a wooden cabin on the mountain and about 50 took shelter while waiting for rescue. 

Veteran runner dies in race 

Veteran participants included Liang Jing, a well-known runner who won the 62-mile race in Ningbo. He died in the extreme weather, the group Hong Kong 100 Ultra Marathon confirmed in a statement. 

He was a "favorite" member, they said," and "one of the best ultra-endurance athletes in the world." Jing was runner-up in the Hong Kong race the past two years. 

Baiyin city mayor Zhang Xuchen held a news conference to apologize as the organizer of the event. 

“We express deep condolences and sympathy to the families of the victims and the injured,” the mayor said, via AP.

He said there would be a full investigation. 

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