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21 Ultra-Distance Athletes Dead in China After ‘Unexpected’ Storm

Simone Jonker
Simone Jonker worked in NTD Inspired for two years. She wrote light articles and inspiring stories.
Published: May 26, 2021
This photo taken on May 23, 2021 shows a runner receiving treatment at a hospital after surviving from extreme weather when competing in a 100-kilometre cross-country mountain race, near the city of Baiyin, in China's northwestern Gansu province. (Image: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Twenty-one athletes passed away in northwestern China during an ultra-distance race in extreme weather conditions. Icy rain, hail, and gale-force winds struck the competition, state media reported Sunday, May 23.

Rescuers carried out a night mission in the biting cold and icy gales and that involved over 700 staffers. Rescuers confirmed 151 of the 172 athletes were rescued. Search operations ended by noon Sunday, rescuers told Xinhua.

The deceased suffered from severe physical discomfort and hypothermia, the state-run agency stated.  

The 100-kilometer (60-mile) sporting event was held on Saturday in the Yellow River Rock Woodland in Baiyin city. The race involved running along narrow mountain paths at an altitude of 2,000-3,000 meters (6,500-9,800 feet.)

“We express deep condolences and sympathy to the families of the victims and the injured,” Baiyin city Mayor and organizer of the event, Zhang Xuchen, said.

No warning of severe weather

According to Beijing News, a woman who worked at Gansu Shengjing Sports Culture Development Co. said there were no predictions of extreme weather for the day of the race, however, Baiyin city’s local branch of the National Early Warning Information Center apparently issued a warning of bad weather three days prior to the event.

An athlete confirmed online that he had run the race before and it had been officially held four times previously. But he said he had a bad feeling after his body could not warm up and quit the race. He managed to get to safety just in time. He said the runners were not dressed for wintry conditions, many wearing short-sleeved tops.

“I ran 2 kilometers before the starting gun fired to warm up … but the troublesome thing was, after running these 2 kilometers, my body still had not heated up,” he said in a post that has been viewed more than 100,000 times on his WeChat account “Wandering about the South.”

He confirmed that no warning of extreme weather conditions was broadcast the day before the event.

Recounting the unfavorable running conditions, he said, “The most difficult section, from kilometer 24 (mile 15) to kilometer 36 (mile 22), climbed 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), the path was just a mix of stones and sand.” 

According to a reporter for state broadcaster CCTV, some athletes who were running ahead had fallen into deep mountain crevices.

Distressed family and friends of the victims questioned whether, if any, preparations were made by event organizers in preparation for an emergency. The race organizer did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment Sunday.

The government promised a full investigation.

A selfless hero

This photo taken on May 24, 2021 shows shepherd Zhu Keming, hailed as a hero in China for rescuing six ultramarathon runners when extreme weather hit the area leaving at least 20 dead, showing the cave dwelling where he sheltered the stricken athletes near the city of Baiyin, in China’s northwestern Gansu province. (Image: STR/CNS/AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, a man in China has been hailed a hero. An elderly shepherd called Zhu Keming who had been grazing his sheep in the region during the ultra-distance trail run happened to come across six badly injured athletes on the mountain. He rescued the runners, three men and three women, helping them to a cave where he had emergency supplies prepared. 

On Weibo, where Zhu was trending, there was an outrage as to why organizers did not cancel the event, apparently ignoring warnings of the approaching weather conditions.

“It was because of the wind and rain that the athletes were frozen to death because they were wearing too little clothes,” a Chinese Twitter user wrote. “It was easy to prevent it. It was the responsibility of the organizer.”

Zhu said what he did was very ordinary, and expressed regret that some runners he came across did not survive. 

“There were still some people that could not be saved,” Zhu told state media. “There were two men who were lifeless and I couldn’t do anything for them. I’m sorry.”