When Zhang Xiaotao set off last weekend on a 100-kilometer (62-mile) ultra-marathon through the jagged mountains of northwestern China, he didn’t know he was embarking on one of the deadliest journeys in the country’s sporting history.
Zhang is the lone survivor of the six athletes who were leading the race on a remote stretch of track when extreme weather caused freezing rain and a sudden dive in temperature.
A local herdsman dragged Zhang into a cave, which shielded him from succumbing to the hypothermia that killed his closest competitors. In total, 21 of the 172 participants died, including some of China’s best-known marathon champions.
The tragedy shocked China’s running community and prompted public outrage, with many questioning whether the organizers had planned the race properly and prepared participants for the extreme weather.
As China’s rising middle class picks up running as a hobby, marathons and trail races have exploded in popularity over the past years.
According to the Chinese Athletic Association, 1,828 marathons and other long-distance races were held across China in 2019 before the pandemic hit, drawing more than 7 million participants. In 2014, there were just 51 races.
The skyrocketing growth was partly spurred by government efforts to develop the country’s sports industry. In 2014, the General Administration of Sports of China announced that organizers no longer had to seek approval from the administration or its subsidiaries to host commercial sports events — a major boon to the running industry.
Local governments rushed to host races to promote tourism and drive consumption, but lax industry regulation and weak government oversight has created safety hazards, according to experts and a race organizer CNN has spoken to. They say races are often poorly organized, and sometimes plagued by injuries and deaths.
In an emergency meeting last week, top sports officials acknowledged there were “problems and inadequacies” in the supervision of sports events, and called on organizers to improve safety measures and contingency planning.
“All departments and units … should focus on preventing and resolving major risks as a key priority,” said a readout of the meeting.
The provincial government of Gansu, where last Saturday’s event was held, has launched an investigation into the incident, but critics say the deadly race is a wake-up call to authorities across the nation — especially in poorer provinces where the promise of profits is tempting organizers to cut costs.
What went wrong at the race
The geological park in Jingtai county near Baiyin city, where the high-altitude Yellow River Shilin race was held, is known for its imposing rock formations.
It is by no means an easy race. Its trail winds through narrow, sandy ravines and across exposed mountains about 2,000 meters (6,561 feet) above sea level, and participants have just 20 hours to finish the 100-kilometer course.
To qualify for entry, runners need to have completed two full marathons or one trail race longer than 50 kilometers (31 miles) in the past year. They pay 1,000 yuan ($157) to enter, and are offered a 1,600 yuan ($251) reward for finishing — with between 15,000 and 2,000 yuan ($2,353 to $313) in prize money for the top 10 runners.
Its official organizer is the Baiyin government, but the real work was contracted out to a small company which won a 1.5 million yuan ($240,000) bid to run the race in 2018 and, according to public company registration records, and has continued to do so.
The section between the second and the third checkpoints is the toughest leg of the race, with an elevation of 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) over a distance of 8 kilometers (about 5 miles), according to one participant’s account on social media.
“There is no supplies provided at checkpoint 3, which means even if (racers) reached the top, there is no food or drinks — let alone hot water. There is also no place to rest on the exposed mountain and no exit route,” the post said.
The ascent is so steep that runners need to scramble at parts, according to the post.
This is where Zhang passed out and many other racers perished.
Zhang was already battling strong winds and rain on the steep climb when temperatures suddenly plummeted. Raindrops turned into hailstones, smashing down on his face and blurring his vision, he wrote in an account on Chinese social media site Weibo.
The 30-year-old sports club coach pressed on, but the wind was so strong he kept being knocked down.
“(I) fell over and over more than 10 times. My limbs were stiffening, and I could feel my body slowly getting out of control. After the last fall, I could no longer get up,” he wrote.
In his last moments of consciousness, Zhang wrapped himself in a foil blanket — the only protection against the cold he had in the backpack — and pressed the SOS button on his GPS tracker.
But no rescuers came.
Instead, Zhang lay exposed and unconscious in freezing conditions for two-and-a-half hours, until a local shepherd spotted him and carried him to a cave, he wrote. He woke up another hour later to find himself swaddled in a quilt by a fire, next to several other runners also sheltering in the cave.
The Baiyin city government blamed the staggering death toll on a “sudden change of regional weather.” But many believe the organizers should be held responsible for failing to provide adequate safety precautions and protections.
Yi Jiandong, a sports health expert at Wenzhou University, told state broadcaster CCTV that in principle, trail running races should set up refreshment stations at every 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of the course, at least.
“This time, the two supply stations were 16 kilometers (about 10 miles) apart, which meant runners were not looked after for two to three hours — there was no drinks, food or tent to take a rest in, nothing. This can bring great danger,” he said.
The company that held the race could not be reached for comment. The mayor of Baiyin, Zhang Xuchen, apologized and bowed at a televised news conference on Sunday.
“As the organizer of the event, we are riddled with guilt and self-blame. We express our sorrow for the victims and our deep condolences to the families of the victims and the injured,” he said.
Participants said on social media and in interviews with state media that organizers did not require them to bring waterproof jackets on the run. When the hailstorm hit, many only had emergency foil blankets to keep warm, but some had their sheets blown away or torn in the wind. According to sports experts and experienced race organizers, windproof and waterproof jackets are mandatory gear for most long-distance mountain running events in higher altitudes, where the weather can change quickly and dramatically.
Most victims of the race died of hypothermia, a dangerous drop in body temperature caused by prolonged exposure to bitter cold. It can cause victims to gradually lose their ability to move or think, sometimes without even realizing it’s happening, and eventually lead to heart failure and death.
On social media, some comments questioned whether the organizers could have monitored the weather more closely and perhaps called off the race.
The night before the event, the Jingtai county weather bureau issued an alert for strong winds and rain, the state-run Beijing News reported. Zhang, the runner, also noticed the wind on Saturday morning. “When we started at 9 a.m., the wind was so strong that many people’s hats were blew off,” he wrote.
Experts have also pointed to a lack of first aid and rescue resources at the scene, especially along the toughest section of the race where most runners got into trouble. The steep slope is unreachable by cars, further complicating rescue efforts.
“(The organizers) should be prepared for rescue operations. Some races have helicopters, some have professional rescue teams — but there should always be people on standby. This time, it appears to me that these (arrangements) are lacking,” Yi Jiandong, a sports health expert at Wenzhou University, told state broadcaster CCTV.
An industry-wide problem
Alex Wang, a travel blogger who worked for a Chinese outdoor sports company until 2019 and organized more than 10 trail running races in China, said the events she was involved in would often hire an ambulance for every 10 kilometers of the course.
But not all organizers were willing to pay for it, she said.
“It all comes down to the cost. If you want to set up more rescue points and arrange people on standby along the race course, you need to spend more money,” she said.
Compared to city marathons, trail running is a latecomer to China, gaining popularity only in the past few years.
According to the Chinese Athletic Association, 481 trail races were held in 2019 — more than one quarter of all long-distance running events.
But unlike urban marathons, competitive trail running in China lacks established rules and regulations, and there is no clear oversight body, Wang said. In most cases, local governments act as the gatekeeper, and standards vary widely, she added.
In a commentary on its website, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection laid out the many ills inflicting the marathon industry.
“Some races often only focus on the economic benefits, and are unwilling to invest more in services and safety. Some companies don’t have the qualifications and ability to organize high-risk sports events … and only seek quick success and profits. And some local government authorities don’t want to or don’t know how to supervise (such events),” it said.
Trail races are often held in far-flung parts of the country that lag behind in development and resources. Last Saturday’s race took place in the remote countryside of Gansu, one of the poorest regions in China.
Rao Liqun, an official with the Yunnan Road Running Association, told state news agency Xinhua that many organizers of China’s trial races lack experience and expertise, and there is often a serious shortage of medical assistance and contingency measures at the events.
The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in France, Italy and Switzerland, one of the world’s most famous and challenging races, has several medical stations set up along the route, and requires an extensive list of mandatory gear, ranging from waterproof jackets, gloves and trousers to bandages and food reserves.
During an emergency meeting on Sunday after the tragedy, the General Administration of Sport of China said authorities should set up a “circuit breaker” mechanism to call off races when safety risks arise.
Since Monday, more than a dozen running events across China have been delayed or canceled. A marathon in Gansu was among the first to activate the “circuit breaker,” citing risks posed by the coronavirus and weather conditions.
But to families of the victims, the lesson has come with too heavy a price.
“For you (organizers), it may just be a mistake at work, but it deprived my mother of her love,” a victim’s daughter wrote on Weibo. “As for me, I lost my Dad, and (with him) I lost a part of my life.”