When it comes to endurance sports, ultramarathons have grown into one of the most popular activities the world over. While an ultramarathon is broadly defended as any race that is longer than a standard 26.2-mile (42km) marathon, many of these races now exceeded 100 miles (160 km) or even more. And to add to the challenge, there are numerous events that take place off road, on remote trails through some of the most demanding terrain on the planet.
Despite the occasional accident—or even a rare death–these long-distance endurance races have generally been viewed as safe, provided the participants are in good health, are prepared for the conditions they’ll face, and have the proper gear and equipment. But recently tragedy struck at an event in China, killing 21 runners and resulting in a suspension of all ultramarathons and other extreme sports pending a deeper investigation.
Extreme Weather Leads to Tragedy
On May 22, roughly 172 runners took to the starting line of the Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon. Weather conditions for the start of the race were sunny and cool, which seemed ideal for the 62-mile (100km) endurance event that would take runners into the mountainous terrain of the Chain’s Gansu Province. After a year of COVID-cancellations, the race director and the runners were all eager to get things going, despite the fact that the forecast called for light showers and potentially strong winds.
Not long after the runners set off on the remote course, they found themselves miles from civilization and fully immersed in nature. For many, this was exactly what they had been waiting more than a year for. But as the race stretched on, the weather took a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse. The temperature dropped dramatically, with gale-force winds, freezing rain, and large hail soon following.
Most of the racers were only dressed in shorts and t-shirts, and carried only a minimal amount of gear with them. This allowed them to move faster and lighter of course, but it also meant they didn’t have the layers of clothing they needed to stay warm in the elements. As a result 21 ultra marathoners perished due to hypothermia that day even as a rescue team of 1200 people were mobilized in an effort to save them.
A Race Under Scrutiny
After the story broke about what had happened at the Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon, many in China, as well as abroad, began asking tough questions about who was to blame for the tragic loss of lives. Some wondered why the organizers of the race—hosted annually by Baiyin City—weren’t better prepared to deal with this kind of emergency situation. Critics have said that there wasn’t enough properly trained rescue or security staff at the event, which caused a bad situation to become even worse.
Many of the runners found themselves stranded on the trail, miles from an aid station and seeking shelter wherever they could find it. The remote nature of the course was both a blessing and a curse. They had come to run a long-distance race in a rugged alpine setting, but now found themselves in a dangerously deteriorating situation with little hope of help.
To make matters worse, a local meteorologist had issued a severe weather alert the day before the event was scheduled to take place. That bulletin indicated that conditions for the race might not be safe, but it appears that those warnings went unheeded, with the marathon moving ahead as planned.
China Bans Ultramarathons and Other Extreme Sports
In response to the unprecedented loss of life at the endurance event, this past week China announced a ban on ultramarathons, off-road trail races, and other extreme sports. According to ExWeb that includes base jumping and wingsuit flying, all of which are deemed “insufficiently regulated” at the moment.
In a statement released to the press, government officials said, “In order to fully guarantee the health and to safeguard the lives of the people, races in mountainous areas, cross-desert races, ultra distance races and other such newly popular sport activities that involve high risk, management duties are unclear, regulations not perfected and safety standards not clear-cut, are suspended from this day.”
Ultimately, the goal is to review the endurance and extreme sport landscape and put regulations in place that will make these activities safer moving forward. How long this ban will be enforced remains to be seen, but it could be months before an ultramarathon will take place inside China again. Considering more than 480 of these races took place there in 2019—prior to the onset of COVID of course–this is a substantial blow to China’s growing trail running and ultra community.
Who or What is to Blame?
In the wake of such a tragic event, it is natural to as “what went wrong?” and “who is to blame?” In the case of the Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon, it is likely a mix of unfortunate circumstances and poor judgement. The sudden shift in weather made the conditions unsafe for sure, but improper staffing and planning also played a part in how the events unfolded, possibly leading to additional deaths.
That said, ultramarathons are by their nature designed to be grueling challenges to human endurance. And since many of them take place on challenging trails found in wild places, there will always be logistical challenges to keeping an event like this one safe. To some degree, runners know and accept this when they sign up, although race directors still have an obligation to maintaining as high a level of safety as possible.
Moving forward, we will likely see more races requiring additional mandatory safety gear and additional shelters and aid stations may be built along courses as well. While China will likely take months to investigate and pass down new regulations, you can bet that the events that took place there will have long-lasting effects on many other ultra events around the globe.
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