Twenty-one people running a mountain ultra-marathon have died in northwestern China after hail, freezing rain and gale force winds hit the high-altitude race, state media reported on Sunday.
After an all-night rescue operation in freezing temperatures involving more than 700 personnel, rescuers were able to confirm that 151 people were safe, out of a total of 172 participants. Twenty-one had died, according to the official Xinhua News Agency, which said the runners suffered from physical discomfort and the sudden drop in temperature.
The runners were racing on an extremely narrow mountain path at an altitude reaching 2,000-3,000 metres. The 100-kilometre race was held on Saturday in the Yellow River Stone Forest tourist site in Baiyin city in Gansu province.
The participants were not rookies. One of the deceased was a well-known runner Liang Jing, who had won a 100km race in Ningbo, reported the Paper, a state-backed newspaper based in Shanghai.
A woman who worked for the race organiser, Gansu Shengjing Sports Culture Development Co, said there were no predictions of extreme weather for the day of the race, according to Beijing News, a paper owned by the Beijing city government.
However, Baiyin city’s local branch of the National Early Warning Information Centre had warned for the past three days of hail and strong winds.
The race also followed a relatively established course, having been held four times, according to an account posted online by a participant in the race who had quit and managed to make his way to safety.
But the weather had caught them off guard, and on the morning of the race on Saturday, he had already sensed things were not normal. The runners were not dressed for winter-like conditions, many wearing short-sleeved tops.
“I ran 2km before the starting gun fired to warm up [...] but the troublesome thing was, after running these 2km, my body still had not heated up,” the competitor said in a first-person account that has been viewed more than 100,000 times on his WeChat account “Wandering about the South”.
He later told the Paper that the forecast the day prior to the race did not predict the extreme weather they had encountered.
The most difficult section, from 24km to 36km, climbed 1,000m. There, he said the path was just a mix of stones and sand, and his fingers grew numb from the cold.
When he had finally decided to turn back, he already felt dazed. He said he was able to make it to safety and met a rescue crew. He did not respond to a request for comment left on his social media account.
Some runners farther along the course had fallen off the trail into deep mountain crevices, according to a reporter for state broadcaster CCTV. It was not clear how many of them survived.
Video footage showed rescuers in winter jackets in the pitch-dark night searching with flashlights along steep hills and narrow paths. Search operations ended by noon on Sunday, rescuers told Xinhua.
Online, some wondered what, if any preparations organisers had made in the event of an emergency. The race organiser did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment on Sunday.
Baiyin city Mayor Zhang Xuchen held a news conference later on Sunday and profoundly apologised as the organiser of the event. The government promised a full investigation.
“We express deep condolences and sympathy to the families of the victims and the injured,” the mayor said.