ULTRA TRAIL CHINA TRAGEDY ANNIVERSARY: 21 RUNNERS DEAD, WHAT HAVE WE LEARNT?
ULTRA TRAIL CHINA TRAGEDY ANNIVERSARY: 21 RUNNERS DEAD, WHAT HAVE WE LEARNT? Our MOUNTAIN ACCIDENT section would like to pay tribute and honor the memory of the deceased on 22nd May 2021, at the HANGHE SHILIN MOUNTAIN MARATHON, with a special on reviewing with our colleagues from www.carrerasdemontana.com Mayayo and Daniel, directly from China, every detail and what have we learnt from this catastrophe..
With this article, Mayayo and Daniel, would like to analyze for you what happened, why it happened and, above all, what to do so that it never happen again.
ULTRA TRAIL CHINA TRAGEDY ANNIVERSARY:
21 RUNNERS DEAD
The race started at 8AM, with 100km ahead in a fourth edition where the organization expected again a day of sun and scorching heat in the high desert where the track ran. Once again, many of the best professional ultreros were there competing.
Shortly after the start, the great favorite Lao Jing was already taking his head to pull the group hard, trying to open a gap. This is how he was portrayed, running in the prime of life and with a windbreak after the first 2 hours of running. The storm was already looming over the leaders of the race, but no one gave the order to stop the race.
And, since 9:50 p.m. the previous night, the first weather alerts had been activated warning of a cold front that was approaching at high speed. The threat materialized when hurricane-force winds and plummeting temperatures hit control 3 hard, located at 2,230m altitude in an area without mobile coverage.
It was just over 12 o’clock in the morning when the first warnings of the drama recently unleashed by gps began to arrive, from the third aid station to the race center.
Unfortunately, the official firefighters mobilized for the rescue did not reach the zero point of the tragedy until 9 p.m. In those 9 hours, the most serious disaster in the history of mountain racing was consummated.
Meanwhile, the first aid was provided by a solitary shepherd who witnessed by chance while attending his flock the collapse of the group, terrified and exposed in the open field. Within minutes, under the storm, many lay unconscious. Even so, the nomad tried to save them by taking their bodies one by one to his tent. His heroic performance in the midst of tragedy saved six lives.>
He couldn’t do more. 21 mountain runners stayed there, forever. 18 men and three women, the best in the peloton. None managed to save themselves. At 1 p.m., leader Jing’s gps clock recorded the cessation of pulses.
A year later, we review the tragedy step by step with our colleague Daniel from China, because it is necessary to understand that it failed and why so that a similar case can never, ever, be repeated.
Rest in peace.
ULTRA TRAIL CHINA: 21 RUNNERS DEAD.
TIMELINE OF A DISASTER.
MAY 2021 ARRIVES 4TH EDITION OF THE YELLOW RIVER STONE FOREST ULTRAMARATHON.
Desert area of the Chinese province of Gansu, which starts from about 1,500m at the base to develop for 100km with a running ceiling of more than 2,000m. The three previous editions have been played with great heat, as planned for this fourth that will start on 22MAY at 8AM.
ULTRA TRAIL CHINA: THE ORGANIZATION.
The race was jointly organized by the Sports Department of Baiyin Prefecture and the Communist Party Committee of Jingtai County, Gansu Region of China, annually since 2018.
The actual coordinator of the event in the field was the “Yellow River Stone Forest Administration”, led by the head of propaganda of Jingtai County, within the Communist Party Committee. The actual logistics operator of the race was a local sports marketing company, Shengjing Sports Culture Development Ltd
21st MAY THE ORG. ALLOWS WARM CLOTHING ONLY FOR NIGHT USE. (KM60)
The 2021 edition consisted of three events: 5 km (3.1 mi) of running, half marathon and 100 km (62 mi) of running [note 2]. Participants in the 100 km race had to prove to have completed a similar race of more than 50 km in the last year. The race manual included windbreaks as a recommended garment, but not mandatory.
The 100-kilometer route ran along the Mijiashan Hill of the Yellow River Stone Forest. It is a karst terrain without trees in the transition from the Loess Plateau in the south to the Tengger Desert in the north.
WARM CLOTHES AND EXTRA AID AT KM62.
The terrain is mainly alluvial sandstone. The starting line, at the main entrance of the scenic area, has an elevation of 1,595 meters; while the summit at the third checkpoint reaches 2,230 meters. This would be the zero point of the tragedy.
The night before the race, when the weather was still pleasant, the organiser offered to pick up the runners’ night supplies and place them at the sixth checkpoint (62km), for the popular runners to pick up mid-race before boarding the early evening hours.
21st MAY> 21.50H FIRST WEATHER WARNING.
At 21:50 on the eve of the race, the meteorological center of the city issues a moderate weather alert: “In the next 24 hours, in Baiyin, Jingtai, […], the average wind speed will reach levels 5 and 6 and gusts will reach levels 7 or higher, accompanied by yellow dust and sand.”
Massive yellow dust and sand are forecast to be blown away by winds on May 22, a drop in temperature and some precipitation. Atmospheric convection becomes stronger in May in general, so watch out for sudden heavy rains, hail, lightning and gusts.”
An alert to highlight for those who live in the city. Conditions of terrible danger for those who must run 100km following a narrow path where it is easy to get lost and do it at more than 2,000m in an area exposed to all the elements.
22nd MAY> 08.00H DEPARTURE UNDER A SUDDEN WEATHER WORSENING.
From 08:00, the temperature dropped to 7°C in 5 hours, not counting the wind. However, for the race peloton it was the strong winds accompanied by hail and rain that were the key problem.
The average wind speed reached levels 6 and 7 and gusts reached levels 8 and 9. These winds also carried between 3-5 mm of accumulated precipitation. When the cold front hit, the freezing rain and the cellisca were transported by gusts that reached level 9 (75-88 km / h) In those conditions, just seeing where you step is already a challenge.
22nd MAY> 09.00H ULTRA TRAIL CHINA: DEPARTURE AT 1.535M
At 09:00 on Saturday, May 22, 2021, the 100-kilometer race began. The most rugged and narrow section of the race, between PC2-PC3 were not accessible by car and required 1-2 hours of walking from the nearest road.
The event coordinator did not assign personnel or relief posts to the second and third checkpoints. In addition, both checkpoints were mobile phone blind spots, a fact that the coordinator claimed to be unaware of.
22nd MAY> 10:42H LIANG JING LEADS AT CONTROL 3 (2,230M)
Starting at 10:30, the third north-facing checkpoint with an elevation of 2230 meters was fiercely hit by a cold front originating in Mongolia through the Tengger Desert off Jingtai.
At 10.42 Liang Jing arrives. The first of the six riders of the peloton marches head, as portrayed by his last image in life that we show you above taken at 10AM.
He is the great favorite and one of the great ultra trail runners in the world, whom we have already seen fighting face to face with the international elites in races such as Ultra trail Mount Fuji Liang comes out of control frozen, he continues to run.
Some of the elite runners who follow him get lost near the summit due to the presence of fog, the traces of the trails that vanished and the hypothermia that dulls the mind.
The cold front was still unleashed in winds and cellisca. The wind chill dropped from 1°C at 10:00 to -5°C from 11:20 to 13:50. Visibility in the middle of the desert is reduced to a few meters. There is no mobile cobetura. If you stop, you are lost, If you leave the track, you are lost also Lian Jing will never reach the next point.
22nd MAY>11.50H THE FIRST GPS DISTRESS SIGNAL ARRIVES.
The race operator, a local sports marketing company, had equipped the runners with GPS devices. The first distress message was sent at 11:50 by a runner through that GPS, but he never received a response.
The first distress message that was sent to be answered through the official WeChat message group did not arrive until 12:17. Soon after came the iconic photo of 10 runners hugging together to save their lives. This was sent at 12:30.
Only then did a small, ill-equipped private search team called Blue Sky Rescue, stationed at the starting line, send some of its 39 members up the hill between the second and third checkpoints.
22nd MAY>13.00H A SHEPERD SAVES SIX LIVES.
The quickest rescue for those in critical medical conditions was a real miracle. The local shepherd, Zhu Keming while tending his sheep under cold, windy and rainy weather on Mijiashan Hill, saw about 1 p.m. some runners who had already collapsed, unconscious from hypothermia.
He saved six by taking them to his cave. He couldn’t do more. Later, he would see with sadness the bodies of three dead more runners not far from his cave.
22nd MAY>13.08H LIAN JING’S HEART STOPS BEATING.
Lian Jing, is still plucked between control 3 and 4, exposed in the open field. Hypothermia takes over your body. His gps watch, on, tells us today a dramatic story of struggle for survival of the body of the champion even after being unconscious.
The body temperature drops, the heart beats more and more slowly… in the end, the gps watch recorded a heart rate of zero beats at 13:08.
The dead all belonged to the leading peloton, due to the timing of the cold front, while the slower riders survived. Even the runners sheltering behind the rocks found their survival blankets tattered by the storm.
22nd MAY> 14.00H THE FIRST PRIVATE RESCUE GROUP ARRIVES AT CONTROL 2.
The Blue Sky Rescue team reaches the hill between the second and third checkpoints where several of the popular runners have been grouped, from the middle of the peloton before the ascent to the top where the control 3 that the elite has passed is.
Around 14:00, this private rescue group leads 18 runners able to walk on their own to a lodge at the foot of the hill.
By that time, most of the 21 deaths from hypothermia are beyond any chance of recovery. In just 3h30 since the cold front hit control 3 at 10.30 it has taken their lives.
Even so, perhaps some other life could have been saved. Unfortunately, neither they, nor even the official firefighters who did not arrive until 9 p.m. at point zero of the disaster, were trained and equipped to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation to a runner unconscious by hypothermia.
22nd MAY>14.30H FIRST CALL LOCAL MAYOR
At 14.30., the Yellow River Stone Forest Administration called the mayor of Zhongquan City with a brief instruction: “We need to bring winter supplies to athletes.”
This ambiguous instruction was delegated to the nearest village at the foot of the hill, Changsheng, which logically did not go beyond collecting material as it was not aware of the extreme gravity of the situation.
22nd MAY>16.42H THE SHEPERD WARNS THE PEOPLE BY MOBILE.
Changsheng villagers did not learn of the urgency until 16:42 when Pastor Zhu Keming, who was sheltering in his hut with six survivors, went out to ascend to find coverage of his mobile phone and called to report that he had already seen two runners had died. Villager Zhu Wanwen (朱万文), who had a motorcycle, left around 16:00  and saved a runner who foamed at the mouth between 18:00 and 19:00 Sixty other healthy men from Changsheng, mostly in their 50s, walked to the third checkpoint in difficulty at 20:00.
22nd MAY> 16.21H OFFICIAL FIREFIGHTERS ARE MOBILIZED.
Jingtai County firefighters, located 33km away, were dispatched at 16:21. They arrived at the fourth car-accessible checkpoint around 17:45. They continued on foot, climbing to the third checkpoint with difficulties around 21:00. At that point and at night, his work had been sadly reduced to a body recovery mission.
Although firefighters brought in radars and thermal imaging drones, they got lost in the dark several times and fled from being reoriented by the villagers themselves.
ULTRA TRAIL CHINA: FINAL BALANCE 21 DEAD.
Twenty-one runners (eighteen men and three women were killed and eight others were injured). All the dead were in the lead group. When the cold front arrived, the leading platoon was near the summit at the third checkpoint and faced the wind wide open; while the much slower runners, mostly women, did not see the cold front.
Curiously, four of the 172 runners reached the fourth checkpoint. These four runners would run far behind the leading peloton. In fact, the first of the four arrived at the second checkpoint at 11:09.
But by the time they passed the front although still alive it was not so aggressive and they were able to pass, although without hardly seeing beyond their feet, hence they were not aware of the ongoing dsituation for those who had preceded them.
2nd JUN 2021: ULTRA TRAIL CHINESE PROHIBITED.
On June 2, 2021, china’s Sports Administration suspended all high-risk sporting events that lack oversight bodies. This includes mountain races and desert trails, wing suit flying, and ultra-long-distance running.
9th JUNE 2021: THE PERSON IN CHARGE OF THE REGION COMMITS SUICIDE.
Baiyin and Jingtai officials were condemned by the official investigation for “being organizers only on paper” and failing to fulfill their supervisory duty as organizers. Coordinators in the field and some of the sports marketing company’s staff were later arrested.
Jingtai County Communist Party Secretary Li Zuobi took responsibility as the highest-ranking in the county. Interestingly, it had only a middle rank within the set of organizing authorities.
Unexpectedly, he committed suicide on June 9th, 2021. The official investigation imposed internal Communist Party disciplinary measures on 31 other people, mostly in the form of losses of office or dismissals.
With the death of the head of the person in charge, many of the keys to the tragedy also disappear, which did not stop raising tensions between the families of the deceased.
25th MAY 2022: ULTRA TRAIL CHINA IS STILL BANNED
Just yesterday morning, our colleague Dani from China confirms that the ban on our sport still aplies. What’s more, despite having reserved a place and bib to run this summer in UTMB 2022, he assumes that it will not be possible for him to travel.
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