Cold Kills 21 Runners at Ultra-Marathon in China

Twenty-one runners died yesterday during an ultra-marathon in northwest China. Freezing rain, hail, and plunging temperatures at an elevation of 2,000m abruptly turned a balmy day into a hypothermic ordeal for the 172 lightly-clad runners. The previous day had been remarkably hot.

The 100km-long cross-country race began at 9 am on Saturday in Gansu Province, near the Yellow River’s popular Stone Forest.

About 1 pm, between the 20km and 31km mark, the weather changed dramatically, with hail, freezing rain, and strong winds.

Lightly clad runners, before the temperature dropped dramatically.

Many runners were missing for hours

The wind became so strong that “it was hard to stand up straight and move forward,” one survivor told Xinhua News. “When the wind was the strongest, I had to grab the ground with both hands to avoid being blown over.

“I felt nothing but cold…I fainted halfway down the mountain.”

Officials eventually halted the race when it became clear that a number of participants had gone missing. While details are not completely clear, some runners lost their way during the storm. Around midnight, 11 hours later, some started posting videos on WeChat begging for help. By then, long after sunset, the temperature had dropped still further.

Local authorities launched a massive rescue operation, including helicopters and heavy vehicles. A further 1,200 rescuers searched the barrens hills and deep canyons on foot. Landslides that followed the heavy rain impeded their work, Reuters reported.

A helicopter searches the barren hills for survivors. Photo: Xinhua


By 3 am on Sunday, 16 people had been found dead and five remained missing. Later that morning, the rescue headquarters raised the death toll to 21. The search continued until afternoon. By then, they had accounted for the remaining 151 runners. Eight are currently recovering in hospital.

The tragic events triggered an angry reaction since the forecast had predicted a strong temperature drop. Among the deceased was 31-year-old Liang Jing, one of the world’s best ultramarathoners.