On 22nd of May, the growing ultramarathon community got a shock when 21 runners lost their lives atop mountain terrain in Baiyin City Northern China. Ultramarathon is AN EXTREME version of a marathon where the distances covered a longer than the conventional ones. Distances covered can be in excess of 50 kilometers. Now what happened here? How could it have been avoided? Anyone to blame? I will try make sense of this and how it can be avoided in the future.
As the reports go, the race was not a very high altitude one with the runners required to run about 100km in what was called the Yellow River Stone Forest Race. The highest ascent was about 2000 meters above seas level. Weather forecasts predicted harsh winds and that part of the country was known for hot weather. So it was not surprising the runners had only T-shirts and shorts when the wind started picking up about two hours into the race. A freak hailstorm and gale-force WINDS STARTED BEATING their hapless bodies. The stones caused considerable damage but what ultimately did many runners in was hypothermia. What is hypothermia? It is when the body loses heat faster than it can produce through metabolism.
The organizers were pretty negligent from where I am standing, sorry for being harsh. There was no emergency aid buildings on any point on the trail. No emergency protocols were outlined to runners in case of the extreme case scenarios. There is a tendency amongst organizers of sporting events to ignore worst case scenarios because, well the probability of occurring is next to zero. But IT DOESN’T MEAN IT WON’T HAPPEN. As it were, the only shelter available were rocks which was pretty pathetic. Stories of locals rescuing some of the runners should be commendable for example one local man hid some runners in a cave. This showed that the course was full of potential emergency points which would have been useful. The runners had GPS trackers but these have limitations. Let me explain. GPS is a satellite based gadget so it is heavily dependent on environmental conditions being ideal of which here they were not. When wet, the damage to their battery systems can be immense rendering them useless.
Weather forecasts are by their nature predictions so we should not beat the organizers up too much over them ignoring them. Many times the weather has gone one way after it’s been said to go another. What do meteorologists do? They give a probability of a weather phenomenon occurring. The emergency kit that the runners had included the following,painkillers, antihistamines, anti-diarrheal drugs, gauze, as well as electrolytes, sunblock, energy gels, a hat for the sun, sunglasses, hiking poles, wind breaker and a warm underlayer. Not bad except that this didn’t include warm clothing or any fluids(which would have helped with hypothemia) which was criminal given the barren terrain the runners had to take on.