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The Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon tragedy: what went wrong?

Experts are questioning why the race's organizing committee wasn't more prepared for the weather conditions

The ultrarunning world was left in shock this weekend when they learned of the tragic outcome of the Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon in China, in which eight runners were hospitalized and 21 were found dead after extreme weather hit the 100-kilometre race. In the days since, many have been questioning how this tragedy happened, with several voices in the ultrarunning community criticizing the race administration’s lack of organization and emergency preparedness. Here’s what we know.

RELATED: 21 runners dead following extreme weather at Chinese ultramarathon

What went wrong?

In a news release shared on Twitter, CNN host Tom Foreman, who is himself an ultramarathoner, explained that the race began in cool weather, but part-way through the race, the weather took a turn for the worse when strong winds began knocking runners off their feet and hail slashed the mountainside. The temperature dropped to near freezing, with many runners wearing nothing but shorts and T-shirts.

Without proper attire for the conditions, several runners began to experience hypothermia, and many of them decided to call it quits, attempting to find shelter until they could be rescued. Hundreds of search-and-rescue personnel took to the trail, and rescue attempts continued into the next day. Sadly, 21 runners did not make it, including some of the country’s top ultrarunners.

In an interview with CNN, elite ultrarunner Mike Wardian expressed his “complete and utter shock” at what happened. “When something happens to one of us it kind of happens to all of us,” he explained.

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Who’s at fault?

The sudden change of weather may have been the cause of the tragedy, but in the wake of the event, many are questioning why race organizers weren’t better prepared for the conditions. The Global Times published a review of the race on Monday, heavily criticizing the organization and asking the question: Is the Gansu case a rare unfortunate incident, or does it reveal a grave situation of lack of adequate safety measures and assistance to runners as a common phenomenon in the country’s booming marathon business?

According to the report, a worker at the local meteorological bureau said they had issued a severe weather warning the day before the race, but this did not prevent the race from going ahead. While the ultimate cause of the runners’ deaths was hypothermia, many people involved in China’s marathon business have said the blame should be on the shoulders of the organizing committee, who failed to provide enough organizational, tactical, rescue and security support for the event.

According to experts, security protection at cross-country mountain races in China is generally poor. This is because having qualified safety personnel is expensive, and many organizations will cut corners to reduce costs. The other issue is a lack of professional rescuers. Before the pandemic began in 2019, there were 481 mountain races in China in one year, and there are not enough qualified rescuers to adequately support this many races.

Other runners noted that the organization did not carefully check what equipment participants had with them prior to the race, and items like a jacket, gloves and headband were not on their list of required items.

On Sunday, China’s General Administration of Sport required that the country’s sports system must further enhance sports safety management in sports races and optimize safety risk management mechanisms and measures. No doubt other races around the world will be reassessing their own safety measures to ensure that a tragedy like this will never take place again.

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