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Trail Race News

China Temporarily Suspends Ultras and Mountain Races to Develop Safety Standards

It should also make race directors around the world — including in the U.S. — pause to double-check their own safety measures and consider creating mandatory gear lists.

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Less than two weeks after inclement weather and a lack of safety regulations resulted in the tragic the death of 21 runners in a 100K race in a mountainous region of China, the government has issued a temporary ban on ultra-distance races and a variety of trail-running events throughout the country.

The South China Morning Post reported on June 3 that the General Administration of Sport (GAS) of China has declared “a range of running disciplines as insufficiently regulated and lacking well-defined safety standards, and suspended all these types of races, effective immediately.”

RELATED: Assessing The Aftermath of the Chinese Ultramarathon Tragedy

The tragic outcome resulted in the GAS declaring “the public safety incident Yellow River Stone Forest 100K Trail Race in Gansu Province, in part due to sudden changes in weather, caused a great loss of human life – a lesson imbued with deeply felt grief.”

The announcement continued, saying, “In order to fully guarantee the health and to safeguard the lives of the people, races in mountainous areas, cross-desert races, ultra-distance races and other such newly popular sport activities that involve high risk, management duties are unclear, regulations not perfected and safety standards not clear-cut, are suspended from this day.”

The tragic outcome resulted in the GAS declaring “the public safety incident Yellow River Stone Forest 100K Trail Race in Gansu Province, in part due to sudden changes in weather, caused a great loss of human life – a lesson imbued with deeply felt grief.”

The ban is temporary, and the GAS will now conduct an examination of the country’s safety standards. Included in the GAS announcement was a note on emergency-rescue teams, which officials said is crucial for these events going forward. It should also make race directors around the world — including in the U.S. — pause to double-check their own safety measures and consider creating mandatory gear lists.

“It’s really sad to see what happened in China – so sad for our sport,” Ryan Sandes, an elite ultrarunner from South Africa who won the Leadville 100 in Colorado in 2011, was quoted as saying in a story written by journalist Stephen Granger in SPN Africa News. “But I do feel it’s a bit of an eye opener for all. I don’t want to speculate on what did and did not happen in China.  Some have gone after the organizers, saying their mandatory gear was insufficient.

“But it’s quite interesting that some high-profile events in the USA don’t have any mandatory gear at all,” Sandes points out. “And in races like Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), runners often moan about having to carry too much gear.”

The SCMP report didn’t specify any races that would be put on hold, but it likely means that all off-road races and races longer than 42.2K, as well as 12- and 24-hour events, will be temporarily suspended. 

“Perhaps this is an inevitable reaction, but hopefully it will be a means to restore the sport to be on a more resilient and safe footing,” Granger said in a social-media post. “Although all trail and mountain runners should be aware of what they sign up to, the sport should not be life threatening if adequate measures are taken by both runners and organizers.”

 

Fierce weather came in quickly as the lead runners of the Yellow River Stone Forest 100K were between the 20K and 31K section of the course, with the lead runner already heading up a steep, 3,200-foot ascent with precarious footing and sections that required hand-over-hand scrambling on rocks.

As conditions worsened, temperatures continued to drop, winds gusted harder and the rocky trails turned to slippery, iced-over surfaces. Most runners were defenseless against the weather, wearing not much more than T-shirts, shorts and trail-running shoes.

Runners began to fall amid the wind and ice and succumb to the cold, with many becoming weary from what news reports have attributed to hypothermia. Several racers went missing from the course as calls for help went out on cell phones and social-media platforms. 

The deadly May 24 race, held at Yellow River Stone Forest Park in Gansu Province in a northwestern part of China, was organized by the Baiyin Municipal Committee, Baiyin City Sports Bureau and the local branches of the Communist Party of China. The deaths prompted outrage in China, with online commentators questioning the preparedness of the local government that organized the race, according to The New York Times

China has become a hot spot for trail running in recent years, with more new races and participation there than anywhere else in the world. All endurance sports have been booming in China for the past decade as part of a changing cultural landscape with a new focus on leisure-time hobbies, fitness and outdoor recreation. There are hundreds of trail-running races in the country and numerous ultra-distance events that have been started in the past few years, including the Gaoligong by UTMB with races from 55K to 160K.

The challenging, high-altitude Yellow River Stone Forest 100K began early on Saturday morning, with more than 170 eager runners toeing the line in cool, breezy but mostly mild conditions. There were a handful of internationally known elites and numerous fast age-groupers, but it was largely a field of novice recreational runners.

Amid the dangerous conditions, organizers called off the race by early afternoon and sent a rescue team of hundreds onto the course to help the runners. The search party managed to save 151 athletes, but 21 passed away and another eight were taken to hospitals. 

 

“Hopefully this is just a suspension and events can resume in the future,” trail runner Rob James commented on social media. “All events should be doing their risk assessments, producing safety and contingency plans and being run by teams with the relevant experience and ability to make the right call at the right time. One death is too many, but this was tragic and no matter how experienced a runner is, we put our trust in organizers without questioning their credentials, planning and ability to manage different scenarios.”

Vector Xu, a 22-year-old runner, said she had seen ultra-distance races as her “final destination” and preferred trail running in the mountains to urban marathons because they allowed competitors to “get back to nature and feel free.”

She completed a 35km (21.7 miles) race on Mount Mogan, in eastern Zhejiang province on Sunday — the day after the Gansu tragedy — but now plans to stop trail running for the time being.

She also said trail runners needed to ensure they had outdoor-survival and basic first-aid skills — something the typical marathon runner does not need.

“For greater professionalism and safety, I will need to invest in the necessary equipment,” Xu said. “The entry barriers are way higher compared to marathons.”

 

Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner and now serves as a contributing editor.