Ultramarathon survivors threatened for speaking out

Pastor Zhu Keming speaks to the media in a cave, where he saved the lives of runners during a mountain ultramarathon last Saturday, May 24, 2021 in Baiyin, Gansu province.
Zhu Keming in the cave where he sheltered the affected athletes.

When Zhang Xiaotao woke up, he was in a cave and someone had started a fire to keep him warm. He had no idea how he got there.

A passing shepherd had found Zhang’s frozen unconscious body, which he wrapped in a quilt and carried it on his shoulders for safety. He was one of the lucky ones.

In May this year, 21 competitors were killed in an ultra-running event in northern China hit by extreme weather conditions: hail, heavy rain and strong gales sent temperatures plummeting, and no one seemed prepared for it.

Only a small number felt comfortable talking about what happened, and some have been threatened for doing so.

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The sun rose on race day in Baiyin, a former mining area in China’s Gansu province. Some 172 athletes were ready to run 62 miles (100 km) through Yellow River Stone Forest National Park.

The organizers expected good conditions: they had had mild weather for the previous three years. They had even arranged for some of the competitors’ cold weather gear to move forward along the course so they could pick it up later in the day.

But shortly after Zhang reached the starting line, a cold wind began to blow. Some runners gathered at a nearby gift shop for shelter, many of them shivering in their short-sleeved shirts and shorts.

Zhang started the race well. He was one of the quickest to get to the first checkpoint, doing the lightest work on the rugged mountain trails. Things started to go really bad just before the second checkpoint, about 20km away.

“I was halfway up the mountain when hail started falling,” he later wrote in a post on Chinese social media. “My face was hit by ice and my vision was blurry, making it difficult to see the road clearly.”

Even so, Zhang continued. He surpassed Huang Guanjun, the hearing-impaired men’s marathon winner at the 2019 China National Paralympic Games, who was struggling a lot. He came across another runner, Wu Panrong, with whom he had been keeping pace from the beginning.

Wu was shaking and his voice was shaking as he spoke. Zhang put his arm around him and the pair continued together, but quickly the wind became so strong and the ground so slippery that they were forced to part.

As Zhang continued to climb, it was dominated by the wind, with gusts of up to 55 mph. He had forced himself to get up off the ground many times, but now, due to the freezing cold, he began to lose control of his limbs. The temperature felt like -5 ° C. This time, when he fell, he couldn’t get back up.

Thinking fast, Zhang covered himself with an insulating blanket. He pulled out his GPS tracker, pressed the SOS button, and passed out.

An ultra runner receives treatment at the hospital after being rescued
Later, a report found that the organizers had not taken action despite weather warnings.

Closer to the bottom of the field, another runner, calling himself Liuluo Nanfang, was hit by the freezing rain. It felt like bullets against his face.

As he progressed, he saw someone walking towards him, coming down from the top of the mountain. The runner said it was too cold, that he couldn’t bear it, and that he was retiring.

But Nanfang, like Zhang, decided to move on. The higher it climbed, the stronger the wind and the colder it felt. Saw a few more competitors coming down on their way up the mountain. His entire body was soaked, including his shoes and socks.

When he finally realized that he had to stop, he found a relatively sheltered spot and tried to warm up. He pulled out his insulating blanket, wrapping it around his body. He was instantly blown away by the wind as he had lost almost all feeling and control in his fingers. He put one in his mouth and held it for a long time, but it was of no use.

When Nanfang now began to come down from the mountain, his vision became blurry and he was trembling. He was very confused but knew he had to persist.

Halfway there he ran into a member of the rescue team who had been dispatched after the weather changed. He was directed to a log cabin. Inside, there were at least 10 other people who had decided to retreat before him. About an hour later, that number had reached around 50. Some spoke of seeing competitors collapse on the side of the road, foaming at the mouth.

“When they said this, their eyes were red,” Nanfang later wrote on social media.

Photo overlooking the stone forest of the Yellow River in Gansu
The Yellow River Stone Forest is a tourist site and a national park in Gansu, China

Meanwhile, Zhang had been rescued by the pastor, who had removed his wet clothes and wrapped him in a quilt. Inside the cave, he was not alone.

When he came to, about an hour later, there were other runners taking refuge there as well, some of whom had also been saved by the pastor. The group had been waiting for him to wake up so they could descend the mountain together.

Armed police and doctors were waiting in the background. More than 1,200 rescuers were deployed overnight, assisted by thermal imaging drones and radar detectors, according to state media.

The following morning, authorities confirmed that 21 people were killed, including Huang, whom Zhang overtook, and Wu, the runner with whom he had kept pace at the start of the race.

Later, a report found that the organizers took no action despite inclement weather warningsExternal link in the run-up to the event.

When news of the deaths spread on social media, many people wondered how the tragedy could have happened. Some competitors, like Zhang and Nanfang, chose to write about their experiences online to help people understand what it was like.

But Zhang’s post, spelled “Brother Tao is running,” disappeared shortly after it was posted.

When Caixin, a Beijing-based news website, uploaded his testimony, a new post appeared on the account a week later, begging the media and social media users to leave him and his family in peace.

It was later learned that Zhang had suspended his account after people questioned his story. Some accused him of bragging about being the sole survivor at the head of the pack, others had sent him death threats.

“We don’t want to be internet celebrities,” he wrote online, adding that the man who saved him had also faced pressure from the media and “other aspects.”

“Our lives must be quiet,” he wrote. “Please everyone, especially friends in the media, don’t bother me and don’t question me.”

The survivors weren’t the only ones to come under pressure.

Rescuers search and treat survivors
Rescuers search for and treat affected athletes on the race track.

A woman, who lost her father in the race, was abused on social media on Weibo after questioning how her father was “allowed to die”. She was accused of spreading rumors and using “foreign forces” to spread negative stories about China.

Another woman, Huang Yinzhen, whose brother died, was followed by local officials who she said were trying to prevent relatives from talking to each other.

“They just prevent us from communicating with other family members or journalists, so they continue to monitor us,” he said. he told the New York Times.External link

In China, it is typical for family members of those who have died in similar circumstances, where authorities face guilt, to be pressured to remain silent. For the government, the attention of social networks on any possible failure is not welcome.

One month after the race, in June, 27 local officials were sanctioned. Jingtai County Communist Party Secretary Li Zuobi was found dead. He died after falling out of the apartment in which he lived. The police ruled out the homicide.

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The Baiyin Marathon is just one of many races in a country that was experiencing a running boom. Its tragic outcome has called into question the future of these events.

According to the Chinese Athletics Association (CAA), China organized 40 times more marathons in 2018 than in 2014. The CAA said there were 1,900 “races” in the country in 2019.

Before Covid arrived, many small cities and regions tried to capitalize on this by organizing events to attract more tourism to the area and boost the local economy.

After the events in Baiyin, the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection of the Chinese Communist Party accused the organizers of some of the country’s races of “focusing on economic benefits” while “they are unwilling to invest more in safety.”

With the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing just a few months away, China has suspended extreme sports such as trail running, ultramarathons and wingsuit flying while reviewing safety regulations. It is not yet clear when they will restart. There have been reports that not even one chess tournament managed to escape the new measures.

But without events like these, people who want to participate, perhaps even future star athletes, are frustrated. In some cases, like Outdoor magazineExternal link points out, athletes could take action, enter the mountain without any regulation and putting themselves at risk.

Mark Dreyer, who directs the China Sports Insider InformationExternal link website, wrote on Twitter: “If this incident has removed the top layer of the pyramid of mass participation, as seems likely, it is not known what effect that would have on the lower levels.

“The long-term effects of this tragic and preventable accident could also be significant.”


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