‘Ran for Our Lives’: How the Deadliest Ultramarathon Claimed 21 Runners

The world’s most famous ultra-marathon, the Boston Marathon, is one of the most popular sporting events in the United States. However, it’s not without its risks. In 2013, bombs exploded at the finish line of the race, killing three and injuring 264 people.

The ultramarathon china deaths is a story of one of the deadliest ultramarathons in history. 21 runners died during the race, which took place on China’s most dangerous highway.

Zhou Liting had to decide whether to go up, down, or remain while huddled with a group of freezing runners on a bare rocky hillside at 6,000 feet.

Others, including her recently married accountant friend Wen Jing, were sprinting upward to the next checkpoint. The others waited for a rescue, which race officials said would arrive in an hour or two.

The 60-mile mountain route would become one of the bloodiest locations in contemporary sports history during the course of the day.

A unexpected cold front from Mongolia pushed temperatures to as low as 23 degrees Fahrenheit, with snow pellets and wind gusts powerful enough to rip foil blankets apart, killing 21 of the 172 runners who began the race.

For months, the tragedy’s scope has perplexed the worldwide running community. An examination of the official investigation’s conclusions, satellite data, and interviews with survivors and family members of victims shows a poorly planned event, as well as race officials who were sluggish to act or communicate, even when danger was obvious.

When the storm blew in, confusion reigned among ill-prepared competitors; some didn’t know they were in danger, while others raced for their lives with little or no aid from organizers. Despite the increasing number of fatalities and pleas for assistance from runners, the race was never formally called off.

Many runners sought refuge in gorges. Some sought refuge in the caves of goat herders. Others strayed from the path and died of hypothermia later. GPS tracker data revealed a jumbled final route. Some of the runners’ heartbeats decreased hours after they asked for assistance, according to sports watches they were wearing.

The event began on the morning of May 22 with 172 participants. The 60-mile ultramarathon in northwest China has nine checkpoints and a total ascent of less than 10,000 feet.

Near the second checkpoint at 4,400 feet, an unexpected cold front took runners off guard.

As racers approached the most difficult section, a 5-mile long sloping path between the second and third checkpoints, winds picked up and temperatures plummeted.

According to a government inquiry, 21 racers died of severe hypothermia before reaching checkpoint three, which was located at an elevation of nearly 7,300 feet.

&nbsp Altitude-related course portions where runners died

Three runners died in undisclosed places.

The province government of Gansu is the source of this information.

According to government inspectors and participants, the race’s operator, a small business with minimal experience in sports events, permitted runners to enter a mountain race with inadequate equipment. According to runners and investigation documents, it stationed far too few first responders along the course, almost all of them far from the most hazardous section. Despite emergency requests from runners, organizers were unable to deploy assistance. The majority of the 21 runners had died by the time they requested a complete rescue.

The race’s organizer, Gansu Shengjing Sports Co., as well as its co-hosts, Baiyin City and Jingtai County, did not reply to calls for comment.

Zhang Xiaoyan, the company’s co-owner and main operator, blamed nature for the disaster in an interview with Chinese media the day after the race. “The weather was so unusual that it was nothing we expected,” she said, according to the Chinese internet news outlet Red Star.

Authorities say five individuals connected to the event’s operator were detained in connection with the fatalities and wrongdoings in the race bidding process.

Requests for feedback from family members and representatives of the sports company’s owners were not returned. Ms. Zhang’s mother, the sports business owner, directed questions to Ms. Zhang’s brothers. Requests for comment were not returned. Ms. Zhang was one among those detained and could not be contacted. It’s unclear if she or the other people detained have legal counsel.

Ultramarathons, which go beyond the normal marathon distance of 26.2 miles, have been more popular in recent years, with some races extending up to 150 miles and traversing deserts. According to a recent research published in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, 51 fatalities were reported in different mountain running events in Western Europe from 2008 to 2019, mostly due to heart attacks and falls.

Extreme weather struck the ultramarathon route in Jingtai, Gansu, China, killing 21 marathon runners.

Tpg/Zuma Press photo

Beijing relaxed restrictions, making it simpler for businesses with minimal expertise in sports to host events. According to the Chinese Athletics Association, the number of road and mountain events increased from 51 to 1,800 between 2014 and 2019.

Former president of the International Trail Running Association, Bob Crowley, said ultramarathon organizers should station medical and safety personnel at crucial locations throughout the event and consider halting it if the weather becomes hazardous. When the terrible weather struck, trail runners all around the globe were surprised that the Yellow River event was not canceled. “Under the conditions, it’s unthinkable that someone would send athletes into the wild,” he added. “We’d never seen anything like it before.”

Signs to Look Out For

A weather prediction for the Yellow River race the day before predicted moderate winds. However, an update at 10 p.m. that evening forecast a gale. The weather in the region proved fickle, as snow fell a day after the first event in 2018.

Runners in past years have complained about needing to carry too much additional clothes due to hot temperatures. As a result, organizers opted not to need runners to pack windbreakers or midlayers this year, but they were required to bring foil blankets and GPS trackers capable of sending S.O.S. warnings.

According to a video seen by the Journal, Ms. Zhou, a dance teacher who placed fourth the previous year, leapt into the air with her companion, Ms. Wen, at the starting line on race day, May 22. Both were dressed in long sleeved shirts and trousers. The majority of the runners were dressed in shorts and tank tops.

Officials fired the starter pistol from a platform in front of a plastic backdrop with hundreds of triangular windows cut out to relieve the strain caused by the wind gusts at 9 a.m.


In this clip from a promotional film, Ms. Zhou and Ms. Wen, two runners and friends, leap into the air before embarking on a 60-mile marathon.

With a total ascent of approximately 10,000 feet, Yellow River was considered one of China’s easier ultramarathon courses.

Zhang Fenglian, 50, was the owner of a medical facility in Lanzhou, a neighboring city. She had grown up running in the mountains and was keen to win an approximately $250 bonus given to anybody who completed within a specified time. She was a mother of two who sold veggies on the side to support her family.

In an interview, a runner friend of Ms. Zhang stated, “She loved the mountains.” Also, “she was in desperate need of cash.”

For the first 15 miles, Ms. Zhou, Ms. Wen, and Ms. Zhang raced toe-to-toe, mainly downhill or flat. Around 10:30 a.m., rain began to pour.

They arrived at the second of nine checkpoints, at 4,400 feet near the Yellow River, 40 minutes later. The route will soon begin a grueling five-mile, 3,000-foot climb to checkpoint three. Ms. Wen, 25, increased her speed.

Ms. Wen had hardly been able to run six miles on highways two years before, but she quickly started running greater distances in the rain, at night, or on trails. She ran eight miles in the skirt she wore that day after work one evening.

Ms. Zhou, 35, has been in the race for nearly a year. She enjoyed the adrenaline rush of trail jogging. She described herself as a free-flying bird with nothing on her mind.


In this picture from a promotional film, Ms. Zhou stretches before starting the marathon.

Ice battered their faces as the weather worsened. Around 11:30 a.m., they saw a man runner racing downhill in shorts. Ms. Zhou reasoned that he may be too chilly. Ms. Wen promised her that she would finish, and they continued on their way.

A runner submitted an S.O.S. as early as 11:50 a.m., but organizers did not react, according to the official inquiry by provincial officials.

When additional indications of danger emerged at checkpoint two, 15 miles into the race, organizers had another opportunity to call the event off before 12:30 p.m.

Deng Xiaochong, a former pet store owner, came in the cold rain after Ms. Zhou and Ms. Wen. He subsequently wrote in a blog that noodles supplied by support workers wobbled on a fork while his hands trembled, an early indication of hypothermia.

Runners nearby had already fled inside parked vehicles and called it a day.

Mr. Deng said he overheard shivering employees screaming into walkie talkies, pleading with their superiors to halt the event.

Mr. Deng was informed that the race would continue. He chose to fight his way to checkpoint three on the following stretch. He was physically capable of continuing, and the race was still on. There would be no vans or water accessible 20 miles into the race, at an elevation of almost 7,300 feet, the event’s second highest point. Two volunteers were the only ones on hand to keep track of the runners’ times.


In a picture from a promotional film, one of the participants, Mr. Deng, grins before the start of the ultramarathon.

Huddle of Runners

Ms. Zhou could hardly stand by the time she reached 6,000 feet, halfway between the second and third checkpoints, due to the wind.

Some runners were sheltering behind a rock, she saw. To offer some warmth, she put her fingers over the legs of a lady who claimed she was suffering from hypothermia. Ms. Zhou’s teeth chattered and her legs cramped as a result of the cold.

An injury is seen in video from an ultramarathon runner.

Only one member of China’s private Blue Sky Rescue team, a national rescue organization, had arrived. He was one of 39 first responders hired by the event and stationed throughout various sections of the route. He donated his uniform as well as a tarp that several runners described as a camping tent, which he and the runners cuddled beneath.

A Beijing runner in a long-sleeved shirt seemed to be asleep in another’s arms, with shoes off and a bloodied forehead, in two video recordings shot by members of the group. Another runner was on the verge of collapsing.

Ms. Zhou was aware that hypothermia in ultramarathons was not unusual, and she had experienced it in prior events, but she was becoming worried. She considered quitting.

With about 42 miles to go, she watched Ms. Zhang and Ms. Wen continuing upward. Ms. Zhou realized she needed to start moving as well in order to keep her body warm. But is it better to go up or down?

Ms. Zhou glanced about for others who might join her heading upward, figuring she could halt at the next checkpoint, which she believed was closer than the previous one.

The choice made little sense to Yang Yunfeng, a runner from Xinjiang. He was freezing under the rescuer’s poncho when he heard a female voice urging runners to go up. He screamed, “That’s too far!” In the wind, he wasn’t sure she heard him. He retreated downhill to safety two hours later.

In an interview, he described the experience as “cold, hazardous, and terrifying.”

Signals of Distress

According to the official investigation, more runners were asking for assistance through internet chats and phones around 1 p.m. One contacted the cops, who arrived at the race’s starting site to assist.

Guo Shiyuan, a 59-year-old liquor entrepreneur, sought refuge in a canyon with another runner who had pleaded for his assistance upward. According to the service provider’s explanation of how the messaging system works, they both issued S.O.S. warnings, which were intended to appear on a computer used by race organizers to monitor the event. Mr. Guo reported that no rescuer had come four hours later. They carefully went back to safety after the wind died down, counting eight corpses along the way. He claimed they examined each other for a pulse and respiration but found none.

In an interview, Mr. Guo remarked, “I still don’t know whether anybody received our warnings.”

A party of runners was guided down to a separate canyon by Jiang Li, a seasoned runner. Mr. Jiang remembered Ms. Zhang crying in the arms of another runner in a blog post. A request for comment from Mr. Jiang was not returned.

The gang then attempted a downward sprint after failing to locate caverns upwards. Mr. Jiang said in the post, “We couldn’t ponder too much and simply fled for our lives.”

According to Mr. Jiang’s written report, he came upon three corpses on the hill, including a champion female runner. It was 1:40 p.m. on his watch. Ms. Zhang has gone, he realized.

Several runners had kept going with Ms. Zhou when she decided to continue upward towards checkpoint three around 1 p.m., using a smartphone map to avoid getting lost in the thick mist.

Only two racers stayed with her when others gave up and went down. They came to a cave with a fire lighted by a goat herder.

It was one of a number of caverns at checkpoint three, although only a few runners were fortunate enough to discover them. One herder was able to save six more runners, but he was unable to save another two who had fallen and died off the path.


When severe weather struck their route, shepherd Zhu Keming assisted in the rescue of six ultramarathon runners.

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images/Str/Agence France-Presse

Response with flaws

The first answer from Ms. Zhang, the creator of main operator Gansu Shengjing, arrived at 1:56 p.m., more than two hours after the first runner’s S.O.S. and more than an hour after GPS monitors revealed minimal movement among several front runners, according to the official inquiry. It was unclear if the S.O.S. warnings were received or recognized by the organizers.

Ms. Zhang, a local businesswoman who began her career in the printing industry, co-founded the sports firm with her husband and launched the event, staffing it with freelance operators and selling display banners to sponsors. Ms. Zhang said in a 2018 television interview that she wants to expose people to the environment around her village and assist improve the local economy as a marathon runner.

The Blue Sky rescuers collected their comrades and went upward at her request. According to the official inquiry, 14 racers had died of severe hypothermia by that time.

Ms. Zhang contacted Meng Pengsen, a director at the Yellow River Stone Forest Tourist Site, which co-hosted the event and provided logistical assistance, at 2:16 p.m., requesting a four-wheel drive vehicle and warm clothing since several racers were wounded and cold, according to an interview.

He said she was anxious and constantly phoning to see whether he had arrived. Caixin Magazine in China was the first to report on his experience.

Mr. Meng and Ms. Zhang handed out cotton-padded overcoats to the runners once they were uphill. He observed three runners looking down as he continued uphill without Ms. Zhang. They hadn’t taken a breath in a long time. He returned later and saw Ms. Zhang, the organizer, huddling with a group of runners to keep warm. Mr. Meng said, “She seemed frightened.”

Along with hundreds of other officials, Mr. Meng, whose co-host unit approved the race, was dismissed. Mr. Meng said that his job was to authorize the race, but that he and others were not responsible for the specifics.

Finally, around 3 p.m., the organizers requested assistance from the authorities. At least 18 racers had perished at that time. Ms. Zhang, her husband, and three accomplices were subsequently apprehended.


Runners are being sought by rescuers.


Continue to run

In the cave, Ms. Zhou dried off. She chose to travel to checkpoint four, where she knew a car might pick her up, since she doubted rescuers would arrive soon.

She went through checkpoint three at 4:18 p.m., urged on by two volunteers dressed in thick clothing who seemed to be ignorant that racers had perished.

Runners who were questioned claimed that officials at checkpoint four appeared ignorant of the gravity of the issue. Ms. Zhou’s beef soup was prepared, she claimed, but she never mentioned the fatalities. Only four runners made it all the way to the finish line. Ms. Zhou chose to keep riding with 36.4 miles to go, despite the fact that she had no clue the magnitude of the catastrophe on the racetrack. The weather had improved by that time.

In an interview, she said, “Nobody ordered me to quit.” “I was under the impression that everyone was safe.”

The majority of the runners had been found by 7 p.m., but 33 were still missing. Search dogs and other equipment were being brought in by firefighters, police officers, mine rescuers, and paramilitary personnel.


Runners are being assisted by rescuers.

Tpg/Zuma Press photo

Ms. Zhou had raced all the way to checkpoint six more than an hour and a half later, at 8:40 p.m., when she was hustled into a vehicle and informed the race had been halted and several racers had perished.

Ms. Zhou was taken aback. Ms. Wen was unable to be seen when she returned to her hotel. She continued updating an internet map that used GPS to monitor runners. One mile before checkpoint three, a dot representing Ms. Wen was halted.

After an overnight search aided by local people, rescue dogs, and a helicopter, her death was confirmed the following morning. Ms. Zhang, the runner from Lanzhou, was the final corpse discovered at 9:10 a.m.

In the days after, Ms. Zhou claimed she wept several times out of regret. Ms. Wen may not have perished if she had stayed with her buddy, she said in a blog. According to a snapshot of the data given to the Journal by Ms. Wen’s father, her heartbeat ceased soon after 2 p.m. on her sports watch.

Another runner who read Ms. Zhou’s blog said he felt terrible as well since he had attempted to assist Ms. Wen downward in her last minutes, but he was too weak and gave up.

During the marathon, Ms. Zhou claimed she never considered her chances of survival. “Now I know I was on the verge of death,” she said.

——This article was co-written by Qianwei Zhang.

Wenxin Fan can be reached at [email protected].

Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Related Tags

  • ultramarathon deaths
  • 21 ultra marathon runners dead
  • longest ultramarathon
  • yellow river stone forest ultramarathon
Scroll to Top