China: 21 die in extreme weather during ultramarathon

Race through mountainous forest was hit by sudden hail and high winds

Rescuers carrying equipment set out to search for runners caught in extreme weather during an ultramarathon in China's north-western Gansu province on Saturday. AFP
Rescuers carrying equipment set out to search for runners caught in extreme weather during an ultramarathon in China's north-western Gansu province on Saturday. AFP

Twenty-one people were killed after hail, freezing rain and high winds hit runners taking part in a 100-kilometre cross-country mountain race in China.

The extreme weather hit a high-altitude section of the race held in the Yellow River Stone Forest, near Baiyin city, in north-western Gansu province, on Saturday afternoon.

Among the dead were elite Chinese long-distance runners, local media reported.

State broadcaster CCTV on Sunday reported the final missing competitor had been found having "already lost their vital signs".

"This suggests that this incident caused 21 deaths in total," CCTV said.

City officials had confirmed 20 deaths and one person missing earlier on Sunday.

Baiyin city mayor Zhang Xuchen said a section of the ultramarathon course between 20-31 kilometres was "suddenly affected by disastrous weather" at around midday.

"In a short period of time, hailstones and ice rain suddenly fell in the local area, and there were strong winds. The temperature sharply dropped," he said.

After receiving messages seeking help, marathon organisers sent out a rescue team that assisted 18 of the 172 competitors.

The race was called off as weather conditions worsened at around 2pm, and local authorities sent out more rescuers, Mr Zhang said.

The victims included top domestic marathon runners Liang Jing and Huang Guanjun, local media reported, citing a friend of Huang's and Wei Pulong, Liang's coach.

Liang had won several Chinese ultramarathons in recent years.

Huang won the men's hearing-impaired marathon at the 2019 National Paralympic Games held in Tianjin.

State news agency Xinhua reported that some of the runners suffered from hypothermia.

Mr Zhang said earlier that eight people were being treated for minor injuries in hospital and were in a stable condition.

Video footage broadcast on state media showed rescue personnel in combat fatigues carrying torches as they climbed the rocky terrain at night.

Some marathon runners were wrapped in blankets and put on stretchers.

"My whole body was soaked through, including my shoes and socks. I couldn't stand up straight because of the wind, I was very worried I'd be blown over. The cold became more and more unbearable," one survivor was quoted as saying in local media.

"While descending the mountain, I was already experiencing hypothermia symptoms."

Temperatures in the mountainous terrain dropped further overnight, Xinhua said, making search and rescue "more difficult".

Yellow River Stone Forest is famous for its rugged mountain scenery marked by stone stalagmites and pillars.

Gansu, one of China's poorest regions, borders Mongolia to the north and Xinjiang to the west. Deadly floods and landslides have hit the province in the past, and it is also prone to earthquakes.

Marathons and extreme sports have seen a surge in popularity among China's middle class in recent years.

Updated: May 23, 2021 11:44 AM

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