It was a tragedy few could ever have anticipated. When an unexpected storm swept across Gansu, China, competitors in a 100km ultra running race came to face extreme conditions and as a result, at least 21 runners died. Around the world, the news has garnered an outpouring of sympathy and grief and united the trail running community in mourning.
But as trail runners look to move forward following the tragedy, questions are being raised as to the safety of such endurance events and where the responsibility for staging these races lies. These days, the popularity of ultra-running can’t be underestimated. The sport has taken off in recent years and the global pandemic has only seen it swell as more people look to test their limits and engage in such feats of super-human endurance. From elite athletes to first-time runners all taking to the start-line, what happened in China is a painful reminder that even despite the popularity of trail running, it is still an extreme sport.
Just like any other event that takes place outdoors, trail runners are beholden to the natural elements and consequently, the sport is a dangerous one. Whether it’s up to runners to know whether they have the skill and capacity to take on such events, or the race organisers to be more discerning of entrants, remains to be answered. Certainly, as many have voiced, the victims in Gansu are not to blame. Rather, race organisers should have intervened and stopped them from starting.
It’s something that has sparked wider debate, with the Chinese government announcing an investigation into safety standards nationwide. The allure of prize money often sees many enter the race in the hope of victory, but few make it to the end. The investigation is looking to examine whether provinces are in fact prioritising the economic benefits of hosting races at the expense of safety.
Already, race organisers are coming under scrutiny for the lack of direction when it comes to mandatory gear. The event simply had a “recommended gear” list that included sports drink, water, energy food, cap, sunglasses, bandana, hiking poles, wind breaker or waterproof jacket, warm undergarments and a first aid pack.
While the ongoing investigation is yet to reach any conclusions just yet, it’s fair to say that the tragedy of Gansu will be a lingering stain on the sporting landscape. The deaths of 21 competitors is deeply saddening, and the reality is that it could have been anyone. Amongst those killed was Liang Jing, one of China’s best ultra runners and international star. Despite having finished second at the Hong Kong 100, Jing was killed, proving that even though experience can help one reduce risks, when it comes to trail running, the extremes of nature are a force more powerful than man.