Participants in the 60-mile course were subjected to hail, freezing rain and high winds after a sudden drop in temperatures in the stone forest of the Yellow River in Baiyin City, Gansu Province, the said. Chinese official news agency Xinhua.
The race was halted at around 1 p.m. Saturday, but not all runners could be immediately located on the high-altitude track.
A rescue operation was launched which lasted 24 hours, including overnight, and concluded on Sunday after the bodies of the 21 missing runners were found and transferred away from the site. The search, involving more than 700 people, was made more difficult by the mountain’s complex terrain.
A number of elite runners were among the dead, including well-known athlete Liang Jing, who recently won a 100 km race in Ningbo, according to Xinhua.
Photos and videos from the start of the marathon showed some of the runners wearing only shorts and t-shirts under overcast skies. Several race participants posted their videos on WeChat groups, raising SOS alerts and requests for help.
The cause of death for most runners is believed to be hypothermia.
Bayin City Mayor Zhang Xuchen apologized as the event’s organizer at a press conference.
“We express our sincere condolences and sympathy to the families of the victims and injured,” he said.
Of the 172 people who took part in the race, 151 were confirmed to be healthy. Some were treated for minor injuries and were stable, Xinhua said.
One of the participants who quit and returned to safety wrote on social media that the race had already taken place four times, according to the Associated press.
He added that the weather conditions caught the riders off guard and he struggled to warm up.
“I ran two kilometers before the starting gun fired to warm up… but the problem was that after running those two kilometers, my body still hadn’t warmed up,” he said. on WeChat.
He later told Xinhua that his fingers were numb and he felt dizzy the moment he decided to turn around.
A reporter for the public channel CCTV said some of those further down the road had fallen into the crevices of the mountains and needed help. They added that the path taken by the runners was narrow and reached an altitude of several thousand feet.
According to the Chinese meteorological administration in Beijing on Friday evening, the city of Baiyin is expected to experience moderate to strong winds from Friday evening to Saturday.
But another weather report on the provincial weather services website predicted a “significant” drop in temperature in most parts of Gansu through Sunday.
The contrast in weather reports, along with the lack of contingency planning on the part of event organizers and the Baiyin government, sparked public outrage on Chinese social media.
Several also questioned the accuracy of the weather forecast and why it was overlooked before starting a full-scale marathon.
“Why didn’t the government read the weather forecast and do a risk assessment? An online commenter said. “It’s totally a man-made calamity. Even if the weather is unexpected, where were the contingency plans? “
The veteran marathoners directed their anger at the race organizers and said they should have been better prepared to carry out the emergency rescue of the athletes.
Chen Penbin, one of China’s most famous ultra-marathon runners, told state run Global Times that although the weather could be unpredictable, the organizers should have been more attentive to the safety of the runners as the trail was at high elevation with complex terrain.
In addition, “the organizers should also consider whether competitors from lower places can adapt to the race which takes place at more than 2,000 meters above sea level,” he said.
The local government said it had formed a team to conduct a full investigation into what was wrong with the event.