It was a tragedy that few could have foreseen. When an unexpected storm crossed Gansu, China, competitors in 100 km the ultra running race faced extreme conditions and as a result at least 21 runners died. All over the world, the news has garnered a spill of sympathy and pain and has united the trail running community in mourning.
But as trail runners seek to move forward after the tragedy, questions arise about the safety of these endurance events and about the responsibility for conducting these tests. Today the popularity of ultra racing cannot be underestimated. Sport has taken off in recent years and the global pandemic has only seen it increase as more people seek to test their limits and participate in these feats of superhuman endurance. From elite athletes to first-time runners reaching the starting line, what happened in China is a painful reminder that, despite the popularity of trail running, it remains an extreme sport.
Like any other event that takes place outdoors, trail runners are attentive to the natural elements and therefore the sport is dangerous. It remains to be seen whether it is up to the runners to know if they have the ability and capacity to tackle such events or if the race organizers are more discerning with the participants. Certainly, as many have expressed, Gansu’s victims are not to blame. Rather, the race organizers should have intervened and prevented them from starting.
It is something that has sparked a wider debate as the Chinese government has announced a nationwide security investigation. Attracting prize money often causes many to enter the race in hopes of victory, but few make it to the end. The research seeks to examine whether provinces actually prioritize the economic benefits of hosting races at the expense of safety.
Race organizers are already under control for lack of direction when it comes to mandatory equipment. The event simply featured a list of recommended equipment that included sports drinks, water, energy food, cap, sunglasses, bandana, hiking poles, raincoat or rain jacket, warm underwear and a first aid kit.
Although the ongoing investigation has not yet reached any conclusion, it is fair to say that the Gansu tragedy will be a lingering stain on the sports landscape. The death of 21 competitors is deeply sad and the reality is that it could have been anyone. Among the killings was Liang Jing, one of China’s best ultra runners and international star. Despite finishing second in the Hong Kong 100, Jing died, proving that while experience can help reduce risk, when it comes to trail running, the extremes of nature are a more powerful force than the home.