After 21 runners died during an ultramarathon, will the endurance sport look inward and explore whether it has become too extreme?
Ultrarunning has never experienced a day like Saturday, when 21 runners died as a storm descended on a high mountain pass during a 100km race in northwestern China.
Tragedy is hardly a foreign concept in ultrarunning, races longer than the standard marathon distance of 42km. But the scale of the loss of life in Gansu province was hard for even veterans of the growing sport to fathom.
Usually, tragedy strikes an ultrarace on a runner-by-runner basis. Last year, Kateryna Katiuscheva of Ukraine, known as the "Iron Lady" of ultrarunning, collapsed 9km from the finish of a 67km trail race. Organisers found her after an eight-hour search but she died in the hospital, at age 33, the following day. And last summer, the veteran ultrarunner Kim McCoy lost her leg when she was struck by a car while crossing a highway 112km from the finish line of a 547km race across the American South.
What happened in China was more akin to a mountaineering disaster, an avalanche, or what happened on Mount Everest in 1996, when a sudden storm killed eight climbers and stranded several others, including many amateur climbers.
"I am so freaked out," Katie Arnold, an ultrarunning champion and the author of the memoir, Running Home, said Monday. "I can't even get my mind around it."
Once considered an extreme niche activity, ultrarunning has soared in popularity during the last two decades. More than 600,000 people participated in an ultrarace in 2018, an increase of nearly 350 per cent during the past decade, and nearly 1,700 per cent from the 1990s, according to a recent study from the International Association of Ultrarunners, the global governing body for the sport.
At the same time, leaders of the sport have continued to up the ante, organising harder and longer races. Many last several days and hundreds of kilometres and include both high-altitude climbs and extreme temperatures.
Critics have argued that some of these races have begun to blur the lines between the rugged and the reckless, and in the process, shifted the definition of an endurance race from conquering long distances to surviving the elements.
Many ultraraces do not include much nourishment from organisers. Instead, some require runners to have their own crew supporting them along the way, though that can be difficult when the course runs through remote, high-altitude regions.
Candice Burt, an organiser of ultramarathons, several longer than 320km, said with the increasing popularity of the sport, those who stage races can no longer count on runners being familiar with what they need to survive the terrain. She is now discussing an expansion of the list of required safety gear.
"You may not need it, but someone else you come across in the race might," Burt said. "There are going to be significant sections in these races that it's going to take a while for rescuers to get to."
The 21 deaths during the race in China served as a reminder that even as extreme activities become more mainstream, they can become fatal in an instant.
The Chinese ultramarathon took place at the Yellow River Stone Forest Park tourist site and turned catastrophic when a large storm moved in Saturday afternoon, pelting runners with rain and hail, bringing freezing temperatures and carrying wind that knocked them off their feet. The area is notorious for wild swings in the weather, in part, people familiar with it say, because of the chains of mountains to the west and the Siberian winds from the north.
One runner, Zhang Xiaotao, 30, recalls falling nearly a dozen times before passing out. A shepherd found him and carried him to safety.
Scott Warr, a longtime mid-pack trail runner and co-host of the podcast Trail Runner Nation, wondered whether "the veterans of the sport aren't training or educating the new people as much as they need to be."
And yet, a striking element of the tragedy in China was the level of proficiency of some of the runners who lost their lives, including Liang Jing, 31, an ultramarathon champion, and Huang Guanjun, the winner of the men's marathon for hearing-impaired runners at China's 2019 National Paralympic Games.
It is not clear how strict organisers were about making runners carry an emergency pack with warmer clothing, something that has become increasingly common at races that pass through high-altitude regions in the United States and Europe. Many runners set off on the course in China in little more than a T-shirt and shorts before freezing conditions arrived.
In many races, runners will be pulled from the starting line or from a check point if they do not have a bag with a lightweight jacket, rain pants, a mobile phone, and in some cases a small blanket, a hat and gloves.
Dean Karnazes, who has made a career out of accomplishing endurance feats including multiple extreme ultraraces, called the tragedy a wake-up call for all ultrarunners. He has been hypothermic and watched his fingers turn blue, and said he will not let that happen anymore. "I'm going to make sure I am prepared now, and I don't think I am unique among ultrarunners in thinking that," Karnazes said.
Arnold, who finished second in the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs 85km race on Saturday, said organisers there had set up an elaborate texting system to warn runners of danger. During the race, she received warnings about everything from a mother bear on the course with her cubs to a severe weather warning from the National Weather Service. The event, which covers high terrain in New Mexico, had in recent years experienced severe storms, including one in which snow forced runners to take shelter in tents.
Arnold said the precautions impressed her. She describes herself as a conservative runner who pays close attention to the weather on training runs, which she calls off if she sees lightning or clouds gathering at high altitude.
But it's one thing to do that in training and another to do that in the middle of a race, when adrenaline and the rush of competition come into play.
"It feels there is an excessive quality that is a little worrisome," Arnold said of ultrarunning. "I hope things will change from this. It could have happened at any race."
Written by: Matthew Futterman
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