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He was deaf, mute, a champion runner — and one of 21 who died in a Chinese ultramarathon

Rescuers head toward an incident.
Rescuers at the site in northwestern China where 21 ultramarathon competitors died Saturday after hail, freezing rain and gale-force winds hit the high-altitude race.
(AFP / Getty Images)

The last time anyone saw Huang Guanjun alive, he was climbing a steep, rocky slope. Wind howled. Hail and rain pounded, but Huang heard nothing. He ran, like always, in silence.

It was midday May 22, more than 24 kilometers into a 100-kilometer ultramarathon race through the Yellow River Stone Forest of China’s northwestern Gansu province. The 172 runners — including Zhang Xiaotao, who waved to Huang as he passed him in the storm — were winding through canyons and mountains of sand and stone.

Zhang would later post online that Huang pointed to his ears, “meaning that he couldn’t hear.”

The next time Huang was spotted was around 2 a.m., when, according to local reports, a rescue team found his body in rugged terrain. When word reached the survivors, one runner yelled to a nearby reporter: “He was deaf and mute! He couldn’t even call for help.”

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Huang was one of 21 runners who died when they were overcome by dropping temperatures, 32- to 46-mph gusts and battering hail. The news stunned China and the wider ultramarathon trail-running world. The worst such incident to happen in running history, it has caused widespread grief, criticism of the race’s organizers and a halt to many marathons and trail races nationwide.

Rescuers haul equipment up a slope.
Rescuers search for runners.
(Fan Peishen / Xinhua )

The victims were among China’s best runners: Liang Jing, 31, won the 400-kilometer Ultra Gobi in 2018, running for 3½ days across a desert trail that included a nighttime, 4,000-meter climb in frigid temperatures. He had won the Gansu race three times before, usually finishing in less than nine hours. Fellow runners nicknamed him “Liang God.”

Huang, 33, had been marathon champion of China’s 2019 National Paralympic Games. In 2014, a reporter named Yan Jing profiled Huang for a local paper in Sichuan province. He was pale and skinny at the time, “like a student,” she wrote. She’d noticed him at a marathon that year at which he placed second out of 40 racers from his home city of Mianyang.

Born to farmers, Huang lost his hearing and speech due to an injection given to treat illness when he was 1 year old, the report said. He left school after seventh grade, unable to keep up with the class. He learned computer and embroidery skills at a vocational school. And he ran: 10 to 20 kilometers a day, working his way up to marathons, accumulating a bagful of medals and certificates that he showed the reporter one by one.

Running had become a faith for Huang, a reason to face each day, he told Yan on the Chinese chatting app QQ. His username at that time was Lonely Running.

By this year, he had changed it to Love Running. Dream Running. He’d become a champion with his 2:38:29 marathon time in 2019. The Gansu race was his first 100K. He waited in silence for the start.

A nighttime photograph of rescuers assisting runners.
Rescuers assist distressed runners.
(AFP / Getty Images)

Trail-running boom

Trail running has boomed in popularity over the last decade in Asia, but safety guidelines have not kept up, mostly due to budget problems, said Kris van de Velde, race director at Nordic Ways, an outdoor-sports company that organizes cycling and running races in China.

Low-budget organizers often cut costs, forgoing equipment like GPS devices or not having a professional rescue team on standby, Van de Velde said. At the same time, runners and organizers have become “a bit complacent” about the sport’s dangers, he said, holding increasingly extreme events without preparing for the consequences.

One risk of trail running, especially in mountains and through unpredictable weather, is hypothermia, when a runner experiences a dangerously low body temperature. That can happen even in non-freezing weather, especially with wind and rain. The first sign is shivering, followed by mental disorientation, fatigue, blurred vision and stiff limbs.

A handful of deaths among trail runners have occurred around the world, including elite athletes in Germany, France, Spain, the U.S. and the U.K. The most common causes are hypothermia and falling off cliffs.

“I was always a bit concerned,” said Van de Velde, “about what is going to happen if one day the weather really turns nasty or people get stuck high up on the mountain with dehydration, hypothermia, serious dangers. And unfortunately now, in Gansu, everything came at once.”

A chilly start

The day began chilly and overcast. But the runners did not expect extreme weather, according to Wandering in the South, the WeChat name of a race participant whose account has been widely shared and quoted by state media, although he has chosen to remain anonymous.

The organizers recommended that runners carry jackets but didn’t require it, according to the race regulations. Many passed their jackets to volunteers so they could pick them up for the nighttime leg of the run.

At 8:20 a.m., Liang posted a video to WeChat filled with the sound of fierce wind. “This wind is a little big,” he wrote.

At 9 a.m., the mayor of Baiyin fired the race’s starting shot. The runners took off, many in shorts and short sleeves.

At 9:56 a.m., Liang was leading at the first checkpoint, running in a white cap, shorts and a black jacket with the sleeves rolled up.

By 10:44 a.m., Liang had passed the second checkpoint, said Guo Jian, one of the race photographers, in a video report by Sanlian Lifeweek, a Chinese business magazine. The wind was so strong that it blew away some of his equipment.

At 11 a.m., the rain came. Guo asked whether the organizers intended to stop the race. He received no reply and drove on to the fourth checkpoint, taking a 60-kilometer route around a mountain.

Checkpoint 3 was on that mountain, demanding a 1,000-meter climb over eight kilometers, most of it on stone and sand. The route was inaccessible by car. There was no supply station; just a yellow flag. Most runners crawled up that slope on their hands and feet, the runner who goes by Wandering in the South wrote. The weather worsened by early afternoon. Rain struck his face “like bullets,” the wind buffeting his soaked body, he said. He pulled out a thin thermal blanket. The wind ripped it apart.

Wandering in the South soon lost feeling in his fingers. His tongue was cold. He descended the mountain, shaking in the fog, feeling a woolly daze settle over his mind. “I have to get down,” he kept telling himself.

He took shelter in a hut with several dozen other runners. They staggered down one by one, many crying, saying they’d seen others lying by the trail, some foaming at the mouth.

“The wind on the mountain is too strong,” said Luo Jing, famous for being the first Chinese woman to climb all 14 of the world’s mountains higher than 8,000 meters. Her voice in a video was barely audible over the gales. A foil blanket was wrapped over her blue windbreaker.

She turned back. Other runners were scattered ahead and behind her in the rain.

A man stands in a cave amid discarded Mylar blankets and water bottles.
Shepherd Zhu Keming is being hailed as a hero for rescuing six ultramarathon runners. He stands in the cave where he sheltered with runners in distress.
(AFP / Getty Images)

The good shepherd

Zhang, the runner who passed Huang in the storm, was trying to climb. He was in fourth place at the time. But the wind kept knocking him over. His limbs felt hard and heavy, his body slowly slipping out of his control. With the last fall, he pulled on the thermal blanket, pressed SOS on his GPS and passed out.

Two and half hours later, a shepherd found Zhang, pulled him into a cave, changed his drenched clothing and wrapped him in a blanket in front of a fire. It took an hour for Zhang to regain consciousness.

The shepherd’s name was Zhu Keming. He had been herding his 30 or so sheep that day when the rainstorm began, he told the Beijing News. He hid in a cave and fell asleep but was awakened around 2 p.m. by someone shouting for help. It was a runner. Then another. Zhu saved six runners, all soaked, shivering and injured, including Zhang.

The shepherd kept his fire burning, feeding it with pages he ripped from a book.

It is unclear when race organizers were notified of the fallen runners, but Baiyin city authorities said they had been informed of bad weather conditions by 2 p.m. Guo, the photographer, saw a handful of rescuers at Checkpoint 4 go searching for runners around 4:30 p.m. Larger firefighter teams arrived around 7 p.m. They said they’d gotten lost on the way.

“There’s no signal here, no navigation, so only people who knew the way could find it,” Guo said.

It was dark. Word was spreading across China. State media reported that more than 700 rescuers scoured the mountain overnight. Head lamps and flashlights lit the ground.

Family receives a call

A woman in the city of Guizhou received a call overnight from race organizers. Her husband had been lost, they said, but they were working to find him. Her 21-year-old daughter, a university student, saw a video online of a runner passed out, froth spilling from his mouth. He looked like her father.

The family booked flights to reach Gansu, a poor province in need of the money a race brings. On the plane, the daughter scribbled a note to post later on Weibo: “Why hold the race without proper safety measures? Was it just to boost the local economy and tourism? I have many more why’s that I want to hear you organizers explain one by one.”

Weibo commenters attacked the daughter online, questioning if she was real and accusing her of spreading rumors and being driven by foreign forces out to disparage China. The daughter later found out that the man in the video was not her father, although her father did die in the race.

The aftermath

Twenty-one runners were dead when searchers found them.

Zhang Xuchen, the Baiyin mayor, bowed and apologized at a press conference Sunday. “As the race organizers, we feel deep guilt and self-blame and express sorrowful mourning for the victims and condolences to their families and the injured.”

The Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s highest anticorruption body, is investigating the race. Gansu authorities have meanwhile offered about $150,000 compensation each to families of those who died. Many have rejected the compensation, saying they want more explanation of what went wrong, according to local media.

None of the companies involved with the race or the local Gansu government answered repeated calls from The Times. A rescue team and several survivors and direct contacts of the runners who died said they needed permission to speak with foreign media, then declined. Some survivors did not respond to requests for contact.

At least 60 upcoming road and trail races nationwide have been canceled or indefinitely postponed.

Huang might have run in one of them.

He was not as famous as some of the other ultramarathoners, but he was driven. He struggled to find stable work, moving among jobs at factories, as a delivery driver and, most recently, chopping vegetables in a restaurant for about $400 a month, according to Wei Jing, a friend who’d helped Huang get running sponsorships and wrote about him online after his death.

Huang tried to save what little he earned, eating instant noodles while traveling to races, she said, adding that he was “sunny” but disciplined.

In October 2019, he sent her a video of himself completing a marathon in Xi’an. “If it wasn’t raining, I could have finished in 2:35,” he told her. “Next month I’ll go to Shanghai and try for 2:30.”

In the days before the Gansu race, Huang toured the region with three friends. He treated himself to lamb in Lanzhou, visited a historical fortress and practiced running the race trail. On May 21, he posted a series of photos on WeChat: ancient jagged hills, a donkey in a valley, vistas of crinkled stone and yellow sand cascading into the distance.

“Beautiful view,” he wrote, with three starry-eyed smiley faces. In the middle was a photo of himself standing above the hills, eyes closed, arms outstretched beneath an open sky.

Ziyu Yang of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.


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