Death in the Stone Forest
Men's Journal|September - October 2021
Why did 21 runners die competing in an ultramarathon in China? Turns out, a freak weather event wasn’t the only problem.
By Ryan Ho Kilpatrick

At around 3 p.m. on May 22, Kong Ming received a phone call from the organizing committee of the Yellow River Stone Forest mountain race, a trail ultramarathon in a remote part of northwest China he was coordinating transportation for. The committee member on the other end of the line told him a runner had been injured around the third of the 100-kilometer course’s nine checkpoints. The man asked Kong to bring some warm clothes and help the injured man down the mountain.

Checkpoint three (CP3), located at the summit of a brutal climb considered the race’s hardest section, was the event’s only unmanned checkpoint. It was also the only one not accessible by road.

As Kong neared the ridge crest, he spotted plumes of smoke coming from one of the small caves used as shelters by local shepherds. Inside, six runners huddled around a small fire, shaking uncontrollably. Their skin was turning blue.

A short, thin man in his 50s stepped out of an adjacent cave. A local shepherd, the man told Kong he’d helped five of the people in the cave down from the mountain. One had found his own way there. There were more uphill he couldn’t help.

Kong began running through the wind, rain, and hail to the place where the shepherd had pointed. The sweat on his face began to freeze and his muscles cramped and froze as he picked his way up the slippery, muddy path. After half an hour Kong came upon a runner lying prone on the ground. He’s exhausted and resting, Kong initially thought. But the runner’s eyes were squeezed shut. He wasn’t breathing.

Kong looked down at his bib: 001. Runner 001 was the favorite to win the race, just as he had been every other year—Liang Jing. A “god” in Chinese trail running circles, Liang’s most recent triumph was placing first in a grueling 250-kilometer ultra across the Gobi Desert. In Gansu, he was just one of the 21 runners who died only a few hours into the race, after temperatures plummeted and rain, hail, and gale-force winds lashed the exposed landscape.

Liang had proven he was capable of running over 150 kilometers within 12 hours, but after his body was recovered the GPS data on his watch revealed his slowest time on record: one kilometer in 57 minutes. This was his final kilometer, a frantic zigzag as he stumbled and crawled off-course in a desperate search for shelter.

FATAL RISE

When news of the tragedy in Gansu Province made headlines around the world, many Chinese internet users were quick to lay blame at the feet of inexperienced runners chasing a new fad and getting in over their heads. It’s a familiar news-cycle trope in China, which hosted 1,828 marathons in 2019—five years earlier it had held just 51.

The running boom has led to a particularly Chinese brand of tragicomedy that’s occasionally veered into the absurd, like when thousands of novice runners fell ill during a marathon in Guangdong after they mistook scented soap in their swag bags for energy bars.

What made the Gansu tragedy exceptional, besides the devastating death toll, was how it seemed to pick off with murderous precision the most experienced and talented athletes in the sport. In addition to Liang Jing, there was Paralympic marathon champion Huang Guanjun; regional record-holder Cao Pengfei; professional trail racer Huang Yinbin; running group leader Lu Zhengyi; and veteran of over 100 marathons Duan Jihong. The threshold for competitors to enter the Gansu event meant everyone had run at least one prior ultra or two marathons, and it was the spearhead of front-runners that bore the brunt of the severe weather. If the extreme weather front had descended an hour or two later upon the main body of runners, said one anonymous volunteer, perhaps dozens more might have perished.

“People say the Yellow River Stone Forest ultra is the simplest 100-kilometer trail race in China,” said a participant who shared his story anonymously. “This is because the total elevation gain—less than 3,000 meters—isn’t that much compared to other races, and because most of the terrain isn’t that technical and can be run.”

However, the course has unique challenges. It begins at an elevation around 6,560 feet above sea level. After leaving an area known for sightseeing, the course tracks through barren, uninhabited areas. The eight kilometers between checkpoints two and three are the most challenging. This section features a near-vertical 1,000-meter scramble along a steep and narrow stone-and-sand path.

At the end of the climb no relief awaits runners. Because the section is inaccessible by vehicle, no supplies, food or water are delivered to the summit, nor is there anywhere to shelter. Runners simply have to persevere for another 11 kilometers to reach checkpoint four.

It was on this stretch that the real trouble started. Rainfall that began as a few droplets turned into a dense downpour. As runners rounded a sharp corner after CP2 they were met with force-eight headwinds (over 40 mph) that pelted the rain—then hail—against their faces. As they squinted to see the ground in front of them, the temperature kept dropping.

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