Tragedy struck the 100km cross-country mountain marathon race in China’s Baiyin City in Gansu province as 21 participants died after extreme weather hit the event, local authorities said on Sunday.
Another 151 participants were confirmed safe, of which eight with minor injuries were treated in a hospital.
The mayor of Baiyin City, Zhang Xuchen said on Sunday that “it was a public safety incident caused by a sudden change in local weather, and the province had set up a special team to further investigate the cause”.
According to the rescue headquarters, freezing rain and gale hit the area of the race’s high-altitude stage between 20-31km at around 1pm on Saturday.
The participants suffered from physical discomfort and loss of temperature, hypothermia, due to the sudden drop in temperature. Some of the participants went missing and the race was halted.
Local governments initiated an emergency response and organised over 1,200 rescuers to search for the missing people.
The temperature dropped again during the night due to the area’s complex terrain and topography, making the search and rescue more difficult. A total of 172 people took part in the race.
Participants were not rookies. One of the deceased was a well-known runner Liang Jing, who had won a 100-kilometer (62-mile) race in Ningbo, reported the Paper, a state-backed newspaper based in Shanghai.
The race also followed a relatively established course, having been held four times, according to an account posted online by a participant in the race who quit and managed to make his way to safety.
But the weather caught them off guard, and on the morning of the race Saturday, he already sensed things were not normal. The runners were not dressed for winter-like conditions, many wearing short-sleeved tops.
"I ran 2 kilometers before the starting gun fired to warm up ... but the troublesome thing was, after running these 2 kilometers, my body still had not heated up,'' the competitor said in a first-person account that has been viewed more than 100,000 times on his WeChat account.
He later told the Paper that the forecast the day prior to the race did not predict the extreme weather they encountered.
The most difficult section, from kilometre 24 to kilometre 36 , climbed 1,000 metres. There, he said the path was just a mix of stones and sand, and his fingers grew numb from the cold.
When he finally decided to turn back, he already felt dazed. He said he was able to make it to safety and met a rescue crew. He did not respond to a request for comment left on his social media account.
Some runners farther along the course had fallen off the trail into deep mountain crevices, according to a reporter for state broadcaster CCTV. It was not clear how many of them survived.
Video footage showed rescuers in winter jackets in the pitch-dark night searching with flashlights along steep hills and narrow paths. Search operations ended by noon Sunday.
Online, some wondered what, if any preparations organizers had made in the event of an emergency.
Baiyin city Mayor Zhang Xuchen held a news conference later Sunday and profoundly apologized as the organizer of the event. The government promised a full investigation.
"We express deep condolences and sympathy to the families of the victims and the injured,'' the mayor said.