Ran for Our Lives: How the Deadliest Ultramarathon Claimed 21 Runners: A brutal cold front and poorly organized event in China left participants begging for rescue and freezing to death on the trail

Huddling with a group of shivering runners on a naked rocky slope at 6,000 feet, Zhou Liting had to decide: Up, down, or stay?

Piercing winds and rain had swept across the Yellow River Stone Forest Ultramarathon in northwest China that May afternoon, catching runners by surprise. Confused and frightened, some had already turned back.

Others, including her friend Wen Jing, a newly married accountant, were pressing uphill towards the next checkpoint. The rest were waiting for a rescue that race staff told them would come in an hour, or maybe two.

Over the rest of the afternoon, the 60-mile mountain trail would become one of the deadliest sites in modern sports history.

In all, 21 of 172 runners who started the race would die as a sudden cold front from Mongolia drove temperatures to as low as 23 degrees Fahrenheit, with snow pellets and wind gusts strong enough to tear apart foil blankets.

The scale of the tragedy has confounded the international running community for months. A review of findings from the official investigation, satellite data and interviews with survivors and family members of victims reveals a poorly organized event, and race officials who were slow to act or communicate, even when danger was clear.

Confusion reigned among ill-prepared competitors; some didn’t realize the danger they were in, others scrambled for their lives with little or no help from organizers when the squall swept in. Even as deaths mounted and runners begged for help, organizers never officially called off the race.

Many runners hid in gorges. Some searched for goat herders’ caves for shelter. Others wandered off trail and were found dead later from hypothermia. Data from GPS trackers displayed confused final paths. Sports watches worn by some of them show their heartbeats faded hours after runners called for help.

The race’s operator, a local company with little expertise in sporting events, allowed runners to embark on a mountain race with insufficient equipment, according to government investigators and runners. It stationed too few first responders along the route, nearly all of them far from the most dangerous stretch, according to runners and investigative records. Organizers then failed to mobilize help despite emergency calls from runners. By the time they asked authorities for a full rescue, most of the 21 runners were dead.

The race’s operator, Gansu Shengjing Sports Co., and its co-hosts, the city of Baiyin and county of Jingtai, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In an interview with Chinese media the day after the race, Zhang Xiaoyan, the co-owner and principal operator of the company, blamed nature for the tragedy. “The weather was so abnormal that it was nothing we expected,” the Chinese digital news media Red Star quoted her saying.

Five people affiliated with the race’s operator were arrested in connection with the deaths and misdeeds in bidding for the race, authorities said.

Family members and representatives of the sports company’s owners didn’t respond to requests for comment. The mother of Ms. Zhang, the sports company operator, referred queries to Ms. Zhang’s brothers. They didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Ms. Zhang was among those arrested and unable to be reached. It couldn’t be determined if she or the others arrested have legal representation.

Ultramarathons, which extend beyond the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles, have exploded in popularity in recent years, with some stretching to 150 miles crossing terrain such as deserts. Some 51 deaths, mainly from heart attacks and falls, were recorded in various mountain running events in Western Europe from 2008 to 2019, according to a recent study published in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine.

Beijing loosened regulations, making it easier for companies with little sports experience to hold events. The number of road and mountain races grew from 51 to 1,800 between 2014 and 2019, according to the Chinese Athletics Association.

Bob Crowley, former president of the International Trail Running Association, said ultramarathon organizers must post medical and safety staff at key points along a race and should consider stopping a race if weather turns dangerous. Trail runners around the world were stunned the Yellow River race wasn’t suspended when the severe weather hit. “It’s impossible that someone would send athletes into the wild under the circumstances,” he said. “We never encountered anything like that.”

Warning Signs The day before the Yellow River race, a weather report forecasted moderate breezes. An update that evening around 10 p.m., however, predicted a gale. Weather was changeable in the area; snow hit the site a day after the inaugural race in 2018.

In previous years, hot weather left runners complaining about having to carry too much extra clothing. So this year, organizers decided not to make runners carry windbreakers and mid-layers, though they did have to bring foil blankets and GPS trackers that could send S.O.S. alerts.

At the starting line on race day, May 22, Ms. Zhou, a dance instructor who finished fourth the previous year, jumped into the air with her friend, Ms. Wen, in a burst of exuberance according to a video viewed by the Journal. Both wore long sleeves and pants. Most runners wore only shorts and tank tops.

At 9 a.m., officials fired the starting gun from a podium in front of a plastic backdrop with dozens of triangle windows slashed out to release the pressure from the wind gusts.

Yellow River was considered one of the easiest of China’s ultramarathon courses, with a total climb of about 10,000 feet.

Zhang Fenglian, 50, ran a medical clinic in the nearby city of Lanzhou. A mother of two who sold vegetables on the side to support her family, she had grown up running in the mountains and was eager to win a roughly $250 bonus awarded to anyone who finished within a set time.

“She liked the mountains,” said a runner friend of Ms. Zhang in an interview. Also, “she needed the money.”

Ms. Zhou, Ms. Wen and Ms. Zhang ran toe-to-toe for the first 15 miles, which were mostly downhill or flat. Rain started falling at around 10:30 a.m.

Some 40 minutes later, they reached the second of nine checkpoints, at 4,400 feet by the Yellow River. Soon afterwards, the trail would begin a tortuous five-mile, 3,000-foot ascent to checkpoint three. Ms. Wen, 25, accelerated.

Two years earlier, Ms. Wen had barely been able to run six miles on roads, but soon began running longer, in rain or at night, or on trails. One evening after work, she ran eight miles in the skirt she wore that day.

Ms. Zhou, 35, had been running about a year longer. She loved the thrills of trail running. She said she felt like a bird flying, with nothing on her mind.

As the weather deteriorated, ice pelted their faces. They saw a male runner rushing downhill in shorts around 11:30 a.m. Maybe he was too cold, Ms. Zhou thought. Ms. Wen assured her she intended to finish and they charged on.

The official investigation by provincial authorities would later reveal that a runner sent an S.O.S. as early as 11:50 a.m., but organizers didn’t respond.

Organizers had another chance to stop the race before 12:30 p.m., when more signs of trouble appeared at checkpoint two, 15 miles into the race.

Deng Xiaochong, a former pet shop owner, arrived there after Ms. Zhou and Ms. Wen in freezing rain. Noodles provided by support staff wobbled on a fork as his hands shook, an early sign of hypothermia, he later wrote in a blog.

Nearby, some runners had already retreated into parked vans and called it quits.

Mr. Deng said he heard shivering staff members shouting into walkie talkies trying to persuade their bosses to stop the event.

The race would go on, Mr. Deng was told. He decided to battle the next stretch to checkpoint three. He was physically able to press ahead, and, after all, the race was still on. There, 20 miles into the race at above 7,300 feet, the second-highest point of the race, no vans or water would be available. The only staff stationed there were two volunteers to clock the runners’ time.

Runners Huddle By the time Ms. Zhou had reached 6,000 feet, between the second and third checkpoints, she could barely stand because of the wind.

She saw some runners hiding behind a boulder. She wrapped her hand around the legs of a woman who said she was struggling with hypothermia to share some heat. But the cold air made Ms. Zhou’s teeth chatter and her legs almost cramp.

Just one member of China’s Blue Sky Rescue team, a private, national relief group, had arrived. He was part of a group of 39 first responders contracted by the race and stationed along parts of the course. He offered his uniform and what some runners described as a camping tarp under which he and the runners huddled.

In two video clips taken by members of the group, a Beijing runner in a long-sleeve shirt appeared to be unconscious in another’s arms, with shoes off and a bloody forehead. Another runner was foaming at the mouth.

Ms. Zhou knew hypothermia during ultramarathons wasn’t uncommon and she had experienced it herself in previous races, but she was growing concerned. She thought about quitting.

She saw Ms. Zhang and Ms. Wen continue uphill, with roughly 42 miles left to run. Ms. Zhou knew she needed to get moving too so that her body could stay warm. But up, or down?

Figuring she could stop at the next checkpoint, which she thought was closer than the previous one, Ms. Zhou looked around for others who would join her going uphill.

To Yang Yunfeng, a Xinjiang runner, the decision made no sense. He was shivering underneath the rescuer’s tarp when he heard a female voice asking runners to keep going up. That would be too far, he shouted. He wasn’t sure she heard him in the wind. Two hours later, he retreated downhill to safety.

“It was cold, dangerous, and horrifying,” he said in an interview.

Distress Signals By 1 p.m., more runners were calling for help via online chats and phones, according to the official probe. One called the police, and officers left the race’s starting point to help.

Uphill, Guo Shiyuan, a 59-year-old liquor entrepreneur, took shelter from the freezing rain in a gorge with another runner who had begged for his help. They both sent S.O.S. alerts, which were supposed to pop up on a computer organizers used to monitor the race, according to a description of how the messaging system works by the service provider. Four hours later, no rescuer had arrived, Mr. Guo said. When the wind calmed, they slowly walked back to safety, counting eight bodies along the way. They checked each for a heartbeat and breathing and found none, he said.

“I still don’t know if anyone got our alerts,” Mr. Guo said in an interview.

Jiang Li, a veteran runner, led a group down to a different gorge. They included Ms. Zhang, who cried in another runner’s arms, Mr. Jiang recalled in a blog post. Mr. Jiang didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Then, after an attempt to find caves uphill failed, the group made a downhill dash. “We couldn’t think too much and just ran for our lives,” Mr. Jiang wrote in the post.

On the slope, Mr. Jiang came across three bodies, including a champion female runner, according to his written account. His watch read 1:40 p.m. He then noticed Ms. Zhang had disappeared.

Several runners had continued on with Ms. Zhou when she made her decision to continue uphill towards checkpoint three after 1 p.m., following a smartphone map that kept them from losing the trail in the heavy mist.

Some runners gave up and headed down; only two stuck with her. They came across a cave where a goat herder lit a fire.

It was one of several caves near checkpoint three, but only a few runners were lucky enough to find them. One herder would eventually rescue six other runners, but couldn’t save another two he spotted off the trail, who had collapsed and died.

Flawed Response The official investigation showed the first response from Ms. Zhang, the founder of principal operator Gansu Shengjing, came only at 1:56 p.m., more than two hours after the first runner S.O.S., and more than an hour after GPS trackers showed little movement among many lead runners. It couldn’t be determined if organizers received or noticed the S.O.S. alerts.

A local entrepreneur who started out in the printing business, Ms. Zhang founded the sports company and launched the race with her husband, staffing it with freelance operators and selling display banners to sponsors. In a 2018 television interview, Ms. Zhang said that as a marathon runner herself, she wanted to introduce others to the wilderness surrounding her hometown and help boost the local economy.

At her request, the Blue Sky rescuers gathered its members and headed uphill. By then, 14 runners had died of acute hypothermia, according to the government investigation.

Meng Pengsen, a director at the Yellow River Stone Forest Tourist Site, which co-hosted the race and provided logistics support, said in an interview that Ms. Zhang called him at 2:16 p.m. asking for a four-wheel drive vehicle and warm clothes, because some runners were injured and cold.

He said she kept calling to check if he had arrived and sounded agitated. His experience was first reported by China’s Caixin Magazine.

Once uphill, Mr. Meng and Ms. Zhang distributed cotton-padded overcoats to runners. Continuing upwards without Ms. Zhang, he saw three runners facing down. They weren’t breathing. Later, he headed back down and saw Ms. Zhang, the organizer, huddling with a group of runners to stay warm. “She looked scared,” Mr. Meng said.

Mr. Meng, whose co-host unit authorized the race, was fired along with dozens of other officials. Mr. Meng said his role was to approve the race, but that he and others weren’t involved in handling the details.

At 3 p.m., the organizers finally called the government for help. By then, at least 18 runners had died. Ms. Zhang was later arrested with her husband and three associates.

Keep Running Ms. Zhou dried off in the cave. Doubting that rescuers would reach them soon, she decided to go to checkpoint four, where she knew a vehicle could pick her up.

At 4:18 p.m. she ran past checkpoint three as two volunteers in heavy clothes cheered her on, apparently unaware that runners had died.

At checkpoint four, staff seemed unaware of the severity of the situation, runners interviewed said. They made Ms. Zhou beef soup, she said, never mentioning the deaths. In all, only four runners made it that far. With 36.4 miles to the finish, Ms. Zhou decided to keep on going, having little idea of the scale of the tragedy on the racecourse. By then, the weather had cleared.

“Nobody told me to stop,” she said in an interview. “I thought everybody was safe.”

By 7 p.m., organizers had accounted for most of the runners, but 33 were still missing. Firefighters, policemen, mine rescuers and paramilitary officers were arriving with search dogs and other equipment.

More than an hour and a half later, at 8:40 p.m., Ms. Zhou had run all the way to checkpoint six, until she was bundled into a van and told the race had been stopped and some runners had died.

Ms. Zhou was dumbfounded. She returned to her hotel and saw no trace of Ms. Wen. She kept refreshing an online map that tracked runners using GPS. A dot representing Ms. Wen was stopped one mile before checkpoint three.

Her death was confirmed the next morning after an overnight search led by firefighters with the help of local villagers, rescue dogs and a helicopter. The last body, found at 9:10 a.m., belonged to Ms. Zhang, the runner from Lanzhou.

Ms. Zhou said she cried many times with remorse in the days after. In a blog, she wrote that had she stuck with her friend, Ms. Wen might not have died. Ms. Wen’s sports watch showed her heartbeat stopped shortly after 2 p.m., according to a screenshot of the data provided to the Journal by her father.

Ms. Zhou said another runner who read her blog told her he felt guilty too, because in Ms. Wen’s final moments he had tried to help her downhill, but he was too weak and gave up.

Ms. Zhou said she never once thought about survival during the race. “Now I know I was at death’s door,” she said.