One of the last things Zhang Xiaotao remembered before passing out was a fierce wind, freezing rain so dense he could barely see and a numbness that left him unable to control his body.
In accounts given to Chinese state media and posted on his social-media account, the veteran runner said he was in the toughest leg of a grueling 60-mile mountain race in northern China on Saturday when a freak storm hit, catching many of the racers by surprise. He wrapped himself in a foil survival blanket he was carrying, pressed the SOS button on his GPS locator, and then blacked out.
When Mr. Zhang returned to consciousness, hours later, he found that he had been rescued by a local sheep herder, who had brought him to a cave stocked with quilts and firewood. Mr. Zhang didn’t answer messages to his accounts or calls to his phone. The Wall Street Journal confirmed the authenticity of Mr. Zhang’s account with a colleague.
Many of Mr. Zhang’s fellow racers weren’t so lucky. By the time rescue operations had concluded on Sunday, 21 athletes—including some of China’s top trail runners—had died from exposure, in an incident that is sparking anger and consternation throughout the country.
On Monday, mountain-trail races were being canceled throughout China, people involved in the races said. Those moves followed an emergency meeting of Chinese sports officials Sunday night that called on local governments to monitor safety risks, and the launch of an investigation into Saturday’s race by the government in Gansu, the province where it took place.
Zhejiang Province south of Shanghai has suspended all distance and trail-running events, according to an official notice posted on the social-media account of a government-affiliated runners’ club.
As China’s middle class grows richer, the popularity of city marathons and mountain races has surged in recent years, attracting investors to organize new races, including many backed by local governments that have embraced the events for economic-development purposes.
But some races have been plagued with injuries and even deaths, which are often attributed to inexperienced organizers.
Many other participants in this weekend’s deadly race have posted videos, photos and messages to social media describing their experiences, and Chinese internet users are asking why organizers weren’t better prepared for emergencies and more alert to the possibility of bad weather.
Mayor Zhang Xuchen of Baiyin City, the host of the event, said on Sunday that he was riddled with guilt over the loss of lives caused by a sudden change of weather, and that the province would continue to investigate the incident. Efforts to reach the race operator, Gansu Shengjing Sports Co., were unsuccessful.
Among the dead: Liang Jing, one of China’s best-known marathon runners, who had won the race, which traces a winding, rocky path along the Yellow River in remote Gansu Province, each of the three previous years it had been held.
“We’re all really struggling to process how this could have happened,” said Steve Brammer, who met Mr. Liang when he participated in a similar trail-running competition that Mr. Brammer directed in Hong Kong. Mr. Liang had twice placed second in that race, the Vibram Hong Kong 100.
Two days after Saturday’s event, a more complete picture is now emerging via state media, social-media posts and videos.
The Yellow River Stone Forest where the marathon took place is a jumble of mountains and reddish rock structures that stretch skyward on the edge of the desert, a roughly 10-hour drive northwest of the city of Xi’an.
Videos of the course from runners and the race organizer show athletes laboring up slopes so steep they have to use their hands, and winding through narrow gullies and tunnels between sandy rock pinnacles.
In the toughest leg, where most of the runners ran into trouble, the course climbs 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) to an elevation of around 2,200 meters (7,218 feet), without support staff.
The area had proven treacherous before. In 2018, organizers were forced to shorten the course when a landslide damaged the path a few weeks before the start date. In some years, organizers were more concerned with heat than cold. Although runners still had to bring an emergency foil blanket, organizers last year removed the requirement to have windproof jackets.
On Saturday morning, the weather was cold and windy, but racers hadn’t gotten any bad-weather warnings from the organizers, according to multiple posts and videos from race participants. When the storm hit around noon, with hail and a rapid drop in temperature, the race leaders were already heading into the highest and steepest part of the course.
As the gale and rain hit, Wang Jinmin, a runner from Chongqing, spent a few minutes opening up his emergency blanket. It was immediately blown out of his shivering hands, he later told CGTN, a state media service, from a hospital bed.
Soon, he found himself lying on the ground, unable to move, and his consciousness fading. To stay awake, he pinched himself and bit his lips and tongue, vowing to see his family again. He managed to remain conscious until rescuers found him around 9 p.m., 12 hours after the race started.
Lan Renxun, an associate law professor from southeast China, had left his wind jacket with organizers because the forecast had been for a warm day, he told CGTN. He was hit by cold rain and wind as he went into the steep leg.
“My eyesight became blurred,” he said, “followed by my brain.”
Mr. Zhang, too, said in his Weibo post that his sight started blurring when the rain strengthened. He passed two fellow runners, both in bad shape, and tried to help one by putting his arm around him for support, he wrote.
At some point, the two must have separated, although the memory is vague, Mr. Zhang wrote. He fell repeatedly and finally lost consciousness.
Later, he found out that both colleagues had died, he wrote.
—Qianwei Zhang contributed to this article.
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