Zhang is the lone survivor of the six athletes who were leading the race on a remote stretch of track when extreme weather caused freezing rain and a sudden dive in temperature.
The tragedy shocked China’s running community and prompted public outrage, with many questioning whether the organizers had planned the race properly and prepared participants for the extreme weather.
As China’s rising middle class picks up running as a hobby, marathons and trail races have exploded in popularity over the past years.
Local governments rushed to host races to promote tourism and drive consumption, but lax industry regulation and weak government oversight has created safety hazards, according to experts and a race organizer CNN has spoken to. They say races are often poorly organized, and sometimes plagued by injuries and deaths.
“All departments and units … should focus on preventing and resolving major risks as a key priority,” said a readout of the meeting.
The provincial government of Gansu, where last Saturday’s event was held, has launched an investigation into the incident, but critics say the deadly race is a wake-up call to authorities across the nation — especially in poorer provinces where the promise of profits is tempting organizers to cut costs.
What went wrong at the race
It is by no means an easy race. Its trail winds through narrow, sandy ravines and across exposed mountains about 2,000 meters (6,561 feet) above sea level, and participants have just 20 hours to finish the 100-kilometer course.
To qualify for entry, runners need to have completed two full marathons or one trail race longer than 50 kilometers (31 miles) in the past year. They pay 1,000 yuan ($157) to enter, and are offered a 1,600 yuan ($251) reward for finishing — with between 15,000 and 2,000 yuan ($2,353 to $3,137) in prize money for the top 10 runners.
Its official organizer is the Baiyin government, but the real work was contracted out to a small company which won a 1.5 million yuan ($240,000) bid to run the race in 2018 and, according to public company registration records, and has continued to do so.
“There is no supplies provided at checkpoint 3, which means even if (racers) reached the top, there is no food or drinks — let alone hot water. There is also no place to rest on the exposed mountain and no exit route,” the post said.
The ascent is so steep that runners need to scramble at parts, according to the post.
This is where where Zhang passed out and many other racers perished.
The 30-year-old sports club coach pressed on, but the wind was so strong he kept being knocked down.
“(I) fell over and over more than 10 times. My limbs were stiffening, and I could feel my body slowly getting out of control. After the last fall, I could no longer get up,” he wrote.
In his last moments of consciousness, Zhang wrapped himself in a foil blanket — the only protection against the cold he had in the backpack — and pressed the SOS button on his GPS tracker.
But no rescuers came.
Instead, Zhang lay exposed and unconscious in freezing conditions for two-and-a-half hours, until a local shepherd spotted him and carried him to a cave, he wrote. He woke up another hour later to find himself swaddled in a quilt by a fire, next to several other runners also sheltering in the cave.
The Baiyin city government blamed the staggering death toll on a “sudden change of regional weather.” But many believe the organizers should be held responsible for failing to provide adequate safety precautions and protections.
“This time, the two supply stations were 16 kilometers (about 10 miles) apart, which meant runners were not looked after for two to three hours — there was no drinks, food or tent to take a rest in, nothing. This can bring great danger,” he said.
The company that held the race could not be reached for comment. The mayor of Baiyin, Zhang Xuchen, apologized and bowed at a televised news conference on Sunday.
“As the organizer of the event, we are riddled with guilt and self-blame. We express our sorrow for the victims and our deep condolences to the families of the victims and the injured,” he said.
On social media, some comments questioned whether the organizers could have monitored the weather more closely and perhaps called off the race.
Experts have also pointed to a lack of first aid and rescue resources at the scene, especially along the toughest section of the race where most runners got into trouble. The steep slope is unreachable by cars, further complicating rescue efforts.
“(The organizers) should be prepared for rescue operations. Some races have helicopters, some have professional rescue teams — but there should always be people on standby. This time, it appears to me that these (arrangements) are lacking,” Yi Jiandong, a sports health expert at Wenzhou University, told state broadcaster CCTV.
An industry-wide problem
Alex Wang, a travel blogger who worked for a Chinese outdoor sports company until 2019 and organized more than 10 trail running races in China, said the events she was involved in would often hire an ambulance for every 10 kilometers of the course.
But not all organizers were willing to pay for it, she said.
“It all comes down to the cost. If you want to set up more rescue points and arrange people on standby along the race course, you need to spend more money,” she said.
Compared to city marathons, trail running is a latecomer to China, gaining popularity only in the past few years.
But unlike urban marathons, competitive trail running in China lacks established rules and regulations, and there is no clear oversight body, Wang said. In most cases, local governments act as the gatekeeper, and standards vary widely, she added.
“Some races often only focus on the economic benefits, and are unwilling to invest more in services and safety. Some companies don’t have the qualifications and ability to organize high-risk sports events … and only seek quick success and profits. And some local government authorities don’t want to or don’t know how to supervise (such events),” it said.
Trail races are often held in far-flung parts of the country that lag behind in development and resources. Last Saturday’s race took place in the remote countryside of Gansu, one of the poorest regions in China.
But to families of the victims, the lesson has come with too heavy a price.