How can you avoid a tragedy like the deaths at the China ultramarathon?
On May 23, in an unprecedented tragedy, 21 ultramarathon runners died after extreme weather conditions suddenly hit a 100km mountain race in northwest China.
What does that mean for these extreme adventure sports, especially running, mushrooming all across the globe?
Let’s first understand the demand and supply situation. It is ironic that this desire of attempting tough challenges has become a lot more common even as we as a society have become a lot more sedentary. Perhaps being locked up in a cubicle, our dreams being crushed, is the reason that our risk-taking desires begin to shoot up.
It’s all good to take risks, but it is important to be prepared and also have safety checks in place.
More than a hundred years ago, Ernest Shackleton, the much-acclaimed British adventurer, after having failed to be the first to get to the South Pole, conceived the Trans-Antarctic Endurance Expedition (1914-17)—a land crossing of the whole Antarctic continent via the South Pole. Even before they got to the land, Endurance, Shackleton’s ship, was crushed by ice and sank, leaving the 28 crew members stranded on ice in the middle of nowhere. Even though the expedition failed, Shackleton was celebrated in the English-speaking world as a hero for his amazing leadership in those extreme conditions, looking out for each of his team members. After spending a month in makeshift camps on ice, Shackleton, along with five other crew members, took a 1,300 km open-boat journey in inhospitable conditions, to mount a rescue for the men waiting for him.
In today’s social media world, Shackleton would have been compared to God and beyond—but what most forget is that his expedition was ill-prepared to begin with.
In 1911, three years before the expedition, Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, had noted that Shackleton could have possibly succeeded in getting to the South Pole first had he mastered skiing. Shackleton did not pay much heed to this sound advice and the crew of the Endurance carried no skis with them.
Also, Endurance was a poorly designed ship for this expedition. Amundsen had used Fram, a ship earlier used by Fridtjof Nansen for polar explorations from 1893-1896, for his successful expedition to the South Pole in 1911.
Fram was designed to let the ice push the ship up, so it would float on top of the ice and not be crushed the way Endurance had been. Fram's design wasn't top-secret. It should have been taken into account by Shackleton, but wasn’t.
Shackleton, after all, did learn something from Amundsen—he had dogs on board, but then again, there was not one crew member who was an expert with dogs. Well-trained dogs could have led them to safety sooner only if they knew what to do with them.
To add to it, Shackleton and his crew had somehow not packed enough sleeping bags for all of them. Now, as good a leader as he was, who risked it all for his crew, how is this unpreparedness excusable?
This brings me to an ultra-runner or a trail runner who is very adventurous and wants to attempt the toughest races out there and is capable of pushing to the extreme, but yet is under-prepared or has not packed the right tools for the run. The same applies to the organizers and the crew members—in any extreme endurance event, preparedness is everything.
This is not to suggest that the organisers or the runners in the tragedy in China were under-prepared—we simply don’t know enough yet as to what happened there, except that the weather turned very quickly and that by the time the organizers called off the race and sent out a massive search party into the complex and difficult high-altitude terrain, people were already dead.
But I want to speak about the importance of being prepared because it is critical and because, as the organiser of La Ultra - The High—which is an ultramarathon run at altitudes ranging from 11,000 to 17,700 ft in Ladakh, where oxygen content can be as low as 55 per cent of what one breathes in the plains, temperatures could range from minus 10° C to plus 40° C within a matter of 6-7 hours, with sun radiation higher by 50 per cent—the state of preparedness is what keeps me up days and nights.
We’ve encountered snowstorms, whiteouts, sandstorms, windstorms, avalanches & cloudbursts. In the build-up to the very first year in 2010, the Indian Army had told me that civilians wouldn’t be able to do it as it was impossible to run there. We had suggested 222 km. Not only did we do it, but we increased the distance to 333 first & then 555. [222 km - 48 hrs, 333 - 72 hrs, 555 - 126 hrs]
I am one of those people guilty of getting excited by things that seem impossible; even then, at all times at La Ultra, I have my doctor hat on. I have a lot of security checks in place. I’m not necessarily very popular amongst my own team and participants.
I do appreciate that none of us can stand up to nature, but we need to have the right team and be prepared to the best of our abilities. That means being Amundsen and not Shackleton. That’s all we can do.
In any ultramarathon—with its usual combination of very long distances and often very challenging terrain, there are always lives at risk. It is the organiser’s responsibility that they take that risk very seriously and be over-prepared rather than under-prepared. The problem is that too many races in India—and across the world—do not have those checks in place.
The main reason being attributed to the deaths of the ultra-runners in China is that there were no early weather warnings. If that was done, though we cannot say yet with certainty, the casualties may have been reduced at least, if not stopped altogether.
There was a similar situation in October 2019 at a race put together by Kieren Dsouza called Ultra Half which was to be run from Bharatpur on Leh - Manali Highway, starting from 15,750 feet, to a maximum of 20,350 feet. On the eve of the race, Dsouza noticed that the weather was starting to turn. The race was called off even though all the preparations were in place. As it turned out, the weather got even worse than they had anticipated and stayed like that for three days. We need to learn from each other's mistakes and successes.
As organizers and crew members, our role is to mitigate the risk to the maximum. In ultramarathons, especially in mountains, the problem is that when you don’t have people in sight for long durations, you have no clue what has happened to them. For that reason, you need to have cut-offs [for specific distances, the time within which they need to get there] in place—the gold standard of safety.
We need to have a gear checklist for all participants at the start line—almost all the participants in the race in China were in shorts and t-shirts—in mountains, where local weather conditions can change very quickly, you need to be carrying protective clothing at all times.
Hypothermia is a big problem in the mountains but so is hyperthermia because of the intensity of the sun. You need to have aid stations at regular intervals and medical checks and drop bags [bags that contain their change of clothes, jackets, raincoats, energy foods etc.] on a regular basis too.
Every year I have had to disqualify participants because their safety is of utmost importance. The runners, who’ve trained for years, never like being pulled off the course. But we always look for their vitals like pulse and SpO2 etc and take hard decisions.
It is important that we keep pushing our limits, but just as important that we keep strict checks in place.
(Rajat Chauhan is a sports medicine doctor and race director of La Ultra-The High)
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