Trail Running: Tragedy in China elicits pause, even in Africa

Correct equipment is essential to ensure safety in extreme weather conditions. South Africa is not exempt from extreme weather events, such as this heavy snowfall at Matroosberg in 2020. Photo: Stephen Granger
Trail runners in Africa experience all kinds of extreme weather conditions. Here, trail runner Jeremy Kropman looks at a heavy snowfall atop South Africa’s Matroosberg, in 2020. Photo: Stephen Granger

The tragic outcome of the recent Yellow Stone Forest 100km in China has left trail runners and organisers around the world with much to ponder in respect of the potential dangers of a sport, where the “edge and adventure” elements which attracts people to the sport in the first place, could lead to unfortunate consequences.

Twenty-one runners taking part in the race succumbed to an extreme weather event which coincided with the race’s most challenging sections at high altitude, and questions are being asked concerning the runners’ preparedness in regard to mandatory equipment on the one hand and the organisers’ readiness to respond to emergency events on the other.

Due to easy access to race routes and proximity of support services, road race organisers usually face challenges relating to heat and dehydration rather than extreme cold, whereas hypothermia is a bigger threat to trail and mountain runners, as was experienced tragically in China.

Many experts agree that respect for and understanding of mountains and wilderness areas together with preparedness both on the part of the runners and race organisers, are key to the safety and long-term future of the sport.

Jock Green is treated for hypothermia and dehydration at high altitude in Lesotho during this year’s Ultra-Trail Drakensberg: Photo: Simon Pocock

Any active sport carries an element of risk and when humans seek to practice their particular sport within nature or in mountain wilderness, the risk is increased. But these risks can be significantly mitigated through knowledge and communication, experience and a commitment to follow basic rules relating to the outdoors.

South Africa is the hub of trail running in Africa, with an enviable range of trail adventures on hand to aficionados, ranging from relatively comfortable forest or beach runs at the coast to more challenging mountain terrain in the Drakensberg or Cederberg or even urban mountain environs such as Table Mountain.

To date, trail running in Southern Africa has been relatively incident-free.  According to race organisers and runners, this is partly due to the relatively mild climate that prevails and partly due to strong and thorough preparation from race organisers.

Experienced trail runner, Linda Doke, believe organisers should enforce checking of gear at the finish line. Photo: Stephen Granger

Two words are key to safe participation in trail running in Southern Africa and the rest of the world – ‘mandatory gear’.  With correct equipment, runners – or hikers – should be safe in whatever the worst anticipated weather may bring. But where runners are sacrificing safety for speed and looking to save every gram of weight in the interests of podium positions, there can be less than satisfactory outcomes.

South Africa’s top ultra-trail athlete, Ryan Sandes, concurs. “It’s really sad to see what happened in China – so sad for our sport.  But I do feel it’s a bit of an eye opener for all. I don’t want to speculate on what did and did not happen in China.  Some have gone after the organisers, saying their mandatory gear was insufficient.

Ryan Sandes’ experience in the challenging Himalayan Crossing influenced his approach to carrying the right equipment. Photo: Wandering Fever / Red Bull Content Pool

“But it’s quite interesting that some high-profile events in the USA don’t have any mandatory gear at all,” Sandes points out. “And in races like Ultra-trail Mont Blanc (UTMB), runners often moan about having to carry too much gear.”

Sandes admits that runners need to take a more responsible stance. “I’m willing to put my hand up – I do kind of feel that I have been to blame. As runners, we need to be honest and take some of the responsibility and not shift all the blame onto the organisers and say (when things go wrong) there wasn’t enough mandatory gear.”

Experienced ultra-trail runner, Linda Doke, agrees. “Many runners cut corners where kit is concerned – we’ve all done it. Most organisers of major South African trail races have their bases covered by requiring mandatory gear for their races. But what’s to stop runners ditching some items after the check to save a few grams? I believe processes could, and should, be tightened by enforcing random check of gear at the finish line.”

The Otter African Trail Run is one of the few races to apply a rigorous kit check at the finish. Top athlete Kane Reilly incurred a ten minute penalty in the 2017 Otter African Trail Run when he failed to produce a rain-jacket at the finish, even when photographic evidence (seen here) showed his jacket had been washed away a stormy river crossing of the Bloukrans River. Photo: Stephen Granger

“Often at the start of a race there is a false sense of security,” reflects Sandes. “So we’re tempted to take a lighter rain jacket than you would normally in big mountains. But you’re trying to cut down on weight and think that because it’s a race, everything will be fine.

“But in big mountains conditions can turn quickly. After my experience in the Himalayas, I’m more cautious. I would rather take more gear, even if it slows me down. It is worth it for the security of knowing that I’ll come out of it.”

Sandes has also been involved as a race organiser and admits that a change of thinking could be in order. “As an organiser, I’ve always been on side of allowing runners to choose their gear,” Sandes admits. “But I guess with trail running growing and many new people coming into the sport, we do need to look at mandatory gear more closely.

“It comes down to people needing to be aware that when you’re running in mountains things can go wrong and the weather can change suddenly. So it’s always better to err on side of having too much than too little.”

Gabriel Kriel trying to regain body warmth at an aid station during this year’s Ultra-trail Drakensberg 100 miler. Photo: Stephen Granger

But how far should race organisers go to ensure runners adhere to mandatory gear rules?  Kit checks at the start of a race are typically carried out, but few races have rigorous checks at the finish, leaving loop-holes for runners looking to ditch some of their heavier kit along the way.  The Otter African Trail Run, known for its rigorous standards of safety and care, is an exception.

“I think our rules at Otter are quite good,” said race organiser Belen Sanchez. “We review them every year. We have a very dynamic system to adapt to new situations as they may arise. So far, we have been on top of any potential danger.

“We make sure the runners have sufficient equipment for the conditions they will be facing and we have the very diligent and experienced staff who can react to any situation.”

The rigorous finish-line checks at the Otter leave no wriggle room for runners tempted to go light-weight – they face immediate time penalties or disqualification if they lack an item of mandatory gear. 

Rigorous kit checks before and after the race are an important feature of the Otter African Trail Run. Photo: Stephen Granger

“Day by day organisers are getting more aware of implementing mandatory gear rules,” continued Sanchez. “The Chinese incident will make organisers and runners even more aware that if you don’t have the full mandatory gear, you are putting your life in danger as well as another person’s life who has to rescue you. Let’s be respectful with each other – race organisers and athletes.”

The experience of runners in facing testing conditions is an important factor in ensuring successful outcomes of mountain races.  A recent ultra-trail race over high peaks in the Cederberg ended incident-free despite severe weather conditions due to exceptional commitment and preparedness of marshals, and the experience level of all participants. Beginner trail runners understood from the clear communication on the entry form that the race was not for them.

Otter director, Mark Collins, agrees. “We have rescued runners and bikers from some of our events, although mostly from the entry-level trail runs and rides. The Otter has a low injury evacuation rate, possibly due to the relatively advanced level of participants.

“Hypothermia is a threat, although less so than for some mountain events, and we are comfortable with our protocols to mitigate the hypothermia threat. Hyperthermia (heat exhaustion), high seas, river flooding, fire, medical conditions and trauma from a fall are other risks we consider and plan for.”

Correct equipment is essential to ensure safety in extreme weather conditions – Jeremy Kropman negotiates rock and snow during a run at Matroosberg. Photo: Stephen Grange

Whereas extreme weather events can impact races in any part of the world, those at higher altitude face more significant challenges and require additional preparation and precautionary measures. In South Africa, the 100km Skyrun, which takes place near the ski-resort at Tiffendale in the Eastern Cape, and Ultra-trail Drakensberg, which includes summiting Thabana Ntlenyana in Lesotho, the highest point in Southern Africa above 3400 metres, are two such races.

The 2013 Skyrun was an example of extreme weather, as top mountain runner, AJ Calitz relates. “I had asked the organiser if I could carry a lighter jacket than the one specified in our mandatory gear for that race. That was refused and I had reason to be grateful for that decision. 

“A huge storm broke on the mountains and I was very glad to get off the mountain alive.  I was inexperienced and stupid. Luckily some experienced campaigners, especially race organiser Adrian Saffy, taught me the right way.

“I was humbled by the route, weather and our Maker….I felt pretty small out there in the mountains. The fact that everyone was safe is testimony to the incredible organising team on the day.

AJ Calitz – relieved to survive the extreme conditions during the 2013 Skyrun. Photo: Stephen Granger

“Trail and mountain running are inherently very dangerous when you are at the mercy of the elements and things can go very wrong very quickly,” continued Calitz. “Even on Table Mountain, people often don’t know what they’re getting themselves into going walking, hiking or running. Everything is exacerbated and magnified in the mountains. 

“Fortunately we haven’t had many (running) tragedies in South Africa, where our organisers are well-versed and well prepared. But my mantra is always to take more than you think you will need in case you just might need it.” 

Will South African trail organisers adapt or tighten safety measures following the China tragedy?  Ultra-trail Cape Town (UTCT) race director, Nic Bornman, thinks not but he is keeping close contact with the International Trail Running Association (ITRA) in this regard. “Generally in South Africa we have excellent race organisers.  There should be no reason why tragedies should occur in our mountains if you have adequate planning.

“We follow ITRA’s guidelines regarding safety,” Bornman continued. “We are actively involved with ITRA and will be guided by what ITRA might conclude after their investigation (of the China tragedy). But at this stage we feel we have covered all our bases in terms of safety.

“Numerous search and rescue teams with radios are scattered over the course, several with medics. We track both the runners and these teams so there is a constant surveying of where everyone is. The teams give us regular updates on the condition of runners, but also of weather conditions.

“There are no aspects of UTCT which are inherently dangerous.  The Chinese tragedy was completely unprecedented in our sport – a freak event.  This wouldn’t happen at UTCT, which is only at 1000 metres above sea level with less volatile weather and because of our advanced and careful planning.”

Getting the message across to runners new to the sport is an important step in ensuring the safety of trail running, says Richard Sutton, organiser of this week’s Old Fisherman’s Trail Challenge – one of the oldest races on the calendar. “Complacency can be dangerous, so educating runners about what is required to keep safe in nature is important to maintain safety standards of our sport.

“Runners must understand and have respect for mountains and changing conditions which often prevail,” continued Sutton. “Runners must learn to understand the elements and take with them equipment according to what is needed.”

What equipment is most important?  Leading runners and trail organisers in South Africa are clear on the most important components of gear to be carried in mountains or along wilderness trails, whether or not in races.

“Priority should be to keep off the wind and water off and keep warm,” said Sutton. “So I believe a space blanket, a thermal layer and waterproof rain jacket are essential.”

Sandes agrees. “The big thing is to stay dry and warm in rough conditions, so I would stress a waterproof jacket, gloves, a thermal base layer and space blanket.”

Bornman also stresses the importance of a charged mobile phone and that the waterproof hardshell for upper body protection should include an integrated (not zip-on) hood. “Obviously a space blanket, thermal layers and a whistle are also important.”

Calitz rates a space blanket, rain jacket and cell phone, obviously in a hydration pack, as his top three elements for trail safety.

Sanchez agrees with all of these items, which are included in the Otter Africa Trail Run’s mandatory gear. “Also important is to take sufficient food and water for the distance you are running and to tell someone where you will be running, if not in a race.”

Story by Stephen Granger

©SPNAfrica News