‘I'm just an ordinary person’: Humble shepherd hailed as hero for saving six in China marathon tragedy that claimed 21 lives
Zhu Keming revealed that he had been grazing his sheep on Saturday in Gansu, northern China, when heavy hail rain began to fall and temperatures plummeted.
The sudden change in conditions caught runners off guard in the 100km (62-mile) race, and as Zhu sought refuge in a nearby cave where he had stored emergency supplies such as food and clothes, he found a distressed runner.
The shepherd explained to Chinese state media how the runner was escorted into the cave, before Zhu then lit a fire for his clothes to dry and massaged his hands and feet.Also on rt.com ‘Ultra running’s biggest tragedy’: 21 people perish during 62-mile marathon in China as horror weather ‘freezes victims to death’
An additional four runners managed to make it into the cave. As AFP reported, they told the shepherd that others were trapped outside.
Writing on the popular Chinese social media network Weibo, one runner, Zhang Xiaotao, wanted to say "how grateful I am to the man who saved me."
"Without him, I would have been left out there," he claimed.
The shepherd saved three men and three women, reports allege. But Zhu insisted to state media that he is "just an ordinary person who did a very ordinary thing".
"There were still some people that could not be saved," Zhu said.
"There were two men who were lifeless and I couldn't do anything for them. I'm sorry."
In the fall out from the doomed race, members of the Chinese public have expressed outrage with officials who seemingly ignored extreme weather warnings to go ahead with the spectacle.
"As the organizer of the event, we are full of guilt and remorse. We express deep condolences and sympathy to the families of the victims and the injured," Baiyin's Mayor Zhang Xuchen said at a press conference on Sunday.
With 172 runners going missing, a huge rescue operation of 1,200 helpers was called and the race halted, with many contestants suffering from hypothermia while losing their way on the troubled route with visibility affected by strong hail.
100 km cross-country marathon in north central China, Gansu resulted in deaths of 21 participants because of drastic change of weather conditions : hailing, freezing rain, severe drop of temperature, high wind.Deaths included several well-known marathon runners. 😭 pic.twitter.com/rY4NFX6iKC— Becky Guan (@BeckyGuan) May 23, 2021
"The wind is too strong – our thermal blankets have been torn to bits," one runner wrote in a group chat, according to Reuters.
"A few are unconscious and are foaming at the mouth," posted another.
Also speaking to Reuters, Mao Shuzhi detailed how "the rain was getting heavier and heavier" roughly 15 miles into the race.
Shivering through the cold, in thin clothing like many runners, Shuzhi decided to turn back before she reached a high-altitude section of the course owing to previous experiences suffered through hypothermia – which was a wise decision that in turn ended up saving her life.
"At first I was a bit regretful, thinking it might have just been a passing shower. But when I saw the strong winds and rains later through my hotel room window, I felt so lucky that I made the decision," she explained.
21 athletes died in the Gansu Mountain Marathon, a record. In fact, it was because of the wind and rain that the athletes were frozen to death because they were wearing too little clothes. It was easy to prevent it. It was the responsibility of the organizer. https://t.co/YQdp34VsLX— 墨者 (@YWHE8883NeSBAy1) May 23, 2021
Another runner recalled to Tencet Sports: "My situation was getting worse by the minute. The whole body was soaked, including my shoes and socks, and the wind only made the situation worse.
"Because of the strong wind, I confess, I was more worried about life. The cold was getting more and more unbearable. Then I found a relatively secure place and isolated. I managed to get a blanket somehow, but it was blown away instantly.
"I was wearing fingerless gloves and I used trekking sticks. However, my hands were too cold, so I took the trekking sticks under my arm and slowly climbed the mountain.
"Soon I realized that all ten fingers were numb – I felt nothing. That's never happened to me. Then I put one finger in my mouth and held it there for a long time, but it did not warm up. And at the same time, I felt that my tongue was very cold."
Of the 21 competitors who passed away, the highest profile was Liang Jing, who enjoyed a reputation as one of China's best ultramarathoners. Like many, he was pictured starting the race in just a pair of shorts, a thin jacket and cap.
Liang Jing was arguably the number 1 ultra trail runner in China in the past couple of years, winning many races in China and finishing 2nd twice in HK 100... In Gansu, the entire top 3 didn't survive, all elites..— Kris Van de Velde (@KuaiSports) May 23, 2021
Aged 31, he had been victorious in numerous races in China, which included the 2018 Ultra Gobi spanning 400kms across the Gobi desert.
Another victim was Huang Guanjun, a 34-year-old, who was hearing-impaired while unable to speak, according to reports.
In 2019, he became known for clinching the men's hearing-impaired marathon at the National Paralympic Games.Also on rt.com Nightmare marathon: 21 dead after extreme weather upends 100-km cross-country race in China