On May 22, during a 100km mountain cross-country competition in Baiyin, Gansu province, 21 of China’s top runners died after being caught in a sudden storm and freezing temperatures. The tragedy shocked China and the rest of the world.
The local government, which organised the race, has been heavily criticised by the public for not providing enough emergency equipment, chaotic event management, and for not releasing details of the victims in a timely manner.
During the tragedy, there were local grass roots efforts to rescue runners trapped during the storm and since then there have been further efforts to commemorate the victims. China’s running community was shocked by the disaster and the loss of life in an event not normally considered fatal.
Here’s what we know about the 21 people who lost their lives.
Liang Jing, 31
Liang Jing, from Chizhou, Anhui province was one of the most famous runners in the competition and was known as “The God of Running”. He had won the cross-country contest at Baiyin for the past three years.
In 2012, Liang’s marathon mentor, runner Wei Pulong, saw him exercising at a sports centre and immediately recognised his potential for running marathons and volunteered to be Liang’s coach. Since then Wei has accompanied Liang to every marathon he has ever run, Wei told Jiemian News.
They had run more than 300 marathons together over the years. Wei described Liang as tenacious and eager to challenge himself.
“Once, Liang completed a 100km run within 6 hours. Is he human or a god?” Wei said. “If this didn’t happen, I believe he would still win. He ran like a cheetah.”
Huang Guanjun, 34
Huang Guanjun was the marathon champion in the 2019 National Paralympic Games’ hearing-impaired section.
Huang lost his hearing at the age of one when hospital treatment for a fever went awry. His parents were from a rural area and didn’t know there were schools for deaf children and sent him to the local school. He later bought books and taught himself sign language. He wanted to go to college, but unable to hear the teachers he dropped out of middle school.
He was famous in running circles in Sichuan province, and others had nicknamed “Bro No. 1 in Mianyang”, his friends told The Beijing News.
Huang had worked as a factory worker, delivered food, and waited in restaurants. In 2019, when he won the Paralympics, he told the media he wanted running to be his full-time career.
Cao Pengfei, 35
Cao Pengfei was the roomate of Liang Jing, another runner, at Baiyin. Liang referred to him as “Cao God”. He had only switched from cross-country running to marathons shortly before his death and “didn’t have a lot of experience,” a friend told Cover News.
The man from Anhui was confident and enjoyed the spotlight, having been on TV running competition shows several times.
In 2014, he won 6th place in a national running competition hosted by Anhui Television. In a video from the show, when the host joked about his height, 5 feet 6 inches, he didn’t seem to mind and yelled “I’m very excited!” so loudly that it even startled the host.
Wu Panrong, 32
Before entering the marathon, Wu uploaded what would become his final video on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok. In the video, he showed scenery of Baiyin and wrote: “I hope there will be miracles.”
Wu was from the southwest Guizhou province and worked in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. He was a well-known figure in local running circles. Just weeks ago, on May 15, he had won third place in a 30km contest in Shaoguang.
He first started running in November 2015. He used to post maps of his runs on Douyin. “Dream is a light in a raging storm while you’re running,” he wrote in one post.
Wen Jing, 25
Wen Jing from Chongqing Municipality had just registered for marriage, with her wedding planned for October. Her fiance, Wu, told Cover News that when they met in 2017, he was depressed and Wen had helped him climb out of it by encouraging him to take up outdoor activities.
Her friends have described her as an optimistic, talkative and social woman who laughed all the time.
“I owe her a proposal. I told her I would make it up to her after we get our wedding photos taken, when she comes back from the cross-country, but now I’ll never be able to do it,” he said.
Huang Yinbin, 28
Huang Yinbin was born in a poor family in Qinghai province and dropped out of school to find work. To pass the time he ran whenever he had free time.
Once, while running outside a school in Qinghai, he was spotted by a coach who thought he had the speed and endurance required for long-distance running. Huang began training with the coach and went back to school.
In 2016, he attended the Xi’an Institute of Physical Education where he continued running before graduating in 2020. His former teacher, Xie, told China Business News even though Huang didn’t have much experience, he worked extremely hard and always sat in the front row in class.
He was famous in China’s running community as the “champion of 50km” and had won eight gold medals in the past three years, according to his Douyin account.
Huang Rui, 40
Huang Rui insisted on running with his pet Dalmatian every day in Kunming, Yunnan Province, where he lived. Locally he was nicknamed “Double Dragon”, because of his experience and agility.
In school, Huang loved sports. He was part of the basketball team and often won running competitions. In recent years, he had become more serious about the sport, taking his training and health seriously, even quitting smoking. He was a member of the local ironman triathlon club, Kaiping News reported.
Huang’s dream before his untimely death was to finish all 100km running competitions in China and then go to the US to compete.
Bao Yinxiao, 25
Bao Yinxiao, from Gansu province and his fiancee Wang Dongxia had only been engaged for two months before Bao went on what would be his last run.
They were introduced by a mutual friend in 2020, Wang told Kaiping News. She thought Bao looked kind and confident. She said he was focused and serious about his running career.
On May 21, Bao and a couple of others drove to Baiyin before the race was due to begin. The second morning while there, he told Wang that the wind was so strong that his car shook. “It’s meant to be a difficult day,” said one of his last messages to her.
Lu Zhengyi, 52
Lu Zhengyi, from Sandu, Guizhou province, was the director of a local running group called “Duliujiang”. Over the years, he had participated in a number of competitions, over 10 events every year, with the exception of 2020, when the Covid-19 outbreak struck.
His daughter wrote on Weibo that Lu had a sense of justice and was courageous.
He had told her that running made him happy and healthy so that he could forever be her shield and never be a burden.
When his daughter visited the racetrack and viewed his body, she saw that his hands had turned purple in the cold air. “Dad, I have come to warm your hands,” she wrote on Weibo.
Zhang Weibo, 29
A salesperson at a motorcycle shop in Chongqing, Zhang Weibo would have been 30 this August.
He had been running for more than five years and often travelled around China competing in marathons. From a young age, he loved exercising and twice cycled the 318 National Highway from Shanghai to Tibet, Shangyou News reported.
Zhang’s parents wanted their son to have a family as they were getting older, and helped him buy a house in Chongqing. Now the house is ready but their son is gone.
Xu Conghua, 42
Xu Conghua, from Change, Henan province, only came to long-distance running later in life when he was 38, signing up for his first marathon in 2017. In that first year, he ran over 3,000 kilometres. In 2018 he ran 5,000 kilometres, the Change Daily reported.
Many in his life could not understand his obsession for running and said that a man in his 40s shouldn’t be running great distances in the middle of the night. His family were puzzled and said that running was even more exhausting than farm work.
But Xu once said running had given him the courage to live. “After running 100km, I felt that nothing in life is difficult any more, I can endure them all,” the Change Daily reported.
Yan Jun, 51
Beijinger Yan Jun and his wife, Liu Yun, had taken part in the Baiyin cross-country competition twice in previous years as a couple. This year, however, Liu stayed behind because she needed to take care of elderly family members, but kept track of her husband’s race progress using GPS, she told China Newsweek.
At around 1pm, she saw some videos in a WeChat group and knew an accident had happened. At that time, she thought her husband was injured, so she flew to Baiyin with his medical insurance card, expecting to find him in hospital.
When the plane landed, she received a text message from the organisers, saying Yan had passed away.
Wu Xinming, 48
When he was young, Wu Xinming went to Chongqing for work and decided to settle there. He got married and had a son and a daughter and was the sole breadwinner for the family.
“He also supported his parents and siblings, he never missed out on his parents’ birthdays or important holidays,” Wu’s sister-in-law Zhang told Cover News.
Wu’s social media accounts are filled with photos of him running, whether on the racetrack or in the woods near his home.
Hu Li, 41
Hu Li was nicknamed “No. 1 Sis in Lanzhou”, and was a favourite to win the Baiyin race this year. A passionate and committed runner, her friends said that “she ran like a cheerful deer”, according to WeChat media account Healthy Run.
Hu used to do freelance work but in order to focus on her running, she stopped working altogether. Every day, she would pack her schedule with power training, long-distance runs and climb slopes, resting only one day out of seven.
This was her third time participating in the Baiyin cross country. In 2018, she won a gold medal and in 2019 came in third place. She was also favoured to win this time and many female contestants considered her a tough competitor.
Zhang Fenglian, 38
A former doctor from Gansu province, Zhang Fenglian had only one pair of pink sneakers, which she wore in all her races over the past three years. When she was not using them, she wrapped them up in layers of newspapers and plastic bags to keep them safe, GQ reported.
She used to train by running along the Yellow River carrying bags of vegetables to rural villages.
She took part in the Baiyin races twice previously and felt that race organisers didn’t provide enough supplies. She took two extra bottles of water with her, in case the supply station ran out, but this was no protection from the storm when it hit.
Liu Fusheng, 57
Physical education teacher Liu Fusheng from Minxian No. 2 Middle School in Gansu province was also the director of the local Minxian Sunny Running Group.
Liu entered his first running competition in 2016, at the Lanzhou Half-marathon, coming in at 150th, according to his Douyin account. He ran five to 10 marathons per year, and although he never ranked within the top 100, persisted with his passion for competitive running.
He often participated in local running events as well. During a 2019 New Year’s hiking event at Minxian, Liu told a local TV station that “Such activity is beneficial for the public”.
Liu’s video and streaming account on Kuaishou is filled with pictures of him running, flowers and his toddler grandson.
“Exercising is a road of no return, it will entirely change your life,” he wrote. “Several years later, your peers will age but your age will only be a number.”
The firefighter from Kizilsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, Seyit leaves behind four brothers and one sister. He was the youngest child, and the only member of the family to attend college, GQ reported.
When he was young, he often helped his family herd sheep in the mountains and fell in love with running. In college, he started professional training and began competitive racing.
In his friends’ eyes, Seyit was shy and didn’t speak much, but he had a talent for languages; speaking Kyrgyz, Uygur, Kazakh and Mandarin.
Li Quanwang, 36
An oil worker in Xinjiang, Li Quanwang has been running for more than seven years, despite his wife, Lin Fang’s objections. He had told her, “I don’t have any other hobbies, I just like running”, GQ reported. Lin was afraid if she deprived him of his running, he would become depressed.
When Lin read the news of the tragedy at Baiyin, she cried in front of their 12-year-old son, and their son comforted her, saying he believed Li would make it.
After Lin confirmed Li’s death, she broke the news to her son, he cried, but also told her, “We only have each other now, I will listen to what you say and always go to school.”
Wang Xiaohang, 43
After the Chongqing local Wang Xiaohang passed away, some friends made a website to commemorate his life. One friend and fellow runner wrote, “I had thought you were cold when we first met.
”You were a cool guy who walked fast, we couldn’t even see your back. It wasn’t until when we went hiking in Qizanggou, did we realise you were warm inside, you spoke in an interesting but appropriate way.”
Wang was also a keen hiker and was known for stopping to help friends when they got tired, and would also find a leisurely spot to drink and talk about life.
Ma Huachun, 35
Ma Huachun didn’t say much, said his brother-in-law, but played with children well. He taught at a village elementary school in Lanzhou for five years, which had no canteen and no heating, but Ma treated his students well, GQ reported.
Once, the brother-in-law visited Ma on a weekend at the school, he found five children by his side. They were off from school that day but still wanted to go to school to hang out with Ma.
Duan Jihong, 58
Duan Jihong had often served as a volunteer at 100km (62-mile) cross-country races in China. In early May, just over 10 days before the Baiyin race, he volunteered at a race in Wumengshan, on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau.
He had marked these on WeChat, but his daughter was upset when she saw it, she believed he should have lived since he had rescue skills, she told GQ.
“They sent out rescue teams at 1pm, my dad was calling the emergency number 110 at 10.30pm. I cannot imagine how he spent those 9 hours by himself, he must’ve been so cold. He must’ve been rescuing people … he didn’t even put knee pads on himself,” she wrote on Weibo.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.