When Dangerous Weather Hits

AJW's Taproom[Editor’s Note: It’s probably a fair assessment to say that the hearts and minds of almost all of us trail runners and ultrarunners are reeling in the wake of the Yellow River Stone Forest 100k tragedy last weekend. In his column this week, Andy Jones-Wilkins reflects on his previous experiences with bad weather during races and what he’s learned from them. In doing so, he makes no inference about or comparisons to the weather conditions, race organization, or runner experiences at the Yellow River Stone Forest event.]

There have been two occasions during my ultrarunning career when I have participated in events that have been canceled in the middle of the race. Both times, first at the 2010 Pocatello 50 Mile and then a year later at the 2011 Coyote Two Moon 100 Mile, I was grateful for the cancelation. When the news of the tragic events which took place last weekend at the Yellow River Stone Forest 100k in northwest China came out, I couldn’t help but think back to how frightened I was for my own safety at Pocatello and Coyote Two Moon and how utterly terrifying it must have been for the participants in the Yellow River Stone Forest event when horrific weather overwhelmed the race and took 21 lives.

The Pocatello 50 Mile was the brainchild of longtime mountain runner Jared Campbell. The 2010 event, which has since been renamed the Scout Mountain Ultras and is now directed by Campbell’s good friend Luke Nelson, took place on Memorial Day weekend in the beautiful and remote mountains adjacent to Pocatello, Idaho. In addition to the 50 miler, there was also a three-person relay at the time which drew many local, short-distance racers.

From the start, we were all concerned about the weather but little did we know how bad it was going to get. The first eight miles were relatively benign with light winds and a steady drizzle, but as we began the first big climb of the day the conditions deteriorated quickly. At first, there was freezing rain which gave way to snow. After that, the winds picked up. I remember coming to a snow-covered meadow toward the top of the climb and seeing dozens of pink pin flags that were supposed to be marking the course flying in all directions. I encountered a small group of runners wandering around looking for markers and I decided to join their search party. Ultimately, we found the trail and descended back down to the valley where it was only raining and not nearly as windy.

After regrouping with more clothes and food, we went up the ridge again and the conditions got even worse with higher winds and slick trail surfaces. A few people decided to turn back while a handful of us soldiered on in the icy mud toward the 28-mile point. Ultimately, after Jared fielded reports from all over the course of runners becoming lost, disoriented, and showing signs of hypothermia, he decided to pull the plug on the race and head out to find all of the runners and get them back safely to the start/finish. Ultimately, after several hours, all runners were accounted for and safely returned.

The Coyote Two Moon 100 Mile, which took place in Southern California in mid-March, was the brainchild of long time race director Chris Scott. Scott, who began his ultra career as one of the early members of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, is one of those race directors who wants all of his participants to have fun but also puts a premium on runner safety above all else. The Coyote Two Moon 100 Mile was unique in that it had a staggered start with the slowest runners beginning first and the fastest runners starting last with the hope that all runners would finish within a four-hour window on the final day. That year, I was placed in the last starting group with a group of strong and experienced mountain runners that included Jared Campbell, Jeff Browning, Ty Draney, Karl Meltzer, and David Goggins.

Similar to Pocatello the year before, the 2011 Coyote Two Moon started innocently enough in typical Southern California weather. However, on the second major climb of the day, the 4,800-foot ascent of the Topatopa Mountains, it began to snow, and snow hard. In addition, conditions on the ridge, which runners were scheduled to summit four times, had become so bad that several of the aid-station tents blew off the mountain. Our group had started at 10 a.m, so as night fell about eight hours into the race for us, the snow had changed to rain but had increased in intensity, making many sections of the trail nearly impassable. Shortly after 9 p.m., Chris Scott made the call to cancel the race.

In both of these experiences, while I did not feel as though my life was in imminent danger, I experienced first hand how quickly conditions can change in the mountains and how important it is for everyone, race organizers and runners alike, to be prepared. In the decade since these two events, I have run other ultras in tough conditions and each time I have looked back on Pocatello and Coyote Two Moon and appreciated the lessons those experiences taught me. As our community continues to come to grips with the tragedy of the Yellow River Stone Forest 100k, let us also acknowledge that what we do, while not necessarily inherently dangerous, does have the very real potential to throw us into trouble for which we all—everyone who runs and organizes trail races and ultramarathons—should always strive to be prepared.

Call for Comments

  • Feel welcome to share a story from your own running in which you also experienced very bad weather or dangerous conditions.
  • What have you learned from those experiences about how to best prepare for the difficult conditions of trail and ultrarunning?
Bad weather in the mountains

Bad weather in the mountains. Photo: iRunFar

There are 12 comments

  1. Grandpa Bubbles

    In late April 2011, the OKC Memorial Marathon was delayed due to a lightning storm. We sat in a hotel lobby near the starting line waiting for word that the race was going to start. The hotel employees brought us all black trash bags to put on to get to the start. The marathon started about an hour late. I remember making the first turn in the driving rain and ankle-deep water. About midway through the race, the wind turned and started gusting from the north, and the sleet started. My running partner and I ran the whole thing together, and at mile 18 I remember looking over at her, and she was crying, and I thought OK I can’t look over at her again until we get to the finish, because at this point, we are too far out to be rescued. We just have to keep running or we’ll end up with hypothermia. I ushered her right into the emergency tent after the race, and they got her in some dry clothes and warmed her up. It was still blowing a rain/sleet mix. I can’t remember ever being so cold. I’ve done OKC three times, and it’s still my favorite marathon, weather and all!

  2. Nathan

    We once completely misjudged how quickly the storm would reach us on a short afterwork session. We were thinking we’d have enough time to reach the top to seek shelter / or even believed the storm might go around us. We decided way too late to finally go back down. We were met with very close lightning and almost immediate and extremely loud thunder on a very exposed part. It was the scariest time of my life…

  3. Oliver

    Interestingly, I‘ve never experienced a cancellation of a trail race. However, the city marathon of Mannheim (Germany) in may 2006, which was supposed to start at 6 PM (it was called „night marathon“), was cancelled due to a heavy thunderstorm that hit the city while the bambini race (4.2 km) that was started prior to the full marathon, was still in full swing. Barricades and tents were blown off by the wind and the streets suddenly were covered with tree branches. Everybody was already lined up at the starting line at this moment, when the race director decided to postpone the race for an hour and then ultimately cancelled it. It was absolutely the right decision although it felt like a „coitus interruptus“. What do you do with your energy? The storm lasted perhaps 30 minutes but this was enough to ruin the course.

    In august 2017. at the Ut4M in Grenoble (France), the race director decided upfront that the 95k and the 100 mile-races would be run on the „parcours de repli“, the fallback option, due to the weather forecast. At the end of the day, it probably wasn‘t as bad as the forecast announced but who am I to second-guess the difficult decision of a race director?

    1. Markus

      I didn’t run the same Marathon that evening. What a weird experience. I had well trained for this race. The next week was the 24 hour race in Apeldoorn, Netherlands which I had done a couple of times before. I emailed the organizers and asked them if they would let me run there. And that’s what I did.

      1. Oliver

        It truly was weird. I was also well trained and supposed to run a PB. Instead, I ran a half-marathon PB two weeks later und the marathon PB in september 2006. All the good training wasn‘t lost.

  4. Leah

    I’ve been fairly lucky and only had one race in really dreadful conditions – the Grizedale trail marathon back in Feb 2019. The Lake District in February is usually either grim and wet (as it was a couple years previously when I first raced that event) or beautiful and crisp as it was in 2018 when Iwas supporting, and admittedly it started out that way in 2019. We had had an extended period of wet followed by a serious cold snap (it was hovering around -8°C). The fells were looking beautiful with snow caps, and the first half of the figure-8 route which makes up the half marathon was mostly delightful. There were a few patches of sheet ice and a couple of folks had nasty falls, but mostly it was solid running. My partner and friends finished their race and I carried on to the second half with some new acquaintances which had adopted me and I knew things had started going sideways when we hit the first climb out – a 30-something % technical track onto the MTB trails that was covered edge to edge in 2 inches plus of slick ice. Even looking back now, I wish I had turned around and said to hell with it there. But, we inched our way up using the dry wall for help and hit the trails, and it just got worse from there. There were multiple technical steep downhill sections completely iced over (I may have actually cried going down one if them by the Fox), and the weather turned with almost an inch of snow falling followed by freezing rain. We eventually reached the aid station and the only marshalls on the course by the lakeside, and headed back towards the finish, but the weather meant it was impossible to tell what was slush, what was sheet ice covered in water, and what was safe. We eventually all but crawled and bum-slid down the same track to the finish (my friends later informed me a lot of the field came down on their bums, whether planned or not). And that was when I found out that the reason for there being almost no marshalls out compared to previous times I’d been on the course was that it was too difficult to safely get them out there… By all accounts everyone made it through OK and there weren’t any major injuries on route, but to this day I wish I had DNF’d as the fear and the risk if someone had got badly hurt just didn’t feel worth it, even with mandatory kit. It’s a mild tale by comparison to most here, but it did teach me a valuable lesson about making my own judgement calls regarding my safety rather than blindly assuming that I’m just being a wuss if I call it for feeling unsafe.

  5. Jon A

    I was at the 2010 Pocatello 50 mile with AJW and became hypothermic when the terrible weather appeared- my strongest memory is ball-bearing size hail blowing sideways. Another runner lent me a jacket he wasn’t using, which saved my bacon. Even after I descended in elevation and warmed up, I dropped out at the next aid station as I knew I was sufficiently weakened that going on would not be wise. The race was cancelled 30 min later, which I think was the right call.

    I also was caught in a thunderstorm above treeline at Hardrock where there were not good options other than to keep running, with lightning hitting the ground all around us.

    Even with those experiences, I prefer to not have mandatory kits. I prefer to let runners make their own decisions on what to carry, though RD’s can certainly emphasize weather or other risks. Just my opinion

  6. Richard Senelly

    20 years ago (or more), several members of the HURT (Hawai’i Ultra Running Team) braintrust (an exaggeration) ran the lava trail over the top of Mauna Loa on the Island of Hawai’i, starting mid-island at the Saddle Road (6,800 ft) and finishing at the Volcanoes National Park (4,000 ft), with a short detour to the summit caldera (13,700ft). This is a 30-40 mile trek. Weather at the start was cool, calm and overcast. However, at the summit it was a blizzard… with fierce wind and heavy snow. The more or less frantic descent to the national park was snow turning to heavy rain. As is their wont, no HURTer had any emergency gear as shorts and t-shirts were de rigueur for all “tropical” runs. Hypothermia was enjoyed in varying amounts by all. Those suffering less led those suffering more. All made it safely and huddled in a well-heated SUV until the shivering ceased. Lessons were learned!

  7. Markus

    I think the main problem with some of the runners is, that they don’t know how to behave in mountainous terrain and they have not established the right humble attitude towards it.
    Some ultrarunners think they are “badass” and therefore they can cope with whatever happens. That might be true to some extend but that thought process has some serious issues.

    There are running reports out there where people got stuck at a Mt. Hood circumnavigation which has some seriously dangerous river crossings. Experienced ultrarunner Stephanie Case almost died near her home because of a winter run. (It was reported here). She has changed her attitude with risk now.

    Other runnners think because they have a race number on the organizers take care of them. Like at an outback race in Australia 10 years back, where runners ran into a bush fire and got serve burn damages.
    Another race in Patagonia had some death because of insufficient organization and the lack of skills by the competitors.

    Said all this, all of the mountain ultraraces I have done in the US were very well organized and most runners where sufficiently equipped and educated.

    What people need to understand is, that the mountain or the weather does not care if you are in a race or not. You need to take care of yourself in that particular moment. No race director can safe you when you get stuck in a thunderstorm on a ridge. That’s why it is important to carry essential items like a good rain jacket, gloves and hat for example. It’s also good to have a little bit more energy in the tank than needed. So that you can survive an unexpected injury.

  8. Chris Garcia

    Tahoe Rim Trail 50 miler in 2014. Intense thunder and lightning storm about 10 hours into the race with many runners caught at the highest points on the course. Lightning everywhere, seemed just feet away and running by logs smelling of burnt wood where the lightning struck. No place to hide, totally exposed and the runners were the highest points on the high points I was amazed there were no direct strikes. At first I just played out face first on the water soaked trail, then I decided to just run like hell and hope for the best and came through OK, but I have to admit that I have been phobic about lightning and storms in mountain courses ever since, I spend the whole day look at horizons for oncoming storms and am stressed the whole time. The lightning hits way ahead of the storm so you are dodging death under a clear sunny sky before the real deal even arrives. I wont lie, this experience caused me to not enter some high mountain races. I ran Leadville and got lucky with a nice day, but now that I know what its really like to get caught out there in the high country, no way.

  9. Kris Quandt

    I ran the 2010 Pocci 50 and after that experience I now always carry at least a buff and Houdini even if the weather forecast is clear and sunny.

  10. Josh Tilford

    Well said, AJW. The loss in northwest China was tragic and a reminder of the powerful forces at work in the places many of us love to adventure carefree.

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