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