According to China National Radio, Zhu Keming was grazing his sheep near the high-altitude Huanghe Shilin Mountain in Gansu Province when the weather turned sour. He sought refuge in a cave where he had stored some firewood and clothes near the running trail.
“The weather that day was really uncommon. It was foggy and raining and windy and sometimes hailing. That kind of weather is really rare,” Zhu told China National Radio.
As temperatures dropped, runners started reported suffering from hypothermia, while others went missing. Marathon organizers called off the race and launched a search party of 1,200 people to scour the complicated terrain, in an operation that continued after dark.
Zhu said he heard a noise outside the cave around 1pm local time. Then he saw a runner emerge from the fog.
“I asked him, ‘How are you doing? Can you still run?’ His speed was pretty slow, and he was rubbing his legs with his hands. He said he couldn’t run anymore because of muscle cramp,” Zhu told the broadcaster. “So I said, ‘Come warm up in the cave’.”
Four additional runners also ended up taking shelter in the cave. Zhu said he also found a runner lying on the trail, and carried them to the cave on his back.
People from Zhu’s village joined the effort to assist runners, bringing clothes and comforters to the racing trail and joining a search and rescue mission, he said. Other residents brought hot water and food for rescued runners.
One race participant told local publication Red Star News: “At one point, I couldn’t feel my fingers (because it was so cold). At the same time my tongue felt frozen, too.”
After his story went viral on Chinese social media, Zhu published a post saying what he did was a “very normal, ordinary thing,” and that he felt sorry that he couldn’t save more people on the trail.
The deadly ultra-marathon has sparked public outrage and scrutiny of the organizing committee’s preparation. By Sunday morning, 151 of the 172 race participants had been confirmed safe, with eight in hospital. Another 21 were found dead, according to the state-run People’s Daily.
According to China’s Central Television, the Gansu Provincial government on Monday formed a joint investigative committee with meteorologists and marathon experts to probe this incident.