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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Miles into a Utah ultramarathon, ‘near whiteout’ conditions forced a rescue of more than 80 runners

The tops of conifers can be seen through a heavy snowfall.  (NPS/Neal Herbert)
The tops of conifers can be seen through a heavy snowfall. (NPS/Neal Herbert)
By Brittany Shammas and Paulina Firozi The Washington Post

When snowflakes started falling a few miles into a 50-mile ultramarathon through the Utah mountains, Annie Macdonald wasn’t worried. An experienced long-distance runner, she had expected some snow.

But then the stray flakes turned into a near-whiteout, lashing participants of Saturday’s DC Peaks 50 race with winds of up to 40 miles per hour and erasing the path through the desolate terrain. The temperature dropped sharply and Macdonald, who wore a rain jacket over a long-sleeved shirt, along with capri tights, mittens and running shoes, became “just miserably, miserably cold.”

The race was in its first year as a new arrival to the increasingly popular ultramarathon phenomenon. Ultramarathons stretch longer than the 26.2 miles of a marathon, typically covering grueling distances of 50 miles or 100 miles.

At about 7 miles into the race and 6 miles from the first station, there was little choice for Macdonald but to keep going. With the path gone and the snow blasting into her face each time she lifted her head, she could only follow the footfalls of the runner ahead of her, pushing through a nearly five-hour trek to the station.

“I just kept thinking, ‘OK, be smart. Don’t get injured, because if you get injured, you can’t keep moving, and you’ve got to keep moving,’ ” Macdonald said in an interview on Sunday. “And so that was what I kept telling myself. But even then, it was still scary for me, because I’ve never been that cold. And you just think, how can I be this cold?”

The 46-year-old, a friend of the race organizers who lives in the last house outside the canyon where the ultramarathon began, was one of 87 runners caught in the rugged mountains of northern Utah when extreme weather brought on 12 to 18 inches of snowfall. All were rescued in an hourslong operation that included the Davis County Sheriff’s Office, local first responders and search and rescue volunteers and the organizers of the ultramarathon, who called off the event once they grasped the extreme conditions.

Rescuers “covered the entire course on foot, as well as with 4x4s and snowmobiles, for several hours to assist runners off the mountain,” the sheriff’s office said. A few were treated for hypothermia and one for a minor injury from a fall. They were released at the scene.

“It certainly, without a doubt, could have ended up much worse for many of those participants,” Davis County Sheriff Kelly V. Sparks said. “We had serious concerns that some of the folks … if somebody hadn’t been able to get to them quickly and get them rewarmed, they could have been in great jeopardy.”

Unlike marathons that send runners through the streets of big cities, ultramarathons typically start in small towns and carve through lengthy trails. They usually draw smaller groups of runners, although ultrarunning has been growing in popularity in recent years. The extreme activity has seen tragedy: In May, 21 people died when the temperature plummeted during an ultramarathon in China.

The Utah race was plotted to take runners on a “tough course” that was more than 70% trails and 24 % service roads, up peaks and through canyons with 12,000 feet of vertical gain. Organizers promised adventure and impressive views.

Jake Kilgore, one of the race directors, is an ultramarathoner who said he lives 5 miles from the trailhead. He said that he and fellow race director Mick Garrison started planning the event two years ago and initially considered July.

“As ultra athletes, we would never ask our runners to do something we would never do,” he said. He and Garrison live a mile a part, and “run on these trails every day,” and so in July 2020, Garrison ran the course with Kilgore to test it out.

“It was nearly 100 degrees that day, 95 to 100 degrees. … It was unbearably hot and he could not go any further at mile 40,” Kilgore said. “So we went back to the drawing board.”

They ended up choosing October. The course traversed five cities, and he checked forecasts for those locations, and other areas along the course such as Francis Peak.

“Everybody knew it was going to be raining, some snow … an inch or two max,” he said.

Sparks, however, said that at the 7,000-foot level, snow was not unexpected. At that elevation, he said, there was a “storm cell that had been active for a couple of days, so it was not a quick moving storm or anything.”

The race featured live technology meant to predict and track runners’ locations and provide a stream of the course, Kilgore said. Most runners started at 5:30 a.m., with about 20 runners beginning an hour earlier. After 7:30 a.m., when the live feed came online from the first aid station – located at Francis Peak at just over 9,000 feet, 13.5 miles into the race – “that’s when we saw truly how bad it was,” Kilgore said. There were cross winds of 40 miles per hour and 18 inches of snow.

That’s when Kilgore and Garrison called off the race. The decision was communicated to all the aid stations, and volunteers were told to head to the first station to wait for and corral runners, and get them off the mountain.

Up on the course, Macdonald said, runners decided to stay in groups to reach safety. She said they slowed to a walking speed, unable to continue running. Icicles hung from her jacket and from the long hair of a fellow runner. She couldn’t feel her face.

“We were just yelling to each other making sure everybody was still with us and that we didn’t drop anybody,” she said.

The trip, she noted, “felt like forever.”

Kilgore said he ran home to put on ski goggles, gloves and gear. He shuttled up as high onto the mountain as he could to get onto the course and help get runners down. He said contingency and safety plans allowed them to jump into action, with the help of more than 100 volunteers who were stationed throughout the course, to get everyone to safety.

By 2:45 p.m., about five hours after organizers called the sheriff’s office for help, all of the runners had been accounted for. By about 7 p.m., all the rescuers – a team made up of volunteers who work and train with the county – had also made their way down the mountain.

The sheriff said authorities plan to speak with the organizers: “Our goal being to educate them and help them understand better how to get better information and better contact with us before a race begins.”

Macdonald credited the race organizers with helping prevent a situation that could have been “incredibly tragic for people.” Without quick work to account for all the racers and shuttle them down the mountain, the day could have ended differently, she said.

Instead, she welcomed a crowd of runners into her home, where they sipped hot chocolate and traded stories. She said she has frostbite on her legs, yet plans to run the race again next year given the chance.

“As soon as I can sign up, I’ll do it,” she said. “I’ve got to finish it.”

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