The top official in charge of the Dalat Ultra Trail 2020 has admitted to not devising a reasonable plan for the trail marathon amid heavy rain which saw a 40-year-old male athlete swept away by floodwaters to his death in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong last weekend.
The victim, T.D.T., from Ho Chi Minh City, was trying to run across a section of the Vang Stream in Da Sal Commune, Lac Duong District on Saturday afternoon to finish his 70-kilometer race while it was raining heavily.
Hi s body was found in Dan Kia Village later the same day.
Since the accident, the organizers of the international marathon, whose participants totaled around 6,200, have suspended the three-day competition and used vehicles to transport all runners back to their starting points.
Nguyen Thi Nguyen, director of the provincial Department of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, who serves as the head of the organizers, confessed that they had failed to come up with a reasonable plan in case of rainy weather.
Nguyen said all three previous editions of the annual event had taken place during the dry season. This year, the marathon was initially scheduled for March but was pushed back until June because of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
“Because of the time change in the face of enormous registration pressure, the organizers did not foresee weather risks,” she said, adding Lam Dong has experienced few landslides in the forests and no flash floods for some time, so the organizers became complacent.
“After this incident, we will be strict in licensing races in the rainy season or will not license them. For the sake of safety, apart from health issues, [we] need to also consider other in-depth safety issues,” Nguyen affirmed.
The death of the runner is an “unfortunate accident,” she said, adding that the department and Vietnam MTB Series JSC, which co-organizes the trail marathon, are offering support to the family of the deceased for his funeral.
The organizers have failed to give a clear account of the safety inspection and assessment of the race.
|A section of the Vang Stream where the marathon runner T.D.T. was swept away by floodwaters to his death while taking part in the Dalat Ultra Trail 2020 race in Lam Dong Province, Vietnam, June 20, 202. Photo: TONI|
The participants of the Dalat Ultra Trail 2020 told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper that there was a downpour upstream at noon last Saturday causing sudden flooding; however, runners continued as planned since the marathon was already in progress with no warnings or new announcements from the organizers.
Around 2:00 pm, the runner T.D.T. tried to cross the stream to finish his 70-kilometer race, but was swept away by a flash flood and later found dead around one kilometer downstream.
The area where the incident occurred was located in a wild, mountainous area with rugged terrain and many shallow and deep streams.
Tran Thanh Lam from Da Nang City in central Vietnam, another runner who had crossed the stream moments before T. met his fate, told Tuoi Tre all the shallow streams’ water levels had been rising fast and becoming muddy in the rain, yet the organizers failed to make any interference to minimize risks for the athletes.
All athletes kept running according to the plan and continued to cross the roaring streams despite rising water levels, confident that the organizers would have warned them of any imminent danger, said Lam.
He added marathoners who arrived at streams in groups took off their raincoats and held hands with fellow runners to wade through them. Meanwhile, those without teammates resorted to traversing the rough water on their own.
“[I] crossed the stream just a few minutes before an athlete died,” he said, adding that it is difficult to put the blame on the athlete for not being careful enough to avoid the accident.
This is a race of fitness and willpower for which many athletes have practiced for years, according to Lam.
He stressed that athletes who participated in 45-kilometer or longer races are highly motivated to finish their competition at all costs as it serves as a testament to their past training efforts.
“If the organizers could not assess the risks, there would be no reason for the athletes to stop [running],” he pointed out.
|An athlete hikes up a slope of more than 40 degrees steep to reach the Lang Biang Peak without any protective equipment as part of the Dalat Ultra Trail 2020 race in Lam Dong Province, Vietnam, June 2020. Photo: Mai Vinh / Tuoi Tre|
Another fellow runner, Nguyen Hoang from Ho Chi Minh City, told Tuoi Tre that he saw large amounts of land and rocks eroded away from mountains, and there were upsurges in water levels along small streams.
Furthermore, the checkpoints where athletes had their race completion level recorded and received food and drinks to re-energize, according to Hoang, were few and far between.
There were also fewer instructors than in previous years, causing some athletes to get lost.
“We told one another while running that if there were flash floods or someone became exhausted, we could not imagine how the emergency response would look like since people from the organizers were in a much smaller number compared with 6,200 participating athletes,” he said.
K.H.T., a 70-kilometer marathoner from the south-central province of Khanh Hoa, said the organizers required athletes to hike the Lang Biang Peak on a slope of 40 degrees without equipping them with protective clothing or creating safety corridors.
“Many athletes fell downhill [while hiking]. It was sheer luck they did not hit any tree stumps or rocks. As I walked through this terrain, I felt frustrated due to the disregard for safety,” he said.
Ensuring absolute safety for athletes is the top priority in any sports competition, said Tran Duc Phan, deputy general director of the Vietnam Sports Administration.
Phan told Tuoi Tre that even on flat terrains completing a marathon is a challenge. Races on high mountains at distances ranging from 70 kilometers to 100 kilometers are much more challenging and pose more risks to participants.
Therefore, according to the official, such tournaments require thorough preparation from the organizers to ensure safety for athletes.
Dalat Ultra Trail is a major trail-running race in the Asia Trail Master system, attracting the participation of many professional and amateur athletes from all over the world.
For this marathon and other similar events, Phan said sufficient numbers of healthcare workers must be stationed at places with high risks of incidents to be ready in case an emergency response is needed.
Organizers must make proper preparations in terms of race trails, including specific announcements and instructions for athletes on dangerous and slippery places, high mountains, and abysses.