As It Happens

Ultra-marathoner who escaped a mountain snowstorm plans to run the race again next year 

When Annie Macdonald started running an 80-kilometre ultra-marathon through Utah’s rugged mountain peaks, she figured she was prepared for whatever Mother Nature would throw her way.

87 runners rescued from ‘near whiteout’ conditions on Utah’s Wasatch Mountain range 

Annie Macdonald was one of 87 ultra-marathon runners caught in near-whiteout conditions in the Utah mountains on Saturday. (Submitted by Annie Mcdonald )

Story Transcript

When Annie Macdonald started running an 80-kilometre ultra-marathon through Utah's rugged mountain peaks, she figured she was prepared for whatever Mother Nature would throw her way.

But her two shirts, rain jacket and water-proof gloves proved no match for the powerful snow storm that struck when she was just nine kilometres into the DC Peaks 50 race.

"I was anticipating about one to two inches of snow. Nothing like what we encountered," she told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Macdonald is one of 87 runners who were rescued from "near whiteout conditions" on Saturday on the Wasatch Mountain range north of Salt Lake City, according to the Davis County Sheriff's Office. 

The rescue was a joint effort between police, first responders and the race's on-site volunteers, who used four-wheelers to traverse the canyon and get as many runners to safety as possible. 

A few people were treated at the scene for hypothermia, and one for a minor fall injury, the sheriff's office said. Everyone in the race is safe and accounted for. 

'It just hurt so bad'

What started as a few falling snowflakes rapidly escalated, Macdonald said.

"The wind was blowing sideways. I mean, just howling," she said. "It was snowing, but they were little ice chunks hitting you in the side of the face … and it just hurt so bad."

Before she knew it, the snow was halfway up her calf as she trudged forward on the trail, unable to see anything but the feet of the woman in front of her. The freezing cold winds were blasting her at 64 kilometres per hour.

"There was a point where I would have given anything I owned for a helicopter to pick me up and get me out of here," she said.

The DC Peaks 50 ultra-marathon runs 80 kilometers along the Wasatch Mountain range (Submitted by Annie Macdonald)

Fortunately, Macdonald wasn't alone. She and a group of about 15 runners banded together and made a plan to move at a steady pace to the nearest aid station, about 15 kilometres away.

"At one point we talked about, should we run this section to get warm?" she said. 

"We made the decision that, no, we just need to be smart about this and not run because if we got an injury, then somebody's going to be in trouble and we won't be able to get them out of here. And at this point, we just have to keep moving forward."

During that final stretch, the group members looked out for each other and cheered each other on, she said. 

Her brother was also running the race, she said, and was particularly heroic, stopping twice to help one woman who was frozen in terror, too cold to go on, and another whose jacket became unzipped.

"He put both of those women in front of him and kept them moving up the trail and got them safely to where they needed to be," she said.

While her brother was busy helping people along the trail, her husband was among the race volunteers shuttling people to safety. And he came to Macdonald's rescue. 

"When I saw him, [I was] just overwhelmed with, OK, I'm going to be OK, I just have to get to that warm truck," she said.

"And then once I got in the truck, you know, you're shaking uncontrollably and you're just so cold."

'Runner safety is our #1 priority'

The race's organizers say that as soon as they realized conditions were too intense, they called the race off and rallied their volunteers. 

The storm took them by surprise, they said. The forecast called for rain, and maybe a few inches of snow at most. 

"Mother Nature was not on our side on Saturday," they said in a statement posted to Instagram. 

But Kelly V. Sparks, the Davis County sheriff, told the Washington Post that conditions like Saturday's are not unusual for a mountain peak some 2,100 metres high, and a slow moving storm cell had been active in the area for several days. 

"Venturing onto the mountains, trails, and bodies of water at this time of year can be dangerous because the weather changes rapidly," Sparks said in a written statement. "Even a mild rain in the valley can translate to blizzard conditions at higher elevations."

The race's organizers have defended their decision.

"These runners trained their a**ses off to do this race. They were excited and pumped to be there. Imagine if the race was cancelled because of rain and forecasted 2-4 inches of snow. All of their training would've gone to waste," DC Peaks 50 said on Instagram. 

"Runner safety is our #1 priority and as you can see from the starting line and weather we were blindsided by what happened. We won't be next year, we can promise you that."

Macdonald says this ultra-marathon won't be her last. In fact, she plans to DC Peaks 50 next year. 

"I love the sport and I love the people that are involved," she said. "It's such a wonderful community and it's really incredible to push yourself beyond what you think you can do and accomplish these really hard goals."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Annie Macdonald produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo.

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