Fatality in Gobi Desert race raises safety fears

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 July, 2010, 12:00am

The death of a Shanghai-based American businessman during an endurance competition in the Gobi Desert organised by a Hong Kong company has raised concern over the control of such events.

Like many of the Gobi March competitors, the chance to test the limits of human endurance in some of the most remote and exotic locations in the world was probably why Nicholas Kruse signed up for the 250-kilometre foot race.

But four days into the week-long race, Kruse, 31, collapsed. He died three days later, on July 3, in Urumqi Xinjiang Autonomous Region Hospital. Kruse, a Shanghai-based entrepreneur, was competing in the race for the first time.

In a press release posted online by the Hong Kong-based race organiser, RacingThePlanet, Kruse's death was attributed to 'complications due to the heatstroke he suffered on Stage 4 of the Gobi March'. While Stage 4 of the race, on June 30 - the day Kruse collapsed - was very hot, according to fellow competitors, some of them said they believed things might have turned out differently for Kruse had the race been better organised.

One competitor said Kruse's level of fitness seemed fine when they raced together at the end of Stage 2 and throughout Stage 3, although temperatures were cooler then. Another said the area where Kruse was found was quite isolated and he was at the tail end of the race, so he was probably exposed to hotter temperatures than those who raced earlier.

None of the competitors wanted to be identified.

According to RacingThePlanet founder Mary Gadams, Kruse was found collapsed by a fellow competitor about 1.5 kilometres from the finishing line of the 36-kilometre Stage 4. Another competitor ran to the campsite, which sent a doctor to help Kruse with intravenous fluids. At 4.40pm organisers called for an ambulance, which arrived about 50 minutes later to take him to nearby Turpan Hospital. Kruse was transferred that night to Urumqi Xinjiang Autonomous Region Hospital. His condition worsened and he died on July 3.

Gadams said there was one doctor for every 25 competitors, the highest ratio of any race that she knew of. About 150 people competed in the race. She said emergency doctors attending to Kruse said he had about a litre of water left. Competitors are required to carry at least two litres.

'Unfortunately, you never know what's going on in his body,' she said.

Some competitors complained to the organiser that the medical teams and volunteers were not up to scratch and that some race rules did not make sense. For example, runners are not administered intravenous drips until they have vomited twice in front of a doctor.

One runner said: 'A day after Nicholas collapsed, another competitor collapsed in front of me. He wanted an IV drip but the doctors were really strict about the rules and refused.'

Gadams said the rules were in place because doctors needed to encourage competitors to manage their water intake.

There were also concerns about the accuracy of the distances along the course, which competitors said made it difficult to gauge how much food and water they should carry. Gadams said a team of four experts set the course, and she played down the accuracy of GPS devices, saying the distances may be 'slightly more or slightly less'.

Chung Pak-kwong, who heads the department of physical education at Baptist University, said such challenging races were probably unsuitable for first-time participants.

'Everyone has different fitness levels, but these races can be very hard on someone who has not experienced such tough conditions before,' Chung said.

A funeral will be held for Kruse in Shanghai this week.