Chasing Greatness: Meet Tess Leono, the first Filipina to finish the world's toughest running challenge

Alvin Laqui on Jul 30, 2016 04:40 PM
Meet Tess Leono, Filipina Badwater Ultramarathon finisher
One stride at a time: Tess believes in taking it slow and trusting your capabilities. (Photo courtesy of Tess Leono)

When Tess Leono was a mere 17 miles on her 135-mile (216 kilometers), 46-hour journey through the "World's toughest foot race”, she saw a shooting star.

The shooting star joined the full moon, lighting the night sky as she was pacing through the heart of the Californian Death Valley desert.

Leono, 48, is a Project Analyst for the Asian Develolment Bank. She's also the first Filipino woman to ever compete and come out successful in the Badwater Ultramarathon, dubbed as the toughest running challenge in the world. She did it in 46 hours, one minute and 29 seconds.



The ultramarathon entails each participant to cover a vast 135-mile stretch, from the harsh desert of Death Valley, California’s Badwater Basin and ending at Mount Whitney, all within a cut-off time of 48 hours.

They are also subject to harsh weather conditions and are exposed to elements only brazen cacti and desolate asphalt roads could withstand.

“The hottest temperatures would reach 52 celsius in the day, and reach 15 or 16 celsius during the night," Leono shared.

In her 46:01:29 journey, her longest rest was a mere twenty minutes. And it was only planned as a five-minute rest that became then, fifteen, then twenty, because she was feeling sick. The sudden change in temperature gave Tess a fever. 

The first 122 miles of Badwater was relatively "normal" for Tess. But the last 13 miles, as if a final challenge to test the limits of human endurance, was a steep, uphill climb towards the summit of Mount Whitney. 

It was the last 13 miles that challenged Leono the most. But knowing her, she likes challenging her self whether it be in Milo or Yakult-sponsored fun runs, half marathons, full marathons, and ”hundred-milers", she pulled through.

“It took me years bago ko na-build yung endurance ko. Di ako nagmamadali. After ng office pupunta ako ng gym, one-hour-one-hour,” Leono told ABS-CBN Sports, “Yung tama lang. Yung akin kasi I do this for exercise, to keep me fit. Naging consistent lang ako. Sa edad ko na to, hindi ko kailangan tumakbo ng half marathon everyday. 5K lang okay na ako. ”

What does Leono want for anyone who wants to try running?

“Set your goal. Know your limits. Believe in your capabilities, and trust in God,” She said, putting much emphasis on the last one.

She is still wearing her brown rosary-bracelet that helped her get through the 46-hour test.

"I prayed the rosary as I was running," she said. But she wouldn't finish any mysteries because something would always distract her. "Either someone passes by and greets me hello, or my mind just wanders." 

But God definitely heard her prayers.

She isn't religious and was adamant about that fact. She was "spiritual," as she puts it. She believes that the beauty she sees as she was running through the Californian desert was all done by God.

“Hindi naman ako religious, siguro spiritual. Of course, hindi ko matatapos lahat ng mga long-distance at difficult races ko without this [belief] kasi may mga times talaga na bibigay ka na,” she said..

But the landscape’s beauty and her belief in God was enough to keep her going; "I thanked God," Tess said, "for making such a beautiful world for me to witness". 

And witness she did. She was greeted by a magical sight around her 17th mile.

"It was dark and only the full moon was illuminating the night sky. Then a shooting star flew by". As if it was cheering her on. Of course, she made a wish. "The only thing I wished for was that I would finish the race," she said.

It was such a trivial thing that kept her going, a shooting star lighting up a lone moonlit-sky. That, and her nature to push her self to her absolute limit but not enough for her to hurt herself. She is after all, running for the sheer joy of it.

Tess should not have been this great at running. With no familial background, no athletes in the family, her father dying when she was five resulting in her mother being a full-time provider for their family. Her love for any physical activity is more than enough to make her who she is now

Back when she was rekindling her love for running, after she joined her company's running club, she still went to the gym when everyone was dead-tired after an hour-long run.

"We would do just mga one hour runs, hindi pa kami noon by distance, by hour nga eh," Leono reminisced, "Tapos even after running, pumupunta ako straight sa gym, hindi pa ako pagod. Ganun ako. Gusto ko mas matagal, gusto ko yung binubugbog ko yung sarili ko."

This brazen mentality she developed early in her formative years as a track and field varsity in elementary, and being a sport-lover all her life may have had a hand in giving her the motivation to hone herself into top physical form, hidden in her unassumingly pedestrian frame.

Proper conditioning and rest, complement the work she has put in because she just wants to live long enough to enjoy life and enjoy running. It's a cycle. A cycle as constant as her strides as she's running her kilometric ultramarathons that seem to go on and on and on.

Her job as a banker, ever her name, Tess, is unassuming in itself. She is living proof that greatness isn't a birthright. It is a state of immortality reserved for deserving and equally great athletes like her, forever forging their mark in the world like that falling star; a piece of celestial debris radiating brightly through the dark Californian desert sky, ready to beam its luminance for anyone brave enough to look. 

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