Ultramarathon runner Tess Leono just ran 135 miles, at times sick and through sandstorms and she’s ready to do it all over again

By Eric Nicole Salta | Photos courtesy of Tess Leono

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If you consider 21km as short distance, then you belong in the upper echelons of the running community who don’t mind playing with pain. And this rings loud and clear for Asian Development Bank project analyst and athlete Tess Leono who, at 48, had claimed one of the biggest achievements of her career: becoming the first Filipina to finish the world’s toughest running challenge. With a six-year endurance sports foundation under her belt, which includes 26 marathons, 25 ultramarathons, and duathlon and triathlon experience on the side, Leono’s finish at the Badwater (BW) 135-mile ultramarathon is something that should have been expected. Her discernible grasp of challenges and, well, pain, has eventually paid off big time.

What was your motivation behind joining the Badwater 135-mile ultra marathon?

When Benjamin Gaetos, the first Filipino to finish BW in 2013, visited Manila and made a presentation about his BW journey in 2014, I got inspired and dreamed of joining the race particularly after finding out that no Filipina has been qualified yet for the said event. When I finished all the 2014 Philippines Association of Ultrarunners (PAU) grand slam events and was able to do a back-to-back grand slam on the Bataan Death March in 2014 and 2015, I felt strongly motivated and decided to take on the challenge of joining the world’s toughest footrace. It is every serious runners’ dream run.

How did you qualify for the marathon?

The applicants of BW must meet at least one or more of the three qualifying standards; you have officially finished at least three running events of at least 100 continuous miles, at least one of them in the previous 12 months. I did not meet the other standards so I believe I got in because of the qualifying races I submitted, which include the Manila to Baguio 250K Ultramarathon Race, East Coast 145 Miles Endurance Run, and West Coast 200km. However, there’s no guarantee that you would qualify even if you’re able to meet this criteria.

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What kind of preparations did you do for the race?

Even before I got qualified, I joined a lot of ultramarathon events ranging from 50km to 250km. Right after I qualified for the BW 135 Ultra Marathon, I did a lot of research on the race route, the conditions, terrain, temperatures, and the like. I also read other BW champions’ and finishers’ blogs and their stories about the BW135 run. Having been aware of the region as being the “hottest place in the US,” which was 282 feet below sea level, I went on heat training extensively. And since we would be hurdling three mountain ranges, culminating at Mt. Whitney, which is the highest peak in North America, I trained regularly from Naic through Ternate to Nasugbu for my uphill and downhill strengthening. On top of this, I did yoga and core strengthening.

Did you go into the race with an idea of what to expect? Or was it different when you were actually there racing with 96 other runners?

Obviously, I expected that I would be running under the hottest temperature (around 48 to 54 degrees Celsius). I set and conditioned my mind well into this race. I thought of the extremes, even thought of my death in Death Valley seriously. Before and during the race, I felt privileged to meet the ultra running elites and veterans of BW. I did not expect that I would be mingling and chatting with these very down-to-earth ultra runners.

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What was the biggest challenge you encountered during the race?

Running in a desert and encountering blinding sandstorms two or three times was quite an experience. Also, I got sick on the second night. Before I left Manila I had bad colds and fever I think because of my heat trainings. A few days before the race, I had a relapse in Las Vegas and suffered for two days. On the second night of the race, the temperature went down to 16 degrees Celsius, and I chilled and had a fever. My support crew had to keep me warm most of the time. I had to wear a jacket and a poncho while running for several hours until my condition improved. Needless to say I had to stop several times to rest. I tried to get some sleep during the stops but was not successful so I just ran and walked on.

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There were a number of runners who did not finish the race. Was there ever a point when you wanted to call it quits?

Thirteen runners did not finish. I think some of them were even BW veterans. No, I never ever thought of quitting at anytime. Even before the race, I had steadfastly set my mind, heart, and spirit into finishing the race, no matter what.

What are you looking forward to next?

Call me crazy or an addict for pain, but the day after the race, I was already planning my run strategy for the 2017 BW event! In the meantime, I have a lot of ultra races scheduled for the rest of the year. My friends thought that after finishing the toughest footrace, I would retire from running or take it easy .It did not occur to me a bit. I finished BW with zero blisters and chaffing and was able to fully recover after two days.