Filipina Finishes BADWATER, the “World’s Toughest Foot Race Event”

Tess Leono of Mandaluyong is the “First Local Filipino” to conquer a grueling 135-mile (216-km) run 

By Major General Jovenal D. Narcise AFP (Ret)

Say the name and it holds the notoriety and prestige of being the “World’s Toughest Foot Race,” the Badwater 135-mile Ultramarathon. The iconic California race, now on its 39th year, starts from the Badwater Basin in the Death Valley National Park, 280 feet below sea level, then passes through three mountain ranges and ends at 8,300 feet above sea level, on the Mt Whitney Portal, considered the highest mountain in mainland United States. Add to the elevation, the summer temperatures of up to 145 degrees Fahrenheit with gusty winds in the mountain ranges and sandstorms on the flats.


It’s this challenge that Tess Leono, 48, project analyst of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and a resident of Mandaluyong, conquered in July. To give a local sense of distance, the run of 135 miles is the distance from Manila to Dagupan in the north, or from Davao City, west to Cotabato City.  Leono was among 97 runners who was in the first of three waves that started at 8:00 p.m. of July 18.

Leono finished the race in 46:01:29 hours, ranking #82 out of the 84 who crossed the finish line, earning her the recognition of being the “First Local Filipino Runner” (born and living in the Philippines) and “First Filipino Woman” to finish Badwater.  The experience proved to be among many firsts for Leono, a first-timer in the race, and a first-time visitor to the U.S. The race, which has a cutoff time of 48 hours, proved too much for 13 other runners who succumbed to the heat, fatigue, or injury.

“The hot temperature along the route was too much to bear as compared to the Philippines during summer. The gusty winds on the mountain peaks were so strong that I had to slow down to a hike,” she said in a statement. On the second night, the temperature plunged to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing a respite, but which led to a cold due to the sudden change.

Compatriot Gerald Tabios, another Filipino ultrarunner residing in New York City finished the race for the third straight year, beating by more than 40 minutes his record from a year ago to finish in 41:42:20, to place #61. Tabios hails from Bukidnon. The 2016 Badwater overall winner was returning champion Pete Kostelnik of Nebraska, setting a new course record by almost less than an hour to finish in 21:56:32. The female champion was Venti Alyson of Barbados, who placed 5th overall with a time of 25:53:07.

The 97 runners represented 20 countries and 27 states from the US. Of these, 51 were veterans or repeaters and 46, like Leono, were rookies. “Most of the runners who would pass me along the course would either stop or walk just to engage in conversation with me and encourage me,” she said. “Most of them said that they will be waiting for me at the Finish Line and they really did. This is the reason why I love ultra running.”

Leono is a relatively new player to ultra marathon running, having joined the races of the Philippine Association of Ultrarunners (PAU) and the Bald Runner’s events only in 2013. Her consistent top podium finishes earned her the title of PAU Runner of The Year in 2014 and 2015. She is the only Fillipina who has finished the PAU Grand Slam in one year—as 2nd runner-up in the Antique 100-Mile Run from San Jose de Buenavista in Antique to Malay, Aklan; finisher of the West Coast 200K Ultra Run from Olongapo City to Alaminos City, Pangasinan; 1st place in the Taklang Damulag 100-Mile Endurance Run in Palayan City, Nueva Ecija; and 1st runner-up in the Bataan Death March 160K Run. She won the annual Manila-to-Baguio 250-km Ultramarathon. These victories earned her a coveted place in the 2016 Badwater 135 Ultramarathon.

Asked if she was willing to return to improve her finish time, she acknowledged the need to train harder. “I need more training, more planning for my race logistics, apply the lessons I have learned, and find more sponsors. Then I would be glad to return,” Leono said.

Leono’s support crew was headed by Benjamin Gaetos, a Filipino architect and engineer from Los Angeles, California, who is the First Filipino to finish this race in 2013, along with ultrarunners Franco Soriano of Livermore, California who finished the Western States 100-Mile run, and Rowell Ramos and Peachy Poso from Los Angeles.

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