His wife and father thought he must be dead, and Alastair Shelton admits he had doubts about his survival too after being lost for two nights in the Tararua Range.
His 3-year-old daughter Luisa had already decided she would step into her dad's shoes if he failed to return.
"She said, 'If Papa's still lost in the bush, I'll look after you, Mama,' " Juliane Jutz said, as she prepared herself for news that her husband was dead.
"I probably gave up hope, just to prepare myself. We've got children at such a young age [Luisa and 11-month-old Clara] and you just think, 'How am I going to cope by myself?'."
But Luisa's offer wasn't needed. Mr Shelton, 33, a Wellington mountain runner, was spotted by a helicopter yesterday morning about 10.30am - more than 50 hours after he started running the Holdsworth Jumbo Circuit track, inland from Masterton.
He had set out on his run about 7.30am on Saturday and was supposed to return by midday. Instead, he took a wrong turn on a ridge and ran into unknown bush, kilometres off course.
He spent Saturday night huddled under a rock ledge in pouring rain and freezing winds, and suffered a broken toe when he fell into a stream.
"I got disoriented on the top and basically did a 180. I was totally off the track from then on. I was totally and utterly lost. It was just bush, bush and more bush. It's pretty unforgiving terrain."
What saved his life was stumbling on a hut. "I had one night out in the open. It was pretty bad. It was probably the worst night of my life. I thought, ‘One more night out in the open and I might die'."
The Mid-Waiohine Hut gave him shelter on Sunday night, and also the first food he'd had in a day and a half.
"Someone had left a jar of peanut butter, so I just ate that with a spoon. And I had a cup of soup as well."
Rescuers found a note he left in the hut and he was rescued after a helicopter found him on a nearby ridge soon after.
His father, Roger, admitted after his rescue: "To be honest, I feared the worst . . . until a couple of hours ago. And then I [went] from the depths of despair to total elation."
Wellington Search and Rescue adviser Wayne Stevens said the three-day search party had included 95 people, three helicopters and two dogs.
"I think his mental attitude saved him; he's bloody tough."
Mr Shelton plans to return to the Tararuas in March to compete in a 100km ultra-marathon.
- The Dominion Post