Ultramarathoner Dion Leonard was singularly focused on tackling a grueling seven-day race in China's Gobi Desert when a little, stray dog with big eyes crossed his path. He didn't know it then, but Leonard's life was about to change.
The determined pup zeroed in on Leonard in the field of runners and stuck by his side. Their story from the June 2016 race captured the hearts of people around the world, and Leonard eventually decided to bring the dog back home with him to Scotland.
In his new memoir "Finding Gobi," Leonard tells the story of their encounter and the nearly insurmountable difficulties he faced getting the stray home ... and why the courageous pup chose him in the first place.
"It is the million-dollar question; if only she could answer," Leonardo says in an interview with MNN. "After I spent time in China and speaking with Chinese friends, I learned that their understanding is it's definitely a past-life connection, and I wonder if that is the case. She connected with me and I didn’t encourage her to join me, yet she was adamant that I was the one. People say she is smitten with me and she wants to be with me. It is so lovely to see and be a part of it. It has changed my life."
On the first day of the 150-mile race, many runners noticed a little dog had joined their pack. By day two, she had zeroed in on Leonard. Maybe she was attracted to the bright yellow gaiters he wore to keep the desert sand out of his shoes. But Leonard was having none of it early on. He wouldn't touch her and tried to ignore her, afraid the stray might be carrying a disease that could make him sick for the long race.
"I didn’t encourage her on day two at all. She had a horrible coat and smelled really bad," he says. "I was worried about my health for the week."
But the pup — who he eventually dubbed Gobi — was oblivious to his indifference, continuing to run behind him. On the third day, they hit a river crossing and when Leonard waded through the tall water, the dog yelped and wailed as Leonard left her behind.
"Until then, I had a superstition where I don’t look back, but she was crying so hard and I could just see the look in her eyes and she was in complete shock and dismay that she couldn’t get across and be with me," Leonard says. "I had to make a decision. I saw Gobi needing someone to help her and I wanted to be the person to change someone's life and it just happened to be Gobi's."
Bringing Gobi home
Gobi ended up running four of the six stages (nearly 80 miles) of the race at Leonard's side. She couldn't run two of the legs because the temperature was around 125 degrees Fahrenheit, so she went by car and waited anxiously for him at the finish line. As Leonard ran those two stages solo, he came to the realization that he had to bring the determined dog home with him to Edinburgh.
"Those two days where she would wait at the checkered line for me, I had a lot of time to think about what she was bringing to me," he says. "I was sad she wasn't with me. It really started making me think there was a big connection."
Once the race was over, Leonard left Gobi with a caretaker in China while he and his wife began the long, complicated process of bringing the pup home to Scotland. Because fellow runners had offered to help, they started a Crowdfunder page hoping to defray some of the cost. Within 24 hours, the goal had been fully funded and word of the runner and his stray buddy had spread around the world.
"That's been the most beautiful, heartwarming part of the whole story," Leonard says. "I'm still to this day filled with amazement over how generous and loving people were for this little stray dog."
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Look into my eyes and let me seduce you into #ultrarunning I am Queen of the #4desertsrace with extraordinary endurance and my little legs kept up with Dion Leonard for 77 miles (and he's pretty quick!) #dogsofinstagram #runningdog#ultradog #mansbestfriend #bringgobihome #doglovers #dogs #gobimarch
But soon after, tragedy struck: Gobi went missing.
Leonard flew back to China to help organize a search party. Again, strangers from around the globe pitched in to help. It was a saga of dead ends and even ominous tales of dog death threats, and Leonard nearly gave up hope. People from around the world were invested in the tiny dog and were worried about what had happened to her.
"So many people interested in her well-being, that it became an extra weight on the shoulders," he says. "I didn’t think we would find her … I didn’t know how I was going to deal with it myself, let alone telling everyone else."
Eventually she was found with the help of a squad of local volunteers and extensive news coverage. Leonard moved to Beijing to stay with her during her quarantine period so they wouldn't be separated again.
'Living the dream'
These days, Gobi doesn't go on any more grueling runs. She had an unexplained leg injury from the time she went missing, and although her leg is healing after surgery, Leonard doesn't want to push it.
"I want her to be happy and healthy and not dragging her too far," says Leonard, "but it's hard to stop her. As soon as we get in the mountains and trails, she comes alive."
In addition to a leg injury, the hardy little pup also reappeared with a cut on her head. Like the time before she met Leonard, her backstory will remain a mystery ... but it was likely a rough one.
That's part of the reason Leonard shared some of the rough times from his own life in the book. When his stepfather died, his relationship with his mother fell apart.
"It was definitely very difficult to share and go back to those moments you block out of your life," Leonard says. "I needed someone to be helping me back then like I ended up helping Gobi."
In addition to Leonard's book, Gobi's story will be told from her perspective in an upcoming children's book, and 20th Century Fox plans to adapt the story into a movie. She's also going to star in a 2K run to raise money for a local shelter.
When she's not running or meeting fans, she plays and cuddles with the family cat, and she remains Leonard's canine soulmate.
"She's living the dream!" Leonard says with a laugh. "She gets so much love and attention from everyone she meets. She loves living in Edinburgh doing whatever I'm doing. If we're on the trails running or talking to people, she doesn’t really care. She's so resilient and determined and happy just to be with me."