The Australian ultrarunner Dion Leonard found his four-footed trail-running pal not in the local shelter, nor at a breeder, nor online on a dog rescue site. He found her, instead, in one of the most inhospitable places on earth: China’s gargantuan, 500,000-square-mile Gobi Desert.
Leonard has the sturdy build of a distance runner who looks like he could also roll tree trunks off the trail, if it came to it. At age 45, he is quick to break an easy smile that creates wrinkles that hint at a life with a few tales to tell. One of those stories had its start at day two of a six-day, 155-mile stage race across the Gobi Desert.
It was June 20, 2016. At the start line, Leonard was running through his final gear check, when he noticed a small dog trying to chew on his gaiters. Go away, you little pain! He thought to himself. A hole in his gaiters would mean sand from China’s Gobi Desert would infiltrate his shoes, impacting a race Leonard badly wanted to win. He shooed away the stray. The dog was unfazed and jumped back to renew its attack on the gaiters. The new routine turned into a game for the little dog with the huge black eyes, who decided to sprint off with everyone else when the starting gun went off.
Leonard finished fourth in that day’s stage, crossing the line to the sound of cheering, clapping and drumming. “I thought it was an odd response for fourth,” he said. “Then I realized it was for the dog!”
The mutt had run the entire stage. The day’s racing over, Leonard and others began to realize it was not the first time they had seen the dog. She had been around the prior night, scrounging scraps around a communal campfire. In the harsh surroundings out of which she had materialized, he coined a nickname for her: Gobi.
During the next day’s stage, Gobi was again trotting alongside. Then, 55 miles into the race, the two came to a river crossing so wide and deep that it proved impossible for the little dog. Leonard undertook an act of generosity that would change his life.
In Leonard’s book, Finding Gobi, which spent over a month on the New York Times Bestseller List, he writes:
“I was a quarter way across the river, when I finally did what I had never done in a race before. I turned around … I ran back as best I could, tucked her under my left arm, and waded back out into the cold water.”
It was a bold decision that could be one of the most memorable trail-runner-and-dog moments of all time. Fortunately, for Leonard, the decision wasn’t critical to the podium order, and he went on to finish second in the 250-kilometer race across the Gobi Desert. During that river crossing, Leonard decided he would bring Gobi back home with him to Edinburgh, Scotland, saying that that moment stirred something previously inaccessible within himself.
At that point in the race, Leonard had found himself being driven forward by a negative energy, a frame of mind in which he often found himself.
“I was in a deep, dark place,” he says. “I was thinking of all of the hateful things people had done and said to me during my childhood. Back then, negative energy was my fuel."
“As a kid, I was beaten, abused physically and mentally,” explains Leonard.
At school, he was ostracized. “The book,” says Leonard, “shares just a small piece of that story.”
When pressed, Leonard gently steers the conversation away from the details, preferring to speak more broadly. “Human interactions can be wonderful, but they can also be quite horrible.”
“That was a healing moment,” he says. “I felt sorry for her. I saw myself in Gobi. She had chosen me and suddenly I wanted to make sure she had a better life. Gobi has enabled me to deal with my demons. She’s given me closure. The great thing about animals is that they do that for you and don’t even know they’re doing it.”
For all of her emotional gifts, Gobi, it needs to be said, would be nobody’s first pick for a trail-running dog. She is squat, her yellow, wiry fur coat morphing gently to white as it reaches her underbelly. She has sturdy legs, but they’re short, very short. Ground clearance is clearly not a strong point. Even if she’s not exactly built for trail running, she might have more profound abilities.
During an interview with Leonard and his wife, Lucja, I found it hard to look away from Gobi. Her eyes are large and black, and they seem to have their own force field.
“She has a special way that she looks at you,” says Lucja. “It feels like she’s looking deep into your soul.”
Gobi seems attuned to the people and goings-on around her, almost as if she understands the human interactions taking place a few feet above her. The critical voice within me brushed the idea off; however, the preternatural sensation stuck with me.
But the adoption process to secure Gobi was fraught with a world-class morass of paperwork that would take months to negotiate. Unable to stay in China, Leonard returned to Scotland, where he and Lucja did their best to expedite the process. In the meantime, they entrusted Gobi to what he thought were reliable foster parents. But, somehow, Gobi disappeared, melting into Urumqi, a city of 3.5 million in the northwest corner of China, not far from both Mongolia and Kazakhstan.
In a reckless act of love and in defiance of the odds, Leonard refused to give up. He took a leave from his job as a business unit controller for William Grant & Sons, an international distiller. An online fundraiser and a return to Urumqi ensued.
“Sometimes, you just have to follow your heart,” says Leonard. “Leaving my job was scary.”
A weeks-long needle-in-the-haystack search of the city followed. Leonard even recruited volunteers. After a series of false sightings, and just as Leonard was starting to wear down, a volunteer texted him a photo of what could be Gobi. Leonard initially brushed it off. The dog had a scar on its head that Gobi had been lacking. A half hour later, a second, more detailed photo arrived. This one seemed more compelling.
Leonard knew it was Gobi immediately when they met later that day. During the race, he had called to her using a clicking sound. Wondering how she’d respond, he tried it again.
"She was by my side like a shot. It was her alright,” he writes in Finding Gobi.
Gobi and Leonard’s story has resonated worldwide, and the Leonards now routinely get approached by readers who have had their lives changed after learning of the story. In Slovenia, a group of five recovering addicts told them how they felt a special connection with Leonard’s story. Inspired, they ran a local 10K road race. A half-marathon followed.
“These stories touch your heart,” says Leonard, with a forthright earnestness. The couple are leveraging Gobi’s notoriety to raise funds for pet shelters, too. In Zagreb, Croatia, last year, Gobi’s story inspired 800 people to turn out with their dogs for a 5K road race that raised money for animals in need.
Until Gobi trotted up to him, Leonard had settled into his career, with much of his free time spent working to build on ultrarunning successes. Lucja, for her part, worked as general manager for the IHG hotel chain, overseeing Edinburgh’s Crowne Plaza. She also trail raced, though was less drawn to the competitive aspects.
Finding Gobi—both the act and the subsequent book—has changed all that. A top-10 bestseller in Europe, Australia and the U.K., Finding Gobi has been published in 22 languages, including Chinese and Bulgarian.
And this past December, the entire family—Dion, Lucja, Gobi and their cat, Lara—moved to the United States. The Leonards were drawn here after Dion spent time training and racing in both Breckenridge and Leadville, Colorado, in 2018. (Last year, he finished second overall in the “Triple Crown of 200s,” after completing three 200-mile races in the U.S.) And this time around, Gobi has her paperwork in order, now holding no fewer than three passports. With fresh visas, they are exploring a new life on and off U.S. trails.
Since the move, the family of four’s pace seems to be more like a sprint than an ultra. A variety of book events and running gatherings are taking them on a meandering tour this winter from Louisiana to Texas, to Idaho, Pennsylvania and Alabama. Where will they settle? Some place warm, most likely.
“I’m a big desert runner and like the heat,” says Leonard. “It’s looking like Southern Colorado or Utah.”
Trail running will continue to figure prominently in their lives. Later this year, Leonard plans to race a new event, California Untamed, a 330-mile race from the beach all the way to Mount Shasta. There, Gobi will get a chance to meet another of the country’s famous ultrarunning dogs, Catra Corbett’s diminutive TruMan, a nine-pound Dachshund who is a fixture at West Coast ultras. Lucja plans to run Zion 100 this year.
Meanwhile, Gobi’s story is gaining further momentum. 20th Century Fox will start filming a movie about the duo later this year. The film will stay true to the story. Director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda, The Name of the Father) has a reputation for bringing real-life stories to the big screen.
“Of course,” Leonard laughs, “I’m sure there will be a bit of Hollywood in it.”
Gobi and Leonard, it seems, have rescued each other. The resulting emotional bond was apparent even during my short visit. Gobi kept a close eye on her adopted human companion. When the two are separated, says Lucja, Gobi intently scans for him, and can spot him from across a huge park. “She has an innate ability,” she says, “to know where he is at all times.”
Other benefits have arisen from the new family member. “Lucja and I have been together 21 years. It’s been a great relationship, but Gobi’s brought us more love and happiness,” says Leonard. “You can’t you can’t be sad when you’re with her. Gobi doesn’t know social media. She doesn’t know the news. She just wants us to be happy. A dog brings you back to reality.”
Follow Gobi on Instagram and Facebook at @findinggobi.
Doug Mayer lives in Chamonix, France, and has been known to plan his trail runs around his favorite four-legged residents at area mountain huts. Mayer profiles a trail-running dog and his or her human companion each month at www.trailrunnermag.com