Sometimes, victory doesn’t mean you cross the finish line first. Just ask ultramarathon runner Dion Leonard. He went to the Gobi Desert in China in 2016 to win a grueling six-day, 155-mile race. He finished second among the world-elite runners but is still enjoying life’s victory lap thanks to lessons he continues to learn from the scrappy stray dog he adopted and named Gobi.
They met and bonded at that Gobi Desert race. But Leonard’s attempts to adopt and bring her home proved to be time-consuming, challenging, and expensive. And then, somehow, during the Gobi’s required quarantine, she became lost and injured. Leonard relied on help from dog lovers in China and all over the world to find and eventually be reunited with his canine kindred spirit.
Their amazing tale is captured in Leonard’s 2017 book Finding Gobi: A Little Dog with a Very Big Heart. A movie version of their remarkable, unbreakable connection is expected for release later next year.
“Little did I know at the time that this little dog who came out of nowhere would change my life and her life forever,” says the Australian-Brit, now an in-demand motivational speaker living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with his wife, Lucja, and the now 6-year-old Gobi.
But let’s go back to June 20, 2016, in the Gobi Desert. Leonard had trained for months for this ultra-race and honed a solid game plan on how to conquer this grueling challenge among the world’s best runners.
Then the unexpected happened. As the race kicked off, a small terrier mix suddenly appeared and joined these elite runners, matching them stride for stride and even at times outpacing the pack. The next day, Gobi paired up with Leonard and ran all 25 miles of that leg of the race with him.
“I came fit and ready to try to win this race,” recalls Leonard. “On Day 2, I look down at my shoes and see this little dog chewing the sand cover on my shoes and putting holes in my socks. I flicked her off, but she came back and started chewing again. I told her to shoo, but she didn’t. For some reason, she took a real shining to me.”
Because competitors had to run six days carrying their own backpacks of food and supplies, every ounce mattered, including the amount of food. Leonard, however, shared his daily portion with Gobi, who slept in his tent each night.
Gobi went on to run 80 miles with Leonard for four of the race’s six stages. On two stages where temperatures soared up to 120 degrees, Leonard arranged for Gobi to stay with race officials and be transported by car to the next campsite.
“At the finishing line, she would sit and wait for me,” says Leonard. “As soon as I came near, she ran up and started chewing on my sand covers on my shoes again. She really took everyone in the race by heart, not just me. Other runners were posting blogs about her.”
Leonard took time during one stage to carry Gobi across a wide river. It may have cost him from crossing the finish line first, but he has no regrets.
“I finished second in the race, but adopting Gobi was better than any medal around my neck,” he says. “During the race, I made Gobi a promise that I was going to make her life better. I was going to bring her home. I didn’t realize just how difficult it would be to keep that promise.”
The pair have since made media appearances around the world, given Ted X talks, and appeared at animal charity events and schools.
Gobi’s ultra-racing days are behind her, but the family enjoys long walks and occasional short runs in Chattanooga.
“Everyone who meets Gobi falls in love with her,” says Leonard. “It is incredible to think about the amount of love and heartfelt kindness she has in her for everyone. I am one lucky guy.”
Leonard believes Gobi has inspired three life lessons:
* Never give up on your dreams. In his 30s, Leonard was overweight and drank and smoked. He turned to running and three years later, he was fit and competing in ultra-marathon races. “When I met Gobi, she was a young, hungry stray, but filled with determination and loyalty.”
* Accept help from others. Reuniting Leonard and Gobi required raising thousands of dollars through Go Fund Me as well as coordination from hundreds of people in China and elsewhere. “The race was easy in comparison to all we did to find Gobi again,” he says.
* Never underestimate paw power. “I think all dogs are angels in disguise, but Gobi has a special way to bond and to connect with people,” he says. “There is a constant smile in my heart thanks to Gobi. She really has made me a happier person. She has changed my life for the better.”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.