When one man set off on a gruelling 155-mile ultra-marathon across the Gobi Desert, he had no idea he’d be joined by a tiny four-legged running buddy.
Dion Leonard, originally from Sydney, Australia, but now living in Edinburgh, became a runner as a “refuge” during his tough childhood. Later, he confesses, his hobby became more about keeping himself active and feeding his hugely competitive nature.
“I used to play cricket at the weekends,” he says, “and if we got rained off, we’d just sit in the changing rooms doing the crossword. I wasn’t burning off any energy. My wife Lucja is a runner and was always meeting new people at races, and she said: ‘Come for a run with me’, and it all started from there.”
Soon enough, Dion became involved in ultra-marathon running — long-distance challenges which cover more ground than a traditional marathon’s 26.2 miles. His first ultra-marathon was across the Kalahari Desert in South Africa.
He remembers: “It was an incredible experience and life-changing. That’s when I realised I was good at running — but mostly I enjoy getting to the finishing line!”
After taking on the Marathon Des Sables in Morocco, and another ultra-marathon across the Sahara Desert, he decided to try the ultra-marathon across the Gobi Desert in China, where competitors run just under a marathon each day for four days, followed by around 50 miles on the fifth day.
A running buddy
It was at the end of the first day of the Gobi Desert challenge that Dion first met a sandy-coloured dog with big, dark eyes, who wandered into the tent while the racers were eating their evening meals.
“I said: ‘There’s no way I’m feeding that dog!’” Dion laughs. “In these races, once you run out of food, you’re in trouble; food is your lifeline!”
The little dog was still hanging around the following morning as the group gathered their belongings and set off on the second stage. She decided to run with them, and kept pace with Dion all the way. That night, she snuggled up with him in his tent; he named her Gobi, after the desert they were crossing together.
Dion became attached to little Gobi, and started sharing his food and water with her — even carrying her under his arm across a river on the third day. As the hard terrain would be too much for her during the following two days, Dion arranged for her to travel to the next camp in a volunteer’s car. Soon, the question of what to do with Gobi after the event arose. Dion recalls:
“I knew that the two days I had run without Gobi had been hard; I’d got attached to her. I didn’t want to leave her to fend for herself. Gobi had chosen me.” He decided to find a way to bring her home with him. On the final day of the challenge, Dion passed the finish line in an impressive second place — with Gobi by his side.
Meanwhile, Lucja had looked into the process of bringing a dog into the UK from China. Gobi would need a rabies test, a medical check, and a microchip, and the process would need to be approved by the Chinese Government, before the dog spent four months in quarantine at London’s Heathrow airport.
Luckily, one of the ultra-marathon volunteers, Nurali, agreed to undertake all the necessary medical checks for Gobi, and to look after her in the city of Ürümqi in the meantime, with support from a lady called Kiki from pet transport company, WorldCare Pet. The whole process would cost an estimated £10,000, so Lucja and Dion set up an online crowd-funding page.
Before long, their efforts attracted the attention of the national press and, within days, over £20,000 had been raised. But Dion and Gobi hadn’t found their happy ending yet — her keeper, Nurali, stopped returning Dion’s emails, and the desert-runner was left waiting for news.
Straying into danger
Thankfully, Kiki found out what was going on: Gobi had continued her running habits and escaped from Nurali’s care a week previously. Dion flew back to China to help find the little dog. The team spent four days desperately searching for her, all the time worrying that she had fallen victim to the country’s dog meat trade.
Then, finally, a breakthrough: Dion was sent a photo message of a stray dog and was persuaded to go to see her — it was Gobi! She had suffered an injury to her hip and had a gash on her head, but it was her all right.
“I rang Lucja and said: ‘We b****y well found her!’ the moment she picked up,” he recalls. “Both of us didn’t say much for a while; we were crying!” After all the anxiety, Dion was reluctant to leave Gobi in quarantine for so long, but there was another option: wait 29 days for the all-clear on her rabies test, and then live in Beijing for three months.
So Dion took a sabbatical from his job, and the duo flew from Ürümqi to Beijing, where they found an 11th-floor flat to stay in. During those months, Gobi had an operation to repair her dislocated hip, and her rabies test came back clear, but the pair found it tough. Dion says: “It really started to get cold and the pollution in Beijing was awful — we couldn’t go outside much! I love the people and the food in China, and in the summer the weather is fantastic, but in the winter it’s awful!”
Dion and Gobi finally flew out of Beijing on New Year’s Eve 2016, flying to Paris in business class so they could stay together. Lucja came to join them in France, and the new family then drove to Amsterdam, where they caught a ferry to Newcastle.
“It wasn’t until we crossed the border into Scotland that I realised we’d fi nally done it; she was home with us!” says Dion.
“It was an incredible feeling.” There were no nerves for Gobi when she arrived at her forever home. She ran straight into the house and jumped on to Dion’s side of the sofa (“It’s her spot now!” he laughs). She also bonded with the couple’s Ragdoll cat, Lara, snuggling up in bed together within hours.
Dion adds: “It’s been an incredibly difficult process and one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, but Gobi finding me was just the best thing.”
Gobi is now happily enjoying her new life in Edinburgh with Dion and Lucja, and Dion says she’s happy in equal measures to be curled up snoozing on the sofa or going for long walks: “It was incredible and blows me away. The world has got behind us because it’s such a heart-warming, feel-good story.”
Dion and Gobi’s amazing tale has now been made into a best-selling book, with the film studio, 20th Century Fox, signing a deal to take it to the big screen.