China’s annual Gobi March is designed to push runners to their limits. Facing desert terrain and extreme temperatures, participants are only allowed allocated sleeping spaces in a communal tent and water to help them through their grueling seven-day challenge. But one runner in the 2016 race received some surprising extra support from a four-legged stranger.
Dion Leonard, an elite ultramarathon runner, is no stranger to physical challenges. So, it was only a matter of time before he set his sights on completing the intense Gobi March.
The race has competitors run 155 miles over the course of six stages through China’s longest-spanning desert. But for the most accomplished runners, the Gobi March is part of an even bigger challenge. Indeed, the 4 Desert Race Series offers similar races through Namibia, Chile and Antarctica as well.
Having run ultramarathons in the past, Leonard had some idea of what was in store when he set off from his home in Edinburgh to China’s Xinjiang Province and the race’s starting line in Hami. But what he didn’t expect was for his heart to be stolen.
The sportsman was two days into his challenge when he felt a strange sensation at his ankles. As he looked down towards the weather-beaten soil he was amazed to see a tiny stray dog nipping at his shoe protection.
Amazingly, Leonard recognized the friendly canine, having seen him at the base camp the previous night. The runner hypothesized that the dog had followed him because it liked his colorful sporting attire. “Once we had begun the stage [the dog] seemed to like the bright yellow color of my gaiters and proceeded to run next to me,” he told the 4 Deserts website.
The dog, which quickly earned the name Gobi, ran alongside Leonard for the entire 23 miles of the second stage. Subsequently, when they reached base camp, the exhausted pair lay down beside each other and their bond was cemented. “That was that – a bond had been developed,” Leonard explained.
Incredibly, Gobi followed Leonard through most of the rest of the race, and he and other runners rationed their food in order to give her a decent meal. Leonard’s tent-mate Richard Henson said Gobi “was the best dog you could imagine – no barking, no biting, no chewing on things, no rooting through bags or stealing socks.”
When during the race things got tough for Gobi’s little legs, Leonard put her needs first. “I carried her across rivers and over sluice gates she could not cross on her own,” he said. “Gobi rested on Day 4 and Day 5 due to the heat of the desert but waited for me at the finish line [for those stages] and I knew then this was no ordinary dog and experience.”
On the last day’s final 6.2-mile stage, Leonard and Gobi crossed the line together – coming in second overall in the race and both earning silver medals. Commenting on the little pooch’s achievement, Leonard later said that she showed “unique strength and stamina for a little dog to keep up with the runners in such grueling conditions.”
Their bond was unbreakable. So, on completing the race, Leonard called his wife, who immediately supported the idea of bringing Gobi home to Scotland. And to help pay for the medical and quarantine fees in China, Leonard set up a Crowd Funder page to bring Gobi home.
Getting Gobi back to Edinburgh, however, wasn’t going to be an easy feat. Indeed, Leonard estimated the cost of the required four-month quarantine plus medical expenses would reach $6,500.
Thankfully, he received donations from around the world to help him cover the expensive process. But then, on August 15, something terrible happened.
After more than a month at an animal shelter in Urumqi, China, and just days before she was supposed to travel to Beijing to start her quarantine period, Gobi went missing. Leonard quickly jumped on a flight back to China to help look for his beloved dog. He also set up a new crowdfunding page to help fund the search.
Not one to sit around waiting, Leonard scoured the town where Gobi was last seen, handing out flyers as he did so. But, with so many stray dogs wandering the area, finding the little dog was a long-shot.
Leonard did everything in his power to spread the word about his missing Gobi. He recruited an army of volunteers to help him look, asked as many people as he could for any information and even appeared on local television to highlight Gobi’s plight.
The odds were stacked against him. It wasn’t as though he was in a small village; Urumqi has a population of three million people. And, although hopeful, Leonard admitted that he was “dreading having to go back home” without his loyal running partner.
Then, ten days into the search, a father and son picked up a dog matching Gobi’s description while out walking their own dog in a park. Still, Leonard didn’t get his hopes up too much after seeing poorly-lit photos of the rescued dog. He had already endured meeting more than one Gobi doppelganger.
But, incredibly, it was her, and Leonard and Gobi enjoyed an emotional reunion. “Gobi spotted me as soon as I walked in, and she started running toward me. Literally, she was running up my leg and jumping all over me and squealing with delight,” Leonard told the Washington Post. “It was a miracle.”
After her incredible journey, Gobi is now living out her quarantine period before she can be transported to Leonard and his family in the United Kingdom. She is expected to touch down in Scotland at some time in December – giving her and Leonard the best Christmas present either could ever have wished for.