It was the first night of a gruelling seven-day 250km race across the Gobi Desert in China/Mongolia a year ago, when Dion Leonard first noticed a scruffy little dog with big round eyes going around his camp trying to charm runners into giving it food.
Cute, but I’m not giving you any, he thought. Like all competitors, he had packed just enough in his 6.5kg backpack for the whole course. The 42-year-old Australian had been running competitively for three years, and he was running to win.
The next day, at the start line, he noticed the pint-sized pooch next to him, its tail wagging. He waved it away, worried it might get trampled by the 100 or so runners as they made their way over the Tian Shan mountain range.
Still, the dog tagged along, following him across the mountaintop, through forest terrain and over a river crossing before ending at the finish line for the day’s race hours later.
That night, it cosied up next to Leonard and even managed to coax a little food from him. “She smelled bad, had bad fur. And I was thinking, could she have rabies?”
By then, he had decided to name her Gobi.
The pair went on to finish the seven-day race, with Gobi covering a distance of 125km on her own, and winning Leonard over, enough for him to decide he would take her home to Edinburgh in Britain, where he lives with his wife Lucja.
“Seeing Gobi on the race changed my outlook on things. It made me think more about stopping and helping her, rather than just focused on winning,” said Leonard, who finished second. “It also made my running more enjoyable. I thought: If she could do it, so could I.”
As Leonard was preparing to get Gobi home, she went missing from the home of one of the race organisers.
Leonard took off from Edinburgh for Urumqi, capital city of Xinjiang, worried he would never find Gobi in the sprawling, manic metropolis of over three million people.
With the help of a core group of 20 local volunteers, they scoured the city, putting up posters with an offer of a reward. They finally found it, after a massive dog hunt over two weeks. Leonard wasn’t letting Gobi out of his sight from then on.
He was given sabbatical by his firm, a whisky distiller, and moved into a flat with Gobi in Beijing for four months while the dog did quarantine time.
Finally, in January this year, the two made it back to Edinburgh, where Gobi now shares the bed with her adoptive parents and their nine-year-old cat Lara.
“Lots of Chinese people spoke about past life connections. When she went missing and we found her, I think that was double fate,” said Leonard, who last had a dog – a St Bernard – 15 years ago.
When book publisher Harper Collins came knocking earlier this year, he quit his management job to write his and Gobi’s story.
Finding Gobi has taken the twosome on a book tour to cities in Britain and the United States. The book will be translated into 25 languages.
A Hollywood movie by 20th Century Fox is also in the works. Leonard jokingly says he wouldn’t mind either Hugh Jackman or Eric Bana – both fellow Australians – playing him.
“It’ll be a lot harder to find a good Gobi though,” he said, laughing. “You’ll probably need 20 dogs to play her.”
The happy tyke’s favourite activity is still running, and she routinely does at least 8km a day with Leonard up the hills in Edinburgh.
“I don’t know if we’ll know the complete story of what happened to her. If only she could speak,” he said, cuddling Gobi.
And what would he ask her if she could? “Why me?” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network/Tan Dawn Wei