NEW YORK >> As dog stories go, this one about a scruffy little stray named Gobi has legs for miles.
The sand-colored pooch with big, soulful eyes has a book out and movie deal after she happened upon “ultrarunner” Dion Leonard last year during a 155-mile race across desert dunes, over mountains and through yurt villages in the remote autonomous region of Xinjiang in northwestern China.
On short but powerful legs, Gobi kept pace with Leonard for nearly 80 miles in 100-plus degree heat, securing a spot in his heart forever. But their dog-chooses-man, man-saves-dog story doesn’t end there.
While the Australian human living in Scotland returned home to Edinburgh to figure out exactly how one adopts a stray dog from China and gets her into the United Kingdom, Gobi went missing from the home of a person in the race community Leonard had met during the multistage, seven-day race. The acquaintance was kind enough to temporarily shelter the dog as Leonard untangled the red tape.
Gobi’s disappearance led Leonard to hustle back to China and join a search for the dog in the densely populated city of Urumqi, where street cleaners disposed of their reward posters about as fast as they could plaster them on lampposts, cars and shop windows.
Looming over the search was fear that nearly $50,000 raised for Gobi’s cause through crowdfunding, attracting media attention in the U.K. and China, might have created a “dognapping” scenario. About 10 days after Gobi disappeared, she was found and the two were reunited, though the dog had suffered a hip injury and a deep gash in her head.
Together they waited out 90 days of quarantine in a dank Beijing apartment before making it home to Scotland in January. So what made Gobi, named so by Leonard for the desert where they met, choose the 42-year-old Aussie in the first place?
“That is the million-dollar question,” Leonard said in a recent interview. “I wish she could tell me because I get asked that quite a lot and I think about it quite a lot, and I have no idea why, whether it was my smell — we don’t shower during the week in these races — or whether it was something else, whether it was a past-life connection. It was definitely fate, and I’m so glad that she chose me. … She’s brought lots of joy to people around the globe with our story.”
It was Day 2 of the race that Gobi sought out the lanky Leonard, who still seems genuinely baffled by it all. He marvels at Gobi’s ease crossing the Tian Shan mountain range and the distance she covered during the race. He arranged for comfortable car transport for Gobi from checkpoint to checkpoint after her unbelievable stretch on foot. Dog safely nestled in man’s arms, the two beamed at the finish line, medals on red sashes around both their necks, after Leonard came in second.
“Me being able to help Gobi through the race and actually be the person that could step up and take her out of the situation she was in was something I was really wanting to do because those were the sort of things I needed when I was younger and no one was there for me to do that,” Leonard said, explaining his own tough start back in the Queensland country town of Warwick.
It’s a strait-laced, churchgoing, family-focused place that didn’t look kindly on the crumbling of his home life when he was 9. That’s when Garry, the man he called Dad, died, and his mother revealed Garry was not, in fact, his biological father.
The situation sapped him and his mother emotionally and turned them into outsiders. Leonard left home at 14, choosing to go it alone.
“I was living in pubs, hostels, caravans,” Leonard said. “It was pretty grim. I was trying to go to school, and I was trying to work as well because I didn’t have any money. I use the negative energy of my childhood and my upbringing, which was very volatile and depressing and an abusive situation, to drive me forward during a race.”
Now that Gobi has settled into Edinburgh life, making friends with the rescue cat that Leonard and his wife already had, things are popping for man and dog. They’re on a book tour for “Finding Gobi” (Thomas Nelson), with young-adult and picture book versions as well.
Their story has been sold to 21st Century Fox for a movie, and Leonard had enough crowdfunded money for the search left over to donate $10,000 to an animal rescue and adoption group in Beijing, the Little Adoption Shop. The founder, Christopher Barden, was instrumental in helping Leonard.
Leonard will donate a portion of book and movie proceeds, as well.
“Animal welfare in China isn’t governed by anyone, and they’re all desperately dying for donations,” Leonard said. “There are so many stray dogs. It’s really sad to see.”