Conventional journalism wisdom says people love stories about underdogs. Here’s a yarn about that the quintessential underdog, a stray wandering around the Gobi Desert that follows a stranger through a 155-mile ultra marathon in one of the harshest climates on the planet. In true newspaper style, there’s even a happy ending.
Nobody knows why the scrappy, apricot-colored mutt with pointy ears was wandering around the starting line of the 155-mile ultramarathon this summer. The nearest village was miles away near the Gobi Desert, a big and unforgiving tract of hot sand.
Dion Leonard, a Scot distance runner, spotted the pooch scampering alongside a group of American runners but didn’t think she would follow even 100 yards of the week-long endurance race.
But she stood by his side at the start of the second day of the punishing race, he told Washington Post writer Amy Wang.
“This little dog’s sort of sitting next to me, looking up like, ‘Are we going to run together today?'” Leonard told Wang. “I didn’t really think that much of it. I thought, let’s see how long this dog lasts.’”
Leonard named the pup Gobi as it followed him through 23 miles that day, climbing nearly 20,000 feet to cross the Tian Shan mountain range on the edge of the Gobi Desert. Sometimes the dog charged ahead of Leonard, as if part of the game was to goad him to pick up the pace. Sometimes the Scot stopped to give her beef jerky and water from his backpack.
At their campsite that night, Gobi cuddled next to Leonard in his sleeping pad, snuggling against his armpit. “She literally stayed with me all day,” said Leonard, 41, an Edinburgh resident who has competed in numerous multistage ultramarathons. Why did Gobi followed him among the 101 competitors in the race? “I didn’t do anything in particular to gain her attention. She chose me. I was the one that she was going to stick to.”
Gobi followed Leonard on the third day over increasingly harsh terrain. The Scot carried her over multiple river crossings up to 21-yards wide with rushing water up to his stomach.
“I started to realize then that we were really close,” he said. “I wasn’t going to leave her behind.”
Leonard guesses Gobi the dog kept up with him for 105 miles of the seven-day race, despite temperatures that peaked around 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Race organizers drove her to the finish lines on the hottest days and she waited devotedly for Leonard.
“Day five is actually 80-kilometers (50 miles) long. You’re obviously pretty tired. It’s a big day. It’s very hot,” he said. “To come in to the finish line and to see her wagging her tail was just amazing.”
Leonard took second place in the race. At the finish line, event organizers gave Gobi a matching medal.
The Scot knew there was some inexplicable bond and started researching how to bring Gobi back to the United Kingdom. The process: lots of medical exams, a small mountain of paperwork, and several quarantines. Estimated cost: more than $6,500.
Leonard and his wife began an on-line funding campaign and within days attracted donations from all over the world to surpass their goal.
“We’re really thankful,” he said. “I think everyone’s been keen to seeing good news.”
Gobi’s age, breed and medical history are mysteries but Leonard returned to Scotland and guesstimates bringing Gobi to Edinburgh might take four months.
“We’re looking at having her here for Christmas,” he said. His wife is thrilled, Leonard said.
Meantime Leonard is training for his next ultramarathon in October, a 155-mile trek across the Atacama Desert in Chile that’s part of the Four Deserts Race Series.
Leonard said he hopes no alpacas or horses follow him across the Andes course.
Al Bruce of Canisteo writes a weekly column for The Evening Tribune, even during the "dog days" of summer.