Ultramarathoner Dion Leonard finds more than he bargained for in the Gobi Desert

“Something happened in China that changed everything”

Ultramarathoner Dion Leonard finds more than he bargained for in the Gobi Desert

Illustration: Mitch Blunt

Not long after I embarked on my first trip to China, I promised myself that it would be my last. Beijing had been OK, but as I tried to navigate my way around the large but very remote city of Urumqi, a former Silk Road outpost on the border of Kazakhstan and Mongolia, my frustrations mounted: My phone didn’t work, half the signs were written in a script that looked nothing like Chinese and it seemed impossible to make myself understood. I felt isolated, out of my depth and disconnected—not ideal when you’re there to run a 155-mile, six-day race across the Gobi Desert.

I had my plan: Finish the race, get home to Scotland and start figuring out my next destination. I’d already lived in Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. How about the salt plains of the Atacama Desert in Chile? A return to my homeland to run from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock? Or maybe just a 134-mile, single-stage race that started in Death Valley? Wherever I was going next, it wouldn’t be China. 

But something happened there that changed everything. As I stood on the starting line on the second morning, I noticed a flash of brown fur at my feet. It was a scrappy-looking dog, not much bigger than my cat at home. The pup was obsessed with the bright yellow gaiters I wore to keep the sand out of my shoes. I didn’t think much of it, but half a mile into the race, I realized that the dog was running right beside me. It kept pace for the whole day, hopping across streams, over boulders and along the black desert sands. She took it upon herself to curl up with me at night, and raced by my side again the next day. Our bond grew strong quickly, and soon the dog, whom I called Gobi, was fiercely protective of me, growling at anyone who came near as we dozed off to sleep. She had chosen me, though I couldn’t understand why. 

What I knew for sure was that she had the kind of fight, tenacity and love of adventure that I have always admired in humans. She stuck by me, clocking 77 miles over two days. By the time the race was over we’d forged a remarkable bond, but that bond would be tested. 

Though she couldn’t come with me right away, my plan was to eventually have Gobi brought over to Scotland where she could live with my wife, the cat and me. Unfortunately, she went missing from the family that was looking after her. The only solution was for me to board a flight and head back to China to lead the search. 

When I returned, I was still clueless about the language, still overwhelmed by the chaos of the big city and had an even greater sense of being out of my depth. But there was a difference. I was not alone. Word about Gobi’s disappearance had spread, and a group of dog-loving locals had volunteered to help. Over the coming days, I spent time with them, and together we walked the streets in search of Gobi. As we did, things began to shift within me. I was amazed by this group of people, their kindness, their generosity, the way they devoted themselves without question to help a stranger and a scrappy pup they’d never met. From first light to way past dark they worked, never once complaining of the heat, the hours or the verbal abuse they encountered as they tried to hand out posters.


Dion Leonard and Gobi

It took almost two weeks in a bustling city of three million people, but eventually the call came in: Gobi had been found. We rushed to see her, and though she was a little battered and bruised, she radiated happiness and joy when she saw me, and I soaked it up as I held her tight. I still didn’t know what anyone was saying, and the chaos was about as wild as any I’d ever seen. But out of my depth? Not anymore. Thousands of miles from home, in a country I had vowed never to return to, I knew that I was among friends, both dog and human.

Months later, I got to bring Gobi home. It took a long flight, a drive and a ferry across the North Sea, but eventually I found myself driving with my wife at my side and Gobi in the back. We passed low-slung hills and wide-open moors. We were home, ready to take on the next adventure together. Whatever it was going to be, I knew that my time in China had brought me more than the little dog in the back. It had changed how I saw the world—reminding me that beneath the surface of a chaotic, confusing country there exist some of the best people I’ve ever met. For the adventures yet to come and the lessons learned, I remain eternally grateful.

Dion Leonard is an Australian ultramarathoner who lives in Scotland. His book, Finding Gobi, is out now; findinggobi.com.