Ultramarathon runner Dion Leonard came to the world’s attention after he decided to adopt a stray dog, Gobi, whom he met during a 7-day marathon in the Chinese Gobi Desert. In his new memoir, Finding Gobi: The Amazing True Story, the Australian reveals how his own painful past inspired him to help the small-but-resilient dog and how difficult it was to bring her home to Scotland.
“It was fate when Gobi and I met the first time around,” the 41-year-old tells PEOPLE exclusively. “You’re doing a race that’s incredibly difficult… [Gobi] was a bit of calm, she was there to help me out.”
After the 250-km race (of which she ran 126 km with him) in June 2016, he vowed to find a way to bring her home. He left her in China with a temporary caretaker. When she went missing he flew back to organize a search party.
“I didn’t want to let her down like I’d been let down,” he says.
Leonard eventually recovered Gobi (with the help of volunteers and extensive news coverage) and brought her home after four months of living together in Beijing (so Gobi wouldn’t have to face quarantine alone).
But their journey home was much more difficult than it appeared in news headlines, as Leonard reveals in his book. 20th Century Fox plans on adapting Finding Gobi into a film.
According to Leonard, the most difficult sections to write were the ones about the losses during his childhood — experiences that later inspired him to give Gobi a home.
After his stepfather’s death, Leonard’s relationship with his mother fell apart.
” ‘You’re worthless,’ ” he recalls her saying to him in Finding Gobi. ” ‘I wish I’d never had you … You’re the mistake in my life … I hate you.'”
He writes that when he was 14 she started locking him downstairs at night so he was completely separated from the rest of the family. A year later he left home to live with a friend in a hostel.
“I guess if I stayed there, goodness knows what would have happened and where I would have ended up — whether it would have been drugs or alcohol,” he said. “I had no one helping me, no one stood up to guide me in the right direction. When I saw Gobi I could see that someone needed to step up and be that person. That’s what I wanted to be.”
Leonard may have wanted to give Gobi a better life, but many forces were against him. In the book, he touches on questions surrounding Gobi’s disappearance (most of which remain unanswered) and reveals that his search team received hundreds of threats a day (which he only about learned later). Some threatened to kill Gobi if they weren’t paid, while others said they’d already killed her.
“There will always be people who are a little bit deceiving and want to make money out of these stories,” Leonard said. “That’s upsetting. It takes away from what is an amazing story that everyone shared together.”
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While Finding Gobi outlines the struggle and fear that Leonard and Gobi went through, in the end it is a story of hope. And one that’s helping other animals.
“We’ve actually seen probably 50-ish emails from people,” said Leonard, “saying they’ve gone to their shelter and taken a rescue dog home, or people who have gone out and fed stray dogs.”
Leonard won’t be bringing Gobi on the ultramarathon he plans on running in the Peruvian desert later this year, but he has organized a 2-km run (Jog with Gobi) to raise money for a local Edinburgh shelter. He also plans on donating some of the proceeds of his book to charity.
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His most immediate plans, however, are to spend time with Lucja, their cat, and Gobi.
“There’s a beautiful photo I took of Gobi yesterday,” he said. “We were walking and there were some poppy flowers. She’s got this beautiful, cheesy grin on her face. You can tell that she’s living the dream.”