Gobi, a puppy, joined elite runner Dion Leonard on a 155-mile desert marathon

Courtesy of Dion Leonard

Gobi the dog and elite marathoner Dion Leonard ran the Gobi Desert in China together.

National Puppy Day is Thursday, so in honor of the occasion, we'd like to reintroduce you to Gobi, a small but scrappy border terrier mix who accompanied ultra-marathon runner Dion Leonard on a 155-mile race through the Gobi Desert in China last year. Tiny in stature but big in heart, Gobi went step-for-step with Leonard over the Tian Shan mountains and across massive sand dunes, keeping pace for nearly 80 miles.

Leonard, understanding how special the pup was, knew this was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. When Gobi was temporarily separated from him, the elite athlete made it his duty to find her and bring her home to his family and hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Courtesy of Dion Leonard

A lifelong friendship was formed when Gobi met Leonard.

espnW chatted with Leonard about his four-legged friend and his forthcoming memoir, "Finding Gobi," which releases in June.

espnW: Take us through the moment you met Gobi.

Dion Leonard: I was at the base of the Tian Shan mountain range in northwest China on day 2 of a six-stage, seven-day, 155-mile race. It was an unusually cold morning as we waited for the race to start. I looked down for one last check of my shoes, and there was a scruffy puppy with the most adorable big brown eyes staring right back at me. With the start of the race just seconds away, I smiled at the dog and thought, "She better get out of the way," as there were 100 runners about to come flying by. But as soon as the gun went off, the dog ran with me, right at my heels.

espnW: How did Gobi maintain on the terrain?

DL: During the race, we crossed the mountain into the Gobi Desert, and this is where Gobi got her name. The temperature was reaching more than 120 degrees, and we were running up to a marathon (26.21 miles) a day across sandy, dry, windswept plains. But no matter the obstacle, Gobi was determined to stay with me and didn't let me out of her sight. It was incredible to see such a small dog tackling what for humans were inhospitable conditions.

espnW: How'd you care for the pup while running the marathon?

DL: The race is entirely self-sufficient, so you have to carry everything you need for the week, including food, sleeping bag, clothing and mandatory [first-aid] kit. This meant the [provisions] I had packed before the race started were all I had for the week. So I had to share my precious dried meat and nuts with her -- there was simply no other food available. Gobi was the star of the race, and all of the other competitors helped by giving her rations. I'm sure she thought it was just one big party!

espnW: Take us back to when Gobi went missing. Describe that moment.

DL: It was the most heart-wrenching moment. I received a phone call [post-race, after I returned home] and was told that Gobi had gone missing in a city of 3 million people in China [right before she was supposed to go into a required quarantine]. I was devastated and realized the promise I made her. I had told Gobi I'd her bring her back to my home in the UK, and that promise was broken. I decided immediately to fly back to China and do everything I could to find her.

espnW: How was your reunion with Gobi? 

DL:  She knew immediately who I was and that I was there for her. Finding Gobi was the best day of my life. Against all the odds, we found this little needle in a haystack. When we were finally reunited, Gobi ran across the room and straight into my arms. It was simply an unbelievable moment.

espnW: How is she adjusting to family life?

DL: Gobi arrived in the UK in the new year, after we both spent a long time in Beijing awaiting her clearance to fly home. From the moment we walked in the door, Gobi knew this was her forever home, even having a sister now too, our indoor ragdoll cat named Lara. They both love playing together and sleep next to each other every night. As any former stray dog will do, Gobi still scavengers the ground for any leftovers and loves munching on leftover fried food, especially fish or fries!

espnW: Is Gobi still an excellent running partner? 

DL: Gobi's desert days are over, but we still love running 5 to 10 miles a day on the trails in the hills, just like we did back in the Tian Shan mountain range. Gobi is super quick, running at a 6-minute mile pace. Seeing the joy on her face as we run after each other is the most rewarding aspect of it all, knowing she is happy and safe.

espnW: How is she adjusting to fame?

DL: Everywhere Gobi goes, she soaks up the attention and loves all the fanfare, any excuse for more pats [on the head]. Now with our "Finding Gobi" book launching in June, it gives her an excellent opportunity to meet as many of her fans as possible. Hopefully, Gobi's story will help raise awareness of the plight of stray dogs and animal shelters in need.

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