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Photo credit: Dion Leonard.

One man and his dog - Dion and Gobi

19-Jan-17

By Alice Morrison

It was the story that melted hearts worldwide last year. A tough-as-nails ultra runner meets plucky pup during the Gobi March race. They conquer the stages together and true love blossoms. There are twists and turns, drama, near-tragedy and then a happy ending as Gobi comes back to join Dion and Lucja Leonard and their cat for a new life in Edinburgh. It has catapulted both of them to international fame and the book will be coming out this year and should be on everyone’s Christmas list. It’s also highlighted the sport - which is great for all of us. I was keen to speak to Dion and hear more about him as a runner and an ultra competitor as well as the hero in this super cool love story.

To start with the basics. Dion is a 42 year old Aussie who has lived in the UK for the past 15 years and is now based in Edinburgh with his wife, Lucja. He is a WAA-sponsored athlete.

Dion is pretty new to the sport, having started three years ago with the Marathon de Medoc in 2013.

It was a great way to start,” he says, “drinking and eating my way around Bordeaux.”

He has always been very competitive, though, with a background in cricket and hockey and a childhood spent running around Queensland and living life outdoors. His spur to start running was while he and Lucja were living in Manchester. At the time he was still playing competitive cricket.

We got rained off all the time and I got tired of sitting in the changing room, waiting for the weather to change. Lucja was doing a lot of running and she encouraged me to join her.

He found out that he was fast, strong and that he had a good resilience to heat, no doubt due to that childhood in Queensland where the kids were sent home from school when the thermometer hit 45 degrees and the AC didn’t work, and spent the rest of the day playing cricket.

His first ultra was the Kalahari Augrabies which is a 250 km stage race. He ran it in 2013, having never even finished an ultra before, and came a very impressive sixth.

For me it is all about getting good at it and being competitive,” he says, “I’ve always been like that. I think it is an Australian thing that’s drilled into you from youth - trying to be the best you can.”

With that attitude he decided to concentrate on the heat aspect as he performed so well in those conditions and in 2016 his sights were firmly on the podium at the Gobi March and then winning the Atacama Crossing.

But fate took a hand. As well as rescuing Gobi (the dog) during the race, Dion also stopped for another competitor.

I think that I sacrificed winning for Gobi and also Tommy Chen. I was second at the Gobi race and would have won but I stopped to help Tommy Chen. He was suffering from heat exhaustion and was moving into heat stroke.”

But I learnt so much about myself and that there are other things in life than winning. Who cares where you came in that race?

He also had to give up his goal of winning the Atacama Crossing as he had to go back to China to look after Gobi. She couldn’t be parted from him at that stage and he had to jump through a lot of hoops to bring her back home.

He is coming back strong in 2017, though, starting off with MDS in April and then The Track in Australia, 520km over nine stages, in May.

Dion, who came 32nd at MDS in 2015, is aiming to beat that and try for a top 20 finish. This will be his 3rd time at this race. We asked him about his tips for training. He has been getting advice from Danny Kendall - the UK’s highest ever MDS finisher with a great 5th place.

One of the main things I have learnt from Danny is that less is more. One of the mistakes that people make is to do lots and lots of long runs, back to back runs and runs carrying their pack. I don’t start wearing my pack till March. Some people run with it from November to March but that is pretty bad training as it slows you down. People go wrong doing 100 mile weeks but with non-specific training.

What I’ve been doing is concentrating on bringing down my marathon time to the 2.40 level and so have done a lot of half marathons. I’ve been doing 40-60 mile weeks with lots of mountain running, speed sessions and strength and conditioning.

Hill repeats are a really important factor for desert running. Because we don’t have the dunes here, I found the best training is to simulate the conditioning. Running uphill repetitively makes the dunes easier.

Also, MDS is really runnable in places and that is where you need your pace. Your marathon time needs to be good there.”

An interesting insight into training for the desert race, and we’ll be following Dion in his quest for that top twenty place. But we have to finish off with a final word about Gobi.

I saw her on stage 1 but was focusing and didn’t really think about it. Then on day 2 she was at the start line with me, looking up at me and stayed with me. I never encouraged her. I didn’t talk to her, whistle or give her water.

I didn’t have a great day and finished about ten minutes behind the leaders and as I came in I heard people clapping and thought it was for me, and it was a bit but it was also for Gobi who was right there.

The amazing thing is that when I walked into the tent, she came in after me, cuddled up to me, looked up at me and well… the rest is history.”

Dion has already donated a sizeable sum of money raised to The Little Adoption Shop in Beijing  and hopes to continue raising money for Dog Shelters through his running.

Follow him on Twitter @findinggobi

The book is due out in June 2017.

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