A Mongolian marathon runner's secret weapon? Endurance. (2023)



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There is no one like Ser-Od Bat-Ochir. The 41-year-old marathoner has represented Mongolia in every major competition since 2003.

A Mongolian marathon runner's secret weapon? Endurance. (1)

TypeScott Cacciola

Report from Budapest

A long time agoSer-Od Bat-OchirHe became one of the world's most prolific long-distance runners, running the 2002 Hong Kong Marathon. Back then, Ser-Od had never run more than 20 kilometers (or about 12 miles) in training.

"I didn't know what I was doing," he said.

This didn't stop him from running with a leading group of Kenyans for the first few kilometres, after which the marathon imposed its unrelenting form of pain. As Ser-Od trudged to the finish line far behind the competition, he came to an important conclusion: marathons are long and difficult.

"I just thought: I don't want to do that again," he said. "But here I am".

Yes, here is Ser-Od, who is now 41 years old, and there is no one like him. A five-time Olympian, he has completed 74 marathons and has represented Mongolia in all major international competitions since 2003.

On Sunday morning, with the support of his wife Oyuntuya Odonsuren, who acts as coach, Ser-Od will compete at the IAAF World Championships for the 11th consecutive year when he takes to the streets of Budapest in the men's marathon.

In the process, Ser-Od has become a singularly popular figure in the marathon world: a self-made runner who has risen from obscurity and become an almost permanent presence on the world stage.

"Picking up like nails," said Tim Hutchings, broadcaster and former world-class running back, "and a kind, smiling soul."

Ser-Od, whose 6' frame has the smooth aerodynamics of a hang glider, still packs oversized goals. He hopes to surpass his personal best of 2 hours, 8 minutes and 50 seconds. He hopes to finish in the top eight in a major marathon. And he hopes to compete in the Paris Olympics next summer.

"I know it won't be easy," he said.

But when was his path easy? During an afternoon coffee interview, she reflected on her roots and recalled her childhood in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, where his father taught industrial arts and her mother was a kindergarten teacher. .


Ser-Od wasn't particularly academic when he was young—"There was nothing I hated more than studying," he said with a laugh—but he was a good athlete. His first race was at a school track festival, where he and his classmates had five minutes to test how far they could run. Ser-Od won easily.

"I loved that feeling," he said in Japanese through his agent Brett Larner, who also acted as his translator.

Ser-Od graduated from high school and briefly taught physical education after graduating from college. But the pay is low, he said, and the long hours are part of his training. She often had no choice but to run at night, and if you've never experienced the splendor of running on a cold Mongolian night, Ser-Od can tell you all about it.

"It's going to be pretty cold and dark," he said.

When Ser-Od started, Mongolia lacked a great running culture, he said. People would see him covered in four or five layers of sweat and look at him as if he was juggling cats on a unicycle.

But he already had big dreams after watching Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia win the men's 10,000 meters at the 2000 Summer Olympics on television. Ser-Od began to wonder: How do you become an international athlete? Would it be possible for you to participate in the World Cup? Or even at the Olympics?

"And precisely because there is no real history of athletics or track and field in Mongolia, no one knew," he said. "It was a learning process."

After his Hong Kong marathon debut, Ser-Od quit his teaching job and joined the National Police as an officer, someone who could win races. The National Police had a sports club and Ser-Od was rather lazy.

More importantly, Ser-Od now had the financial means to train more regularly. In 2003, he made his World Championship debut and finished 63rd with a time of 2:26.39, beating the Mongolian national record by about 10 minutes.

"Everyone was amazed that a Mongolian could run so fast," Ser-Od said. "They said it was crazy that nobody ever broke it."

Ser-Od broke it again and again: he fled.a test eventfor the 2008 Olympic marathon in 2:14.15, but he was convinced he still had untapped potential when he faced Gebrselassie in a road race in England a year later. Ser-Od said that he got to eat with Gebrselassie a couple of times and took the opportunity to chastise him with questions about training.

"I didn't know what I was doing yet," Ser-Od said. "So I asked him, 'What does a world-class marathoner have to do to run at this level?' And Haile said, 'The most important thing is to figure out what works for you and not worry about what other people are doing.' . doing.".'"

After the race, Ser-Od was getting out of an elevator when he ran into Gebrselassie again.

"And I'll never forget: he asked me if we could take a picture together," Ser-Od said.

It was a formative moment for Ser-Od, who was inspired by their encounter and continued to improve. His breakthrough came with a top 10 finish at the 2011 London Marathon. What worked for him? A grueling training regimen that seemed to defy all weather conditions on the planet.

"I went in alone and did everything," he said. “I trained in the heat. I trained in the snow. I trained in the rain. I trained in the dark. And that has paid off."


It also took its toll. In 2014, Ser-Od knew he could use some company ("training alone is really exhausting," he said) and moved to Japan with his wife and their four children, where he joined a professional team.

But running marathons is a brutal profession, and when Ser-Od was left without a sponsor after the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, he panicked. He thought his career was over. He held out his hand to Larner, whom he had met running in circles.

“I was like, 'Um, I'm a big fan, but a 40-year-old Mongolian? How do I find a sponsor for you?'” Larner recalls. ".

After asking several questions that went nowhere, Larner approached Shingo Oshiro, president of a solar panel company that had recently created a women's racing team. Oshiro offered Ser-Od a contract, telling him that once he retired from racing, he would hire him as the team's coach.

"I am very grateful that they believed in the idea of ​​a sixth Olympiad and supported me," Ser-Od said. "I really want to pay my debt to you."

Still, he knows that attending the Paris games next year will be a new challenge. In a way, she is a victim of his own success. It's all relative, but marathons in Mongolia have become more popular, thanks in part to Ser-Od. He recalled visiting Ulaanbaatar earlier this spring (he still has a house there) and being stopped for selfies.

"Oh, it's Ser-Od!" She remembered the screams of the people.

In an event that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, there are now four Mongolian men competitive enough to compete in events like the World Championships. The problem is that the country can only send three major international competitions.

Ser-Od even thought that he was in danger of missing out on Budapest. After finishing 26World Championship last yearIn Eugene, Oregon, injuries hampered his training. This dropped his national ranking to fourth place. After an unspectacular result at the Copenhagen marathon in May, he was preparing for the worst.

"We actually thought, probably that was it," Larner said. "But a miracle happened."

It turned out that one of Ser-Od's Mongolian rivals had run a poor race in Copenhagen. The country's athletics association then awarded Ser-Od the last place in the world championships.

"It was luck," Larner said. "Good luck."

Of course, there's nothing wrong with a little luck, especially after so many years of hard work. Against all odds, the end of Ser-Od still seems a long way off.

Scott CacciolaHe has covered sports for The Times since 2013. More information about Scott Cacciola




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