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A Mongolian marathon runner’s secret weapon? staying power.

Long before Ser-Od Bat-Ochir As he became one of the most prolific long-distance runners in the world, he made it to the start of the 2002 Hong Kong Marathon. Back then, Ser-Od had never run more than 20 kilometers – about 12 miles – training.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said.

This did little to prevent him from running the first few miles with a leading pack of Kenyans, after which the marathon imposed its relentless torment. As he battled his way to the finish line far out of competition, Ser-Od came to an important lesson: 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, now 41, and there is no one quite like him. A five-time Olympian, he has now run 74 marathons and has represented Mongolia in every major international competition since 2003.

On Sunday morning, with the support of his wife Oyuntuya Odonsuren, who also acts as part-time coach, Ser-Od will make his 11th consecutive appearance at the IAAF World Championships when he tackles the streets of Budapest in the men’s marathon.

In the process, Ser-Od has become a uniquely popular figure in the marathon world: a self-made runner who emerged from obscurity and became a near-permanent presence on the global stage.

“Tough as nails,” said Tim Hutchings, a broadcaster and former world-class runner, “and a gentle, smiling soul.”

Ser-Od, whose 5-foot-7 frame has the smooth aerodynamics of a hang-glider, still has oversized goals. He is hoping to improve on his personal best of 2 hours 8 minutes 50 seconds. He’s hoping to finish in the top eight in a major marathon. And he hopes to compete at the Paris Olympics next summer.

“I know it won’t be easy,” he said.

But when was his path ever easy? In an interview one afternoon over coffee, he thought back to his roots and recalled growing up in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, where his father taught industrial arts and his 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, laughing—but he was a fine athlete. His first race was at a school athletics festival, where he and his classmates were given 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 continued to run throughout high school and briefly taught physical education after college. But the pay is meager, he said, and the long hours he put into the training. He often had no choice but to run at night, and if you’ve never experienced the beauty of jogging on a chilly Mongolian evening, 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 running culture, he said. People saw him wrapped in four or five layers of sweatpants and stared at him like he was juggling cats on a unicycle.

But he was already dreaming big after watching Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia win the men’s 10,000m at the 2000 Summer Olympics on TV. Ser-Od began to wonder: How does one become an international athlete? Would it be possible for him to take part in the World Cup? Or even at the Olympic Games?

“And just because there is no real history of athletics or running in Mongolia, no one knew about it,” he said. “It was a learning process.”

After his marathon debut in Hong Kong, Ser-Od quit his teaching job and joined the National Police as a race-winning officer. The National Police had an athletics club, and Ser-Od was a bit of a junior player.

More importantly, Ser-Od now had the means to train more regularly. In 2003, he competed in world championships for the first time and finished 63rd with a time of 2:26.39, beating Mongolia’s national record by about 10 minutes.

“Everyone was amazed that a Mongol could run so fast,” said Ser-Od. “They said it was crazy, nobody would ever break it.”

Ser-Od broke it down further – he ran a test event for the 2008 Olympic marathon in 2:14.15 – but he was confident he still had untapped potential when he met Gebrselassie at a road race in England a year later. Ser-Od said he was able to eat with Gebrselassie a few times and took full advantage of the opportunity to bombard him with questions about training.

“I still didn’t know what I was doing,” said Ser-Od. “So I asked him, ‘What does a world-class marathon runner have to do to run at this level?’ And Haile said, “The most important thing is to find out what works for you and not worry about what others are doing.”

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

“And I’ll never forget that: He asked if we could take a picture together,” said Ser-Od.

It was a formative moment for Ser-Od, who took inspiration from their encounter and continued to improve. At the 2011 London Marathon, he made his breakthrough with a top 10 finish. What worked for him? A strenuous training regimen that seemed to challenge all of the planet’s atmospheric conditions.

“I trained completely by myself 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 produced results.”

It also took its toll. In 2014, Ser-Od knew he could use some company – “Training alone is really exhausting,” he said – so he moved to Japan with his wife and four children, where he joined a professional team.

But marathon running is a tough profession, and when Ser-Od was left without a sponsor after the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, he panicked. He thought his career was over. He turned to Larner, whom he had met through running circles.

“I was like, ‘Er, I’m a big fan, but a 40-year-old Mongolian? How am I supposed to find you a sponsor?’” Larner recalls. “I told him I’d see what I could do, but I thought it was pretty hopeless.”

After several unsuccessful inquiries, Larner was put in touch with Shingo Oshiro, the president of a solar panel company that had recently started a women’s running team. Oshiro offered Ser-Od a contract, telling him that once he retired from racing, he would hire him as a coach for the team.

“I was so grateful that they believed in the idea of ​​a sixth Olympiad and wanted to support me,” said Ser-Od. “I really want to repay my debt to you.”

Still, he knows coming to the Paris games next year will be another challenge. In a way, he is a victim of his own success. It’s all relative, but marathon running in Mongolia has become increasingly popular thanks in part to Ser-Od. He recalled visiting Ulaanbaatar this spring – he still has a home there – and being stopped for selfies.

“Oh, it’s Ser-Od!” He remembered people screaming.

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

In fact, Ser-Od thought he was in danger of missing Budapest. After finishing 26th at the World Championships in Eugene, Oregon last year, injuries hampered his training. As a result, his national ranking slipped to fourth place. After an unspectacular result at the Copenhagen marathon in May, he was preparing for the worst.

“We kind of thought, Eh, it probably is,” Larner said. “But a miracle happened.”

It turned out that one of Ser-Od’s Mongolian rivals had put in a bad race in Copenhagen. Subsequently, the country’s athletics federation awarded his last place at the world championships to Ser-Od.

“It was luck,” Larner said. “Very happy.”

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

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