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Friday, December 1, 2023

Ser-Od Bat-Ochir of Mongolia Returns to the World Championship


Lengthy earlier than Ser-Od Bat-Ochir turned probably the most prolific distance runners on this planet, he planted himself on the beginning line of the Hong Kong Marathon in 2002. On the time, Ser-Od had by no means run something longer than 20 kilometers — or about 12 miles — even in coaching.

“I didn’t know what I used to be doing,” he mentioned.

That hardly prevented him from operating with a lead group of Kenyans for the primary few miles, after which the marathon imposed its remorseless model of agony. As he labored to the end line, properly out of rivalry, Ser-Od got here to an vital realization: Marathons are lengthy and tough.

“I simply thought, I don’t need to do that once more,” he mentioned. “However right here I’m.”

Sure, right here is Ser-Od, now 41, and there’s no one else fairly like him. A five-time Olympian, he has now run in 74 marathons and represented Mongolia at each main worldwide competitors since 2003.

On Sunday morning, with the assist of his spouse, Oyuntuya Odonsuren, who moonlights as his coach, Ser-Od will make his eleventh straight look on the World Athletics Championships when he tackles the streets of Budapest within the males’s marathon.

Within the course of, Ser-Od has develop into a uniquely fashionable determine within the marathon world: a self-made runner who emerged from obscurity to develop into a near-permanent presence on the worldwide stage.

“Powerful as nails,” mentioned Tim Hutchings, a broadcaster and former world-class runner, “and a delicate, smiling soul.”

Ser-Od, whose 5-foot-7 body has the graceful aerodynamics of a grasp glider, nonetheless has outsize objectives. He hopes to enhance on his private greatest of two hours 8 minutes 50 seconds. He hopes to position among the many prime eight at a significant marathon. And he hopes to race subsequent summer time on the Paris Olympics.

“I do know it gained’t be simple,” he mentioned.

However when has his path ever been simple? In an interview over espresso on a latest afternoon, he thought again to his roots, recalling his childhood in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, the place his father taught industrial arts and his mom was a kindergarten trainer.

Ser-Od was not significantly academic-minded when he was younger — “There was nothing I hated greater than finding out,” he mentioned, laughing — however he was athlete. His first race was at a faculty sports activities pageant, the place he and his classmates got 5 minutes to see how far they might run. Ser-Od gained simply.

“I cherished that feeling,” he mentioned in Japanese via his agent, Brett Larner, who additionally acted as his translator.

Ser-Od continued to run all through highschool and, after attending college, briefly taught bodily training. However the pay was meager, he mentioned, and the lengthy hours minimize into his coaching. He typically had no alternative however to run at night time, and for those who’ve by no means skilled the splendors of jogging on a cold night in Mongolia, Ser-Od can let you know all about it.

“It will get fairly chilly and darkish,” he mentioned.

Again when Ser-Od was beginning out, Mongolia lacked a lot of a operating tradition, he mentioned. Folks would see him bundled up in 4 or 5 layers of sweats and stare at him as if he have been juggling cats on a unicycle.

However he was already dreaming large, having watched on tv as Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia gained the lads’s 10,000 meters on the 2000 Summer season Olympics. Ser-Od started to marvel: How does one go about turning into a world athlete? Wouldn’t it be doable for him to compete on the world championships? And even on the Olympics?

“And simply because there’s probably not any historical past of athletics or operating in Mongolia, no person knew,” he mentioned. “It was a studying course of.”

After his marathon debut in Hong Kong, Ser-Od stop his instructing job and joined the nationwide police as an officer, one who may win races. The nationwide police had a monitor and area membership, and Ser-Od was a little bit of a ringer.

Extra vital, Ser-Od now had the requisite funding to coach on extra of an everyday foundation. In 2003, he made his first look on the world championships, putting 63rd in a time of two:26.39, which demolished Mongolia’s nationwide report by about 10 minutes.

“All people was simply amazed {that a} Mongolian may run that quick,” Ser-Od mentioned. “They mentioned that it was loopy, that no person would ever break it.”

Ser-Od continued to interrupt it — he ran a check occasion for the 2008 Olympic marathon in 2:14.15 — however he was assured that he nonetheless had untapped potential when, a 12 months later, he met Gebrselassie at a highway race in England. Ser-Od mentioned he was capable of dine with Gebrselassie a few occasions and took full benefit of the chance to pepper him with questions on coaching.

“I nonetheless didn’t know what I used to be doing,” Ser-Od mentioned. “So I requested him, ‘What does a world-class marathoner must do to run at that degree?’ And Haile mentioned, ‘A very powerful factor is to establish what works for you and don’t fear about what others are doing.’”

After the race, Ser-Od was getting off an elevator when he ran into Gebrselassie once more.

“And I’ll always remember this: He requested if we may get an image collectively,” Ser-Od mentioned.

It was a formative second for Ser-Od, who drew inspiration from their encounter and continued to enhance. He broke via with a top-10 end on the 2011 London Marathon. What was working for him? A grueling coaching program that appeared to ask all the planet’s atmospheric situations.

“I used to be coaching utterly on my own, and I used to be doing all of it,” he mentioned. “I used to be coaching within the warmth. I used to be coaching within the snow. I used to be coaching within the rain. I used to be coaching in the dead of night. And that produced outcomes.”

It was additionally taking a toll. By 2014, Ser-Od knew that he may use some firm — “Coaching by your self is absolutely draining,” he mentioned — so he moved together with his spouse and 4 youngsters to Japan, the place he joined knowledgeable workforce.

However marathoning is an unforgiving occupation, and when Ser-Od discovered himself and not using a sponsor after the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, he fell right into a funk. He thought his profession was completed. He reached out to Larner, whom he had met via operating circles.

“I used to be like, ‘Uh, I’m an enormous fan, however a 40-year-old Mongolian? How am I going to search out you a sponsor?’” Larner recalled. “I advised him I’d see what I may do, however I assumed it was fairly hopeless.”

After making a number of inquiries that went nowhere, Larner was linked with Shingo Oshiro, the president of a photo voltaic panel firm that had just lately began a ladies’s operating workforce. Oshiro provided Ser-Od a contract and advised him he would rent him as a coach for the workforce as soon as he retired from racing.

“I used to be so appreciative that they believed on this thought of going for a sixth Olympics and needed to assist me,” Ser-Od mentioned. “I actually need to repay my debt to them.”

Nonetheless, he is aware of that making it to the Paris Video games subsequent 12 months can be one other problem. He’s, in some methods, a sufferer of his personal success. It’s all relative, however marathoning in Mongolia has develop into extra fashionable thanks partly to Ser-Od. He recalled visiting Ulaanbaatar this spring — he nonetheless has a house there — and getting stopped for selfies.

“Oh, it’s Ser-Od!” he recalled folks shouting.

In a improvement that may have been unthinkable a number of years in the past, there at the moment are 4 Mongolian males who’re aggressive sufficient to race at occasions just like the world championships. The issue is that the nation can ship solely three of them to main worldwide competitions.

In actual fact, Ser-Od thought he was at risk of lacking out on Budapest. After he positioned twenty sixth at final 12 months’s world championships in Eugene, Ore., accidents hindered his coaching. In consequence, his nationwide rating slipped to fourth. After an unspectacular end result on the Copenhagen Marathon in Might, he braced himself for the worst.

“We sort of thought, Eh, that’s most likely it,” Larner mentioned. “However there was a miracle.”

It turned out that one in all Ser-Od’s Mongolian rivals had raced poorly in Copenhagen. The nation’s athletics federation subsequently awarded its ultimate spot on this planet championships to Ser-Od.

“It was fortunate,” Larner mentioned. “Very fortunate.”

After all, there’s nothing improper with somewhat luck, particularly after so a few years of exhausting work. Towards all odds, Ser-Od’s end nonetheless appears distant.


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