The faithful Mongolian marathoner Bat-Ochir stays there for a long time | CHARACTERISTIC | CM22
Maybe you’ve never noticed him before, but chances are you’ve seen him – among the best marathon runners in the world, battling against outrageous odds.
Ser-Od Bat-Ochir of Mongolia has never won a World or Olympic medal. He never broke 2:08 for the marathon. He has never been in the top 15 at a world championship.
But enough about what he doesn’t Finished. ‘Cause what the 40 year old man possesses fact is much more significant.
Since the 2003 World Athletics Championships, it has been omnipresent in the championship’s major marathons, 14 in total: Paris (63rd); Athens (74th); Helsinki (61st); Osaka (55th); Beijing (52nd); Berlin (29th); Daegu (19th); London (51st); Moscow (35th); Beijing (38th); Rio (91st); London (48th); Doha (54th) and Tokyo (DNF).
That last one – and those dreaded three letters – hurt like a knife, which is fitting considering what Bat-Ochir resorted to during the race (more on that later).
But that disappointment in Sapporo – which he says sparked two months of depression – eventually led to a new resolution: to become the first athlete in history to run six Olympic marathons if he can make it to Paris in 2024.
Bat-Ochir has run 74 marathons to date – he thinks – but he continues to embody the mantra made famous by former Boston Marathon champion Desiree Linden: keep showing yourself.
Ser-Od Bat-Ochir at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha (© Getty Images)
At Oregon22 World Athletics Championships, he will appear for his 10th consecutive marathon at the World Championships. No one in his event has come close to that record, while in the sport as a whole only two walkers – Portugal’s Joao Vieira (11) and Spain’s Jesus Angel Garcia (13) – have surpassed it.
But in the marathon, that most attritional event, how did Bat-Ochir not burn out after a period of world-class racing – 20 years – that forced so many others to disappear?
“It’s two things,” he said. “One: I love running, it’s a real source of pleasure. When I run for a long time, I am the happiest. The other is to have my wife with me. She has been working as a functional coach for 17 years. That she watches over me, that she supports me, it is worth it.
If Mongolia seems like a place that doesn’t produce many world-class distance runners, well, there’s a good reason. In winter, temperatures can reach -15°C/5°F in good weather. At night, they can drop to -40°C/-40°F.
For Bat-Ochir, the only way to train for much of the year was long regular runs, with interval training impossible given the conditions. During those freezing months, he would wrap himself in four or five layers and hit the icy roads, returning to his car an hour or two later – with the engine running to ensure an immediate source of heat.
Mongolian Ser-Od Bat-Ochir carries his country’s flag during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics (© Getty Images)
He grew up in Govi-Altai – a region in western Mongolia located around 2,000m above sea level – and his family moved to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, when he was 12.
Bat-Ochir discovered running in elementary school, winning his first race on a sports day. “Since then, that’s what I wanted to do,” he says.
He took the sport seriously from the age of 14, competing in middle distance races on the track (which was a 400m oval with a hard, cobbled surface).
“I wasn’t very good, but during the Sydney Olympics I watched the marathon and really enjoyed running long,” he says. “So I said I would aim for the marathon at the next Olympics.”
He made his marathon debut in 2002. A year later, he lined up for the World Championships in Paris, with a time of 2:26:39 to break the Mongolian record by 10 minutes. Given where he came from, there was no real pattern for what he did, with Bat-Ochir figuring it out as he went along.
“I didn’t know how to train,” he says. “When I started there wasn’t a lot of history, but once I ran marathons I started thinking, ‘How can I take the next step to progress? ‘”
He competed in his first Olympics in Athens in 2004, clocking 2:33:24 to finish 74th, but getting to a second Games in Beijing required significant improvement.
“The qualifying time was about 2:14 and everyone was telling me, ‘Mongols can’t run marathons; you can’t run that time. Paula Radcliffe ran 2:15 a few years ago and everyone said to me, “You can’t even run what women run. How are you going to run 2h14? But I kept working on it.
He ran 2:14:15 in 2008 to qualify for the Games, then lowered his national record to 2:12:35 in 2010 and 2:11:35 in 2011. At the World Championships in Daegu in 2011 he produced his best world finish, 19th, and the following year he brought the national record down to 2:11:05.
Ser-Od Bat-Ochir during the London 2012 Olympic Games marathon (© Getty Images)
Between 2009 and 2012, Bat-Ochir spent much of his time in the UK, where his wife’s sister and her husband lived. Eager to find a training group, he contacted Morpeth Harriers, where he earned the nickname “Ziggy” – an anglicized pop culture version of his Mongolian nickname – which was coined by club secretary Mike Bateman.
In 2014, he moved to Japan, starting a new chapter racing professionally for the NTN Corporate team. In December of that year he lowered the Mongolian record to 2:08:50 and in the years that followed continued to appear at every major championship – no matter what came his way in preparation. .
He had injury problems before the Rio Games in 2016, which worsened in 2018 and 2019, the problems stemming from the training he was undergoing at the insistence of his company team coach.
He qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics with a time of 2:09:26 at Lake Biwa in February last year, and Bat-Ochir was in top form ahead of the Games. His last training camp was in Chitose, Japan, but that’s where things went downhill.
Bat-Ochir was staying in an old hotel with air conditioning he couldn’t control, its sporadic nature meaning the room temperature alternated between soaring and freezing throughout the night. He soon caught an infection, which led to a fever that lasted three days.
“When I recovered, I didn’t feel well,” he says. “All my strength, all my power, was gone.”
Yet he had to try.
During the Olympic marathon in Sapporo, Bat-Ochir started strong, but after 14 km he felt his quadriceps stiffen, which led him to seek an unusual solution, not to try at home.
“I was having trouble lifting my legs so I pulled one of the safety pins out of my bib and jabbed or stabbed my quadriceps with two or three times on each leg,” he says. “It actually served to relax the muscles and I was able to carry on.
“But by the time I reached 30km I was completely dead and couldn’t go on at all. That’s where my Olympics ended.
He went through a dark period in the months that followed, but it was his wife, Oyuntuya, who pulled him out.
“She said to me, ‘You have to turn things around, set the next goal. It’s not over yet.’ I made the decision to go to the Paris Olympics, to renew everything and to work there.
Ser-Od Bat-Ochir competes at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing (© Getty Images)
With his NTN contract terminated, Bat-Ochir enlisted the help of his representative, Brett Larner, to find a new sponsor. Larner knows the Japanese running scene as well as anyone, and he put him in touch with a friend of a friend who ran a solar panel installation company, Shin Nihon Jusetsu Co., Ltd, who was expanding its athlete sponsorship.
The company will now support him until the Paris Olympics, giving Bat-Ochir – who has four children: Jambaldorj (19), Nomin-Od (12), Naran-Od (6) and Uran- Od (2 years old) – the support to continue pursuing his dream.
He currently clocks 150-200km a week as he prepares for his upcoming major championships, and his goal in Eugene is to top his 19th-place finish in Daegu.
Whenever his competitive days are over, Bat-Ochir plans to transition into coaching in the Japanese business system, but for now, that day seems a long way off.
“Even when I can’t be competitive, I will continue to race as an amateur,” he says.
And the reasons he runs next will be the same reasons he ran in the beginning – when he was a kid in western Mongolia, wanting to go on a road less travelled.
“I will run for my own pleasure, health and peace of mind,” he said. “I will continue to do everything I can, for as long as I can.”
Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics