Life Lessons From an Ageless Mongolian Marathoner

The one they call "Ziggy," who turned 42 this month, is looking to qualify for his sixth Olympic Games

A Mongolian marathoner named Ser-Od Bat-Ochir leads the pack in a race.
Ser-Od Bat-Ochir might be the most impressive runner you've never heard of.
AFP via Getty Images

If Ser-Od Bat-Ochir qualifies for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, he’ll become the first international marathoner to compete in six installments of the Games.

If he doesn’t, well, it’d be hard to hold it against the 42-year-old Mongolian. He’s essentially the godfather of the sport in his chilly, mountainous native country. As he jogged around the capital city of Ulaanbaatar in the late ’90s and early aughts, locals thought he was nuts.

But Mongolians run marathons now. Ser-Od will have to beat out the country’s first generation of stars in order to make it back to the opening ceremony. Each flag can only send three runners.

Whether or not Ser-Od competes in France next summer, he’ll wind down his career with one of the most resilient (and underrated) resumes in running. He’s run 74 marathons, toed the line in 11 straight World Athletics Championships and claims a personal best of 2:08:50, a Mongolian record. He also ran a 2:09:26 two years ago, in Japan’s Lake Biwa Marathon, a few months before his 40th birthday.

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Lessons in Longevity

While the one they call “Ziggy” (a nickname earned while training in the north of England) might not have the world-beating times of Eliud Kipchoge, the sport’s ultimate longevity GOAT, Ser-Od does bring a similar evergreen sensibility to his training. He believes that a marathoner’s peak years are between the ages of 37 and 45, “when speed and stamina gels perfectly.”

It makes sense that Ser-Od is so bullish on late-career success. He was late to running himself — before his first marathon, Hong Kong in 2002, the most he’d ever run was 12 miles. He’s spent decades tinkering, getting better, figuring out what works for him.

And that in itself is likely the greatest lesson a runner could learn from Ser-Od: blaze your own path. Stop looking over your shoulder and worrying about what any other runner is doing. That’s explicit advice Ser-Od once heard over a dinner with one of his heroes — Ethiopian superstar Haile Gebrselassie — but it’s also a north star that revealed itself over years of training.

How “Ziggy” Stays on His Feet

Ser-Od has been willing to experiment. Long Mongolian winters plummet to 5°F or colder, on average, so it’s too cold to try any speed-work. Instead, he’ll set out on multi-hour runs in the frost, keeping a steady pace all the while. He’s run in extreme heat, trained at high altitudes, eaten up miles as a lone wolf, joined running clubs, traveled across the world (Japan, Colorado, the U.K.), you name it.

Even at the elite level, different eras of a runner’s life invite fresh challenges and debilitating setbacks. In recent years, Ser-Od has had a pair of DNFs (“did not finish”) — one at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo (he ran sick) and one earlier this year in Budapest (he stepped into a pothole and strained his leg) — that would wrap any runner into a mental pretzel.

And yet, he’s still moving forward, with no plans to slow down. Why? Because for Ser-Od, running isn’t chasing. It’s simply his life. He’s at peace with the sport. When it’s all over, he’ll coach others and run for himself, the same way that he did as a kid in Mongolia. As he told the World Athletics last year, “I’ll run for my own enjoyment, health and peace of mind. I’ll keep doing whatever I can, as long as I can.”

It’s easy, even for sub-elite and amateur runners, to fall into a trap where running feels like a chore or even a boogeyman, and the only way out is to rigorously study the training patterns or hacks of others. (To refresh Strava, basically.) But the real way through this — the sustainable way — is to fall in love with the work, to make it undeniable, to craft whatever running life that works for you. Maybe that’ll take you to a top finish at your town’s Turkey Trot. Or maybe that’ll take you all the way to the Olympics. It’s running just the same.

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