What Makes Olga Run? – The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives

  • Bruce Grierson
  • Henry Holt and Co.
  • 256 pp.
  • Reviewed by Karen Ward Kincer
  • April 3, 2014

A track star still setting world records in her 90s can teach us all something about living to a grand old age.

If you were born in 1900 in the United States, your life expectancy at birth was 47 years. Thanks to medical science, if you were born in 1950, your life expectancy at birth was 68 years; and if you were born in 2000, your life expectancy at birth was almost 77 years (source). So the question is, if we can all now live so much longer than our parents and grandparents, how can we do so and enjoy life? How do we live to a grand old age and truly have it be grand?

Many people seem to seek answers to that question in “natural” treatments and foods. It seems that everywhere you look these days there are ads for detoxes and cleanses, raw food diets, chia seeds and hemp seeds.  Some people turn to exercise, including the go-to sport of running. You can run almost anywhere, without a big monetary investment. And, thanks to active, well-organized running communities in many areas, opportunities abound for group runs, training programs, and races.

Bruce Grierson offers an exemplary answer to the longevity question in What Makes Olga Run? Olga Kotelko is a 95-year-old Canadian track star who holds 26 world records.

Olga’s early life began with a rural upbringing in Saskatchewan and a husband who was so abusive that she eventually fled to the west coast with her young children. Olga’s pick yourself up by your bootstraps story and her entertaining personality provide the backdrop for the meat of the book which seeks to explain why so many of us encounter the “inevitable midlife swoon ... that starts with stretch jeans and topical ibuprofen and ends with saltless dinners in the extended-care wing,” even as Olga and others flourish.

Olga flourishes not just against her age group, in which she sometimes runs alone, but also when her results are age-graded. If you do the math, Olga’s 23.95-second 100-meter dash time from the World Masters Game in Sydney in 2009 equals Florence Griffith Joyner’s 10.49-second world record.
Grierson follows Olga through multitudes of physiological and psychological tests, as well as through her daily life and her competitions, searching for a magic bullet to the longevity question. At times, Grierson delves deeper into science than many lay readers would care to, and while his interviews with other athletes validate his discoveries about Olga, it is her remarkable story that guides the reader through the book.

Olga’s outlook and lifestyle have a lot to teach us. Genes are important, and certainly play a role in determining our fate, but Olga demonstrates that it is what you do with those genes that shape the final result.

Olga’s practical nature seems to add a good bit to the equation. Her balanced diet, including many foods from her own garden, is mostly void of processed foods. Her exercise routines stress the body in multiple ways that spread out the buildup of strength, as well as the wear and tear on the body. Her overall lifestyle is active. 

I was drawn to the section of the book devoted to Olga’s “paleo” lifestyle and her comfort working out at a CrossFit-style gym.  How many times do I myself send a kid upstairs to get something?  And how is it that even with running, biking, swimming, and strength training several times a week my back could hurt shoveling snow? Daily tasks that require strength and fitness seem to be one of the things that assisted Olga’s long and healthy life. Instead of buying her own tomato sauce, she grows the tomato, preparing the soil and weeding the garden in the process, and stands at her stove cutting and stirring. She takes the stairs countless times a day. I have to wonder how much credit I should give myself for working out and leading a healthy lifestyle if that credit is based on one hour in the morning and the rest of the day is spent with limited movement. Looking at the math through this lens, it seems that one in 24 might not be as good a ratio as many of us make it out to be.

The reader also learns about Olga’s history, and we can see how her rural upbringing and difficult marriage taught her important lessons. Among other things, Olga regularly enters 10 or more events at her track meets. As Grierson points out, this is because she is capable of doing all of them well, but it also provides an opportunity to manage emotional risk and avoid stress. If the first event doesn’t go well, there is always the next to focus on, leaving little time for disappointment and the potential for reward. As much as high-fat foods, refined sugars, and video games are bad for our health, stress can also affect the body and mind in ways that many people don’t even recognize.

Another component of Olga’s success seems to be her involvement in the running community.  Strong social ties are known to be important in helping people to live longer. Olga and the other masters athletes whom Grierson interviews appreciate the camaraderie of the track community. The running community has seen a surge in people training for 5Ks, marathons, and beyond. And while the coaching and fitness benefits are valuable, the friendships can be even more key. As Grierson notes, “Comfort doesn’t promote togetherness. Discomfort does.” All the better for a longer life if your social circle requires you to do things that are healthy for your body!

Olga’s genes and balanced personality seem to come together to form this ideal package in which she is strongly suited to the running, jumping, and throwing events in which she competes. Her training, as well as the sense of accomplishment and emotional high that she gets from competing, reduces her stress and keeps her coming back to the sports that strengthen her body.

For readers looking for that magic bullet, Grierson does not come through. But he does make a case that exercise extends your potential for a grand old age.

Our genes may be beyond our control, but life still presents plenty of opportunities to be more like Olga. Lifestyle, sleep habits, diet, and exercise regimen are just a few opportunities to take control of our future.

Dedicated runners and weekend warriors, as well as athletes of all types, will find hope in Olga’s story. With any luck, it will help us remember that what we do today shapes what happens tomorrow, including whether we find our own grand old age.

Karen Ward Kincer is the President of the Montgomery County Road Runners Club in Rockville, Maryland. She ran track and cross country in high school and college and has run numerous marathons, including four Boston Marathons. She coaches youth running and track and field programs in addition to her work with MCRRC and raising her own family.

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