What Makes Olga Run?

My Grandfather and then my Father died at 67, a hop and a skip from where I sit. Both from cancer. The best guess about my Grandfather was granite dust. He was a stone cutter as a young man and turning granite pillars for government buildings all over Washington State. This was long before the days of OSHA respirators and face masks – who needs that stuff? – and he remembered working in a fog of granite coming off the lathe. Granite dust isn’t really dust, per se. Instead, it’s tiny bits of sheared stone with edges sharp as a scalpel; atomic arrowheads, if you will, sucked into your lungs.. Doctors wondered if the constant repeat of cutting and repair of his lung tissues started the process. He didn’t smoke and the family had no history of cancer. Doctors were flummoxed, but this was the 1980’s and cancer medicine has come a long way since then. Granite dust is radioactive which may have had a long-term effect on his lungs. .

Doctors weren’t sure about Dad. He smoked but never had problems with his lungs. His mom died at 92 and lived the life of Annie Oakley until the Saturday morning she dropper her mortal coil. Twice a week she drove her golden boat – a 1967 Ford Galaxy four-door – from Milton to Tacoma for organ lessons. Wise drivers pulled over as she went by. Only the top of her head peaked from above the steering wheel and she took up two of the four lanes along the road. Trouble was, no one could be sure which two she would take. And she didn’t much care. There were organs to be played!

Living Well is the Goal

Though we’re learning much, aging and longevity are still mostly mysterious to researchers. Exercise is essential. A healthy diet without gimmicks is necessary. Good friends and relationships help. The right genetics are needed but not as much ao was once thought. But, for me, living long is only half the calculation. I want to live well. I want to be engaged. I want to learn. I want to race my granddaughter in her first 5k and beat her. I want to hug my wife when the twins move to Paris to live out their dreams – R to be a great artist, and M to design clothes for pets and swim.

One person who lived long and well was Olga Kotelko. She began competing in track and field at 77, about thirty years after most people have died inside or out. By the time of her death at 95, she won hundreds of gold medals and held almost every master’s record for her events and age groups. How? What was unique about Olga? In most ways, nothing. Her medical metrics were normal or close to it. She ate a healthy but not an exotic or rigorous diet. She exercised daily. She maintained a positive outlook. But certainly, she was unique. Somehow all those normal parts added up to an extraordinary whole. The book offers no magic. No crazy diets. Only a story and good advice that is easy to follow for healthy and happy living. Following is my review of the book. It’s an interesting and provoking read.

Book Review – What Makes Olga Run?

Olga Kotelko was an elite masters track star who, upon her death in 2014, at age 95, held hundreds of gold medals in track and field, none of which she earned prior to her 77th birthday.

In What Makes Olga Run? Bruce Grierson jumps headfirst into an attempt to understand what makes Olga tick. What he finds is that this extraordinary woman is, by most metrics, not very extraordinary. There is no magic here. Readers looking for superfoods, esoteric yoga mantras, or exotic training regimens won’t find them here. Olga’s story is remarkable in how unremarkable it is. Grierson follows Olga through every relevant test one can think of: stress tests, DNA analyses, diets, psychological examinations – in every case she comes out normal or close to it. But somehow, in Olga, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Olga is extraordinary. At 77, when most people are dead or dying, she hires a Hungarian track coach and begins a daily training regimen. She eats a nutritious but not remarkable diet. She loves competition. She loves to win. She was upbeat and refused to dwell on the dark side of things. Somehow all of that added up to an uncommon life of steady and satisfying accomplishment.

The book is not meant to be a textbook. There are passages, especially concerning biology, that could have been written more precisely. But precision in a book like this usually translates into boring. And the book is not boring. It is well written, reads easily, and is adequately documented.

There are three main take-aways:

  1. What you already know about good health is true. Eat well. Exercise. Sweat a little every day. Enjoy your friends and family.
  2. Maintain a good attitude. Embrace optimism. Eschew pessimism. Keep a good perspective.
  3. Your bad habits can be reversed. You can improve your heart health. You can enjoy time with your family again. Every decision, every step, every bite represents a fork in the road that leads to an end that you chose.

The author ends with Nine Rules for Living that summarize simplicity and health. But for him, ‘Olga’s biggest gift’ is a change in perspective. He records her advice:

Look around. These are your kids. This is your wife. This is your life. Its awesomeness is eluding you. Pay attention. Yes, there will come a time when you have genuine, life-threatening ailments. But, for now, stop your kvetching. And stop dreading birthdays that end in zeros. Those zeros can pull you under, like stones in your pocket. At your age, your story is not ending: you know that.

An uplifting read.