Book Review – What Makes Olga Run?

My family history

My grandfather and then my father died at 67. It’s a four-year hop and a skip from where I sit. Both died from cancer. What started as skin cancer metastasized into something threading through every open space like a pot-bound plant. When I went through my family history with my dermatologist, she said, “Ya know? If I were you,” and she wasn’t laughing, “I wouldn’t let the South Carolina sun touch my skin.”

The best guess about my grandfather was granite dust. When he was young, he worked as a stonecutter, turning granite pillars all over Washington State. He didn’t smoke and had no family history of cancer, so granite was the best guess his doctors had. Granite dust is radioactive and sharp as a knife along its broken edges and may have sliced into tissue for years with each inhale and exhale.

Doctors weren’t sure about Dad. He smoked but never had lung problems. His mom died at 92 and lived the life of Annie Oakley until the Saturday morning when she dropped her mortal coil. She lived until she died, driving her gold ‘67 Ford Galaxy across town twice a week to organ lessons. Wise drivers pulled over as she cruised by, taking two of the four lanes. The trouble was, no one was sure which two she would take. And she didn’t much care. There were organs to be played.

Olga and living well. And long.

Medicine has far from a comprehensive understanding of aging, but we’ve learned much. Movement appears essential for healthy aging, as does a healthy diet without gimmicks. Good friends, family, and healthy relationships put us in the right frame. Genetics are important, but not nearly as much as we once thought. But living long is only half the calculation: it’s living well that counts. Researchers consider engagement and continuous learning as required components of this long, good life.

One person who lived long and well was Olga Kotelko. She began competing in track and field when she was 77. By the time she died at 95, she’d 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 many ways, the author of What Makes Olga Run? finds nothing unique. Most of her medical metrics were normal or close to it. She ate a healthy diet, but nothing exotic or rigorous. She exercised daily and maintained a positive outlook. But she was unique, and somehow these normal parts add up to an extraordinary whole. The book offers no magic. No crazy diets. Only observed 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 before her 77th birthday.

In What Makes Olga Run? author Bruce Grierson jumps headfirst into the life of Olga to understand what makes her special. What he finds is that Olga wasn’t very extraordinary. There is no magic. 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 just about every test one can think of: stress tests, DNA analyses, diets, psychological examinations: in every case, she tests normal or close to it. But somehow, in Olga, the whole is greater than the sum of her parts. 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 and loves to win. She is upbeat and refuses to dwell on dark things. All of this adds up to an uncommon life of steady and satisfying accomplishment.

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

Take aways

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 friends and family.

2. Work at being positive and optimistic. 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 a result you chose.

The author ends with Nine Rules for Living that summarize simplicity and health. None will surprise you. But for Grierson, Olga’s best gift is a strong rebuke that changes his 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.

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Olga on Amazon.

Or go here to Barnes and Noble

Or, it’s a weird thing I know…take the title to your local indie bookseller. If they don’t have it, they can order it. The library is a nice place for books, too.


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