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

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Overview

A fascinating look at the way we age today and the extent to which we can shape the process

In What Makes Olga Run? Bruce Grierson explores what the wild success of a ninety-four-year-old track star can tell us about how our bodies and minds age. Olga Kotelko is not your average ninety-four-year-old. She not only looks and acts like a much younger woman, she holds over twenty-three world records in track and field, seventeen in her current ninety to ninety-five category. ...

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

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Overview

A fascinating look at the way we age today and the extent to which we can shape the process

In What Makes Olga Run? Bruce Grierson explores what the wild success of a ninety-four-year-old track star can tell us about how our bodies and minds age. Olga Kotelko is not your average ninety-four-year-old. She not only looks and acts like a much younger woman, she holds over twenty-three world records in track and field, seventeen in her current ninety to ninety-five category. Convinced that this remarkable woman could help unlock many of the mysteries of aging, Grierson set out to uncover what it is that’s driving Olga. He considers every piece of the puzzle, from her diet and sleep habits to how she scores on various personality traits, from what she does in her spare time to her family history. Olga participates in tests administered by some of the world’s leading scientists and offers her DNA to groundbreaking research trials. What emerges is not only a tremendously uplifting personal story but a look at the extent to which our health and longevity are determined by the DNA we inherit at birth, and the extent to which we can shape that inheritance. It examines the sum of our genes, opportunities, and choices, and the factors that forge the course of any life, especially during our golden years.

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  • What Makes Olga Run?
    What Makes Olga Run?  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
01/13/2014
Olga Kotelko took up track and field at age 77. Today, she holds 26 world records, setting most of them in 2009, the year she turned 90. Over a four-year period, journalist Grierson (U-Turn) accompanied Olga to meets and practices as well as to appointments with physiologists, geneticists, trainers, and others as they studied Olga's extraordinary achievements. Analyzing everything from Olga's life history, diet and daily routine, to her genetic makeup, brain, personality, bone density, aerobic capacity, muscles, sleep patterns, memory, and more, they found that although Olga is an outlier, there could be more people like her given the right circumstances. As Grierson explains, studies show how older athletes benefit from having started their sport later in life without the accumulated damage from early overexertion, and highlights conditions that worked in Olga's favor—her active childhood on a farm in rural Saskatchewan, the way she has always integrated movement into her everyday life, and her intuition about her body. The middle-aged, fairly sedentary Grierson compares his exercise routines and his DNA to Olga's, portraying their growing friendship as he describes the mysteries of longevity and extols the benefits of exercise. Grierson's fellow boomers have much to learn from Olga's example, given that scientists now think that longevity is 70%–75% lifestyle and only 25% genetic. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
"While this book provides an accessible overview of the current science on aging, its charm comes from the tale of a woman who refuses to hang up her track shoes, and the younger man she inspires." —The New York Times

"Entertaining, informative, and surprisingly moving."—The Boston Globe

"An inspirational blend of hero's journey and science that delves into the mystery of longevity, health and personal fulfillment." —Shelf Awareness

"Grierson offers an exemplary answer to the longevity question . . . Dedicated runners and weekend warriors, as well as athletes of all types, will find hope in Olga’s story." —Washington Independent Review of Books

"An inspiring book that should appeal to the legions of worried agers." —Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

"If you need some motivation to reach your potential, this might be the story for you." —Cape Cod Times

"Exhilarating…[Grierson’s] deft re-creation of the moving and humorous bond between Kotelko and himself gives the book its center. A stimulating and inspiring read for all."—Library Journal (starred)

"Grierson's fellow boomers have much to learn from Olga's example."—Publishers Weekly

"Eye-opening and insightful." —Kirkus

"Smart and engaging, What Makes Olga Run is also profoundly inspiring. It will make you wish you were half as fit and exuberant as Olga, whatever your age, while providing a fascinating look at the latest science on aging." —Gretchen Reynolds, author of The First 20 Minutes

"I am nuts about this book and about Olga. But the real kick was accompanying Bruce Grierson - a very good writer - as he took a smart, deep look into the new science of aging - and not aging- at the high end. I know this field a bit, and I still learned important new stuff...all of it great news. Hint: work out like a lunatic 'til the day you die. And jiggle your feet the rest of the time. Olga 'redefined' Grierson's life; she may redefine yours."—Chris Crowley, co-author of the Younger Next Year books and Thinner This Year

"In Olga, Grierson has a magical character with whom to explore the fascinating science of aging—a nonagenerian undecathlete. (That is, a 90-something who excels in 11 different events.) We are left with the empowering knowledge that, to a startling degree, aging itself is a choice." —David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene

Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-04
A Canadian freelance journalist probes the fascinating mystery behind a nonagenarian female's stunning success as a competitive athlete. When Olga Kotelko first took up track at age 77, it was simply for fun. But by the time she reached her 90s, the former schoolteacher had become the holder of more than 20 world records, and she was the fastest nonagenarian female in the world. In a book that is part biography and part exploration of the latest research in exercise physiology, gerontology and neuropsychology, Grierson (U-Turn: What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living the Wrong Life?, 2007) grapples with the question of why a little old lady barely 5 feet tall breaks records rather than bones. Science offers answers that are as tantalizing as they are incomplete. For most people, healthy aging boils down to three-quarters good lifestyle and one-quarter good genes. Grierson suggests that Olga's habits—which include an "an abiding faith in water, reflexology," intense workouts that target every moving part in her body and personal traits such as extroversion, friendliness and resilience—no doubt help to account for her impressive good health. Her family history, however, does not reveal exceptional longevity nor does it explain where Olga derived her almost freakish physical capabilities. Grierson proposes that the mystery surrounding Olga's achievements has less to do with her lifestyle and genetic inheritance and more to do with how her particular body has somehow managed to develop mechanisms, which scientists have yet to understand, that have slowed the aging process. Olga's body may be unique in its age-defying abilities, but her determination to push the limits of her own physicality is what is most inspiring of all, especially to baby boomers like the author. For Grierson, Olga is living proof that "[n]ot only is midlife not too late [to start exercising]…in some ways, it's the best time to go for it." Eye-opening and insightful.
Library Journal
★ 03/15/2014
In this exhilarating book on longevity, freelance journalist Grierson (U-Turn) masterfully combines the latest studies with the story of the great nonagenarian athlete Olga Kotelko—and of himself, a great middle-aged couch potato. Kotelko took up track and field when she was 77 and keeps running strong, and this work is rife with intriguing reasons why. Exercise is Longevity, Rule One. We should probably alternate "aerobic" with "resistance" activity, says Grierson, as this mirrors our paleopast dodging tigers and digging for tubers. Another rule: be a mensch, translated from Yiddish into English as a person of integrity. It was an evolutionary plus to be one—and a clear health gain now. Grierson, no slouch as a writer, consults top scientists. His deft re-creation of the moving and humorous bond between Kotelko and himself gives the book its center. Proof of gains from physical and mental stimulation—neuron growth, cognitive boosts—mount daily. Grierson joyously pursues claims both silly and divine. (Travel spurs longevity; "incredisocks" don't.) The prose can boil over. "The minor miracle here is, you can introduce exercise at any point, right up into very old age, and 'completely reverse any decline you've had,'" he writes. No, not "any" decline. But proper context prevails. VERDICT A stimulating and inspiring read for all, especially aging boomers and late bloomers.—Cynthia Fox, Brooklyn
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805097207
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/14/2014
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 83,998
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Bruce Grierson is the author of the books Culture Jam and U-Turn. He has been a freelance writer for twenty-five years. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Psychology Today, among other publications. He lives in North Vancouver, Canada.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

Ever since she turned 90, Olga Kotelko has presented a problem for organizers of the track meets she enters: Whom does she compete against?

The issue surfaced prominently in the 60-meter-dash final at the World Masters Indoor Athletics Championships, in Kamloops, British Columbia, in 2010. Olga found herself, well, in a class by herself. There just aren’t many nonagenarian sprinters—even when you draw from the whole planet. The next-oldest woman in this meet, Californian Johnnye Vallien, was 84.

So there Olga was, 91, bespandexed and elfin, lumped in with the men.

In lane one stood Orville Rogers, 91, a long-striding retired Braniff Airways pilot and the world-record holder in the mile for men over 90. Next to him: Belgian Emiel Pauwels, 90, another world-record middle-distance man (1,500-meter), in bright orange track spikes, who would later make everyone nervous as he ran most of the 3,000-meter final with his left shoelace untied. Front and center: Ugo Sansonetti, 92, a former frozen-food magnate from Rome, in a blue sleeveless skinsuit, his tanned biceps bulging like small baked potatoes.

Olga drew the inside lane, rounding out the field. She wore black tights and a long-sleeved white shirt—the modest uniform she wears no matter the weather.

She’d been worried about her start. She’s not a good starter. She can get rattled. Sometimes, when the gun sounds or even a fraction of a second before, she takes a step backward. But today she started clean and mechanically strong, piston-pumping her arms, generating enough wind to pin her hair back a bit.

It’s no longer strange to see geriatric runners: every big-city marathon has its share of valiant, white-haired competitors who spark bursts of applause as they shuffle past. But it is strange to watch 90-year-olds sprint. Kids and dogs and young adults run full-out. But old folks? The incongruity of that image inspired a television commercial that Ugo Sansonetti shot for Bertolli margarine not long ago. A runaway baby carriage is seen careening through the streets of Rome, until a fissure-faced old bystander—Ugo—springs into action and chases it down.

Sansonetti crossed the line first at Kamloops, in a world-record time of 11.57 seconds. He bounced around in the run-off area, arms overhead in triumph, as Rogers glided in behind him at 12.82. Olga came third, at just over 15 seconds. She looked concerned for Pauwels, the Belgian, who had caught a spike and crashed down hard, then picked himself up and limped in last.

She was cool with running against the guys. “That one fellow was pretty fast,” she said, on the way to the changing area. She had gotten used to this. When you’re the fastest 91-year-old woman on the planet, either you compete against younger women or you run against the guys.

Just how good is Olga? There are a couple of ways to put her in perspective.

She currently holds twenty-six world records. She set twenty world records in a single year, 2009. She hits these totals in part by entering more events than everybody else, including a couple that nobody else in the world her age attempts. She will often do six throwing events, three sprints, and three jumps. (At age 88, she considered adding the pole vault, but was deterred by practical considerations. “What do you do with the pole—strap it to the roof of the car? Check it on to the plane?”)

Track records, at the elite level, tend to fall by fingernail parings of time and distance: fractions of seconds, portions of inches. At the 2009 World Masters Athletics Championships in Lahti, Finland, Olga threw a javelin almost twenty feet farther than her nearest rival. At the World Masters Games in Sydney, Australia, in 2009, Olga’s time in the 100-meter dash—23.95 seconds—would have won the women’s 80–84 division—two age brackets down.

Olga stands five feet and a half an inch. She weighs 130 pounds. For her size—and this may be the most curious thing about her—she has extraordinary power. It can be surprising, after her slo-mo windup, to see how far the things she throws go.

On the hammer throw pitch in Kamloops, she took her place with the other competitors. Big guys with leather gloves paced around, shaking their hands out. Olga removed her glasses. There was a sudden and brief sense of menace; when a little old lady starts swinging a three-pound cannonball around her head, a good outcome is not guaranteed. But the thing sailed, straight and true. “If I spun I could throw it farther,” Olga says, but after watching somebody very old fall that way she has decided not to risk it.

Olga got more leg into the second throw. But the trajectory wasn’t what she liked. She made a little swan’s head gesture with her hand, to remind herself. Routinely, Olga performs better on every subsequent attempt as she recalibrates and tries again. It’s like watching a marksman bracket the bull’s-eye and then draw in: 12.72 meters. 13.37. 13.92. In ten minutes she added four feet of distance. “New world record,” a disembodied voice said over the loudspeaker.

There is a formula called “age-grading” that’s used to put the performances of older athletes in perspective. Age-graded scores tell us how impressed we should be by what a masters athlete—placed in categories from ages 35 to 105—just did. A set of tables plots a given performance against the expected decline of the human body, and expresses it as a percentage. So, theoretically, 100 percent is the high-water mark for a human being of that age.

But a number of Olga’s marks—in shot put, high jump, 100-meter dash—top 100 percent. In Sydney she threw the shot put 5.6 meters—which age-grades out at 119 percent. If you plug Olga’s 23.95 100-meter-dash time from Sydney into the tables, you find it’s exactly equivalent to American Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner’s prevailing, suspicious, and thought-to-be-untouchable world record of 10.49 seconds.

Remarkably, when you age-grade, you find Olga is not only holding her own but in some cases getting better—which suggests that either the tables are wonky or Olga is. Most likely both are true. “She throws off the curve, because she’s doing things nobody’s ever done,” says Ken Stone, editor of masters-track.com, the watering hole of the masters track community. (Motto: “Older, Slower, Lower.”) But at the same time, some recent performances speak for themselves. “I threw the hammer farther this year than I did two years ago,” she mentioned recently, offhandedly. “How do you explain that?” No two ways about it: Olga is defying, or rewriting, our understanding of the retention of human physical capability.

When people hear how old she is, they seem to look at her more deeply, at her face. To be blunt: she is not aging normally.

“How old do you feel?” I asked her on her 91st birthday.

She thought about that. “Fifty?” She gave a half shrug. “I still have the energy I had at fifty,” she said. “More. Where is it coming from? Honestly, I don’t know. I wish I knew. It’s a mystery even to me.”

They say she is like Grandma Moses, in the sense that she found her calling very late in life. But while Grandma Moses took up painting out of desperation, to make ends meet, Olga took up track, at age 77, for fun. A dozen years retired from her career as an elementary school teacher, she still had lightning in her that needed grounding.

For the first half of her track career—till around age 85—she coasted under the radar, quietly breaking world records within a subculture obscure enough (track and field for old people!) that many people still don’t know it exists. But since she turned 90, media interest in Olga has made it hard for her to hide. Reporters from around the world have made pilgrimages to her home on the flank of Hollyburn Mountain, overlooking the Pacific Ocean in West Vancouver. There is usually pleasant chitchat, and the reporter, having heard the jokes that the fountain of youth burbles up in her backyard, just behind the organic vegetable garden, makes an excuse to snoop around.

Because, seriously: when you’re breaking records, rather than hips, at an age most people will never live to see . . . what gives?

Aging is supposed to be one of those nonnegotiables: just the cost of doing life. It is, as the Stanford professor of medicine Walter Bortz put it, “a stern expression of the Second Law of Thermodynamics from which there is no respite.” So how do you begin to think about someone like Olga, short of demanding to see her birth certificate or otherwise trying to debunk her story? What seems to be required is a leap in the way we understand the aging process, as scientific advancements slowly reveal clues.

Indeed, for a stage of life that 90 million baby boomers in North America alone are barreling toward, surprisingly little is known about old age. (Or maybe it’s not so surprising: old age was a nonissue in human history until very recently. More than half the people who have ever reached age 65 are alive today, some demographers believe.)

But lack of data has never stood in the way of forceful opinion. Just about everyone has a guess about what makes Olga run. It’s genes. It’s diet. It’s temperament. It’s her unusual paleo sleep patterns. It’s the fighting spirit of the Cossack general from whom she is descended. It’s energy: she is vibrating at a higher frequency than most anyone else. It’s the miracle of exercise itself, compounded over a long, long lifetime. It’s performance-enhancing drugs. (Actually, we can rule that one out: she’s clean.)

In the morning—very early or merely early, depending on the day—Olga gets up and puts the kettle on for Krakus, a Polish coffee substitute made from roasted flax, barley, and beetroot. Then she heads into the bathroom to wash her face. The woman looking back at her in the mirror contains multitudes. She is the sweet-natured grandma with a competitive streak so ferocious she aims to set marks that eclipse the past greats and make up-and-comers think about maybe trying out scrapbooking instead. The farm girl who outlived ten siblings and one of her two daughters, and ponders what is being asked of her, the survivor. The levelheaded pragmatist with abiding faith in water, reflexology, and a curious routine of massaging and stretching her muscles in the dead of night.

Olga and I met four years ago. I was one of those nosy writers who showed up at her home: the in-law apartment in the basement of her daughter and son-in-law’s house.

It was a tidy space. Her own paintings of landscapes, marinas, and flowers from the garden hung on the walls. She offered tea. She had kind eyes and carefully applied lipstick and a shy demeanor. It was hard to reconcile this gentle person with the figure conjured by the growing mythology—a woman whose warrior fire is so intense that when she first announced she was interested in track, and a well-meaning friend said, “The event you want is the racewalk,” the advice literally did not make sense to her. Seriously? Walking or racing: which were they talking about here?

I’d hoped we could go to the running oval at the local high school so I could observe Olga in action. But it was pounding rain outside, so instead we stayed in and talked. We went through her notebooks documenting thirteen years of increasingly unlikely levels of achievement in track and field. At the end she cracked open the door to a closet. It looked like what Geraldo had hoped to find in Al Capone’s vault. Gold shone forth. Hundreds of medals hung from groaning hooks.

If a writer can become infected by a story, that’s what happened to me that day. Olga started to feel more interesting, more important than everything else I was thinking about. She tolerated my endless questions, probably because they were the same kinds of questions she had about herself. Eventually we struck a deal: we would become a team. We would explore the mystery of her together. She would offer herself up to science while I took notes. We would tap the expertise of some of the top practitioners of exercise physiology and gerontology, neuropsychology and evolutionary medicine.

To be honest, I had a secondary, selfish motive. I felt a personal stake in what the data about Olga would reveal, because I had my own mystery to solve.

You see, I used to be fit, too—not Olga-fit, but fit. I started exercising, in a pretty committed and deliberate way, when I was a skinny kid of nine. I got good tennis coaching and started beating adults, via a style of steady, craven retrieval that wore them out (and ticked them off). A running addiction that took hold around age twenty ensured that I kept grinding out workouts into my thirties and forties. Pairs of Nikes—each dutifully retired after six hundred miles—piled up in the closet like cordwood until:

Boom. Something . . . gave. Age flooded in all at once. It really did feel that sudden. Gone, just like that, the jump, the stamina, the drive, the memory, the hair. Gone, any right to use the noun “performance,” in any context. And with those changes came a fairly radical shift in attitude. Each sunrise no longer dialed up a sense of hope but resignation.

How does this happen? I was 47. Could it be the inevitable midlife swoon we’re warned about, the one that starts with stretch jeans and topical ibuprofen and ends up with saltless dinners in the extended-care wing? Well, clearly it’s not inevitable, because there before me was Olga. Whatever was happening with her was the opposite of what was happening to me. If she was the paragon of healthy aging, I was a proxy for every once-hale boomer now alarmingly on the skids.

Some serious sleuthing was in order. It would require going back in time to peek in on Olga as her current self was still under construction. What was she doing, at my age and younger, that was so forward-thinking, so right (or maybe just so lucky)? And could those habits be wrenches to fix the mistakes the rest of us are making, before it’s too late?

Copyright © 2014 by Bruce Grierson

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  • Posted August 29, 2014

    Olga Kotelko was an elite masters track star who, upon her death

    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 head first into the life of Olga to try to understand what makes her tick. What he finds is that this extraordinary woman is, by most metrics, not very extraordinary. There is no magic here. For readers looking for super foods, esoteric yoga mantras, or exotic training regimens you 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 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 a uncommon life of steady and satisfying accomplishment.

    The book is not meant to be a text book. There are passages, especially concerning biology, that – in my humble opinion - 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 friends a 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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2014

    Cool

    That lady sure can run!

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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