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Book Review

‘What Makes Olga Run?’ by Bruce Grierson

Elderly ex-teacher’s track and field triumphs carry lessons for all

Bruce Grierson tells the story of Olga Kotelko, 94, who holds 26 world records in track and field.

JENNIFER WILLIAMS

Bruce Grierson tells the story of Olga Kotelko, 94, who holds 26 world records in track and field.

Attention all baby boomers in search of longer, healthier lives: Hop off your treadmills, put down those bottles of DHEA, and prepare to have your crossword puzzle-sharpened minds blown by Olga Kotelko, the 94-year-old star of Bruce Grierson’s new book, “What Makes Olga Run?’’

Olga was a 77-year-old retired Vancouver schoolteacher bored by Slo-Pitch softball when she decided to take up track and field. Now, while most of her contemporaries are dead or in nursing homes, Olga holds 26 world records in events such as the 100-meter dash, high jump, hammer throw, and javelin.

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A closet in Olga’s home is crammed with more than 600 medals she’s won at masters track meets. Admittedly, sometimes Olga wins because there are no women her age to compete against. She is, quite often, in a class by herself.

And yet, Grierson argues in this entertaining, informative, and surprisingly moving profile, Olga is no freak. Middle-aged readers looking to avoid or delay (as Grierson puts it in his punchy prose) ”the inevitable midlife swoon . . . the one that starts with stretch jeans and topical ibuprofen and ends with saltless dinners in the extended care wing” can learn much from Olga.

Grierson, a Canadian freelance writer who’s contributed to The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, and elsewhere, followed Olga closely for several years. He watched her eat and socialize, train and compete.

He also accompanied Olga as she submitted, for Grierson’s book research, to a muscle biopsy, brain MRI, and tests of her DNA, reflexes, and cognitive function. He describes Olga’s diet, exercise routine, family history, stress, and personality. He also details, with ample but never plodding data, current thinking about how all these factors affect aging in general. His goal was to solve the riddle of Olga’s vitality in hopes of helping the 100 million North American baby boomers, including himself, now facing old age.

But Grierson is careful not to turn Olga’s remarkable story into too much of a prescription. He recognizes that she’s a complex person whose contradictions make her tough to emulate: She eats lots of home-grown organic vegetables, but loves steak and pierogis; she’s laid back with her friends, but fiercely competitive on the track; she’s a sprinter who sometimes conserves energy by riding in an airport wheelchair; she’s weathered an abusive marriage and the death of a child, but has little chronic stress.

In short, the assortment of qualities that make Olga fascinating to read about make the question Grierson poses in his book’s title challenging to answer. What does make Olga run? The answer seems to be: exercise, self-discipline, optimism, camaraderie, humor, good (but not extraordinary) genes, and luck. Olga also fidgets a lot, does Sudoku, prays, and kneads and stretches her muscles for 90 minutes every night in an odd ritual she’s dubbed the “O.K system,” after her own initials.

Of course, Grierson doesn’t leave readers without specific advice in a book that’s bound to end up on self-improvement shelves. He argues that exercise is the best anti-aging weapon we have — he calls it the “boomer’s Get Out of Jail Free Card” — and urges middle-aged people to get moving.

He quotes compelling studies showing that exercise improves heart, lung, and muscle function and even promotes growth of new brain cells. Track and field, which involves a combination of interval aerobic and anaerobic training, may be more beneficial than the chicken-armed distance fast-walking many boomers now favor. At the end of the book, Grierson lists nine rules to make us all, if not exactly like Olga, a little “more like Olga.”

The most useful lesson Grierson took from Olga, though, is “not . . . a set of rules, but a shift of perspective.” Even readers who have no intention of walking more, let alone sprinting, will find their view of “the golden years” indelibly altered after learning about this remarkable track star.

Dr. Suzanne Koven, who writes the “In Practice” column for the Globe, can be reached at inpracticemd@gmail.com.
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