what makes olga run?

Reviewed by Donald Christopher Risker, Webster University

24 march 2015       archive

What Makes Olga Run? poses one of the most perplexing questions for many runners: Why do they run? Ricky Gates in Trail Runner's April (2015) issue poses it this way: '"Why do we run?"' is a question that gets to be asked again and again with every generation, each time yielding a different answer, or variations of the same answer …" Perhaps, the question will soon be "Why do you run when there's an app for that?"

The National Distance Running Hall of Fame Museum in Utica, New York features a long quote by Alberto Salazar which ends to the effect that this might not be why he runs, but it is "why he runs so damn hard" as he acknowledges the Prefontaine legend that hovers over Oregon track and field. (Salazar was twice given last rites after he crossed finish lines.) However, it is obvious that the original question was 'why do you run?' But Olga not only runs, she throws and she jumps at age adjusted world class levels … and above! But Olga is 94. How this is possible consumes much of Grierson's book. To explain Olga's ability, he engages as much research on the aging process as on athletic performance. But, first, it is important to appreciate the magnitude of Olga's performance.

At her first masters track and field competition, Olga was unknown. She was competing in the javelin for the first time in the 75 plus group. After having to adjust to a different javelin size and weight, she released a throw of 57 feet. Her competitors were caught flat-footed. Who was this woman? They tried to raise their game, 52 feet, 53 feet. Then Olga gave her last throw and the judge cried out "65 feet 6 inches." That settled the competition on that day. Not only was Olga performing late in life, but she was performing well above the best in her age group. She became one of the best track and field women in the world in her age group. Then, she astounded everyone; she got better.

Grierson, who self identifies as a social science writer on his website, dives deep into the aging and performance research. His self identification has two results: an adept ability to report on research findings, and a self deprecating humor that is in play throughout. In the first matter, Grierson wisely takes a journalist's approach to reporting research, sparing the reader tedious details while offering essential findings. This is welcome, though we are subjected to a catalog of horrendous things that research scientists do to mice and rats. A consequence of his summarizing approach is that some important details are left out of his discussions. This is particularly true of the marathon monks of Hiei. He reports their marathon efforts are intended to help them transcend their worldly suffering, yes, in part. Their ultimate goal is to become a living Buddha and they do not run their marathons, but walk them briskly in a highly stylized manner that includes stopping at shrines to worship. In fact, if they complete their marathons too quickly, they risk being admonished by the abbot.

Grierson's self deprecating humor is familiar. It is the tone most running magazines adopt in articles on elite runners, the mere mortal confronting the god-like talents of the world class athlete. The perspective amuses in talented hands such as Grierson's. Though we do begin to wonder about Grierson's foibles, his photos do not implicate him in midnight ice cream binges, his 10k time is not that bad, and Olga did put up with him for four years. Nevertheless, he uses his failing athleticism as tutorial counterpoint to Olga's world class success. Social science writer that he is, he acts as participant observer and goes so far as to have his own genetic profile printed out alongside Olga's. Olga's contains some genetic advantages, especially for explosive power; for Grierson, well, it turns out he has closer ties to Neanderthals.

For a writer who throws around a fair amount of Yiddish, Grierson also makes a fair number of Buddhist references aside from the marathon monks of Hiei. First, he notes that in spite of a "beetle-browed" competitive spirit, master athletes express a "Buddhist serenity" after they have finished their race. George Sheehan made a similar observation in Running and Being when he noticed that runners only become relaxed and social after their race. Grierson also holds that Buddhists would say of Olga that "she is powerfully self-aware, and self awareness is the way out of 'dukkha'—suffering and chronic disease. It is the path to good health and long life." Grierson is dead on here.

There is an ancient tradition in Zen Buddhism (see The Gateless Gate or The Blue Cliff Records) of the wise old woman who rattles monks and aspirants alike with the clarity of her thought. She is found most often in ancient Zen koans and is simply referred to as an old woman or nun. Olga indeed appears to play this role for Grierson and others. In a CrossFit episode, a trainer enthusiastically claims '"What we're doing here is teaching your body to explode."' Olga shoots back, '"My body doesn't explode."' Or take the facile simplicity of her response to Grierson's question '"What do you do on the days you don't feel like going to the track?"' '"If the sun is out and the grass is dry, I'm there."' Or when being tested on a very difficult virtual street crossing game, Olga announces '"I don't see myself venturing out under these conditions."' Acerbic, to the point, Olga, in the old woman Zen tradition, grounds everyone. As she exclaims at one point: '"Prior to that I was Plain Jane. And I'm still Plain Jane."'

So, in the end, what does make Olga run? It takes Grierson a chapter to address this question. Here we learn about tricks masters runners use to stay motivated. Olga thinks about how good it will feel when she crosses the finish line. Nolan Shaheed pretends that the runners he is about to lap are actually ahead of him. Grierson makes a lengthy argument for Olga having a mind that needs physical activity right down to the DNA level. He uses one of those tortured little mice to make his point about exercise, dopamine, and the reward circuit. Then, there is the matter of Olga's faith. Olga prays before each track meet. She prays the same prayer. She requests that she stay safe and performs at a high level. When Olga was tested for her maximum ability to supply oxygen and transport that oxygen to her working muscles (VO2 Max), the investigator says, '"It was a perfect test. Nothing broke—that doesn't always happen."' Olga replies '"I said an extra prayer, that's why."' And of course, there is the reward for performing something well, the inevitable recognition. When Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice the cello at age 93 for three hours a day, he replied "I'm beginning to notice some improvement." In Olga's case this is especially poignant because she has virtually no competitors in her age group. On one occasion, she even invited the awards official onto the podium with her so she would not be alone. But the question why anyone runs might have been best answered by the poet Charles Hamilton Sorley who wrote in "The Ungirt Runner"

The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize
But the storm the water whips
And the wave howls to the skies.
The winds arise and strike it
And scatter it like sand,
And we run because we like it
Through the broad bright land.
The CODA of What Makes Olga Run? presents the reader with nine points for living long and wisely. They are sensible, if not as interesting as the slow and tenderly evolving relationship between Olga and the author. In the end we are made happy that these two met, collaborated, and made real for us this unique athletic life Olga chose to live.

What Makes Olga Run? Bruce Grierson. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2015. 247 pages.

Copyright © 2015 by Donald Christopher Risker

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