WeRunFar Profile: Olga King

An in-depth profile of ultrarunner Olga King (nee Varlamova).

By on May 6, 2013 | Comments
A 13 year-old Olga poses for a picture at Pioneer Camp in Russia.

A 13 year-old Olga poses for a picture at Pioneer Camp in Russia.

The phrase “life is a marathon, not a sprint” gets thrown around every so often as a reminder to keep a sustained, strong effort in life. It’s generally good advice, most would agree. Olga King, on the other hand, might not. That’s because Olga lives like she’s grinding out a 100-miler. Her life is so packed that she would not be able to fit everything she does into just a marathon. A 100-mile point of view is much more suited to her.

If you’ve ever spoken to Olga, her Russian roots reveal themselves prominently in her thick accent. Daughter of a Russian military pilot, she spent her younger years in Belarus before her father was transferred to Moscow, Russia when she was 12 years old. Olga worked a part-time job starting from age 10 and was working full time from 14 on. Olga married her first husband and in 1993 they moved together to the East Coast of the United States. She has lived in New York and Oregon and now currently resides in Austin, Texas with her second husband Larry, her youngest son Stephen, and her stepson.

Her 23 years in Russia played a much more formative role than just her accent. The grit and determination that she developed there are much of what led to her to ultrarunning and her subsequent success with the sport. Olga explained the impact of her Russian heritage, “We just deal with things and don’t complain. I think this is the best quality that we as Russians have. I’m proud of being Russian. This is the culture I grew up in and it became a huge part of who I am. It has had a role in shaping me as an ultrarunner, but it really is just what makes me, me.”

Olga’s journey into the ultrarunning world was swift and hard. On Mother’s Day in 2000, Olga ran her first 5k. Two months after that came her first half marathon. A year after was her first marathon. And she ran her first ultramarathon in 2003 at the Kurt Steiner 50k in New York. In the 10 years since her first 50k, Olga has finished over 80 ultras.

Olga running her first official ultra at the 2003 Kurt Steiner 50k.

Olga running her first official ultra at the 2003 Kurt Steiner 50k.

“I think, first of all, I have the same pace no matter what distance I go. Secondly, I was kind of bored with shorter distances and quite elated when I ran longer without getting tired. I think part of it at first was that I didn’t feel fulfilled at my job and I thought, at least I’m doing something that at least gives me recognition in my own eyes. You want to find that high and that edge of overcoming obstacles,” Olga told me. “My parents said that, since I moved from the Soviet Union to the United States, I didn’t have enough obstacles in my life.”

Looking at Olga’s running history, it is clear that she has been able to handle the obstacles she encounters in ultrarunning very well. That is not to say that her time spent running has not been without challenges. In Olga’s extensive running resume, she has dealt with her fair share of injuries that have challenged her both mentally and physically. Olga’s typical response to injury in the past was to run through it. And we’re not talking about minor issues. Olga ran through compartment syndrome, stress fractures, and a multitude of other problems without taking significant time off. Pile these onto irritable bowel syndrome and her finish history is that much more impressive. In the past couple of years, Olga did take significant time off due to trapped nerves in her foot and related issues. She was unsure if she would ever get back into ultrarunning.

Olga explained her injury period and mentality to me, “There was a point last year when I thought I was going to give up, Ryan. In the past three years, I’ve had injuries that would keep me away from running and racing for long periods. I had an eight-month break and a sixth-month break and that was a little scary when you put in 12 years where you are known as a runner and that is part of your identity. Will you still be able to smile and enjoy things if you can’t race the way you wanted to?”

Her physical challenges have been accompanied by life struggles that Olga has run through as well. Olga ran through a divorce with her first husband and ran through her eldest son’s struggle with substance abuse.

“I ran to deal with those situations, absolutely. You can definitely use running as an outlet to deal with your feelings and figure out what to do next. I’ve run through divorce and I’ve run through many other things. That absolutely was the most helpful thing.”

Olga kept busy in her younger years as well.

Olga kept busy in her younger years as well. Photo: Svetlana Sokolova

Olga has since recovered from her physical injuries and has a hefty race schedule lined up for 2013 centered around the San Diego 100 in June. Olga’s determination and drive is not limited to her running. She is not the type of person to sit down and take it easy. Olga’s current activities include everything from work as a research scientist, family life, ultrarunning, yoga, massage, a knitting business, fitness training, articles for the southwestern-focused EnduranceBuzz, a regular blog, and consistent contributions to the iRunFar comments section. The mere thought of wasting time is not something that Olga is comfortable with. Olga finds relaxation and rest through productivity.

“That’s why I knit. I sit on the bus for 25 minutes. I mean, this is disgraceful! Twenty-five minutes out of my life that I can’t get back. I just can’t comprehend these kind of things. I take time to slow down occasionally. I might go into work a little bit later. But no, not really, I don’t like to do nothing. If I’m at home and there is a gap that means I will cook dinner for the next three days because today’s dinner is already done or will organize something, go through files. I just don’t like to sit.”

All of the enduring that Olga has exemplified in her past years of running and life was assuredly not without great moments. One of the highs in her ultrarunning career was meeting her second husband, Larry King. Learning of each other from a mutual friend, their first interaction came from a seemingly inconsequential comment on her blog. The couple first met while at the Jemez Mountain Trail Run in New Mexico.

Olga told me the story, “At Jemez we ran our own races because you know he’s a guy and runs faster, at first. At mile 30 I came around the bend and I see him and said, ‘Don’t give up, hang with me.’ We spent 10 miles talking about life and kids and talking about how to progress from the tough divorce times and try to handle yourself more. When you’ve been married for 18 years, it’s hard to find the sweet spot now because you only have known yourself through your husband. We kept talking all the way to the end of the race and afterwards went on our own merry way. He emailed thanking me for keeping him on course through the pain and I said, ‘if you ever want to come visit me in Oregon, you are welcome.’ Two weeks later he was in Oregon and that was it. It was instant and fascinating and felt right. For a year, all we did was schedule races and meet there. Basically, we dated at a race once a month. By the next year, I moved down to Austin and we got married the month after that on the trail.”

An upbeat Olga passes her husband Larry at the 2010 Mansanutten 100.

An upbeat Olga passes her husband Larry at the 2010 Massanutten 100. Photo: Teresa Sukiennikki

The couple married in September 2009 and have been enjoying running and life together as a married couple since. The couple works together to both fit in their ambitious race schedules and manage family life. Olga and Larry have recently done the Whole30, a month-long diet plan that enacts a strict regimen of whole foods, and currently stick to a Paleo-style diet in an effort to stay as healthy as possible. The diet has been working very well for the couple.

A scenic Austin, Texas trail set the scene for Larry and Olga's wedding.

A scenic Austin, Texas trail set the scene for Larry and Olga’s wedding. Photo: Joyce Prusaitis

Olga excitedly told me about Larry and her’s diet shift. “It was especially beneficial for my husband who was a typical pancake, cereal, PBJ, and pasta kind of guy. He just feels amazing. No back pain, no joint pain, he sleeps better, he thinks better, I think I made an experiment of him. I am sticking with this and so is he. We’ve inspired a couple dozen people and they’ve felt benefits and that feels great in itself.”

Earlier in her life, Olga thought little about diet and health. “There was a point when I thought I’d be dead by 60 and I didn’t really care. I’d been a smoker for 25 years. I had to change the process. Not only that but I want to run better and I want to look better. I also want to live as healthy as I possibly can so I can live as long and be as productive as I possibly can. That’s something that feels terrific for me. Believing in yourself and wanting to do those things for myself feels good.”

For Olga King, life is a 100-miler. Through the highs and lows, whatever they are and whatever they will inevitably be, she characterizes what an ultramarathoner is both on the trail and in life.

Olga enjoying a run at the 2006 Chuckanut 50k.

Olga enjoying a run at the 2006 Chuckanut 50k. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

Ryan Lindemulder
Ryan Lindemulder is iRunFar’s Spring 2013 Intern. Born and raised south of Chicago, Illinois, he ran cross country and track for 11 years and is now directing his passion into trail and ultrarunning. An English major in his senior year at Trinity Christian College, he looks forward to cultivating his running and writing skills. While spending most of his time on the trails near Chicago, Ryan has spent summers working and exploring in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado.