The Burning Desire to Endure


Some people are doers and some are planners. Monika Olson is both. From competing in a triathlon to spending a week in the desert at Burning Man, she lives for tests of endurance.

Olsen at Burning Man last month.
Olsen at Burning Man last month.

Burning Man requires extensive planning, as there is nothing for sale at the event other than ice and coffee, Olson explains. “You have to bring what you need,” to survive extreme temperatures and dust storms for a week on the dry lakebed in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert or “hope that you’re gifted with what you need,” said Olson.

Olson, 59, claims that as a very young woman she was not an athlete, but loved outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking and swimming. After studying nursing at UC Santa Barbara, she married and began to “spend more time on the ocean than on land” with her husband on their 70-foot schooner. That experience, “being out on the sea, sometimes facing death,” Olsen said, whetted her appetite for tests of endurance.

Last March, Olson was in New Mexico taking part in a yearly re-enactment of the Bataan Death March, where tens of thousands of American and Filipino prisoners of war marched  in scorching heat through the Philippine jungle in 1942.

At the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico last March, Olsen took part in a commemorative march.
At the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico last March, Olsen took part in a commemorative march.

That endurance test involved carrying a 40-pound pack on her back.

After her husband died, when she was  29, from leukemia, Olson was loath to give up the boating lifestyle. She obtained a captain’s license and offered her boat for charter from Newport Harbor. “I spent my 30s doing charters, burials at sea and movie work,” she recalled.

Olson eventually sold the boat and returned to nursing, specializing for six years in pain management. She described the work as demanding. “Too much time was spent on the phone with insurance companies,” she said.

At 50, Olson entered the Pacific Coast Triathlon at Crystal Cove. Since then she has done a Half Ironman, seven marathons and a few Century Rides; a 100 mile  biking event. She’s also started a new career in fitness as a certified personal trainer.


“I like helping people achieve their goals,” says Olson who works at the Art of Fitness, a Laguna Beach gym.

Client Victoria Brattini, who has trained with Olson for five years, came to her to get in shape to run a half marathon. “I’d wanted to be a runner since college, but never fully committed to it,” said Brattini, a local, now 63. “Monika helped me achieve small successes; she is a phenomenal motivator,” she added.

Doctors refer clients preparing for or recovering from surgery to Olson; others want to lose weight. She even has an artist who relies on her to stay strong enough to left heavy media.

Art of Fitness owners Marian Keegan and Fernanda Rocha endorse Olson’s holistic approach to health, which champions the mind-body connection. “Happiness is the key to good health at any age,” says Olson, who also tells her clients that choices made now can improve the quality of later years.

As Brattini says, “We aren’t 20 anymore, but Monika respects my age and helps me to be the fittest I can be.” And she’s achieved her goal of running half marathons.

Olson’s adventurous to-do list includes climbing Mt. Whiney or maybe an ultra marathon, a race longer than the usual 26.2 miles. Olson’s clients and her bosses understand when she takes time off work for one of her endurance tests. “Pushing yourself a little builds your confidence,” Olson says. “I like helping my clients get that confidence too.”

Olson’s calendar currently lacks a new tenacity challenge, but she’s confidant one will emerge “Waiting to see what turns up; that’s the fun.”

And she’s not averse to returning to Burning Man, “the community that encourages free expression and self reliance… that delights the senses with sounds and lights and movement unlike anything else” and where “your hair turns to cement.”


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