“I love the feeling I get when I whizz past people younger than me who say, ‘I want to be like you when I get to your age’.”
Third in our series of international runners, as a line-up to the ninth anniversary of my running group here, is Sister Madonna Buder – The Iron Nun!
Sister Buder is the current world record holder for the oldest person to ever finish an Ironman Triathlon. Born on 24th July 1930, the 88 year old is no ordinary nun, and is known in the athletics community as the Iron Nun. The Ironman triathlon consists of a 3.2 km (2.4mile) swim, 180 km (112 mile) bike ride, and a 42.2 km (26.2 mile) run. Sister Buder has competed in 340 triathlons, out of which 45 have been Ironmans.
“I feel like God’s puppet: First I am down,then he pulls me up with strings, and then he pulls the strings to put me hither, dither and yon.”
Sister Buder was 14 when she decided to become a nun. As a child, she was more interested in equestrian events, and even won national championships at the age of 16. She entered the Sisters of the Good Shepherd convent in St. Louis, Missouri when she was 23, where she remained until 1990 when she went to serve with the Sisters for Christian Community in Spokane, Washington.
After over two decades as “Sister Madonna”, she found her second calling – Running! She started running at the age of 45, as a means to keep the mind, body and spirit healthy. Unsure of the reaction “racing nuns” would receive, she confided her doubts to the bishop, who replied, “Sister, I wish my priests would do what you’re doing!” The simple and direct response inspired her to join running clubs, with serious training and racing beginning at age 48, where she ran for the cause of Multiple Sclerosis.
Her thoughts about triathlons at the time? She found swimming claustrophobic, and couldn’t sit on a bike saddle for so long. But she would try. The steely nun completed her first triathlon at the age of 52 at Banbridge, Ireland in 1982, and her first Ironman at age 55. Her sense of accomplishment was met with a simple, “I was content.” Bruder earned the title “Iron Nun” when she became the oldest woman ever to complete the Hawaii Ironman in 2005 at the age of 75. Her current world record for the oldest woman to ever finish an Ironman triathlon was set at the age of 82 at the Subaru Ironman Canada on 26th August 2012. This feat broke the record of 81-year old Lew Hollander’s 16:45:55 set at Ironman Kona in 2011, causing sister Buder to be the oldest person ever (male or female) to complete an Ironman in the 80+ category with 16:32:00. The Ironman organization has had to add new age brackets as the sister gets older and breezes through every age group. She has opened up five age groups through her athletics career, thereby enabling older folks to compete as well. In 2014, Sister Buder was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame.
Inevitably, Sister Buder acknowledges the hand of a higher authority in her achievements. She was approaching the 37th km (21st mile) of the Boston Marathon in 2013 when the bombers struck, and she was escorted away from the scene. Running is her favorite part of triathlons, and she can’t wait to get to the final leg. Describing her passion for her favorite sport, Sister Buder says, “I don’t know what runner’s high is. I know what the lows are if I don’t run. When I’m out of bed, the first thing I do is run to mass. Literally!”
The Iron Nun’s training?
“I train religiously”, is how she describes her training. “I know that God has given me this gift. And I have to make the most of the gift. If I didn’t make the most of it, it would be an affront to the gift giver.” She runs to church or every day if the weather permits. She bikes 40 miles to swim in a lake near her house, and goes for longer runs on weekends. She also runs to the jail to talk to inmates and read scriptures to them. Most of her training is solo, since people her age are on grandparent duty. Otherwise, her training buddies are decades younger than her.
Smartphones and computers and the internet are big annoyances to Sister Buder. “What’s all the fuss about?”, she asks. “I’m just a little old lady doing her thing.” And what did she do when she turned 88 last year? Competed in St. Anthony’s Triathlon at St. Petersburg. Her favorite part of competing? “The spirit of camaraderie. I know these people. They are my extended family.” How do her fellow-runners perceive a nun running amidst them? “They think I’ll pray for good weather or something.” Interviews annoy her. But then she prays and meditates and runs 2 miles and calms down. She considers her dual role as sister and athlete complimentary to one another – they both require discipline and are character-builders. Religion aside, she feels if everyone adopted such sporting endeavors and focused on practice, the world would be much better off.
On 5th October 2010, Sister Buder released her autobiography “The Grace to Race“, sharing the wisdom and inspiration of the Iron Nun. Reviews have described it as the courageous story of a woman who broke with convention, followed her heart, and found her higher mission.
~In The Running – Phil Hewitt