"Determination is the mind willing something to happen by the grace of God"
Sister Madonna Buder was born in St. Louis, Missouri in July 1930, and she was never into running as a child, but she was clearly born with a determined streak from the start. As a kid, she was a decent athlete, including, she recalled, winning a national championship in equestrian events as a 16-year-old. She entered the convent in her early 20s, and though active and trim through adulthood, she didn't become a committed athlete until hearing the urgings of that Catholic priest during a retreat on the Oregon coast.
She decided she wanted to become a nun at the age of 14 from the influence of the Visitation Sisters at the all-girls Visitation Academy in St. Louis, Missouri, that her parents put her in after sixth grade, and Marie Dorthy Buder was 23 years old when she followed her first calling in life and became a nun; it was then that she realized the importance of being of service to others. She entered a convent called the Sisters of the Good Shepard in St. Louis and served there until 1990 when she changed orders and was sent to Spokane, Washington, to serve with the Sisters for Christian Community. In 1970 she left the congregation to which she had belonged to join 38 other Sisters from different and varying backgrounds to establish a new and non-traditional community of Sisters. As a member of the non-canonical Sisters for Christian Community, independent of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, Buder has had the freedom to choose her own ministry and lifestyle. More than two decades later as Sister Madonna, she found her second calling: Running.
During those days, there wasn't any organized races, (including marathons and triathlons) for women. Those races came out for women eventually, but what she had was just organized by schools. Sister Madonna was 48 when she started running for fun — "Father John told me it would be good for my body and mind" — and it wasn't until 1977 that she actually ran her first race who wasn't really sure if it was OK for her to be running races, since she was the only nun doing so realizing the public wasn't used to a nun running. So to avoid creating slanderous conditions, she checked this all out with the bishop in advance. She told him she wanted to run for the cause of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), but that she wasn't sure how the media would handle it, so she wanted his blessing. He said, "Sister, I wish some of my priests would do what you're doing."
The deal was sealed then and there, and Sister Buder ran her very first 8.2 mile race, 'backwards' she says, because the only place she had ever trained before was on a tennis court. After that, she joined a running group, where she thrived on the group mentality, and it was here she eventually learned of the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii. Her first thoughts were of how claustrophobic she would feel swimming along with so many others, her second was that she couldn't conceive of sitting in a bike saddle for so long, and her third was that she simply had to try it.
The steely nun competed in her first triathlon in Banbridge, Ireland, at the age of 52. The course was hilly, she swam in the 'darn cold' water (before wetsuits had been invented), and she was riding a second hand men's bike she had scored from a police auction. Nevertheless, she finished the race and cooled off with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. "I felt an immense amount of accomplishment after I finished that race; I was content", she said.
The Sisters of the Good Shepherd sent Sister Madonna over to Hawaii, and the woman in charge of the triathlon told her that she could get into the race. In the meantime, she practiced on a nephew's bike when she would visit her parents, who still lived in St. Louis. She quickly earned the title of "The Iron Nun" after completing the 2005 Hawaii Ironman at 75 years old, obtaining the record of the oldest woman ever to complete the race. She finished one hour before the 17-hour midnight cut-off time. Then, she went on to beat her own record the following year, at 76, finishing the same race with an amazing time of 16:59:03!
Since 1982 she's powered through more than 340 triathlons, including 45 full Ironmans (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run). In 1996, she completed an Ironman in 14:27:14--fast enough to break the world record for 65 to 69-year-olds. And at 75, Buder became the oldest woman to complete the Hawaii Ironman, a title she repeated in 2006. But it wasn't until she became the overall Ironman world record holder for finishing the Subaru Ironman Canada on August 26, 2012, in 16:32:00 that everyone started to know her name. Sister Madonna beat the record previously held by 81-year-old Lew Hollander, who finished the Ironman Kona World Championship in 2011. Her new goal is to establish that same record at the Ironman in Hawaii, but since that day, she has opened up about five age groups in her life (so that older folks can run too) that never existed. She thinks when she reaches the age group for posterity, she deserves a rest.
Asking how she trains for these triathlons, she says she runs to church every day and bikes 40 miles to swim in a lake near her home. She also jogs to her regular visits at the local jail, when it's nice out to talk to the inmates about Jesus and read scriptures to the them - an activity which she says makes her feel "so blessed" to come home from. As for her diet, Sister Buder sticks to a mostly raw diet of fruits and vegetables, but incorporates carbs and protein powder into her meals, and she says she 'listens' to what her body tells her it needs. Last year she had a biking accident where she fractured her pelvis, so while her body heals, she has been water jogging at the YMCA and going in the hot tub to let the jets and heat treat the nerves that are tender, and then she does the elliptical even though her doctor probably wouldn't advise that.
It's clearly a hobby she feels she can't let go. 'I don't know what I'd do without running!' she exclaims. "I love the feeling I get when I whiz past people younger than me and they say, I want to be like you when I get to your age!" And while she cherishes the opportunity to be a source of inspiration to others, claiming she races now mostly out of 'camaraderie', she does have certain fellow-runners place her a little too high on the pedestal. "Some of them treat me differently because I'm a Sister," she confesses. "I feels like they think I'm supposed to be their mascot and pray for good weather for us or something."
Sister Madonna is was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2014 and according to usatriathlon.org "The Iron Nun" has 12 age-group victories at the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii and has won dozens of national and world titles in Olympic-distance events.
"I've learned other life lessons along the way, but the ones that I'd look back and tell my twenty-something self now are: It's not what you say, it's what you do; don't pay attention to how old you are, only focus on how old you feel; and be patient — one of my worst enemies is patience, I'm still trying to fine-tune it so that I'm able to stop and smell the roses.", she exclaims.
Sister Madonna Buder is on a mission. "I'd like to give up, actually," she said with a laugh, one that revealed her poorly masked fib. "I have no excuses, as long as God's keeping me more or less fit. I feel like God's puppet, that's what I feel like. First I am down, then he pulls me up with strings, and then he pulls the strings to put me hither, dither, and yon. I guess maybe he just wants people, especially as they are aging, to get off their duffs and do something."
Sister Madonna Buder is 85 years old, has run more than 340 triathlons, and doesn't know what all the fuss is about. She decided to write a book named "The Grace to Race", where she shares the no-nonsense spirit and deep faith that inspired her extraordinary journey from a prominent St. Louis family to a Catholic Convent and finally to championship finish lines all over the world. Sister Madonna holds dozens of records, has broken dozens of bones, and tells of dozens of miracles and angels that propelled her to a far-flung race. "It is my faith that has carried me through life's ups and downs," she writes. "Whenever injured, I wait for the Lord to pick me up again and set me on my feet, confidently reminding Him, 'God, you know, my intent is to keep running toward you.'" The Grace to Race is the courageous story of a woman who broke with convention, followed her heart, and found her higher mission. Her book is available from different third-party sellers, including Amazon. For more information, visit the following link The Grace to Race.
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