The Iron Nun

By JACK McNEEL

One doesn’t normally think of a Catholic nun in terms of running marathons and Ironman competitions. Sister Madonna Buder is not only an exemption to those thoughts but may well be the best at her age to ever compete in the Ironman. Now at 88, she still travels around the country to compete in triathlons; thus the reason for her nickname, “The Iron Nun.”

Her story is remarkable. She grew up in St. Louis and entered the Good Shepherd Convent there when she was 23. Running certainly wasn’t on her mind. It was during a conference on the Oregon coast that a priest introduced her to running.

He expounded on the benefits of running, how it “harmonizes mind, body and soul.”

Her immediate thought was, “I thought you were supposed to give a prayer,” laughing as she remembered that event.

That same evening, she went out and ran for about five minutes. The priest met her at the door and said she needed to do that for at least five weeks before she felt the runner’s high.

That was the start, and it wasn’t long before she was introduced to triathlons.

“It just started catapulting from there. I probably was a natural,” she added. Judging by her running career in the years, since that was a major understatement.

She returned to her home in Spokane and saw a notice about the Second Bloomsday Race, but initially rejected the idea of taking part.

Bloomsday is 7.46 miles long, and she’d only been running short distances.

But some personal motivation caused her to change her mind.

“That was the worst thing I’ve ever put my body through,” she said. “Once it was done, I was falling apart, every part of my body was discombobulated. I didn’t even know you were supposed to have a pair of running shoes.”

She found some shoes but had no time to break them in and had blisters to contend with.

“I got through the race,” she said. “There were almost 300 women in my age group, and I ended up being like fourth.”

She said she never wanted to put her body through all that agony again, and the only solution was to keep going, essentially staying in shape.

She continually entered running events, and some seasons did at least 20.

“Then I got burned out. At that point I was introduced to triathlons. Since then it’s been the way for me to go. It’s not the constant pounding. You get a variation and that keeps your body exercised.”

For those unfamiliar with these terms, triathlons involve biking and swimming in addition to running.

That was in 1977, 41 years ago. Many races have followed.

“Your body gets used to it, and it isn’t a big deal,” she said. “All I can say is that when people get older, even though it may not feel good, keep moving, any way you can, just keep moving.”

Sister Madonna Buder was 55 when she attempted her first Ironman. An Ironman starts with a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and ending with a 26.2-mile run. Since that first Ironman, she has competed in roughly 45 more.

That alone is beyond remarkable, but it doesn’t tell the extent of her successes.

In 2005 at the Hawaiian Ironman, at age 75, she was the oldest woman to finish an Ironman triathlon. In 2009 she completed the Ironman Canada event in Penticton. That set a record for being the oldest female to complete an Ironman. Next in 2012, when she finished the Subaru Ironman in Canada, she finished in 16 hours and 32 minutes, becoming the oldest, man or woman, to finish an Ironman event.

In 2014 she was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame.

One would think that now, at 88, she would retire from running triathlons, but that’s not the case. She doesn’t do Ironman triathlons with their specific distances, but does other triathlons where all three events are involved, but at somewhat lower distances. Her last Ironman was in 2014.

What keeps her going?

“It’s like being in a society, because the triathletes have become like family to me. I don’t want to lose that interaction,” she said.

Sister Buder has competed in 377 triathalons over the years, and she’s competed in about 45 Ironman competitions.

She laughed as she told of a Nike commercial she was involved in. “That was quite an experience! The first day was an 18-hour shoot. The second day was a 16 hour shoot. All that for less than a minute commercial.”

That commercial can be seen if you search for ‘Nike Commercial Sister Madonna’.

This article is obviously about her triathlon history, which is second to none, but religious work fills her days.

“Whenever I’m in town I visit the jail regularly,” she said. “There has never been a fruitless visit to the jail. There’s always been someone I relate to and am able to inspire with a new way of thinking about themselves. You just never know whose lives you’re going to touch. Just being present to pray with them may be all you need to do.”

Her advice to seniors is to have something creative or physical, to keep them interested. That will help to live a long life.

“People after a certain age may simply die of boredom,” Sister Buder said. “There are so many volunteer positions—there’s no reason to just sit still all day long. The only failure is not to try. Your effort itself is a success.”

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