April 11, 2017

Sister Madonna completed her first Ironman at age 55

By Kris Parfitt

Tough but gentle, sassy yet congenial, humorous while at the same time profound, Sister Madonna Buder is a force to be reckoned with and a person to be inspired by.

You may recognize her name, or her racing moniker, the Iron Nun, from the 2016 Nike commercial campaign, “Unlimited Youth.” Narrated by actor Oscar Isaac, who portrayed Poe Dameron in the 2015 Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, he introduces Buder as an iron-tough athletic dynamo by using tongue-in-cheek humor about her age and nun-lifestyle.

While she admits that she’s not as stern as she is made out to be in the commercial, she is just as driven to train.

“I train religiously,” she said. She runs to church every day and bikes 40 miles to swim in a nearby lake.

“There’s a difference between being stubborn and being determined,” said Buder. “Holding to your own will is not good. But being determined is staying true to your commitment.”

Sister Madonna Buder started running at age 48 and completed her first Ironman triathlon at 55. Now 86, she’s still going strong. Photo courtesy Sister Madonna Buder

Unapologetic and Unstoppable

Buder began running in 1978, at age 48, after a conversation with her mentor, Father John, who said that being physically active was a way of engaging the mind, body and spirit for relaxation and calmness.

“When I first began running I was visiting my parents in St. Louis, Missouri, and I attended the Senior Olympics while I was there,” said Buder. “I saw a photo of a nun competing in a white habit, lifting her skirts to run. I thought she made a spectacle of herself and I decided that I would dress like everyone else.”

Despite her determination to dress like a runner, her mom and the Sisters she lived with didn’t approve of Buder taking up the sport.

“So I asked God,” Buder said. “I have to know if you want me to keep doing this. I know I am a natural, but do you want me to do this?”

“I got a straight answer: ‘When I give someone a gift or a skill I expect them to use it for my greater honor and glory. Not doing so is not honoring my creative gifts.’”

“I thought OK, I will not apologize for your gifts, I will if I don’t use them.”

Sister Madonna completed her first triathlon four years later and her first Ironman event in 1985. She was 55 years old. Since then she has completed over 325 triathlons and 45 Ironman races.

At age 75, Buder became the oldest woman to compete in the Hawaii Ironman and since that race she has opened five age groups for both genders in various multisport races that allow older people to compete, too.

Despite seeming unstoppable, she has had her moments of doubt. After running 20 races one season she became burned out to the point where she didn’t want to see another pair of running shoes. But a friend told her about Ironman and suggested she do one.

“What?” said Buder? “I don’t mind swimming, but the chaos freaked me out. As far as biking 112 miles I didn’t know if I would have a seat left. I was already running marathons by then, so that part didn’t bother me.” As she began training for Ironman qualifying triathlons, she got out of her running slump.

Injuries Barely Slowed her Down

In a 16-month timeframe starting in 2013, she fractured her pelvis, tore a meniscus and broke a femur. Despite these injuries, she continued to run and compete in triathlons, including an Ironman.

She was even denied finishing the 2014 Boston Marathon, not because of her injuries or age — she was 83 at the time — but because of the bombings near the finish line of the race.

After this parade of injuries, she thought perhaps God was inviting her to let it all go. But after a conversation with Him, she understood that it didn’t mean she should stop cold turkey. It was more like an invitation to continue to serve in his name.

“I can talk about God and his work anywhere doing anything. Why not do so while doing something I truly enjoy?”

Buder, 86, no longer competes in the Ironman but she did begin training this past March for three triathlons and three duathlons. Her book, Grace to Race (Simon & Shuster), was published in 2010 and talks about achieving harmony between body, mind and soul. From her home in Spokane, Washington, she speaks of writing a sequel that would include more of her personal and spiritual philosophy.

“I strongly believe that what we think we can do has a huge impact on what we actually do,” she said. “The only failure is not to try; your effort in itself is a success. I’m thinking of calling the next book, Race to Grace.”

Kris Parfitt, now a free-range writer, is grateful for the experience of interviewing Sister Madonna and agrees with her philosophy, too.