At 80, the 'Iron Nun' Prepares for Her Next Triathlon

How divine! Sister Madonna Buder is already the oldest woman ever to complete an Ironman triathlon - a record she's looking to smash at the upcoming Ironman Canada: "The only failure is not to try."

By Marc Hertz

There is a certain type of athlete, a certain type of person, even, who competes in triathlons. Not satisfied with simply running, bicycling or swimming, triathletes want to knock out all three, one after another. These are people who crave a challenge, who have to push themselves further than most, who refuse to be defined by normal expectations. And should you assume that a triathlete is an elite athlete in his/her 20s or 30s, Sister Madonna Buder might like to have a word with you - albeit, a very kind one.

That's because this nun at the Sisters for Christian Community in Spokane, Wash., also happens to have competed in more than 300 triathlons, and she's made, well, a habit out of exceeding people's expectations time and again. You see, on July 24, Sister Madonna will celebrate her 80th birthday. Then, just over a month later, she'll compete in the Ironman Canada, and should she finish it, she'll break her own record as the oldest woman to complete an Ironman - one she initially set in 2005, as triathlons try to keep up with her by opening up new age groups.

For those of you who aren't aware of what an Ironman is, imagine swimming 2.4 miles, getting out of the water and onto a bike for a 112-mile ride, then finishing the day off by running a 26.2-mile marathon - all within 17 hours. Exhausts you just thinking about it, doesn't it? Well, if you were under the impression that the Ironman is just a walk in the park for Sister Madonna, who's done more than 40 of them, think again. "I have to push myself out there to do it because it's not easy to do an Ironman anymore," she told Tonic. "It used to be, but I do have to look for a goal each time now to motivate myself as the years pile on."

In the early 1950s, she committed herself to a spiritual life. After more than two decades, she found a second calling - a career in competitive athletics, thanks to Father John Topel. Sister Madonna was at a workshop on the Oregon coast in 1978 when the Jesuit priest began to talk about the benefits of running, and mentioned how running harmonizes mind, body and soul. It was that combination that struck a chord with her, and soon after, she began to run on a regular basis.

In fact, about a month after the workshop, she entered her first race, the Bloomsday Run in Spokane. Her motivation? As she told her mother over the phone regarding her brother's unacknowledged alcoholism, "I'm gonna run this Bloomsday Run, hoping that the Lord will take my will to endure and transfer it to my brother, that he might have the will to give up this dependency." Even though it was her first competitive race, she finished it, at the age of 48 - and that was just the beginning, of both her competitive career and dedicating races to others.

Soon, though, more challenges emerged. After she ran marathons for a few years (including 17 in one year!), a runner friend of hers who had done the Hawaiian Ironman told her about it, "expounding on how great it was, and the more he talked, the more excited I got about it." So after competing in a few of the shorter triathlons, she entered the Hawaiian Ironman in 1985. Even though she was eliminated following the swim portion (missing the cut-off time by just four minutes due to rough water conditions), she still decided to take part in the bike portion, even encouraging others.

Race officials told her about an Episcopalian minister who hadn't made the triathlon cut-off the previous year, so when she reached him, she started to race in front of him, "like a carrot on a string, and kept giving him little feedback until he picked it up enough to make the cut-off for the bike - just (barely)." And while she didn't compete in the running portion, she found out the next day that he had finished it, "so I had accomplished my goal - even though it wasn't my finish, it was someone else's finish that I had helped with."

Read more about Sister Madonna's helpful ways, and see another photo of her here!

While she's helped countless others, she's also made an impression just by showing up year after year, which she's done in part because of her fans. "My public won't let me stop," she said. "Every race I go to, I go two steps forward and three back, with people coming up wanting signatures or pictures, and saying what an inspiration I am, etc., etc., which I simply do not understand, but if that's their thing, it's their thing. And I feel like my presence means something to them, so I guess I better be there."

And she continues to get out there, even though she doesn't train nearly as much as you would think. Along with her church-related commitments, which include counseling inmates at the Spokane County Jail, she also battles the elements. The weather conditions in the Pacific Northwest, especially during the winter months, make it hard for her, because "if I can't be out in nature, I don't want to." So while she hangs her bike up for about four months out of the year, she does swim in a pool and runs sporadically. What that can end up meaning for her is that one triathlon is like training for the next one. This year, she's already done five triathlons along with numerous Senior Olympic events, so it's not like she doesn't keep busy.

Despite numerous injuries over the years, including multiple broken bones, she just keeps going. When asked how she's able to still be so motivated, she sounded almost confused. "Well, I just think it's become second nature. I don't know that I'm driven. I'm just doing it; I'm doing what comes naturally." She's also found a certain peace from running, going back to what Father John told her more than three decades ago. "When you do harmonize mind, body and soul out there running, it made me realize that no matter what problems I was burying, all those are man-made, and there's so much more out here in nature, and God's creation, that it made everything that I was anxious about or concerned about seem minimal. It's just a freeing experience, very uplifting."

She also has advice for those who, no matter what age, want to be more active but might not know how to start. "First, you have to have the desire. Then, once you have the desire, you can become a little bit more daring, and with daring you get determination. And with determination comes the dedication, and then the actual doing. Those are the five Ds."

Sounds easy enough, right? Just remember, this is a woman who began running at 48, competed in her first Ironman when she was 55, and still does both to this day. And so can you. As she told Tonic, "If we want to do it, we can. The only failure is not to try, because putting forth the effort is success in itself."

Read more Inspirational Sports Stories at Tonic!

Photo 1 by Blair Cooper, photos 2, 3 via Facebook.