Sister Madonna Buder - Ironman Triathlete | Young Talent
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Sister Madonna Buder

Ironman Triathlete

“Am I a typical sister? Well, it depends what you call typical; we are all individuals with different talents – mine might be very different from those living in a Convent. I’ve done almost 380 triathlons, 45 of which have been Ironman distances: that’s a 2.4 mile swim, followed by 112 miles of biking, followed by a marathon. I’ve done 22 Ironmans just in Hawaii! I’m 87 presently, and I discovered triathlon when I was 52 – although really, it discovered me.

“I entered the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in St Louis in 1953 when I was 23 years old, but transferred to a newly formed group in 1986 called the Sisters for Christian Community. All I’ve ever wanted to do is the will of God. It’s not easy to read God’s mind of course, but I try to follow his lead, even if it seems a little out of sync with the rest of the norm! God has a tremendously divine sense of humor – if this is what he wants to do with my life, why not give it a try?

“When triathlon was first suggested to me, I rejected the idea. But sometimes, the more you reject something, the more it hangs on to you.”

“When triathlon was first suggested to me, I rejected the idea. But sometimes, the more you reject something, the more it hangs on to you. Now triathlon is just a way of life for me, and the triathletes are like family to me – it keeps me in the running, so to speak, preventing me from becoming isolated when living alone as I do presently.

“The Ironman 80-84 age group category didn’t exist until I did it when I was 82. In the process of time, I’ve opened five or six age groups for the women. So far, I’m the only one that’s been able to push into the 80s – I don’t know how long it will take, but someday, somebody else has to try, it is there for the doing.

“In 1982 before my first Ironman, I’d just come back from running the Boston Marathon, which I thought was the epitome of foolishness at age 52 for a woman. I was first introduced to the idea of running at 47 by a priest who explained how it harmonizes mind, body and soul – that struck a chord with me so I decided to experiment. Just five weeks later, I’d completed my first race, Bloomsday, which was 8.2 miles long.

“I didn’t have a pair of regular running shoes back then, they weren’t in vogue yet in the early 1970s! My sister-in-law gave me a pair of hand-me-down tennis shoes to start training with, but little did I know about shoes. By week four, my body was trashed! My knees were so tight I could hardly bend them and my calves were as hard as rock – even my breathing was affected. I was in such a bad state that I considered giving up, but my resolve remained strong, even though I had started crying, lying on the library floor doing my accustomed yoga, realising that I had promised God I would do this. I hoped he would transfer my will to endure to one of my brothers who needed the will to conquer alcoholism, but at this point, I felt I couldn’t carry through with it.

“I took myself to my room, and let the tears flow until I quietened down, and then came this still whisper which shot right through me, ‘I also stepped up in faith, not knowing how many people through the ages would respond to my supreme act of love.’ It was then I thought, ‘Yes, God, you went through all that suffering for us but you are going to have to be my strength because I can’t do this alone.’

“I walked for two miles, walked for five minutes and repeated until I got to the finish line.”

“That first race itself was on a beautiful, cloudless May day – I was toward the back where there was a lot of camaraderie! I walked for two miles, walked for five minutes and repeated until I got to the finish line. When the race was accomplished, I was given a flyer announcing another event and, although I never wanted to put my body through this ordeal again, I decided to push forward with these races. I knew the only way for my body to cope was to just keep moving ahead. Little did I realize at that first race that I’d one day be doing Ironman distance events all over the world!

“My second running race was just three miles long; but then I watched a movie ‘See How She Runs,’ about a woman who changed her life by running the Boston Marathon. This inspired me to enter the Boston Marathon in 1982 for Multiple Sclerosis. To get in, I had to qualify by completing a previous marathon within three hours 30 minutes. So, a hop, skip and a jump over to Idaho I went, to run the Coeur d’alene Marathon. Here I was, already a 52 year-old woman, with only three years of running experience… but I qualified by finishing with only 42 seconds to spare. The next challenge was seeking permission – I thought, ‘The media will probably attack the Bishop of the Diocese about this Nun wanting to run the Boston Marathon!’ So I made an appointment with him. The Bishop said, ‘Sister, what can I do for you?’ I said, ‘I just wanted to tell you that I aspire to enter the Boston Marathon for a cause bigger than myself.’ His lips turned up in a grin and he said, ‘Sister, I wish some of my priests would do that.’ I took that as being permission, so off I went. From there on, things just started to roll into place until marathons were eventually replaced by Ironman triathlons which, of course, also include a marathon.

“When I completed the Boston Marathon, I thought I’d done my duty by women that age – but uh uh! I saw an article about a half Ironman and thought, ‘Well, the run is no problem, I know I can do that. Biking? I used to ride as a kid on my mother’s balloon tired bike and swimming? Well, I’ve never been afraid of the water – but all of those flailing arms and legs out there? I don’t think so!’ And I rejected the idea, but then a friend returned from Hawaii and said, ‘Sister… you gotta do this Ironman thing!’

“I completed my first triathlon in my state of Washington at age 52, and my first Ironman just three years later, at 55.”

“I completed my first triathlon in my state of Washington at age 52, and my first Ironman just three years later, at 55. Doing an Ironman, or anything to that extent requires more than physical strength. It takes psychological strength to put up with the conditions in the Hawaiian Ironman, with its erratic cross winds and long roads of simmering heat coming from the asphalt. A lot of people can’t stand that and crumble before getting to the finish line. When I’m out there alone on the bike I get a chance to observe the scenery which takes my mind off the agony. Thinking about why I’m doing this also helps me stay focused; attaching a purpose to it really makes it worth doing. This dedicated goal helps you put your all into it.

“Three times a week I go for a swim, and if the weather’s decent I run to morning Mass and from there, I just keep going, doing volunteer work. One of my posts is going to jail. When I tell people I’m going to jail I sometimes get a double take! But, it’s a very inspiring situation for me. When I see the inmates, I tell them about God and share my mantra, ‘God help me do my best and you do the rest.’ It’s got a nice little beat to it and it lifts their spirits.

“My secret? Keep moving. No matter what I’m doing, I’m rarely sitting down – I’m always on the move. Living alone, I do everything for myself which keeps me moving; I think circulation is one of the biggest secrets to healing and staying active. My running may not look very graceful anymore, but I’m still moving. I literally run errands, even to the grocery store – unless I’m buying eggs… then I bike instead.

“Age has affected me in many ways; all these pops and crackles sound off, but I just bear with it and think, it’s just age, forget it – keep moving.”

“Age has affected me in many ways; all these pops and crackles sound off, but I just bear with it and think, it’s just age, forget it – keep moving. I thought I’d give it up when I reached 60, then I thought I’d give it up at 70 and now that I am into my 80s I have only three more years to go before I’m 90, so I’ll just hang in there as long as I can, God willing!

“You can do more than you think you can if you trust in your creator; you have to dig deep and get into your inner self. Sometimes it flows, sometimes it doesn’t and you wake up feeling not too perky! But you still have the talent, you’ve just gotta work through it and never give up. It’s your obligation to use your gifted talent for God’s glory.

“My favourite Ironman? A highlight is my first of course – and I’ll never forget Hawaii 2006, when I finished with less than one minute to go before the 17-hour cut-off time. But my biggest achievement? Just learning to live day by day, trying to do God’s will. I’ve had many honors and awards, but everything’s in passing – just live in the present moment and live it to my best without regrets.

“If you think you’re old, then you’re old. It really is a state of mind, so never lose your child. That’s the most pure, creative, unadulterated person you’ll ever be. I keep life fun by laughing at myself and God only knows when and if I will ever stop, and he hasn’t told me yet!”

“If you think you’re old, then you’re old. It really is a state of mind, so never lose your child. That’s the most pure, creative, unadulterated person you’ll ever be.”

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