The Iron Nun

June 6, 2009

Update: Sister Madonna beat her own World Record in 2012 at age 82.

2012 Update: We recently interviewed Sister Madonna about her recent world-record breaking race and her plans for the future. Access the exclusive interview

A Conversation with Sister Madonna

By Andrew Sixsmith
Sister MadonnaAndrew: Sister Madonna. It is very nice to chat to you. How many triathlons have you done?

Sister Madonna: I started running when I was 48 or 49 and then when I was 52 in 1982 I was introduced to my first triathlon. From there I’ve done over 315 triathlons, 35 of which were Ironman distances and I don’t know how many halves. This year of the 12 triathlons I did, there was one Ironman distance and 4 half Ironman distances as well as the Boston Marathon

Andrew: That’s a very punishing schedule.

Sister Madonna: Well actually, the grueling part is the travel and I don’t get a chance to train in between travel. In October I had 3 major trips including my 60thhigh school class reunion in St. Louis, Missouri and how often does that happen? It just never stopped and then the last of the twelve triathlons was the World 70.3 Championships in Clearwater, Florida. And this year I was injured 2 days before the event and it was nip and tuck whether I would even be able to handle the event. But I did and actually had a better time than the year before.

Andrew: I think people would think that was quite amazing that you’re actually able to improve your times.

Sister Madonna: Well that’s what’s fun about this. You know after a certain number of years, you’re already competing with yourself because if you live long enough, everybody else falls by the way side. So you either have to choose men to beat because there are no women or beat up on yourself instead.

Andrew: Do you see yourself as being out of the ordinary to be competing in triathlons at your age?

Sister Madonna: Well I can’t speak for anybody else. I can only speak for myself and to me I probably do the least amount of training of any triathelete I know but I’ve been at it for so many years, it’s just become, you know part of my nature so I don’t see anything unusual about it at all. I really enjoy the camaraderie of the triathletes. They’re a wonderful bunch, although some can be a little cantankerous.

Andrew: What made you start racing marathons and triathlons when you were 50 years old?

Sister Madonna: I was introduced to running by a priest at a workshop on the Oregon coast. He was expounding on the benefits of running and I thought it was ridiculous because I said I can’t see getting out there and running for no good reason. He said that it harmonizes mind, body and soul and so anyway I went out and tried running on the beach. He said “Well you know you’ve got to keep this up because you won’t know what the runner’s high is until you have been doing this at least a couple of months”. You know it it’s been more than just a couple of months. Do I know what a runner’s high is? I sure know what the lows are.

Andrew: Do you see yourself as a role model for seniors?

Sister Madonna: I don’t, but if other people do that’s fine. I can only account for the gifts that God has given me and if I don’t use them then I am not honoring my creator. God gives different gifts to everybody and they might not always be the same thing. I know I couldn’t do some of the simplest thing like standing all day in a shop. It would kill me.

Andrew: Do you think training and racing triathlons helps you to stay young?

Sister Madonna: Well apparently it has. I don’t consider myself old but sometimes, when I see older people, I am a little curious about how old they really are in comparison to myself, because a lot of people seem to be struggling with their poor little bodies long before I am. It makes me almost feel guilty sometimes but otherwise I feel very blessed and very grateful.

Andrew: Do you have any triathlon goals that you still want to achieve?

Sister Madonna: Well I’m really trying very hard to open a new age group for women when I reach 80. I opened the age group for women 75 to 79. No one had ever done that until I came along. So since a man already did that, I would like to at least get that on par with the men so the women can feel free and do the same distances as men at 80. But after that it will probably fall apart. I decided to do the Boston Marathon this year. I realized it was 25 years since I had done my last Boston Marathon and since I’ve never been able to do a marathon for the last 10 years when it’s been part of an Ironman race without getting nauseous, I thought I want to find out if just doing the marathon on its own makes a difference and I had no problems. So I’m thinking, see that’s another goal, trying to beat this indisposition of mine.

About the Author: Andrew Sixsmith is the director of the SFU Gerotology Research Centre.

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