Sister Madonna: The Iron Nun

October 17, 2011

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

By Kelly Neufeld

Madonna Buder Challenges Herself and Her Own World Record

Madonna Buder

From Penticton, BC 2008. Photo by Silvia Koros

When you already hold a world record that is not likely to be broken any time soon, you have to start challenging yourself. Sister Madonna Buder, the Iron Nun, became the current world record holder of the oldest woman to complete an Ironman Triathlon back in 2005 at age 75. She beat her own record again in 2006 and 2009.

Despite the fact that she is now 81 she just attempted to beat her own world record at the Ironman Canada competition in Penticton, BC. Unfortunately, she missed the bike cut-off by a matter of minutes. She’s not discouraged though pointing out a number of factors that made the race too close for comfort.

Due to an extended book signing of her autobiography the day before the race she was unable to take her bike into the shop to get the tires properly inflated. There were a lot of hills and while she hoped to make up some time down the hills there was a strong wind that slowed her descent.

She accepts the results and explains that there is a reason behind everything and we only lose our energy by trying to fight it.

Undeterred, the very next weekend she flew to Des Moines for a relatively easy Olympic distance triathlon (1.5km swim, 20km bike, 10km run). She finished in 3 hours and 47 minutes.

While racing up to 17 hours in the Ironman distances (3.86km swim, 180km bike ride and 42km run) she lets her thoughts flow freely to help the time pass by. She prays for the people she’s promised to pray for and counts steps to keep focus. She estimates a mile takes 1300 steps and her full marathon distance run takes over 33,000 steps. She also likes to create haikus and concentrates on remembering them until she can get to the finish line to write them down.

Bking during Triathlon

2009 Ironman World Championship in Kona

She needs something to take her mind off the fact that during the last part of the Ironman triathlons her stomach can’t keep anything down. She walks most of the distance and without being able to eat it feels like a death march. When she races marathons alone she doesn’t have a problem and can easily finish them. She plans to participate in the prestigious Boston Marathon next year for the 5th time.

While she was hoping that this year’s Ironman competition would be her swan song, she will try again next year. Sister Madonna hopes to cement her world record as not only the oldest female to finish an Ironman Triathlon but the oldest person, male or female, to finish. Competitions have already had to open up new age groups to accommodate her and she hopes to open an 80+ age group next year. She is planning to attempt the Ironman Canada competition next year and hopefully use that as a qualifying race to compete in the elite World Championship Ironman in Kona, Hawaii.

As a working nun, Sister Madonna does not have as much time to devote to training as other athletes. She instead tries to build fitness into her everyday routine. Before our interview she ran home from Mass and after our interview she planned to go for a 42 mile round trip on her bike for a swim in a lake while the weather was still nice. When she says she is running errands she means it literally and also frequently bikes when the weather cooperates.

Her career hasn’t been without injuries. Bike crashes have left her with broken bones but she’s defied doctor’s expectations and healed quickly. She adjusts her training depending on the injuries but because Sister Madonna lives on her own she’s had to be creative and work around her injuries. When she had a broken arm, she had to hold jars between her knees while she opened it with her other arm. In her typical optimistic outlook she says, “it’s kind of fun” working around temporary limitations.

Running a triathlon in 2010. Photo by Nancy Cole

She admits that aging has affected her fitness. “The body has subtle ways of talking back,” she explains and she tries hard to keep the delicate balance of training without injuring herself. Sister Madonna likes exercising to keep her body and soul together and counts her blessings that she’s able to be so active when far younger people have trouble moving.

Sister Madonna is willing to try to open a new age group for women 80+ in 2012 then she says she “deserves a vacation from the Ironman distance after completing 45 of them.”

For other inspiring triathletes she gives her 6 ‘D’s advice; “Well you have to have the desire first. Dream a dream, materialize the desire, then comes dedication to do the discipline. Dream it, desire, apply the discipline, become dedicated, dare it and do it.”

Enter to Win a copy of Sister Madonna’s book, The Grace to Race

The Grace to Race Book Sister Madonna has written an autobiography called The Grace to Race. If you’d like to read more about the Iron Nun in her own words leave a comment below with your name and e-mail address (which remains hidden) and any comment. The contest is now closed. Congrats to Cindy W. 

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  • Lynn Pagel

    Love her 6 D’s! What an inspiration!!

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  • Peggy Grimes

    To help me focus in training and get inspired, I keep a laminated picture of Sister Madonna – I thank God for sharing her with us on this earth!

  • Fiona

    inspirational

  • Lucy Ryan

    Sister Madonna Buder IS God!!!!

  • Hilaireen Hall

    I want to be just like her!

  • Josie

    WOW!
    As women, we need inspiration and enpowerment, and Sister Madonna’s life can be our mentor.

  • Debbie

    This is the first I have heard of her – look forward to hearing more. What an inspiration!

  • cindy whitehurst

    Cant wait to hear the Iron Nun speak. She is coming to my town this evening! So inspiring! As a 42 year old ONE TIME IronMan competitor…she is truly amazing!!!!!

  • mary i

    I first heard about her while watching coverage from a previous Kona ironman world championship. Makes you think anything is possible! I have heard this book is amazing and a quick read. Way to inspire so many people!

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