The Iron Nun- Still Going Strong at 80

September 10, 2010

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

With her awards at Ironman Canada

If you heard that there was an 80-year old woman still running you might be a bit surprised. If you heard that an 80-year old woman was running marathons (42 km) you would be shocked. If you heard that she was running a marathon after completing a 3.86 km swim and 180 km bike ride you might not believe it.

Believe it or not, Sister Madonna Buder, who just turned 80, does compete in grueling Ironman Triathlons. The Ironman triathlon course takes even the most elite male athletes over 8 hours and one must finish within 17 hours to be considered an Ironman.

Sister Madonna only began running at age 48 after a priest encouraged her to start running to harmonize her mind, body and soul. Soon after starting to run she began entering races. She ran her first marathon in her 50s. When she heard about triathlon competitions she was interested and competed in her first triathlon at age 52 and first Ironman distance at age 55. Her best Ironman time was at age 62 when she finished in 13 hours and 16 minutes.

When Sister Madonna ran the 2005 Hawaii Ironman at age 75, she became the oldest woman to ever finish the distance. She finished the race in 16 hours and then broke her own age record when she finished the next year’s Hawaii Ironman. This time she was just 57 seconds ahead of the 17 hour cut-off. Near the end of the race, she was sure she wasn’t going to make it but prayed and made a deal with God to let her finish. She then found the strength to overcome and finish.

Bking during Triathlon

2009 Ironman World Championship in Kona

Unfortunately, when she ran the Ironman in 2008, she missed the cut-off by less than three minutes. Undeterred, she returned in 2009 and at age 79 became the oldest female competitor to ever finish an Ironman triathlon. In fact, she is the reason they have an age category for 75-79 year olds and this year they had to create an 80+ age category. She was set to beat her own record in the 2010 Ironman Canada competition but tragically had wetsuit issues that prevented her from finishing the competition. She has already signed up for more triathlons this year and will be back in Penticton, BC for the 2011 Ironman Canada competition.

All together, Sister Madonna has competed in more than 340 triathlons, including over 40 Ironman triathlons, and countless races earning her the title, “Iron Nun.” Sister Madonna also competes in the Senior Olympics and holds records in the 1 mile, 5 km, 5 mile, 800 meters, 1500 meters, 5000 meters, and 10,000 meters.


On her 79th Birthday

She still works as a nun and does not train full-time.  She explains, “I probably do the least amount of training of any triathlete 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.”

Sister Madonna initially encountered some opposition to the seemingly opposite worlds of being a nun and a competitive athlete. But she combined her two passions by using her racing as a way to raise money for various causes and dedicates each race to a specific person. Along with her work in her church and counseling people in her local community, she has found time to earn two masters degrees.

She also faced physical challenges and over the years she has broken both her arms, 3 toes and other bones. She once injured her hip so badly that she was told she might never walk again. Needless to say, she defied those expectations. She takes it all in stride and remarks, “If life doesn’t have some challenges, it isn’t worth living, right?”

When asked what she would say to people who think they are too old to start exercising, she said, “If you’re not too young to start walking or running you’re not too old to stop… excuses!”

Sister Madonna is a shining example that it truly is never too late to start exercising. In her own words, “If we want to do it, we can. The only failure is not to try, because putting forth the effort is success in itself.”

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

The Grace to Race Book Sister Madonna has written a book, The Grace to Race, which will be released on October 5th, 2010. Enter for a chance to be one of the first to read her inspiring story in her own words. Just leave a comment below with your name and e-mail address (which remains hidden) and any comment. We’ll pick a winner at random. Contest was closed on October 20th. Congratulations to Jackie B on winning.

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  • Richard Lamothe

    Nun Buder is my new Idol, wow!

    I am 45 years old and keep trying to do gym at least 3 times a week.
    This activity worth me lot praise from my family and friends.
    They always found excuses to say ”doing effort” it is not for them.
    All my life I have tried to inspire people around me to do activities, by my example and encouragement, unfortunately, without a lot of success.

    I feel proud, but after read about your incredible life, I am speechless.

  • Pat MacNabb

    I have been following Sister Madonna Buder since I first saw her on the Ironman Champioship dvd in October 2006. She has incredible spirit and determination and gives new meaning to the cliche’ “you’re only as old as you feel”. I am 57 and have completed numerous marathons, triathlons and 3 Ironman competitions. My goal is to one day get to Kona and complete the Ironman there. Sister Madonna inspires me to stay strong, when my training becomes challenging, and focus on the end result – the pride in finishing something you’ve started with the God given talent that you have been blessed with. I can not wait to read this book and be further inspired! It would be awesome to be in the same race as Sister–maybe one day 🙂

  • Aldona Glemza

    She is my hero. I can’t wait to read this book.

  • Jimmy Javurek

    I’m getting ready for a 70.3 Ironamnin Miami in 3 weeks.. I started 2nd guessing myself if I could finsih it or not. Then I read about the Iron Nun in Triathlete magazine and was blown away. With her example and inspirartion, I now know the “only failure is not to try”.

    Thanks you Sister !!! Peace… Jimmy

  • Sally Ganzeveld

    Wow! What an inspiring story! Time to get moving…and keep moving…faster…

  • Becky Barbrow

    I can’t wait to read this book!
    I thought it was nearly impossible to complete a half-iron man triathlon. I’ve done two marathons, and I really can’t imagine trying to run one after a grueling swim and bike ride (but then again, a couple years ago, I couldn’t imagine running 26.2 miles consecutively…)
    Sister Madonna is truly an inspiration.

  • Ann Ledesma

    Bravo, Sister Madonna! I’m 76, have been rollerskating since FDR’s presidency and see no reason to stop now. You are my major role model along with Helen Klein. I cant wait to read your book, you inspire me and are living proof that the human body, cared for properly, is a Masterpiece. Tri on!

  • Arlene Carter

    Sister Madonna is going to be the speaker at the Providence Marianwood Spring Celebration luncheon to be held on Thursday, May 5, 2011 at the downtown Bellevue Hilton. For more information or to reserve your seat, call (425) 391-2895 or e-mail

  • Mary Mahoney

    Sister Madonna, when I grow up I want to be like you. After reading your book, I felt as though I never had to grow old – I now know that I have something to live for in my future old age and it is not the rocking chair. Please keep on going Sister and defy so called old age.

  • Sigrid Rogowski

    Sister Madonna you are amazing. Keep it up, you will live to be 100+

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