The career of the Iron Nun

After suffering a fractured pelvis during a bike training session, Sister Madonna Buder sat up in the middle of the road and did what she always does. She talked to God.

“Lord, what are you doing this for?” she asked on that day.

“I got this little answer: ‘Well, did you think that maybe I’m preserving you from something worse, even if it be yourself?’” She said as she remembered that moment.

She is known as “the Iron Nun” for competing in the somewhat grueling Ironman competitions. She is also a member of the noncanonical Sisters for Christian Community and a frequent conversationalist with God.

Last week, she was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in Chicago and she holds the world record for the oldest woman to ever finish an Ironman triathlon at 84.

Buder first broke the record at Ironman Canada in 2012. For two years after, Buder had tried to open the 80-plus group for women. She already opened several age groups for women in the Ironman distance and held other records before that, she said. She wanted to take another shot at 80-plus.

“On the way up, I said, ‘Lord, either three times is the charm or three strikes and I’m out, no more of this Ironman business.’ So he made the most perfect weather I think we had ever had. No excuse not to finish. Nothing went wrong with the bike or in the water.”

She remembered the time when she broke that age record.

“I finished and that’s all I was concentrating on, getting the job done,” Buder stated. “But the announcer went crazy and the next day people were coming up to me, congratulating me on my world record. I said, ‘What? Oh, well yes, if no one had ever done it before, I guess it is a world record.”

Her career running started at age 47 and just five weeks after, she ran her first race at the Lilac Bloomsday Run in Spokane, WA. She was part of an order called the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and attended a workshop given by a priest who talked about the benefits of running for the body, mind, and soul.

She realized she was a good runner and wanted to run in the Boston Marathon. She thought to consult her bishop since it wasn’t typical of nuns to run races.

“He relaxed, sat back in his chair and smiled and said ‘I wish more of my priests would do more of what you’re doing,’” she stated, talking about that conversation. Buder moved to Spokane in the 1970’s and joined a non-denominational movement there.

Buder volunteers with the city’s Community Oriented Policing Services, visits jails regularly and competes in triathlons. She says that she’s done about 360 triathlons since.

She had big plans this year to run in three races in April, including the Boston Marathon. After her injury, however, she had to sit those out.

It was a little “tumble rumble” out in the water, she stated. She ran the rest of the races she was planning on doing, however.

“All these decisions I’m having to take is a step out in faith,” she stated later. “I have to say, ‘Lord, please protect me.’ Then it’s ready or not, here I go.”

When Buder had opened the female 80-plus group at Ironman Canada in 2012, it was only half of her goal. The other half is to do the same at Ironman Hawaii.

“If you don’t think age and you just get up and do and you think you’re a teenager, well, you’ll start to act like one,” she said to those who may doubt her ability and the age group. “And you also find out that you never get too old to learn new tricks.”

“I couldn’t believe it when I realized I was the oldest participant, older than the men, in some of the races I’m doing. I said, ‘Lord, how did I ever get here?’” she said about how she got to that point.

She knows why she’s still competing and why she plans to continue competing. She can get around Spokane without being recognized, every few steps at big races, people stop Buder to chat, get pictures and autographs, and tell her what an inspiration she is.

“I don’t see what they see, but I guess I don’t have to,” she concluded. “I just have to be there. And it’s just that my public won’t let loose of me. And as long as I don’t have an excuse, like a fractured pelvis, not to, I will keep on going.”