Madonna Buder • Iron Nun • Oldest Woman to Finish an Ironman Triathlon

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Iron Nun – is the oldest woman ever to finish an Ironman triathlon.

Madonna Buder, 88, is a Roman Catholic religious Sister, Senior Olympian, marathoner and triathlete.  She has completed over 360 triathlons, including 45 Ironman distances [2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run].  In 2012, the then-82-year-old Buder finished the Ironman Canada, making her the oldest person, male or female, ever to complete an Ironman [her record was surpassed in October 2018, when 85-year-old Japanese endurance athlete Hiromu Inada completed Ironman Hawaii].

The Ironman World Championship is arguably the most demanding single-day event in sports.  Contested along the Kona coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, the course meanders through barren lava fields, where athletes battle 45 mile-an-hour crosswinds, 95-degree temperatures and a scorching sun.  In 2005, the 75-year-old Iron Nun became the oldest woman ever to complete the race, finishing one hour before the 17-hour cutoff time.  The following year, Sister Buder again became the oldest woman ever to complete the race, in 16:59.03.

Sister Buder holds a dozen age-group victories at Ironman Kona.

Sister Buder has been a Catholic nun for 66 years.  As a member of the Sisters for Christian Community, a contemporary religious order inspired by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, she has the freedom to choose her own ministry and lifestyle.  And she chooses to run, bike and swim.  “I know that God has given me a gift,” said Buder.  “And I have to make the most of the gift.  If I didn’t make the most of it, it would be an affront to the giver.”

Buder began training at 48.  While attending a retreat along the Oregon coast, she met Father John, who extolled the virtues of running as a way of nourishing the mind, body and spirit.  She soon became obsessed with it, running up to 70 miles per week until she experienced some “running burnout” at 52, and her triathlon adventure began.  Sister Buder competed in her first triathlon at 52, in Ireland.  In an era before wetsuits, she swam in “darn cold” water and rode a second-hand man’s bike she had scored from a police auction.  Three years later, the 55-year-old nun entered her first Ironman.

Madonna Buder rises each morning and attends Mass, running the four-mile round trip.  The Sister literally runs errands and runs or bikes pretty much everywhere she goes, which includes the jail, where she prays and talks with inmates several days a week.  When the weather is nice, Buder bikes to a nearby lake [about 45 miles round trip] where she swims about a mile or so.  “Because I never really know what my schedule will look like,” explains the Iron Nun, “I squeeze in my workouts whenever I can and wait for nature to tell me what to do.”

Running for Buder is an opportunity for mindfulness, prayer and bringing her closer to God.

Buder loves “being out there in God’s great cathedral” and trains religiously.  She has broken bones, suffered severe road rash, torn her meniscus and gashed her head.  The saintly competitor has pulled muscles, fractured her pelvis and been laid up in bed “wrapped in so much white gauze I looked like a mummy.”  Buder maintains that being both a nun and athlete are complimentary as they build character through discipline.  Her favorite part of competing?  “The spirit of comradery.  I know these people.  They are my extended family.”

In 1996, Madonna Buder completed an Ironman in 14:27.14, breaking the world record for 65-69 year-olds.  Thirteen years later, she finished Ironman Canada in 16:54.30 to set a world record at 79.  In August 2012, Buder traveled to British Columbia where she completed the Subaru Ironman Canada to become the oldest athlete ever to complete an Ironman triathlon.  She last competed at the Ironman distance in 2015, but did not finish.

Triathlon competitions are held over a variety of distances.  The most demanding is the 140.6-mile Ironman, while the most common is the “Olympic distance,” which includes a 1,500-meter swim, 40K bike and 10K run.  USA Triathlon is the sport’s governing body in America.  The 2016 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships were held in Omaha, where Buder was the only competitor in the 85-plus category.  She forgot her running shoes and had to borrow a pair from a race volunteer.  Madonna Buder completed the Olympic distance race, then received a standing ovation at the awards ceremony.  “What’s the fuss about all the time?” asked Buder.  “It never ends!  I’m just a little old lady doing her thing.”

The life lessons I’d tell my twenty-something self are: It’s not what you say, it’s what you do; don’t pay attention to how old you are, only focus on how old you feel.

Marie Dorothy Buder was born in St. Louis July 24, 1930.  A good athlete, she won a national equestrian title at 16.  She was educated at Visitation Academy of St. Louis, an all-girl Catholic school, then remained in St. Louis and attended prestigious Washington University.  Buder became a nun at 23, entering the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd.  She moved to Spokane in the early 1970s.  After reading a book about the contemporary, non-canonical Sisters for Christian Community, she joined in 1986.

Possessing a no-nonsense spirit and deep faith, Buder has found time to earn two master’s degrees.  She has competed in five Boston Marathons and holds seven Senior Olympic records in distances ranging from 800 meters to 10,000 meters.  Buder’s best Ironman time came at age 62, when she finished in 13 hours and 16 minutes.  Her longevity is unprecedented.  The steely Sister has opened a handful of new triathlon age groups and is the defending USA Triathlon national champion in the 85-89 group.

Madonna Buder – the Iron Nun – has written a book, The Grace to Race and was featured in a Nike ad, entitled Unlimited Youth, that aired during the 2016 Rio Olympics.  In 2014, Sister Buder was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame.