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On May 6, 2021, Sister Madonna Buder was returning from a 12-mile bike ride near her home in Spokane, Washington, when she crashed.
“I fractured my shoulder, collarbone, and got four fractures in a rib,” she said of the accident. Yet several months later, she’s back to swimming, biking, and running, as she has done after many other triathlon injuries.
The difference between most triathletes and Sister Madonna, also known as the “Iron Nun,” is that she is 91 years old.
How Sister Madonna Buder Became The Iron Nun
Sister Madonna was a champion equestrian as a teenager, but sports took a back seat to her lifestyle when she joined a convent at age 23.
At age 48, a chance conversation with a priest changed her life. “He mentioned that running had many benefits, including a way to ‘harmonize mind, body, and soul.’ That concept was really appealing to me.”
Prior to that, Sister Madonna had never been introduced to running, unless it involved interactive sports. “I found a pair of running shorts in a donation bin, and put on a pair of second hand ‘tennies,’ not running shoes, which negatively affected my body.” Still, Sister Madonna ran half a mile in five minutes, and when she told the priest, he said, “Good. You must keep it up now!”
Five weeks after that first run, Sister Madonna completed an 8.2-mile race. She eventually ran the Boston Marathon and other races. When she started to get bored with running, a running buddy suggested triathlon. At age 52, Sister Madonna entered her first triathlon – a half-Ironman – even though she hadn’t done a swim of that length before. She finished it, and shortly thereafter completed her first Ironman. From that point on, the media dubbed her the “Iron Nun.”
Sister Madonna has completed roughly 400 triathlons including 45 Ironman races, all while she was over 50 years old. She also opened six age groups for triathlons – starting with 50 and over. She holds the current world record for the oldest woman to ever finish an Ironman Triathlon, which she achieved at age 82 by finishing the Ironman Canada on August 26, 2012. She was even featured in a fun and inspirational Nike ad in 2016, when she was 86 years old.
Managing the triathlon lifestyle as a nun
While the Iron Nun has had many achievements, they have not come without difficulties. “When I first took up running, my newfound joy was not supported by the sisters I lived with, who considered this undertaking inappropriate for a nun.”
This was one of the reasons why Sister Madonna decided to change orders to the non-canonical Sisters for Christian Community. Sister Madonna has since had the freedom to choose her own ministry and lifestyle. She had the ability to train for triathlons, while volunteering in jails and with children in difficult situations.
Her vow of poverty is also challenging. Triathlons require equipment, entry fees, and travel expenses. Sister Madonna leaves everything up to God, and considers herself fortunate to have been given equipment by others, including donations from companies that make the equipment. Many triathlons waive their fees for her. And she often sleeps at the houses of friends and triathlon participants when she travels.
What’s Next for The Iron Nun
Sister Madonna most recently participated in The Last Call triathlon in Loveland Colorado, in September, 2020. “My participation opened up a new category – 90 years old and above,” she said.
The conditions were tough. “The water was 64 degrees and it took me an hour during transition to warm up enough to get on the bike.” But cold temperatures, bodily injuries, and other difficulties aside, the Iron Nun plans to continue racing.
“I love being outside, in nature,” she said. “And every time I’m tempted to discontinue competing, inspiring others keeps me going.”