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Fit Chicks: The Iron Nun, Sister Madonna Buder

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Fit Chicks: The Iron Nun, Sister Madonna Buder

In our series Fit Chicks, we chat with female fitness bloggers and trainers from all over the country. Equipped with their collective experience, expertise and practical tips, you’ll be happy to know that a healthier lifestyle is right around the corner.

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Sister Madonna Buder, more famously known as the Iron Nun, has been wowing the world for decades with her athleticism, simple way of living, and fun personality. This 86-year-old nun has participated in 377 triathlons around the world and 45 Ironmans. She single-handedly created six age groups for women as she continued to bulldoze through race after race. She joined her current, less traditional group, Sisters for Christian Community, in 1986 and said she “liked being in the marketplace with the rest of humanity rather than in a little ivory castle.” Buder has been taking the athletic arena by storm and wrote her autobiography back in 2010. In short, it looks like there’s nothing this nun from St. Louis can’t do.

Paste Health: For those who don’t really know your story, can you talk about your journey from becoming a nun to falling in love with running?

Sister Madonna Buder: We were on the Oregon coast for a workshop [a priest] was going to give us. He came the night before and we had an informal round table discussion. He started expounding on the benefits of running. I said, “The only running I ever did was connected with interaction sports. I can’t see getting out there, running for no good reason.” He said you have to do for about five weeks before you get that peak experience. I thought, “I thought you got that [peak] in prayer.” He said [running] harmonizes mind, body and soul. Well, that sounded good to me because I’m not a compartmentalized being, and that indicated a whole being. So I went out and tried it on the beach that night in my hand-me down Pennys from my sister-in-law. [The priest] saw me come in through the door and said, “Where have you been?” And I said, “Doing what you said.” And he said, “How far did you go?” And I said, “Between those two eddies you suggested.” He said, “Do you know far that is?” I said, “Oh, probably half a mile.” He said, “How long did it take you?” I said I’d only been gone about five minutes. He said, “Well you’ve got to keep this up.”

When I got back to the institution in Spokane where the ball field was, I went out and ran around the ball field. I wasn’t there more than a week doing that when I went to this photo lab to do some of my photography. When I was coming out, I saw this poster regarding Bloomsday, which I had never heard of before. It was the second year of it and it was an 8.2 mile run. I was repulsed by the picture of these swarms of people elbowing through the herd.

So when I got home, there was a long distance call from my mother who was gently trying to inform me of the possible break up of my brother’s marriage. I listened to her and said, “I’m really not surprised. I’ve seen this coming for five years.” And she said, “Why?” I said, “You’re not going to like this either Mommy, but I consider the problem to be an unacknowledged alcoholic problem.” And then I said, “I’m going to do it!” And she said, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I’m going to run this Bloomsday run in Spokane, hoping that God will receive my will to endure He will transfer it to my brother’s will to give up his dependency.” She said, “How far is this, darling?” Then I gulped myself and said, “It’s 8.2 miles!” She really hung up feeling worse than when she called in the first place.

Then I get a call back shortly after and she said she just talked with my brother and he doesn’t think it’s a good idea. I said, “Of course he doesn’t…does he want to give up his dependency?” She said, “Well no, but he’s a runner.” I didn’t even know he ran track because I was already in the Convent. I said, “Running track is far different than running long distance, they don’t do it the same way and he probably has no knowledge of it.” So that was the end of that.

Then I started to go around the ball field and figured probably four times around would be a mile, then I’d go four times that. Then I just couldn’t handle that many times going in circle, so I headed for the street, but that was not a good idea without running shoes. My calves were so tight, I couldn’t even push them in, and my knees were so swollen I could hardly bend them. I was on the floor doing yoga, without knowing anything about warming up or cooling down. On the floor, I burst out in tears. “God, I can’t do this. I know I promised, but my body isn’t going to let me!” Then I thought, “Oh my gosh I’m in the library. If the nuns ever come up and see me like this, they’ll think I’ve lost it for good.” I went to my room and tried it out until I got still enough and heard this interior voice come straight into my heart saying, “I also had to step out in faith, not knowing how many, down to the ages, would respond to My act of love.” I said, “Okay, God, You’re going to have to be my strength!” And that’s how it all began, and He’s been my strength ever since.

From running I got introduced to the triathlon by a fellow runner who had done the Ironman. He came back and expounded on that and thought I should do an Ironman. I said, “What?!” I can’t see going through a school of fish with flailing arms and legs, and then getting on a bike for 112 miles – my feet would be frozen to the saddle! Then the running, I knew I could do the marathon. So not only I was repulsed by the picture of the runners, but then I was repulsed by the length of an Ironman. But I’ve done over 45 now, so it was no biggie. It just got to be a way of life.

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PH: You’re obviously very well-known now and have been for a long time. How do you handle the fame?

SMB: I just really can’t ever understand how a little old lady can be such an inspiration. I don’t get it! I just have to laugh every time someone runs up to me. Every time somebody runs up to me in a well-known race, I go two steps forward and one steps back instead of getting to my destination with all these people swarming with pictures and autographs. I just don’t get it. But I say, “Ok God, I don’t have to get it. This is Your plan, not mine.”

PH: How have you seen health and fitness change over the years?

SMB: I didn’t really start until I was 47. I feel I’m just as healthy if not more so in many ways then when I was in my 40s. So when people make a deal of me still doing triathlons at this age, I don’t think anything of it except that it’s hard! It didn’t used to be this hard on the body. I thought, “Lord, as long as I have a pair of running shoes, I’ll be happy wherever you plant me.” I never believed it, but the running is the hardest. It could be due to the numerous accidents that have occurred. Three of them were only 16 months apart and they were all three serious. But I could manage to do a couple of events on either side of the middle injury, which was a torn meniscus. On my 85th birthday, I was in surgery getting my left hip taken care of. But the day before, in the dark, I collided with the front wheel of my bike and, whamo. It was a torn meniscus. When I got home and found out what it was, I said, “Lord, help me do my best and You do the rest.” That’s been a mantra ever since. I realized that it doesn’t have to do with just physical problems. Any condition, anywhere, that’s an appropriate prayer. When I go to the jail, I tell them the same thing. It has a nice little beat with it: “Help me do my best, and You do the rest!” You ought to do a conga line with that when you’re in your room! Once you get it, you’re obligated to pass it on to someone else, so eventually it just might make it around the world, and we might find a little peace after all.

PH: Speaking of going to the jail, I read that you run to church every day and run to your local jail to talk with the inmates. Do you still do that?

SMB: I’ve been doing that ever since 1986.

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PH: Do they pretty much know you now and expect you to come?

SMB: It’s unusual, but I’ve received many thanks from them, even the ones I don’t necessarily talk to. They observe me coming week after week and they thank me. Some of them are more gentlemen than some of the people we meet on our streets. You don’t realize what influence you have or how you’re being observed. One time, someone stated that you, me, we, are a living gospel. You never know when you are being observed, but you are, so you might as well have a happy countenance that you can share with others that are down and out. I say this to them at the jail too: You don’t really have time to feel sorry for yourself. That doesn’t help anything. You see many a face that look down and out in here, and you may not even know their name. But when you’re passing, you don’t have to say anything. Just acknowledge them with a smile, and that brightens their day. Someone realizes that they’re a person instead of a number. We all need that. We all need that acknowledgement that we are a person. Nobody is made is exactly the same. Everybody is a masterpiece of God’s creation.

PH: What’s harder for you when you’re training or doing a race—the mental or the physical part?

SMB: When I was doing the Canadian Ironman, the course is actually more challenging. So I found that one physically more challenging. But the Hawaiian Ironman, because of the heat – you can even see the heat rising from the shoes—that I find that psychologically more challenging. It depends on the race and your disposition and physical condition.

PH: I read that you mostly eat raw fruits and vegetables for your diet. Does that still hold true?

SMB: It’s gotten more and more simple because I’ve lost five teeth and it’s not fun to eat anymore, and I try to get softer foods. I don’t take time to cook, and the raw fruits and vegetables are more nourishing anyway because you don’t cook the vitamins away. So not only is it a shortcut, but it’s got better nourishment.

PH: What encouragement would you give to someone who wants to do an Ironman or something like that but feels like they can’t?

SMB: These are the six D’s. First of all comes the dream. From the dream, develops the desire. Once you have the desire, you put forth the discipline. With the discipline evolves the dedication. Through the dedication comes determination and the determination to just do it!

PH: What are you up to now? Are you training for any races?

SMB: Once race is training for the next. That’s all I can do because I’m literally up in the air. I’ve already done two events. The first one was in Arizona on March 30 and a month later was the St. Petersburg triathlon in Florida. Then two days later I hopped on a plane to Guatemala where I was asked to be a part of a convention that spoke about the empowerment of women, which gave me no chance for exercise. Then I came home nine days later and got a few bikes and runs in, not much. Off to St. Louis and Louisville. Today I swam. We’ll see what tomorrow brings. I hope to swim and bike tomorrow because I have two or three events coming up in June, which is right upon us, with little or no training. But like I say, when you get this old, just keep moving. That’s all you need to do. I’m not going to beat anybody but myself. I end up being the oldest person in most races now, so there’s no one in my age group!


McGee Nall is a freelance writer based out of Athens, Georgia. She was probably eating Nilla wafers and Nutella while writing this.

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