Sister Madonna Buder never runs a race alone. She has competed in more than 360 triathlons, 45 Ironman competitions and more marathons than she can remember. The sister from the USA says she just does her best and lets God carry her the rest of the way.
Although she was an active child, 84-year-old Sister Madonna Buder didn’t discover her God-given talent for running until her late 40s. At a retreat on the Oregon coast, a priest talked of the benefits of running and described the ‘runner’s high’.
'I thought prayer was supposed to be a peak experience', she jokes. 'Then when he said it harmonised mind, body and soul, I’m a holistic kind of person, so that made sense to me.'
At 47 years of age, she thought she’d give running a try, but needed a goal. The priest suggested her goal be to run the distance between two eddies. So Sr Madonna laced up a pair of thin second-hand runners and raced down the beach. When the priest learnt how quickly she had run the distance, he encouraged her to continue.
‘He said, “You have to do this for at least five weeks before you’ll know what the runner’s high is”.’ Almost 35 years later, Sister Madonna says she still doesn’t know what it is. ‘I sure know what the lows are though', she laughs.
Five weeks after she took up running, Sister Madonna completed an 8.2 mile race in her city of Spokane, Washington and placed fourth out of 300 women. Training for the race in such a short amount of time ‘thrashed’ her body to such an extent that her knees were enlarged and she couldn’t bend them back.
‘I thought the only thing was to keep going. So they would be passing out flyers at another race and I would sign up.’
It was not unusual for Sr Madonna to do 20 races in one season. From there she discovered Ironman competitions and triathlons, but Sr Madonna says what put her in league with the ‘biggies’ was when she qualified for the Boston Marathon at age 52.
‘I somehow got into the finish line with 42 seconds to spare', she recalls.
Since then, she’s competed in eight Boston Marathons including the one in 2013. She was recently named the Ironman All World Athlete Champion for her age group and last year was initiated into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame. When asked what’s her greatest achievement, the elite triathlete, who holds multiple Senior Olympics records, doesn’t have an answer.
‘I don’t achieve them. I just do them.’
In 1953, Sister Madonna joined the Sisters of the Good Shepherd at the age of 23. She was inspired to become a nun after she transferred to a Catholic school in Year 7 and was struggling with her schooling. One of the nuns helped her adapt to the school’s rigorous standards.
‘[The sister] was so gentle and so patient. I decided if this is what nuns are like that’s what I want to do with my life', Sr Madonna remembers.
After many years in her religious order, Sr Madonna hit what she refers to as the ‘tough spot’.
‘There were some difficult times in my religious life, when Vatican II was changing things and my order was dragging their feet.’
Sister Madonna eventually left her order and joined a congregation of sisters with a new model of religious community, the non-canonical Sisters for Christian Community. This community allowed her to choose a ministry without the approval of a superior. She chose to minister in prisons, which she continues today. But, it was God and running that saw her through this change.
‘When I was out there in nature running everything seemed so minimal. All my worries, cares and problems were ants compared to the entire universe. It just cleared my mind and lifted my soul. It helped me survive.’
Sister Madonna thinks a bit of struggle isn’t a bad thing. ‘Opposition’, she says, ‘toughens us.’
‘There were times I was so ho-hum about what I was doing that I wanted to give it up. At those times very often would be when the accidents occurred. It’s because of the energy put into the healing, all of the sudden when I’m healed, the life is back. I have another incentive to keep going’, she explains.
Sister Madonna runs to mass in the morning, then to do errands and to the prison where she does her ministry. But God and praying for people is never far from her mind.
‘[Running] becomes spiritual when people pop into my mind for no good reason. I’m saying “Okay God. That person is here in my mind because they need your attention, please bless them this day.”’
And one thing she’s learned from running is to be grateful.
‘No matter what happens in the balance, I am grateful. First of all, God has given me the body to be able to do this. He has given me the world that surrounds me. He gives me the people that I come into contact with. He gives me some hard places, but he helps me get beyond them and over them.’
This article was first published in Madonna magazine.