Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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For Sister Madonna Buder, triathlon competitor, exercise ‘harmonizes mind, body, and soul’
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Dec. 17, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
Sister Madonna Buder of the Sisters for Christian Community displays some of the many trophies and ribbons she has earned as a world-class triathlete. (IR photo)
Since the late 1970s, Sister Madonna Buder, a member of the Sisters for Christian Community, has generated considerable media attention by her dedication to running and participation in iron man triathlons. She took up the sport in her late 40s, and now, with her 80th birthday coming next year, one small room in her home sags almost visibly under the weight of the medals, trophies, and other awards she has collected over the last 30-plus years.
Sister Madonna entered Religious life in 1953 in her native St. Louis, Mo. “It was a semi-cloistered order then,” she said. She remained through the changes in Religious life that occurred in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and beyond. In 1987, she transferred to a new group of women Religious, the Sisters for Christian Community.
During her first decades of Religious life, she worked with young women sent to her community by the court system. She lived in Paris, France, where she took her final vows in 1959, and in various cities in the U.S., including San Francisco, New Orleans, New York, and then in 1971, Spokane.
Life in her Religious community had changed over the years. In the midst of her 14-hour days as a social worker, meeting with the families of what were then called “delinquent” girls, and trying to run a rehabilitation program for the girls themselves, she missed the support she had once felt from her Religious community.
A new career as a witness to the bodily and spiritual benefits of physical exercise was just around the corner, however. At age 47, she attended a workshop in 1978 on the Oregon coast, led by Jesuit Father John Topel. During the workshop, the priest talked about the benefits of running.
“I said, ‘I can’t just go out there and run for no good reason!’” Sister Madonna said. “Then he said that running harmonizes mind, body, and soul, and that caught my ear. That made sense.”
“I snuck out that evening,” she said, “in a hand-me-down pair of tennis shoes, and when I got back Father Topel told me to keep going because you don’t feel the benefits until after a month or so of running. So after the retreat was over I remained there for a few days for a kind of private retreat, and I ran up and down the beach, and once I got back to Spokane I ran around a girls’ ball field. Then one day I saw a poster for the second Bloomsday run, and the photo on the poster showed this huge herd of people running. The idea of an organized run, elbowing your way through a herd of people, for God knows what reason, that repulsed me.”
Soon thereafter, however, learning that the marriage of one of her siblings was at risk, and an alcohol abuse issue was involved, she decided to run the second-ever Bloomsday “as a living way of the cross, that Jesus might take my will to endure and transfer it with his grace to my brother to give up his dependence on alcohol.”
Training to run Bloomsday with no understanding of proper warm-up and cool-down exercises, and with cheap, thin-soled shoes on her feet, Sister Madonna soon ended up exhausted and with no knowledge of what to do about it, and she thought of giving up. Then some words came to her: “In my agony in the garden, I did not know how many people down through the ages would respond to my sacrifice of love. I had to step out and face it, too.”
She immediately decided to remain faithful to her commitment to run Bloomsday for her brother’s sake. “I know I promised,” she prayed. “But I know I can’t do it. You have got to be my strength. Period.”
A benefactor of her Religious community insisted on buying her a new pair of running shoes. Before long, Sister Madonna was participating in one organized run after another. “I did maybe 20 a season, during the summer months, and I would run during the other parts of the year but not enter anything.”
In 1981, when she turned 50, she decided she would enter a marathon. “So the first marathon I entered was in Coeur d’Alene,” she said. “And then I thought, ‘Now that I can run, why don’t I do the Boston Marathon and collect pledges for MS?’ So that meant I had to do a qualifying race. But about then I realized that I was going to start attracting the attention of the media, and I had better check in with the bishop to see what he thought about what I was doing, because that’s who the media would call.” The late Bishop Lawrence Welsh was Bishop of Spokane at the time.
“So I came into his office, and he leans back in his chair and says, ‘All right, Sister, what have you got in mind?’ It’s like he’s expecting some big momentous thing from me. And I’m telling him that I just qualified for the Boston Marathon, and that I would very much like to do that for a cause bigger than myself, and collect pledges for MS. And his lips kind of curved up in this big smile, and all he said was, ‘Well, that was easy. Sister, I wish some of my priests would do what you’re doing.’ That was all he said. So I figured that was permission enough. So off I go for the Boston Marathon in ’82. And I collected over $4,000 in pledges.”
After Boston, she learned of a “troika” at Newman Lake, a half-iron man triathlon: a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bicycle ride, and a 13.1-mile run. The same benefactor who provided her shoes went to a police auction and bought her a bicycle. “About this time a running friend told me about the iron man triathlon in Hawaii,” she said. “But I could not conceive of running a marathon on top of swimming 2.4 miles and riding 112 miles on the bike.”
Her first Hawaii Iron Man Triathlon was in 1985. “They were expecting a hurricane,” she said, “but it didn’t happen; but the swells were anywhere from two to four feet high, and I was nowhere the swimmer that I am now. So after I was in the water for a while, I looked around, and the scenery wasn’t changing, I was getting nowhere. Still, I missed the minimum time for the swim of two hours and 15 minutes by only four minutes.”
Over the years, Sister Madonna competed in marathons and triathlons in the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Portugal, Mexico, Switzerland, and Australia. Forty triathlons later, “the years are adding up. In many triathlons, I have become not just the oldest woman but the oldest participant, older than the men, too. I’m 79, and I was the pioneer to open the 75 to 79 age group, in 2005, in the Canadian Iron Man and the Hawaiian Iron Man. I have never had any competition in that age group, and now I’m ready to move out and open another age group, for women ages 80-plus. So I’m trying to hang on to (competing in) iron man (events) to do that, but it’s getting more and more difficult. I have set records in my age group, but the only way I can continue to do this,” she says with a hearty laugh, “is to outlive the competition.”
That morning she ran 4.2 miles to and from Mass, and weather permitting, she runs about the same distance to get groceries. “I had thought I was going to retire (from running) a long time ago,” she said, “but it’s like my public won’t let me. But there comes a time when you gotta think a little bit about yourself. So I’m thinking that if I can open a new age category for women 80-plus, in the Hawaiian Iron Man, I might just drop the iron man distances and continue on with the rest. I can still do a half-iron man, which is a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1 run.”