The Grace to Race: The Wisdom and Inspiration of the 80-Year-Old World Champion Triathlete Known as the Iron Nun

The Grace to Race: The Wisdom and Inspiration of the 80-Year-Old World Champion Triathlete Known as the Iron Nun

by Sister Madonna Buder, Karin Evans


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SISTER MADONNA BUDER is 80 years old, has run more than 340 triathlons, and doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. In The Grace to Race, she shares the no-nonsense spirit and deep faith that inspired her extraordinary journey from a prominent St. Louis family to a Catholic Convent and finally to championship finish lines all over the world.

As a beautiful young woman, she became an elegant equestrian and accomplished amateur actress. But as she describes in this intimate memoir, she had a secret plan as early as 14: she wanted to devote her life to God. After being courted by the most eligible bachelors in her hometown, she chose a different path and became a Sister of the Good Shepherd.

She lived a mostly cloistered life as a Nun until her late forties, when a Priest suggested she take a run on the beach. She dug up a pair of shorts in a pile of donated clothes, found a pair of second-hand tennis shoes, and had a second epiphany. This time, she discovered the spiritual joy of pushing her body to the limit and of seeing God’s natural world in all its splendor.

More than thirty years later, she is known as the Iron Nun for all the triathlons she has won. Just five years ago, the age 75–79 category was created for her at the Hawaiian Ironman in Kona, where she completed a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a full 26.2-mile marathon in record time. Now she has set her sights on a new goal: inaugurating another new Ironman age group, 80–84, in 2010.

Sister Madonna holds dozens of records, has broken dozens of bones, and tells of dozens of miracles and angels that propelled her to a far-flung race. "It is my faith that has carried me through life’s ups and downs," she writes. "Whenever injured, I wait for the Lord to pick me up again and set me on my feet, confidently reminding Him, ‘God, you know, my intent is to keep running toward you.’"

The Grace to Race
is the courageous story of a woman who broke with convention, followed her heart, and found her higher mission.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439177495
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 10/18/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 401,066
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

SISTER MADONNA BUDER, also known as "the Iron Nun," "the Flying Nun," and "the Mother Superior of Triathlon," is a Roman Catholic nun. She began running in 1978 at age 48. As of 2009, has completed 38 marathons and 325 triathlons. An inspiration to athletes and non-athletes, the religious and the secular, she has appeared in such publications as Runner’s World, U.S. News & World Report, Sports Illustrated, AARP Bulletin, USA Today, the Seattle Times, the Denver Post, Competitor Magazine, Triathlete Magazine, Ironman Magazine, More Magazine, and numerous others She lives in Washington Sate.

KARIN EVANS has been a writer and editor at many major national publications, including Newsweek, Outside, and Health. Her writing has also appeared in such places as More Magazine, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Her book, The Lost Daughters of China (Tarcher, Penguin/Putnam, 2000) was a national bestseller. With Amy Tan, she co-authored the text for Mei-Mei: Portraits from a Chinese Orphanage (Photographs by Richard Bowen, Chronicle Books, 2005).

Read an Excerpt


The Miracle Finish—
2006 Hawaiian Ironman

Determination is the mind willing something to happen
by the grace of God.

Kona, Hawaii

October, 2006

I WAS A fourth of the way through the 2.4-mile swim course of the Hawaiian Ironman, wondering why I didn’t seem to be making any progress through the water. I raised my head, peering through my goggles at a landmark hotel on shore, and realized I wasn’t getting beyond it. I kept stroking, wondering what was going on in the ocean depths below. When I finally reached land, it was twenty minutes later than I had expected.

In the transition area between the swim and the bike course, I peeled off my damp suit as quickly as I could. Every second counts in these races. When I got on my bicycle, it wasn’t long before I realized it didn’t matter if I had just gotten out of the ocean. The rain was coming down so heavily that I had to close my eyes every few seconds. This called for extra precaution, which slowed me down considerably.

Ironman events, with their swim-bike-run requirement—140.6 miles in all, with a full marathon at the end—are grueling enough without this sort of weather. But there was no question of giving in to it, although it might be normal to wonder what I was doing out here at the age of seventy-six.

Aside from the usual competitiveness involved in this famed annual event on the Big Island of Hawaii, I had my own special reason for wanting to finish. My nephew Dolph had died the previous month, quite unexpectedly. (It wasn’t until six months later that the coroner’s report said the cause was heart disease.) So I had been asking God for some kind of confirmation that he had died at peace and was in the right place. I made a kind of deal with God: If I could finish this race, I would know my nephew was at peace. That thought was in the back of my mind as I struggled through the ocean swim, and it was on my mind now, as I did my best to keep pedaling through the torrents of rain.

By the time I got to the transition between the bike segment and the run, I was beginning to feel a little queasy, something that has happened to me on the run for the past ten years or so. My stomach doesn’t always cooperate with the rest of my body, and that condition forces me to walk almost the entire marathon.

This time, after spending twenty-eight minutes in the bike-to-run transition, trying to get some nourishment down and get reconditioned for my death march, I managed to start out on the run, but had gone only about five of the 26.2 miles when a marshal on a moped came alongside me and began spitting out statistics: “You are three minutes down.” I was still trying to run, but thinking, “What is he telling me? Maybe he means I am three minutes from making the cutoff time. Guess I had better pick up the pace, whether or not I feel like it.” The Ironman rules require that you make the three disciplines of swim, bike, and run within a given time. The next time he encountered me, he prompted, “You’re doing better. You are up three minutes.”

Three miles later came the deluge. It was coming down the mountain slopes and across the road in a river ankle-deep. I had on my lightest running shoes, yet I could barely lift my feet. Afraid the current was going to knock me down in my weakened state, I got the inspiration to cross over to the other side of the road, moving on a diagonal toward the sidewalk. As I stepped on the submerged curb, my foot slipped, which sent me sprawling. I didn’t even take time to see if I was gushing blood, figuring the rain would take care of that. It looked as if everyone, even the marshal, had headed for dry cover. However, this couple appeared suddenly from nowhere and yanked me to my feet.

It had gotten cooler, and I was sopping wet and beginning to feel chilled. Being vulnerable to hypothermia, I prayed, “Lord, let me just keep moving, no matter how. At least I will be circulating.” I promised myself that by mile 15 I would try some hot chicken soup at the aid station there. Meanwhile, the marshal on the moped putt-putted up again, announcing that I was now eight minutes down. Nonetheless I kept plodding. As long as I was ambulatory the thought of quitting was not an option.

When I did get to the aid station at mile 15, I stopped and accepted some chicken soup, which was lukewarm, probably from rain water. It did not settle well, so I grabbed a piece of soft roll, hoping it would sop up the remains in my gurgling stomach. One bite—and that came up too. As I sat exhausted in the aid station, one of the volunteers started massaging my shoulders. I did not want to leave. Then came the inner command: “You had better get up now. No one is going to finish this race for you.” It was late, and though I wanted to linger, I had to get going.

I got back on my feet and struggled onwards in the darkness, toward the turnaround. With about six miles to go, I was out there alone when these four angels appeared from the opposite side of the road, running in the dark. One had no shoes. One had only thongs. A husband-and-wife team were the only two with running shoes. Imagine my surprise when one of them asked, “May we accompany you in?”

At this point, I was only walking, and murmured weakly, “Uh-huh.” Then they asked whether I would like them to tell me a story as we moved along, or if I wanted to tell them one. “You,” I said. The couple began telling me about their young daughter, who had broken her arm. After occupying me with the details of how she had bravely overcome her injury and how proud they were of her, they changed the subject. “Do you see that stop sign ahead? Do you think you can start running when you get there, and then stop at the next signal to walk again?” They kept pushing me on in this manner.

The next time the marshal on the moped appeared and started spitting out statistics, I completely blocked him out, figuring my angels would interpret the timing for me. I don’t wear a watch during these events. Even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to see it in the darkness. I just listen to my body. After all, that is the most accurate measurement. When your battery runs low, you just can’t go.

Then along came another person on a moped, a man I’d known a long time as an announcer for many triathlon events. I found out later that he, too, had come on the scene to encourage me, and was radioing ahead to the finish line. “It doesn’t look as if Sister Madonna is going to make it. She is just walking now.” And then a bit later: “Oh, she just passed another runner, so maybe there is hope.” He kept the reports flowing so as to hype up everyone at the finish line to keep up their prayers. Even the local Hawaiian fire dancers were going through their ceremonial rituals on my behalf.

I was, of course, totally unaware of any of this. Meanwhile, I begged my angels, “Can’t I just walk until we get to Palani Hill, and then I’ll start running down it a mile and a half from the finish? Since we’ll be back in civilization, it won’t matter if I collapse.”

They were firm. “No, you have to do a bit more running before you get there.” With a mile and two-tenths to go, someone noticed I had only twelve minutes left if I was going to make it to the finish in time. That did not seem possible. All I knew was to rely on the advice of my remaining two angel coaches. The other two, running without shoes, could no longer keep pace and had peeled off, but the pair still with me kept telling me when I should run and when I could walk.

My little twosome team kept encouraging me onward. Closer to the finish line, I could hear the crowd in a frenzy. When we got to the top of the final hill, I started extending my legs for a downhill run. They yelled a last admonition, “Oh, good, don’t stop! Keep going, even when you get to the bottom of the hill!”

From the outset, as I had begun preparing for this 2006 Hawaiian Ironman, there had been strange omens, beginning with my nephew Dolph’s death just the month before. Before I left home in Spokane, I had the gut feeling that this was going to be a very different competition. I’d done the Hawaiian Ironman some twenty times by now, but something this year felt different. The feeling I had didn’t tell me not to go; it just said, be prepared.

On my way to Hawaii, I drove from my home in Spokane over to Seattle, where I was going to spend the night with friends before boarding for Kona the next day. In Seattle, my friend opened the door, saying, “Do you know what happened in Hawaii?” She turned on the TV, and there was news of an earthquake. That never happens there, I thought. They are used to hurricanes in Hawaii, but not earthquakes. I remembered that premonition.

While watching the news, I wasn’t sure whether I could take the plane I was scheduled to take the next day. Flights were turning back because Honolulu was affected and there were power outages. I got on the Web site for the Ironman and learned that, as far as they could see, the course had not been damaged except in one place, and that was under repair. So I decided to go. But for some reason, this little voice said, “Don’t go through Honolulu this year to change planes; go through Maui.” And so I rebooked my flight through Maui.

As my plane from Seattle neared the islands, it did not look like the Hawaii I knew. Heavy clouds had darkened the usually azure waters. When we touched down on the airstrip, there was water everywhere. It had not stopped raining all day. The plane was late, and we had to run for our connection. None of our checked luggage, including our bicycles, made it to Kona on the flight, and it was not until the next day that they were delivered. But in Honolulu, I heard, passengers hadn’t even been able to get off their planes because of power outages.

Grateful to have arrived safely in Kona, I settled into bed. About half past midnight, I was awakened by this funny rumbling sound. As dishes danced in the cupboard and the bedstead jitterbugged, I thought, “Oh, Lord, you are not finished yet!” At 5:38 a.m. there was another bed-shaker, and I thought, “Are we going to have this race or not? There are only four days left. Please get it out of your system.”

It was overcast and cooler than normal on race day, and I thought, Lord this is good—as long as you keep it overcast, there will be minimal winds and no one blown off their bikes.

Then the skies opened.

My angels’ last instructions—“Don’t stop, even when you get to the bottom of the hill!”—kept ringing in my ears. How did they know I always stopped at the bottom to walk the next five miserable blocks on the flat until I hit Alii Drive and then gave it my all to the finishing chute? Even without a wristwatch, I sensed this was going to be a fight against time. It was then I realized this was the opportunity I had been looking for. If I could cross the finish line in time, I would know that my nephew was at peace and in the right place.

As soon as I made that bargain with God, I had the strangest feeling, as if I were dangling between two realities, losing touch with my body and being conscious only of my momentum. I sensed a presence in the dark over my right shoulder, intimating that what I was doing was unreal. It was like make-believe. When people started crowding in, I heard their yelling and saw their hands outstretched for a high five, but I didn’t acknowledge them, which I usually would do. This time, a word of warning came: “If you touch just one of them, it could alter your forward movement. In your weakened condition, it could cost you seconds, which you can’t spare.” I developed tunnel vision, looked straight ahead and kept pushing.

Usually the Hawaiian Ironman marathon finishes under an arch, but now I saw that they had built a plank that required you to run uphill. How sadistic could it get? But I gave it my all in a last surge. “Oh God, please keep this body moving!” When I topped the finish, the crowd was wild, as well as the announcer. The woman I had stayed with in Kona put a lei over my head, and I immediately bent over with the dry heaves.

When I finally straightened up, I saw projected on the screen my time of 16 hours, 59 minutes, and 3 seconds. I was the last official finisher, the oldest woman on the course, and I had beat the cut-off time of 17 hours by a mere 57 seconds. “Thank you, Lord,” I breathed. “Now I know my nephew is in the right place.”

When the announcer thrust the microphone in my face, I told him how I had asked God to let me know that my nephew was at peace. Even the announcer danced up and down shouting, “Yeah, he’s in the right place! He’s in the right place!”

This will forever remain the most significant Ironman I have ever done.

During the awards ceremony the following evening, an announcer on stage was saying something about a Spirit of Determination award. The master of ceremonies kept rattling on about this person going through so many accidents but still coming back for more to compete year after year. I thought that sounded somewhat familiar, but knew it could also apply to lots of other people who train for these events. When I glanced up at the screen on the stage, however, under the words Spirit of Determination was my name.

I was seated far back, so it took me a while to gallop through the crowds and up to the staging platform, where I spotted this new Cannondale bike. I could scarcely believe this was my reward, even when the announcer said, “This is yours.” Who on earth would think of getting an award like this for being the last official finisher in an event? The bike delivered to me in Spokane several months later was a beautiful heavenly blue.

This was in October. At Thanksgiving when I spoke on the phone with my nephew’s family, I shared the details of this event, including the surprise of the Cannondale bike. You could hear a pin drop on the other end of the line. Finally my niece said, “I don’t usually pay attention to brand names, but what did you say that bike was?” When I repeated the description she blurted, “That’s it! That was the make!” Dolph, she said, had always ridden a Cannondale. What further confirmation did I need that he was in the right place?

In Kona just the year before, I had opened up a new age group for women, 75–79. Now, in 2006, while on stage accepting my award, I promised the crowd that in 2010 I would try to open up yet another age group for women, 80–84. So far, no woman over the age of eighty had attempted an Ironman, though one eighty-year-old man had finally succeeded. If Robert McKeague could do it for the men, I owed it to the women to do likewise.

Sometimes I ask myself about continuing to compete in these Ironman events, but my body, mind, and soul feel so complete while I’m out there. I didn’t begin running until I was forty-eight years old, but exercise has redirected my life.

* * *

After the miraculous finish in the 2006 Kona Ironman, I continued to be struck by the integrity of those four people who picked me up the last six miles to encourage me into the finish. I wanted to find out who they were. I learned they belonged to the Oakley Team, obtained their names, and wanted to thank them, so I e-mailed the following:

Dear Brent and Susie,

I want to thank you for being my “angel coaches” during the last portion of the marathon in Kona. Whatever put it in your hearts to do such a thing? Exactly when did you peel off? Did you hear me at the finish line? How did you ever know to tell me not to stop running at the bottom of the hill? I always do! Your manner of coaching me into running was superb, but how could you have timed it so well? After seeing the coverage of this event, I am still in awe of what you did for me. What selflessness!

Would you please thank the other two “angels” who peeled off sooner than the two of you did and pass this message along? Which one was barefooted and which had the thongs? Of course I’d like the answer to the above questions if you feel so inclined, but no rush.

Here’s their reply:

Dear Sister Madonna,

How sweet of you to get in touch with us. We should thank you for making the Ironman experience so memorable for us. YOU did all the work and we just had fun. Congratulations! To answer your questions, as far as I understand, it had become somewhat of a tradition for these sales guys from Oakley, my husband Brent included, to go out on the course about 10:30 p.m. and run in with anyone who might want or need some motivation at the end. They have made this an annual tradition as they are there every year for the event.

The guys on the motor bikes were helping us to pace you, but I myself could hardly believe that it was so close! We peeled off right before you finished, and yes, we did hear you at the finish line. You did all the work, we were just there for support. Actually, my husband Brent had [joined the race to run at your side] with you a few years back, although it wasn’t quite as close [a finish] back then. He remembers that you mentioned you wanted to run down the hill and then take a rest, but the wonderful Ironman official on the scooter gave us the sign that there was no time, so we just did our best to keep you going. And, wow! Did you keep going!

Kona Ironman has become a very special event to us, as it is one of the few places where you can see people all coming together to challenge themselves, cheer, volunteer, and show kindness to one another all in one place at one time. It definitely restores some faith that there is some goodness left in the world. We are so happy to have heard from you. Thank you for being such a great motivation to us.

Brent and Susie Lantz

Running does change people’s lives. When I first entered the religious life at the age of twenty-three, I was set apart from the world. Once I began to run and to compete, my path opened wide to include the whole world. God’s ways are not our ways. I would probably be less effective sitting in the convent than I am now, being thrust into the public where I can influence people by example.

I’m keenly aware how blessed I am, because how many people get angels helping them along the way like I do? I travel alone all the time, and I train alone all the time; but somebody is always there when I need them if something goes wrong.

When people come up to me, as they continually do, and say, “Well, you have an added advantage. God is on your side,” I know that it isn’t just my advantage. We all have it if we just call on the God power within. It’s there for the taking.

© 2010 Sister Madonna Buder

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