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Running is her Habit

by Alecia Warren
| December 5, 2010 8:00 PM

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Running is her Habit_2

After suffering through a broken hip, through hypothermia, through the wrong shoes and the wrong bike gears, Sister Madonna Buder has never turned to a private coach to guide her through her Ironman training.

In all her decades of competition, the Spokane nun has relied on someone higher up the ladder to ensure her finishing time.

“My coach is the person upstairs,” Buder said.

Apparently, not a bad strategy.

It’s all laid out in her new biography, “The Grace to Race,” how Buder, a nun with Sisters for Christian Community, relied on faith and gumption to power through 40 marathons and over 350 triathlons, including about 40 Ironman competitions.

Still competing at 80, she has set the record for oldest woman to complete the Hawaii Ironman every year since 2005.

Does that count as a miracle?

“If you live by, in and through faith, you can accomplish really anything you put your heart and mind to,” Buder said on Tuesday, after regretting that she drove to church instead of her usual run through the snow. “It doesn’t matter what.”

Originally from St. Louis, Mo., Buder became a nun at 23, inspired by a Catholic school teacher who took special interest in her.

It wasn’t until 20 years later, after Buder had moved to Spokane, that running ever occurred to her.

In fact, she heard it lauded by a priest at a conference on the Oregon coast in 1978. He touted the physical and spiritual harmony of slogging outdoors, Buder remembered.

“He made it sound like a panacea for everything,” she said.

She started plodding that same day. Only five weeks later she entered her first race, Bloomsday, a move she hoped would inspire her brother to address his alcoholism.

“I said ‘I’m going to run this as a living way of the cross, hoping God will transfer through his grace my will to endure,’” she said.

The training was overwhelming, she said, especially in her thin, dilapidated tennis shoes. But even with her knees barely able to bend and her calves feeling paralyzed, she finished the then 8.2-mile race.

“I had no idea what this would expend on my body,” she said of getting into shape. “That’s why I never wanted to stop. I didn’t want to go through any of this (initial training) again. I needed to get honed.”

So that’s what she did, constantly entering races to keep up her momentum.

She blew through a rash of marathons for several years, once piling up 20 races in a season.

“I didn’t realize I was burned out until I couldn’t stand to look at running shoes anymore,” she said with a laugh.

A friend and fellow racer suggested trying triathlons.

She ventured through a half-triathlon first, and now laughs that she did everything wrong, not even knowing her bike could change gears.

“I was running on the highest gear for 25 miles,” she said. “I just learned by my mistakes.”

She completed Ironman in Hawaii in 1985. Finding it easier to recover from triathlons than marathons and enjoying the camaraderie of the triathlon community, she was hooked.

“I probably will keep going until I can’t anymore,” she said.

Now with a wall covered with medals from the events she has conquered, Buder said she continues just as much for herself as for her fans.

“At these events, I take two steps forward and one step back. Everybody wants a picture or a signature,” she said. “I can’t understand where they’re coming from, why I am such an inspiration. But it doesn’t matter, if that’s the way God wants to use me.”

She still packs her year with races, she said. She does Ironman Canada and Kona every year. But she only volunteers at the Ironman Coeur d’Alene.

“Two Ironmans a year is enough for anyone, let alone an 80-year-old,” she said.

A nun’s schedule doesn’t allow much of a window for training, she admitted, so she makes her fitness functional by running to mass and biking to the grocery store.

Buder is otherwise occupied with community outreach like visiting individuals in the Spokane County Jail. Helping one person attain a better life makes everything worthwhile, she said.

“That’s why I do so little training,” she said of her busy soul-saving schedule. “That’s why I go from event to event. Each one is training for the next one.”

She’s endured a slew of injuries throughout her competing, she added, including a broken hip in 1984 that had her doctor warning she might never walk again.

Still, she started running again — with a limp — a few months later.

“I’ve been chipped away and chipped away,” she said, adding that she is a real ironwoman because of metal in her body from surgery. “Somehow I have been blessed with the ability to heal quickly.”

Some have chafed at the thought of a nun competing, even other sisters in her order, she said.

But Buder believes she has been given a gift. Not to use it would dishonor who she has committed her life to serving, she said.

“Age has something to do with that,” she said. “After you get so old, you don’t care what people think. You’re too busy just trying to survive.”

Her racing plans are to compete in next year’s Ironman Canada and the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. She was disappointed that she didn’t finish her most recent Ironman competitions this year in Arizona, Canada and Florida, due to hangups with her wetsuit and other problems with the swimming portions.

“I suffered hypothermia three times,” she said. “I’m still learning.”

After the next Hawaii Ironman, it might be time to retire from Ironman competitions, she said.

But not from running.

That she will continue as long as she can.

“I love life, and this is just a good way to expend one’s energy,” she said. “By living it to the fullest.”

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