How A Catholic Nun Has Changed How We “Age Out Loud”

Competitors in Triathlon entering the water for the swimming leg.

As someone who has worked in the field of aging for over 20 years, I’ve had the good fortune to work with many older adults. Each has taught me a lesson in how to “age out loud,” including my parents and other relatives.

They have all been role models in how to live successfully—in great health or with chronic health conditions, including Alzheimer’s; with no worries about money or under challenging financial circumstances; and single, as part of an aging couple, or moving forward after the loss of a partner. These relationships have taught me lessons about being open to new adventures, working after the traditional retirement age, contributing to community in meaningful ways, and how to put life in its proper perspective.

“Age Out Loud” is the theme of this year’s Older Americans Month celebration. Age Out Loud is intended to give aging a new voice—one that reflects what today’s older adults have to say. And I’m listening.

In my work as the UW Elder Friendly Futures Conference co-chair, I recently got acquainted with one person who serves as a particularly energizing, inspiring, and powerful example of the Age Out Loud theme: Sister Madonna Buder of Spokane. Sister Madonna will give the closing keynote address at the 2017 conference (September 14–15 at the Lynnwood Convention Center).

“The first 45 didn’t kill me!”

You may know Sister Madonna better as “The Iron Nun,” a Catholic sister who has competed in over 45 Ironman triathlons. Sister Madonna is a legend among her fellow triathletes, but she became known to the general public through the Nike television advertisement entitled “Unlimited Youth” that ran during the 2016 Summer Olympics. An Ironman triathlon is one of a series of long-distance races consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a marathon 26.22-mile run, raced in that order and without a break.

Sister Madonna has loved the outdoors her entire life, but she didn’t start running until she was 48. Inspired by a priest leading a retreat on the Oregon Coast who encouraged attendees to consider running as a way to balance mind, body, and soul, she ran for the first time in a pair of borrowed sneakers.

The Grace to Race

As Sister Madonna shares in her book, The Grace to Race, “part of the joy I found when I first started running was the chance to get out in nature. To this day, my problems seem to shrink when surrounded by God’s Creation.”

What started out as a meditative and prayerful practice also became an opportunity to accomplish a mission through running. Sister Madonna often uses marathon running as a vehicle to raise awareness about and funds for research for causes such as multiple sclerosis (MS), breast cancer, and diabetes. In her first major marathon—the Boston Marathon in 1982 when she was age 52—Sister Madonna raised $4,000 for MS research.

Sister Madonna Buder, from the cover of her book, The Grace to Race. (Photo credit: J. Craig Sweat for Simon & Schuster.)

For Sister Madonna, training has become a time for prayer, problem solving, even composing poetry. She’s also become an angel on the course and routinely prays as she competes. When she sees a fellow competitor struggling, Sister will come up beside them, offer words of encouragement, and continue on in the race, sending up prayers of support for that individual. She’s been a beacon of hope in other races, a mascot at others, and an inspiration to many.

After she read about a race called the Troika in her local newspaper, Sister Madonna began training for and participating in triathlons. She approached this with an attitude of “Well, I’ve done the epitome of foolishness by engaging in the marathon at my age, so what the heck, why not try this, too?” Triathlons typically include a 1.5 kilometer (0.9 miles) swim, 40 kilometer (24.8 miles) bike ride, and a 10 kilometer (6.2 miles) run. Small triathlons eventually led to the Ironman triathlons.

When it comes to training, Sister Madonna is unconventional. Her goal is to make it joyful. She swims. She runs. She bikes. But she also uses daily tasks as an opportunity to challenge herself physically. Trips to the store are done by walking or biking. She maintains a garden in season, and regularly pulls weeds, plants, and rakes. She attends mass daily and runs to and from her parish. In winter, she often uses cross-country skis and snowshoes to get around. She makes her meals nutritious and simple.  She eats meat sparingly, treats herself to an occasional sweet, but focuses mostly on complex carbohydrates, fresh veggies (often from her garden), and fruits. She also uses supplements such as Vitamin D.

The years of training and competing have been filled with challenges. In the early 1980s while training on her bike, Sister Madonna was hit by a car, which resulted in a broken hip at the femur and a fracture down the shank. A couple years before that accident, she trained on a borrowed bike while visiting her family in St. Louis. Because the bike was unfamiliar, applying the brakes while going downhill flipped her over the handlebars, resulting in a compound fracture of her right elbow. This didn’t stop her from participating in a 10K three weeks later, with some added precautions. In 1985, while visiting a friend in Australia, she was hit by another car while training on a bike, resulting in broken ribs, a contusion in her right leg, and a chipped heel. With a month left before leaving for the Ironman in Hawaii, she continued to train as best she could.

Pushing boundaries and challenging assumptions

Sister Madonna turns 87 years old on July 24, 2017. She continues to push the boundaries and challenge assumptions about older adults and aging. When she wanted to compete in a triathlon and there wasn’t a category for her age group for women, she requested one, and it was granted. Because of Buder’s pioneering work and accomplishments, there are now age group categories for women age 75–79 and 80+ in many triathlons, including Ironman competitions.

Sister Madonna is also pragmatic about age. She has learned to respect her age and “not push beyond reason. For the more mature athlete, I think endurance is the key, not necessarily speed,” she says. “If you can endure, you can out-do the speedsters who wear themselves out in the beginning stages.” Sounds like a metaphor for living life to its fullest and a great way to Age Out Loud.

Contributor Keri Pollock directs marketing and communications for Aging Wisdom, an Aging Life Care™ practice (geriatric care management) serving King and south Snohomish Counties; serves on the Elderwise board of directors, and co-chairs the UW Elder Friendly Futures Conference.

Originally appeared on AgeWise King County (May 2017)