SPOKANE — She’s the nun on the run.
In the nearly 30 years since she first took up the sport, Sister Madonna Buder has powered through 37 marathons, 34 Ironmans and literally hundreds of other triathlons and races. Two years ago, at age 75, she became the oldest woman to finish the Kona Ironman World Championship. Last year, she came back and did it again.
Buder’s resilience and determination have become so renowned that the Spokane resident was recognized recently by Runner’s World magazine as one of this year’s Heroes of Running.
Featured in the December issue, Buder is among a group of amazing runners who have inspired others by their talents and spirit. Those “heroes” include: Ryan Hall, who set a new half-marathon record in the United States by averaging a 4:33-minute mile; Nancy Brinker, founder of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, the world’s largest fundraising event for breast cancer; and Amy Palmiero-Winters, who continues to run as an amputee and in fact, has faster race times now than before she lost her left leg in a motorcycle accident.
“When I run, all the problems of the world dissolve into the openness of God’s cathedral,” said Buder, who serves with the Sisters for Christian Community. “Running has helped me develop a way to look at the larger picture.”
The sport — along with the swimming and cycling she later picked up — also has given her the resolve to power through any obstacle. Earlier this spring, Buder fell off her bike after she was cut off by another competitor at California’s Wildflower Triathlon. She suffered a triple fracture of the ulna and another fracture of the radius, yet she was able to recover and win her age group just eight weeks later at the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship.
“Lord, please help me,” she prayed during those painful weeks after the accident when it seemed as though her athletic life was coming to an end. A week before the national championship, she finally got back on the bike to train. “I had to deal with the powers of darkness,” Buder said. “If I hadn’t gotten back on the bike that day, I probably never would’ve again.”
Raised Roman Catholic in St. Louis, Buder became a nun at the age of 23. Although she was active and walked a lot, running didn’t become a part of her daily regimen until she was 47 years old.
A priest encouraged her and other nuns to try the sport by expounding on its many benefits. “He made running sound like the panacea for everything,” she recalled. “He talked about how running harmonizes mind, body and soul and how you get this peak experience that I thought you got only through prayer.”
So Buder started running first around the baseball field near her home, then eventually on the streets and sidewalks of north Spokane. It wasn’t easy, she recalled, but a Bloomsday poster she saw one evening gave her the motivation she needed. “I will offer it up as a living way of the cross,” she told her mother.
Five weeks after she first took up running, Buder found herself at the starting line of Bloomsday, which was 8.2 miles at the time. She walked for about five minutes for every two miles she ran. By the time she crossed the finish line, Buder was hooked. “It felt more like a resurrection than the way of the cross,” she said.
Indeed, running became a form of prayer for the sister. During long runs, she talked to God, wrote haikus about nature in her head or prayed for people by offering up her efforts on their behalf. She discovered that running not only improved her physical and emotional well-being, it also enhanced her spiritual life.
Before she embarked on her new sport, however, Buder sought permission from then Bishop Lawrence Welsh. She feared that people wouldn’t approve of nuns running in races and she didn’t want to be source of scandal. Welsh, however, had no objections. “Sister, I wish some of my priests would do what you’re doing,” Buder recalled Welsh telling her after she mentioned her plans to raise money for Multiple Sclerosis and run the Boston Marathon.
In those early years of her running career, Buder would often log in as many as 70 miles a week, as well as participate in about 20 races a season. She qualified for the Boston Marathon in her early 50s by running a marathon in less than 31/2 hours. She also set age-group records at numerous races, including the Canadian Ironman, which she completed in her early 60s at an impressive time of 13 hours and 16 minutes and in the 70-plus division by completing the race in 15 hours and 35 minutes.
Because of her success at races, Buder has caught the attention of sporting goods companies that want her to wear their shoes and clothing during races, as well as HBO Sports, which is currently on a documentary about the sister. She also serves as a role model and motivational speaker to many groups in the area and throughout the country.
Her busy schedule, as well as the injuries she suffered this year, has limited the amount of time she can devote to training. But whenever she has a spare moment, she laces her shoes and hits the road.
“When you’re running alone for so many hours, it becomes just you and God,” she said. “When I’m training on my own, nature becomes my cathedral.”