x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 25 November 2017

Octogenarian athlete Madonna Buder: 'You are never too old to learn new tricks'

The 87-year-old talks to us about running the line between faith and fitness  

Madonna Buder. Courtesy Madonna Buder
Madonna Buder. Courtesy Madonna Buder

Just as sister Madonna Buder picks up the phone in Washington state, the maghrib call to prayer rings out over the final faint rays of Abu Dhabi’s sunset. The 87-year-old, once dubbed the Iron Nun for her love of competing in Ironman triathlons well into her 80s, is thrilled to hear it. “That’s wonderful,” she says. “I wish the Christians would adopt that practice. I think everyone would be much better off.”

When we spoke, Buder was preparing to travel to the capital, where she was scheduled to speak, on a Sports Across Generations panel at the International Conference of Sports for Women 2017, sponsored by the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy, on Tuesday. Never having been to the Middle East, she was looking forward to escaping the onset of winter – and to having a dip in the sea. She reckons the two-day journey from her home is longer than the one she once took to compete in Tasmania. “You are never too old to learn new tricks,” Buder tells me with a laugh.

As she recounts in the first chapter of her 2010 book, The Grace to Race, Buder only took up running at the age of 48 on the advice of a priest at a workshop she was attending. “He started to expound on the benefits of running, and when he said it harmonised mind, body and soul, I thought: ‘Well, that makes sense, but I’m used to interaction sports. I can’t get out there and run for no good reason,’” Buder recalls.

After an initial attempt that was about a kilometre, it turns out she could. (Although even after all that pavement pounding, Buder claims she still has no idea what a “runner’s high” is.) Running led to cycling and swimming, and she was off. She entered her first Ironman Triathlon at 52, and would go on to compete in more than 40 of the famously brutal events, for which athletes must qualify, combining a 3.9km swim, 19km bike ride and 42km run.

‘Iron Nun’ Madonna Buder has participated in more than 400 triathlons around the world. Courtesy Madonna Buder
‘Iron Nun’ Madonna Buder has participated in more than 400 triathlons around the world. Courtesy Madonna Buder

Buder blasted through several age groups competing in Ironman races and, in 2012 at the age of 82, broke the age record again by finishing the Subaru Ironman Canada Triathlon. Not surprisingly, she has had her share of injuries along the way, including the time she fractured her pelvis at the Hawaii Ironman in 2014, and was unable to finish.

She’s had three major injuries over the past 16 months, one of them a torn meniscus. She didn’t want knee surgery, so she prayed: “Help me do my best, you do the rest.” By her own account, the meniscus healed by itself – miraculous for a woman her age. “There’s just a few items on my body that haven’t been touched yet,” she jokes of all her breaks and sprains, “and I’m afraid to mention them.”

Buder, who only takes calcium supplements, says she still recovers “very quickly” after injuries, to the amazement of her doctors. “They want to know my secret, but a lot of it is circulation,” she says. “Because living alone makes me do things on my own, whether it hurts or not. You just have to keep moving.”

Not surprisingly for a woman of faith, a conversation with Buder is dotted with references to what she calls “God whispers”, her name for the feelings she gets from her Christian faith, which point her in the right direction. One good-chills kind of story, which she recounts in her book, happened at an Ironman event in Hawaii in 2006. Driving rain dogged her throughout the race, at one point an official told her she was nine minutes off from finishing the race in the required 17 hours. It was an almost impossible amount of time to make up, and at one point after that she even slipped and fell down, but a couple appeared out of nowhere to help her up.

Wet, cold and very, very tired, she was about 10km from the finish line when four people – two of them in bare feet – asked if they could run with her. Buoyed by their energy and stories, she continued until they left her with about 3km to finish, most of it downhill.

Buder, who had been grieving the sudden, as-yet-unexplained loss of her 49-year-old nephew when she started the race, made one of her bargains with God. “I said: ‘I’m not wearing a watch, but I know and you know I have no time to spare,’” she recalls saying, adding: “If I finish in enough time that means that my nephew is okay, in the right place and at peace. After I made that bargain with God, it was the funniest thing, I did not feel my body any more; I just felt my motion.” When Buder finally stopped dry-heaving and had the strength to look up at the clock after crossing the finish line, she had made the cut-off with 57 seconds to spare. In addition to having her faith reaffirmed, she says: “I knew my nephew was okay.”

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Buder says it is the “consistency of motion and the camaraderie of the athletes” that has kept her going through almost 400 triathlons around the world. “Actually, after all these years, they’ve become family,” she says. “What keeps me motivated is to be in touch, keep the flow; if I don’t compete, I only have myself to compete with. So it does help to just get out in the flow of things, whether I’m the tail end or not, it doesn’t really matter. Somebody’s got to be last.”

Although she was already well-known in the US, Buder got a lot more attention after she was featured in a Nike commercial that ran during last year’s Rio Olympics. She still gets called the Iron Nun, a nickname she hates and jokes was made up by “some crazy media”. With her Ironman days behind her, Buder is scaling down her race schedule and cycling less. She still runs every day, though, and eats a mostly raw diet of fruits and vegetables. Although she dislikes working out indoors, in a gym, she says she will if it’s the only option. “I must do something active every day,” she says.

Buder’s approach to sport – and life – is to keep going no matter what, and enjoy yourself while doing it. “I just roll with the punches,” she says. “You go through times when you think you are too weak to do anything, and then I get lost admiring the scenery.”