86-Year-Old “Iron Nun” Is Living Proof That Age Is Just a Number

There’s a good reason people call Sister Madonna Buder the “Iron Nun”. She competed in her first triathlon at age 52 and went on to complete over 340 of them since then, including 46 Ironman triathlons. At age 86, she is still participating in the grueling endurance events and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

Born in July 1930, in St. Louis, Missouri, Marie Dorthy Buder was never really into running as a child. She was an active girl and even recalls winning a national championship in equestrian events as a 16-year-old, but sport was always just a hobby. At 14, Buder had already decided to become a nun, under the influence of the Visitation Sisters at the all-girls Visitation Academy in St. Louis, Missouri, that her parents put her in after sixth grade. At 23-years-old, Marie Dorothy fulfilled her calling in life and became Sister Madonna. In 1970, she left her congregation to join 38 other nuns from different backgrounds to found new and non-traditional community of Religious Sisters, independent from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. This move gave her the freedom to choose her own ministry and lifestyle and would later lead her to discover her second calling – running.

Sister Madonna Buder only started running for fun at age 48, at the suggestion of a priest, who told her it was good for her body and mind. Before running her first official race, she consulted with Father John about whether it was a good idea, since people weren’t used to seeing a nun competing in running events. She told him she wanted to run for a good cause – Multiple Sclerosis (MS) – but wasn’t sure how the world would react to a nun running a race. The priest told her “Sister, I wish some of my priests would do what you’re doing,” and gave her his blessing.


Photo: Nike video screengrab

But running was just the beginning. At age 52, Sister Madonna completed her first triathlon, and at age 55 participated in her first Ironman event. In 2005, at 76 years old, she earned the nickname “Iron Nun” after becoming the oldest woman to complete the Ironman triathlon, a record she broke every year after that. On August 26, 2012, Sister Madonna Buder became the oldest person to complete an Ironman challenge (2.6-mile swim, 112-mile run and 26.2-mile running, all of which have to be completed in 17 hours), after breaking the record set by 81-year-old Lew Hollander, in 2011.

At age 86, the Iron Nun has completed over 340 triathlons – including 46 Ironman events – is a senior Olympian with several records in various distances, and is the living reason various races established new age groups that never existed before she came along. That’s an impressive list of achievements that makes you wonder what she would have done had she started competing at a younger age.


Photo: Ironman

But even after accomplishing so much, Sister Madonna has no plans on retiring anytime soon. “I’d like to give up, actually,” she says jokingly, but then adds: “I have no excuses, as long as God’s keeping me more or less fit. I feel like God’s puppet, that’s what I feel like. First I am down, then he pulls me up with strings, and then he pulls the strings to put me hither, dither, and yon. I guess maybe he just wants people, especially as they are aging, to get off their duffs and do something.”

Asked how she keeps in such good shape at an age many people consider themselves lucky to be able to walk at a slow pace, the Iron Nun said she runs to church every day and bikes 40 miles to swim in a lake close to her home. She also jogs to the local jail where she reads scriptures to inmates and talks to them about Jesus. When it comes to diet, Sister Madonna says she mostly relies on raw fruits and vegetables, but makes sure to incorporate protein and carbohydrate powder in her meals. Generally, she just listens to what her body tells her it needs.


Sister Madonna was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2014, and was recently in the news for featuring in an inspirational new Nike commercial. For more on the life of this remarkable athlete, you can pick up her book, The Grace to Race.


Sources: Triathlon Inspires, Ironman, Nike