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On Second Thought

At 84, the Iron Nun remains on a mission

Sister Madonna Buder came late to the game. Born in 1930, she was 47 when she took up running, introduced to the sport by a Catholic priest who preached that it helped harmonize mind, body, and soul.

The good father somehow failed to mention the blisters, muscle pulls, and sometimes brutal wear and tear the road can serve up, but Buder has learned to cope with all of that over the decades. She is 84 now, an elite triathlete in her age bracket, known around the running world as the Iron Nun, and she’ll swim, bike and, yes, run yet again Monday in Edmonton, Alberta, in the ITU World Championships.

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“I don’t know if there’s any easy answer,’’ Buder said when reached by telephone last week, asked to muse over how she keeps up the pace at her age. “Just keep breathing. Just keep moving.’’

Actually, Buder, who grew up in St. Louis, pulls on her running shoes every morning when home in Spokane, Wash., where she lives and practices her Catholic faith as a Sister of Christian Community. As a daily communicant and lector, she alternates between two nearby churches and serves faithfully in local prison ministry. But it’s her jaunt each day to Mass that gets her going, both spiritually and literally.

The 6:30 service at one church is part of a 5-mile running loop, the 8 a.m at the other church about a half-mile shorter.

“That gives my body a start each day — motion,’’ she explained. “Now, those distances are with Mass in between, of course.’’

Of course.

The start of September, much like the start of January each year, is when many of us figure it’s time to get back in shape. Summer vacation is over. Kids are back in school. Order and routine once more assert themselves back into our lives. With structure comes the chance to commit ourselves to, say, a better diet, a healthier lifestyle, perhaps lead us to a personal athletic awakening.

Now in her 80-somethings, a veteran of hundreds of grueling triathlons, marathons, and even a handful of Boston Marathons, Buder advocates being “consistently active.’’ Get up. Get out. Move. Ideally, every day.

“You know, I think anything that keeps you moving is the important thing,’’ she said. “Today, our bodies are in real jeopardy because of these computers that were supposed to save time. I . . . don’t. . . think. . . so! Uh-uh. Trying to get up from a computer after you’ve been nailed there for an hour or more — I know that’s not an easy thing to start running again, but . . . ’’

Buder is evidence that with consistency comes results. As a kid, she was a decent athlete, including, she recalled, winning a national championship in equestrian events as a 16-year-old. She entered the convent in her early 20s, and though active and trim through adulthood, she didn’t become a committed athlete until hearing the urgings of that Catholic priest during a retreat on the Oregon coast.

“I said, ‘Father, you know, I can’t just get up here and run for no good reason,’ ’’ recalled Buder, who provides more detail of that day’s epiphany in her autobiography, “The Grace to Race’’. “I told him I need a goal. I was used to running in sports [such as tennis and field hockey]. It just made no sense to me to go out there and run. When he said running helped to harmonize mind, body, and soul, I figured, well, I am not a compartmentalized soul at all. That made sense to me . . . to have all those parts of us click together.’’

Buder last month was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in Chicago. In 2012, competing in Canada, she became the oldest woman ever to finish an Ironman triathlon, which includes a swim of 2.4 miles, a bike ride of 112 miles, and the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Ironman participants must finish in less than 17 hours and there have been times, such as 2006 in Hawaii, when Buder has made it across the finish with the clock ticking down to its final seconds.

Toward the end of the race that day in Hawaii, Buder recalled, she asked God for a sign that her nephew, then only recently deceased, had passed away in peace and made his way to heaven. She asked God to carry her across the line in less than 17 hours. If so, she would know her nephew, the late Dolf Buder, was OK.

“After I made that bargain with God,’’ she recalled, “there was a presence on my shoulder that said, ‘What you are doing is unreal.’ And I said, ‘You gotta believe that . . . this dingiddy-dang race is unreal in itself!’ ’’

Once across the line, fighting off the customary dry heaves and surrounded by a media pack, Buder eyed the clock: 16:59:03. A tidy 57 seconds to spare.

“Oh, my God,’’ exclaimed Buder, “it’s a miracle!’’

The Iron Nun, nearly 5 feet 9 inches and some 125 pounds when she started running, 37 years later is a bit over 5-6 and weighs only about 105. Her races are still long, her finish times growing longer. But she has no plans to stop running. Once back from Edmonton, she’ll train as usual in Spokane, then board a flight in early October for an Ironman in Hawaii.

Sister Madonna Buder is on a mission.

“I’d like to give up, actually,’’ she said with a laugh, one that revealed her poorly masked fib. “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.’’

Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, could be your day to get moving. If you feel too old, perhaps think of the athletic marvel that is Sister Madonna Buder. Or perhaps consider something she never did: how old you will be today if you don’t get in the game.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s ‘‘On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.
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