When most women imagine what they’ll be like in old age, they probably don’t have running marathons—let alone triathlons—on their mind. Perhaps instead, they’d think about spending quality time with family and more relaxing hobbies. An unusual nun named Sister Madonna Bruder shatters all stereotypes about what constitutes an athlete, as well as what constitutes an elderly woman’s life. She prays, she focuses on service work, and she runs, swims and bikes. She relaxes—and she races. Ever driven to succeed, her story is a true inspiration.
Even though Sister Madonna Bruder didn’t like running as a child, she always possessed determination and unwavering strength. When she was just 14 years old, she decided she would be a nun when she grew up. At the age of 23, she joined a convent in Missouri, close to where her family lived. A deeply devout woman, Bruder wasn’t sure nuns could even participate in triathlons. However, decades later, she began pursuing her other dream: running. At 48, most women wouldn’t imagine participating in one triathlon, let alone a whopping 340 of them.
Sister Madonna noticed that in her childhood, there weren’t organized races for women to participate in. Unfortunately, sports were only for men. She joked, “I was never into running as a kid, although my mother did have a picture of me running from the nurse when I was 2, so I guess I was already on the move.” Never one to follow convention, she stayed interested in running. Little did she know, when she was in middle age, running would be an essential part of her life.
In her teenage and early adult years, Sister Madonna found herself following her dream of serving others. Starting when she was 14, she went to school at an all-girls Visitation Academy, where she was inspired by the Visitation Sisters. At the Visitation Academy, she realized she wanted to spend much of her life’s energy in service of others. She said, “So at age 23, I entered a convent called the Sisters of the Good Shepard in St. Louis and served there until 1990 when I changed orders and was sent to Spokane, Washington, to serve with the Sisters for Christian Community.”
Sister Madonna also has a sense of humor. When people ask her how she prepares her body for extremely strenuous physical activity, she cracks jokes. She told Cosmopolitan magazine, “People often ask me how I train for these kinds of arduous events. And to that I say, ‘I just boogie.’” By remaining humorous, she stayed humble. Focusing on the races not as competition but as a joyous activity, she was able to persevere and propel forward into new athletic challenges of endurance and tenacity.
After Sister Madonna later transferred to the Sisters for Christian Community in Spokane, she still didn't take up running as a hobby until she was 48 years old. She explained, “I wasn't really sure if it was OK for me to be running races, since I was the only nun doing so and I figured the public wasn't used to a nun running. So to avoid creating slanderous conditions, I checked this all out with the bishop in advance.” She told the bishop that she wanted to run in support of Multiple Sclerosis research, and asked for his blessing. He replied, “Sister, I wish some of my priests would do what you're doing.” This was a far cry from the attitudes she experienced during her upbringing, when women weren’t encouraged to participate in such events.
With the bishop’s blessing, Sister Madonna ran her first race—a distance of 8.2 miles. This race showed her just how much she loved to move, and she joined a local group to share in the running community to stay involved and keep active. While she was with her running group, someone told her about the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii. Inspiration was sparked. Here was the biggest challenge of her life. She was ‘all in.’
With a triathlon comes swimming, though. Sister Madonna considered the claustrophobia she’d likely experience swimming alongside so many other athletes. She also worried that she wouldn’t be able to sit on a bicycle for so long. She said, “First of all, swimming in such close proximity to so many people would make me claustrophobic, I couldn't imagine biking for that amount of time — how could I even sit in the saddle for that long? — and then running a marathon after that?! It's hard to run that alone!” Despite her concerns, she was an ambitious woman. Her concerns led to curiosity that motivated her. She knew she had to try.
When people asked her how she trained for such grueling physical activity, she shared her routine: a run from her home to church every day, as well as a 40-mile-long bike ride towards a lake. Then, she swims. Still committed to serving her community, she also ran to her local jail to read Bible verses to inmates. This was a meaningful way of combining religion with athleticism. She also stuck to a strict diet of raw fruits and vegetables, which she complemented with carbs and protein powder. She emphasized how she listens to her body, first and foremost.
When Sister Madonna was 52, she competed in her first triathlon. The event took place in Banbridge, Ireland. She didn’t wear a wetsuit and described the water as “darn cold.” A modest woman, she rode a second-hand men’s bike she got at a police auction. To add to the challenge, the running course was quite hilly. No stranger to challenge, she completed the competition gracefully.
She described her experience in Banbridge. On the unfavorable weather conditions, she said, “They even shortened the mile-long swim to a half a mile because of the weather. I felt an immense amount of accomplishment after I finished that race; I was content.” This accomplishment motivated her to continue challenging herself. Next up: the Ironman.
In Hawaii, Sister Madonna broke world records—she was the oldest woman to ever complete the Ironman course. It took her sixteen hours to complete the race. At this competition, she earned her first “Iron Nun” title. From then on, she became an international sensation.
Next up was Canada. Sister Madonna competed in the Subaru Ironman Canada in 2012, and completed the race in sixteen hours and thirty-two minutes. The year before, an 81-year-old named Lew Hollander finished the Ironman. As she continued to age, and continued to compete, she beat Lew’s record for the oldest person to complete an Ironman. She reflected, “My new goal is to establish that same record at the Ironman in Hawaii, but since that day, I have opened up about five age groups in my life (so that older folks can run too) that never existed. I think when I reach the age group for posterity, I deserve a rest.”
Especially as Sister Madonna faced older and older age, she valued self-care above all. She said, “Running doesn't get any easier with age, so you have to listen to your body and give it what it needs, whether that's carbs or rest.” Never one to force herself to do something her body wasn’t capable of, she was able to remain healthy and fit, and compete in such strenuous activity.
She continuously inspired other women to stay fit and active despite the effects of aging. By participating in such public events, her name became a fixture in the triathlon community. She said, “I love the feeling I get when I whiz past people younger than me and they say, ‘I want to be like you when I get to your age!’”
Always humble, Sister Madonna distinguished between people she inspired and people who placed her on a pedestal. She said, “[Some] treat me differently because I'm a Sister. I feel like they think I'm supposed to be their mascot and pray for good weather for us or something.” Self-awareness and ambition went hand-in-hand for this running nun. She was never one to rest on a compliment.
One race was particularly harrowing. In 2013, she ran in the infamous Boston marathon. No one could anticipate the bombing and distress. Strangely enough, the morning before the race, she met a police officer, who gave her his card. He encouraged her to call him in case she needed anything. She memorized the phone number for good measure. She never thought she’d need to use it.
However, as she neared the 21st mile of the race, she heard sirens. She said she felt “numb,” confused and quickly recalled the police officer’s number. She called him. Thankfully, in the midst of chaos, he was able to help her out of the crowd and console her in her state of fear.
She said, “At this point, I was in a strange town, I knew no one, and I was cold. I'm prone to hypothermia, so I started to get worried. I was desperate, so I asked a patrol officer what happened and he told me about the two explosions. My stomach dropped.”
Thankfully, Sister Madonna met a woman who shared the same sense of generosity and compassion. She said, “Then I saw a woman wheeling her suitcase behind her and I asked her where she was going because I needed to get warm. She gave me one of the jackets in her bag to wear, and then another woman in her yard asked us if we needed anything and invited us into her home so we could use her phone. I didn't remember the woman's number whom I was staying with — I felt like a refugee in no man's land with nothing and was beginning to become traumatized because I couldn't feel my body.”
Given her religious devotion and commitment to health, Sister Madonna had a lot of wisdom to impart to her fellow athletes in the running community. She emphasized living in action rather than words, for actions carry significance and consequence. She said, “I've learned other life lessons along the way, but the ones that I'd look back and tell my twenty something self now are: It's not what you say, it's what you do; don't pay attention to how old you are, only focus on how old you feel.” Most importantly, though, was patience. She said that since she’s so athletic and ambitious, she sometimes forgets to “stop and smell the roses.”
One plus side of running in so many races was the ability to travel all over the world. She said, “I just like to get out and see the world through running — it's so uplifting. I used running to calm my mind and overcome jealousy, confusion, and a lot of other feelings I had. It took running outdoors for me to realize what I was worrying about was so miniscule compared to all of God's creations.” Running became an extension of her religious devotion and practice as a nun. Running, for Sister Madonna, was a kind of prayer.
The first step was always the hardest. She reflected, “Nothing gets easier as you get older, especially if you're a runner. But the hardest part of running a race is getting started and then finishing — especially when it comes to triathlons. In between the start and finish you go through ups and downs, and it's a whole lifetime encapsulated.” Keenly aware of the ebbs and flows of triathlons, Sister Madonna has carried her knowledge forward to improve future races. She emphasized how much scenic runs help. She said, “They help me take my mind off of things — even the race.”
Naturally, Sister Madonna’s favorite race was called the Scenic Challenge, in Idaho. She described the scenery: They had some really good hills and I loved the scenery. The run went over Tubbs Hill — a gorgeous unpaved run that has a lookout point — the race was well-named.”
This year, Sister Madonna turned 88. While that might be a natural stopping point for many athletes, she said, “I’m still doing my thing. This weekend that means competing in the St. Anthony's Triathlon — a .93-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run.” Sister Madonna has participated in the St. Anthony’s Triathlon, which is held in Tampa, for over a decade.
In 2016, she was featured in a Nike television advertisement, and heralded as “The Iron Nun.” She has had the opportunity to speak around the world at various athletic and religious events, sharing her unique approach to health and spirituality far and wide. She stays humble, though. She said, “I know that God has given me this gift. And I have to make the most of the gift. If I didn't make the most of it, it would be an affront to the gift giver.”