The Grace to Race: The Wisdom and Inspiration of the 80-Year-Old World Champion Triathlete Known as the Iron Nun Sister Madonna Buder with Karin Evans. New York: Simon & Schuster 2010

I first heard about Sister Madonna Buder when she was profiled as one of Running World Magazine’s 2007 Heroes of Running. However, if I was part of the triathlon community, I’m sure I would have known about this legendary figure long before.

Marie Dorothy Buder first took her vows as a Roman Catholic nun when she was 23 years old in 1953. The first part of her memoir offers a profound description of her struggling with her call to a life that would cut her off from the world and from many of the life options open to a beautiful and accomplished young woman from a prosperous family. After her vows she worked as an educator and social worker in the rigidly structured world of her order, but in mid life two things changed.

First, she took advantage of reforms in Catholic religious communities and in the 1980s joined a less structured order, the Sisters for Christian Community, which gave her greater freedom of travel and time. Second, at the age of 48, while attending a workshop on spirituality, she followed the advice of a priest who advocated running as a means to physical, mental and spiritual health. Within a few years she had qualified for the Boston Marathon and from there she became involved in the then-burgeoning sport of triathlon.

Buder’s account of how she became a record-setting triathlete is full of humour, wisdom, and awareness that this was a continuation of God’s calling in her life. She writes, “I found peace in the realization that if God gives you a talent, He expects you to ue it. You don’t need to apologize for His gifts, only for neglecting to use them. You are honouring your Creator by making use of them. Not to do so would insult His generosity. This realization gave me the courage to keep going. My drive has always been to answer the call and let God do the rest” (p. 106).

When you read this sometimes funny, often harrowing account of injuries, accidents, and frequent trips to the brink of physical collapse, you realize that this book really is an account of stepping out in faith. Buder frequently attributes her success to God’s help, often in the form of “angels”, bystanders, fellow athletes and race officials who gave her a helping hand or encouragement when she couldn’t rely on herself to finish. Often, too, it is Buder who is the one exhorting and encouraging those around her. Passages such as this one, from the Simon and Schuster website, show her belief in God sending these “angels” as an explanation for her success. Often too Buder describes her work, though not in so many words, as an evangelist to the running community, one whose faith, prayerfulness and determination are an inspiration to those around her.

For athletes, even those who are not believers, Buder has a lot of wisdom to offer. For example, as a struggling and aspiring runner, I’m obsessed with numbers, such as time, pace, distance, and total kms run. For people like me, she writes “I feel that being focsed on making up a certain number of miles can turn me into a robot”. Instead, she counsels “Don’t waste time training for training’s sake; incorporate the workout into your daily life; make it joyful” (111-112). Examples of her practice include making up haikus based on sights and thoughts encountered during the run and turning them into mantras to accompany the rhythmn and pace of the run, or using the time to pray intensely and repeatedly, either in intercession or using a fixed prayer such as the rosary. More important than any one technique is her joyous and firm conviction that despite injury and setback, there is purpose, opportunity, and satisfaction in the journeys of life and faith.

I would recommend Buder for those who, like myself, reached middle age before they really decided to challenge themselves. For athletes much more accomplished than myself, she also has wise words about balance, so that one is not “enslaved by the very process you feel gives you freedom” (240). The final pages of her book list Buder’s maxims for sport and for life that I will copy and keep close to hand for years to come.

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