What running taught the ‘Iron Nun’ about aging

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

“What does it feel like to get old?” I was asked this question during a recent conversation with the bishop of Spokane. As an 88-year-old religious sister, I was 30 years his senior and still quite active. While I do not remember my answer to him, it is a question I think about quite often.

As I approach 90, I am less concerned with outward appearances—things like what I wear, how my hair looks, what others think of me—and more concerned with my inner life and how I relate to the world around me. Much of this mindset comes from my dedication to running, which I was introduced to when I was 47 years old by a priest who declared that the sport was a great way to harmonize mind, body and soul. It was an appealing concept, so I laced up my sneakers and hit the pavement.

After an agonizing start, I found that I not only enjoyed running but that I was quite good at it. Three years in, I decided to run in a 14-mile race up Mount Evans in Colorado. Next, I was introduced to triathlons. Eventually, I was encouraged by a running buddy to attempt an Ironman Triathlon, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, all of which has to be completed within 17 hours.

In 2012, I completed the Subaru Ironman in Canada—becoming the oldest woman, at 82, to complete an ironman race.

In 2006, I completed the Hawaii Ironman in just under 17 hours. In 2012, I completed the Subaru Ironman in Canada—becoming the oldest woman, at 82, to complete an ironman race. I have completed at least 389 triathlons, including 45 Ironman distances. While running even a short distance feels taxing now, I have a goal to finish another triatholon at 90.

Last year during the USATriathlon National Championships held in Cleveland, there was one man in the 85-plus age group, but he was two years younger than I was. I am still not used to being the oldest person at races. What I do know, however, is that running is a gift I received from God, and when he gives you a gift, you are expected to use it.

When I first took up running, my newfound joy was not supported by the sisters I lived with, who considered this undertaking inappropriate for a nun.

While running out in God’s nature, I would find a sense of calm and wellbeing. One day, it struck me that our problems are so minimal compared to the magnificence that surrounds us. The sport has taught me to be grateful for all that God gives us—even the injuries.

While running out in God’s nature, I would find a sense of calm and wellbeing.

In 2014, I had three major accidents within a 16-month period. The second resulted in a torn meniscus. The doctor recommended surgery, but I decided against it, went home and prayed, “God, help me do my best, and you do the rest.” Now I use this prayer for everything and introduce it to others, especially to those I visit in jail as a volunteer.

From my running to my injuries, I have learned that there are many benefits to aging. Some are obvious: senior discounts on some airlines and at movies and restaurants; government assistance through Social Security and Medicare. However, by far the greatest is the wealth of wisdom acquired through years of experience that can be shared. In European and Asian cultures, seniors are revered. By contrast, in the United States, we are not taught to value the gifts older citizens can provide.

When people ask me for advice on how to cope with aging, two suggestions come to mind. First, remember yourself as a child. Imagine yourself as that little person skipping along without a care in the world. Second, never stop being that child. It will help you be pure, creative and authentic.

I can still remember my mother more than once asking me, “Darling, can’t you act your age?” At this point in my life, I am glad the answer was no.

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JR Cosgrove
1 year 10 months ago

I watched Sr Madona at Waikoloa on her bike struggling up hill on the way to Hawi during the Ironman world championship on the big Island. Everyone struggles at Waikoloa including the winners as the winds are usually against you and it is up hill. It is often brutal. Amazing athlete!!

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