I had the privilege of hearing Sister Madonna speak Wednesday evening at the Boulder Bookstore. She’s an icon in the world of triathlon and is known as “The Iron Nun”. She began running at the age of 48 and started racing triathlons four years later, and has since completed 340 triathlons, including 36 Ironmans. Standing 5’ 7” and weighing in at a scant 115 pounds, it’s no wonder the wind in Kona blew her off her bike one year. Her autobiography, “The Grace to Race”, was released in October 2010.
Sister Madonna told many stories over the course of the evening; my favorite was the one in which she talked about her impetus to run her very first race, an 8.2 mile road race, just five weeks after she had taken up running.
She had been talking to her Mother on the phone about her brothers’ precarious marriage due to alcoholism. The priest that had talked about the merits of running had talked about running being able to cure all sorts of ailments, such as diabetes, depression, addiction, and so on. During the phone call with her Mother, Sister Madonna had an “ah-ha!” moment and decided that she would run the race to help cure her brother’s alcohol addiction. She dedicated the race to him, and started to prepare.
During the ensuing five weeks before the race her body went through all sorts of aches and pains associated with ramping up mileage in short order. She thought she couldn’t do it, and just when she was ready to quit the power of her faith gave her the strength to continue. She had promised to run this race for her brother, and she was given all the tools she needed so that she could fulfill her promise.
The things that Sister never mentioned were her times, splits, or awards. In answer to a question about her training, she replied, “I never train. At some point you have to save your energy for the race. I keep up my base and that’s enough.”
When she runs, she does it to celebrate the gift of the beautiful outdoors. When she races, she does so and thanks God for the strength of her body and her health. She’s not trying to get faster, better, stronger… she races because she can.
She talked about using the gifts that you have, and how NOT using those gifts is like refusing a present from a friend. If you have the strength to run, then run. If you have the gift of laughter, then laugh. If you have natural ability, then use it. Everything we have is a gift. There are no “shoulds” involved in accepting the gifts associated with who you are.
On the flip side, she talked about using her athletic gifts not to benefit herself, but to honor those who can’t. There are people who cannot run a race, cannot compete in triathlon, cannot get up and walk out their front door. By using our own natural gifts of health and strength, we move the energy that we create onto those who need it.
She talked about compassion, and how we can offer it to those who aren’t with us physically by keeping them in our thoughts and hearts. It is our intent that matters, not the outcome of any particular moment. If we intend that we will do something to help someone else through a hard spot, then that action on our part fulfills the intent.
I’ve been thinking about Sister Madonna since that evening, and can’t write more about her without also writing about my friend Joe over at Joe Still Runs for Dom. It seems that an 80-year-old Roman Catholic triathlete nun and a new father/marathoner living in Austin, Texas have a lot in common. Sister Madonna started running races to help those in need. Joe ran two back-to-back marathons in 2010 to raise money for his friend Dom who succumbed to cancer several months later. Sister Madonna continues to raise money for charities while she races. Joe continues to raise money for Dom’s kids, filling the coffers so that they might have the college education their father dreamed of providing. Neither of them is racing for their own fame or fortune, but to promote and bring attention to others in need.
Compassion brings forth the best in everyone. When we have compassion for others, our actions cease to be about ourselves and start to be about helping someone in need. We stop being caught in the minutiae of our performance, appearance, or racing splits. Not everyone is cut out to be a doctor, nurse, teacher or nun, just as not everyone is cut out to climb mountains or run races. What Sister Madonna was trying to tell us was that we can be just who we are, and have that be enough. Use your gifts to the fullest, dedicate yourself to helping others however you can, and the details will work themselves out (with a little bit of faith).