Faith-based cycling

June 6, 2011

The Grace to Race by Sister Madonna Buder is the only book I know that combines the author’s religious faith with aggressive engagement in cycling as an endurance sport. At first glance, it would seem to be just the book for a blogger (like me) who regularly posts columns on American religion and cycling. The fact that the author, at 80 years of age, is a little older than I gives still another reason why this book ought to be more satisfying than I find it to be.

This memoir of a woman who spent many years as a cloistered nun and triathlete does have positive attributes. Near the top of the list is the fact that she began her running activities when she was 48 years old, later moving into full-fledged triathlons. She continues her aggressive athletic endeavors despite the fact that she now is an octogenarian.

Another commendable factor is Buder’s advocacy of good causes, which she links with her athletic activities. She uses her running, swimming, and cycling as the means of doing good works for others. It is only right that she do this because, as the book reports, Buder herself has been the frequent recipient of acts of kindness and generous gifts from other competitors, race sponsors, and officials.

With respect to its religious side, The Grace to Race provides an interesting description of how Buder decided to enter the religious life and select the order in which she spent many years. It also portrays the way that one devout woman has moved from one kind of religious work to another. It describes how in later years, as her life and the Catholic Church changed, she transferred from a cloistered order to one that encouraged more active involvement in the world.

When Buder began running, and then cycling, she had little knowledge of the techniques and disciplines of these sports. Using borrowed and inadequate equipment, and competing with insufficient preparation, she pushed herself to the extremes, often using zeal and naive piety as substitutes for training, coaching, and practiced skill.

One result was that “the iron nun,” as people often described her, generated a growing notoriety (and sympathy) among triathletes. Another result was that she suffered a wide range of mishaps, accidents, and serious injuries. It is hard to believe that she was really as accident prone and foolish as the book portrays her. Perhaps the professional writer who assisted Buder in developing the book hyped the story with mock heroics rather than write a thoughtful exposition of her career as serious athlete in nun’s clothing.

Since this is the memoir of a religious woman, The Grace to Race integrates Buder’s faith with her athletic activities. In the race chosen to open the book, she is competing beyond the level for which she had trained and as her performance lags she makes “a kind of deal with God.” If she completes the race, she would know that her nephew, who had died the previous month, had died in peace. Beating the cut-off time by seventeen seconds, she thanked the Lord: “Now I know that my nephew is in peace.”

Near the end of the book, she describes an incident when she returned to a condo parking lot where she had left her car eight days earlier, only to find it missing. In her haste, she had parked the old car near a dumpster, thinking that it was an unused slot, and it had been towed. The very day when she came to claim her car it was to have been auctioned. After reclaiming the car, Buder named it for Saint Therese of Lisieux, “who is known to pack a lot of influence with the Lord. I am sure she saved my car from the auction block.” The very next night, however, the car was towed again because Buder had carelessly parked it on an arterial road that was “quiet at night, but busily trafficked during the day.”

During more than thirty years as an aggressive participant in extreme sports, “the iron nun” has competed in a remarkable number of events and demonstrated skill, strength, and uncanny ability to deal with unexpected developments. She demonstrates that people in their seventies can still perform at a high level. Buder has succeed in these activities despite the difficulties imposed by her religious vocation and, paradoxically, because of the piety with which her life as a nun has been infused. Both sides of Madonna Buder–religious woman and endurance athlete–deserve more thoughtful presentation than this book offers.