Friday, February 25, 2011

Book Review: The Grace to Race

My book club recently read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a media sensation of a memoir by a woman who sought to raise her two daughters "the Chinese way" (which as far as I could tell consisted mostly of spending lots of money on forced music lessons, practice, instruments and music-related travel, and no tolerance for much in the way of social activities). While I was in the bookstore buying it, I saw another book that I couldn't resist purchasing as well: The Grace to Race: The Wisdom and Inspiration of the 80-Year-Old World Champion Triathlete Known as the Iron Nun.

Put the Tiger Mother and the Iron Nun head to head and I know who would come out on top! Sister Madonna Buder started running at age 48, qualified for Boston very quickly with a time of 3 hours 29 minutes and change (the standard for women over 40 at the time was 3 hours 30 minutes) and began competing in triathlons soon after that. She set several records for older age-group women in the Ironman distance and is still racing today, at 80, though it sounds like she has stomach issues.

Her book also details a penchant for close calls, travel scares and accidents. I could have done with fewer details about these, as well as fewer accounts of races. I say, when you've been through as much as Sister has, pick a few key races and harrowing incidents and really flesh them out. Whether they ended well or badly, we will learn more from a few well told than too many told in tedious chronological order.

I did enjoy the expected but still uncanny role that God has played in her decision to compete and persevere. Many athletes chant mantras when the going gets tough. Sister Madonna's have to do with praising God and praying for other people. Her list of reflections is a good tip list for anyone undertaking a tough goal. And I also liked how, even though she is a nun, it's clear that she can be prickly, opinionated and in the heat of competition even irritable--just like any other high-strung athlete (and make no mistake, this late bloomer is talented).

I'm looking forward to reading many other running books this year. My favorite of all time is Born to Run. Here's a link to my review of it on GoodReads (a social networking site for readers).

What are your favorite reads for runners? Or to be more general--what are your favorite books when inspiration is needed?


  1. Not a book, but I remember this article on Terry Fox from the January 2007 issue of Runners World being pretty amazing:,7124,s6-243-297--13674-0,00.html. I'll look into Born to Run for Spring Break.

  2. Steve, I had forgotten what a great story that is. I remember reading it when I got the magazine right around the time my twins were born. Let me know if you read Born to Run. Everyone I know (literally *everyone*) who has read it loved it.

  3. Thanks for the book review. I'm going to pick this up soon. Most late bloomers need a shot of inspiration now and then, especially those (I’m one of them) who have blossomed in areas that are not always kind to the middle-aged body… running, dancing, climbing, etc. Iron Nun, show me the light!

    As for one of my favorite inspirational reads, I’d go with "My Life in France". Stumbled across it a few years ago, misplaced among some cookbooks in a used bookstore. At the bargain price of $4.99, I wasn’t expecting it to speak to me profoundly. "My Life in France" tells the story of a 37-year-old woman, Julia Child, moving to France while knowing absolutely nothing of the language or even the country. I found motivation in the way she didn’t dwell on mistakes, how awkward or self- conscious she often felt, or things that she should/ could have done differently. She embraced all of it and used it to propel her forward. Her “just do it” approach (not a lot of thinking, obsessing, mulling over) was beneficial to me. Don’t be fooled by the subject matter. "My Life in France" is not a book about kitchens and cooking. It’s about an awkward late bloomer finding her way when everything was working against her.

  4. Rosanna--I could definitely use some lessons in how not to obsess, to just *do*. I'd love to read Julia's book. I will put a hold on it ASAP. Thanks for the tip!