What I learned from Madonna about COVID-19
/ Author: Quentin Steen
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What I learned from Madonna about COVID-19

As a 78-year-old nun passed me in the Ironman Triathlon, speaking words of encouragement, I remember thinking to myself, what the *#@^? Here’s what she taught me about the race—and my life

By Quentin Steen, Representative

Back in 2008, I ran the Ironman. I grew up in Penticton, watching it as a spectator and volunteering. I had always wanted to run it.

I considered entering the competition many times before but never committed. That is until my friend Todd—a triathlon junkie—came along.

In the summer of 2007, we drove down to Penticton so we could watch the Ironman competition, and he could register for next year’s race. Standing in line, I made the mistake of mentioning my interest in running the race and that it was on my bucket list.

I quickly followed up with a laundry list of reasons why not to, not the least of which was the fact that I’ve never entered any race of any kind, let alone the Ironman. Well, there was the Terry Fox run that I joined every year when I was in high school, but that doesn’t count.

Instead of agreeing with me, Todd challenged my excuses and ego with a couple of sentences: “Think about it. The first triathlon or race you ever run is the Ironman, the Big Kahuna. Now that’s a cool story!”

The next thing I knew, I was pulling out my visa to confirm my registration.

The drive back home was euphoric and filled with sentiments like, “I can’t believe I’m going to do it. I can do it! Right, Todd?”

When I got home, I announced to my wife, Tracy, that I had entered the 2008 Ironman competition. Her response went something like, “You did what? Why? You’ve never run a race like that in your life. Maybe you should work your way up to it. Do you even know how to swim that far? What about a bike? What about the time and commitment it will take you to train?”

I brushed off her concerns, assuring her that those were all just details. I was wrong!

For the remainder of the summer, winter, and early spring, I spoke a lot about training but never actually trained. I didn’t start training until four months before the big event. That was a huge mistake!

When race day arrived, I was terrified by the reality that lay ahead of me: a 2.4-mile (3.86 kilometre) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 kilometre) bicycle ride, and a 26.22-mile (42.2 kilometre) marathon, raced in that order. The Ironman Triathlon is widely considered one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world.

As I dipped my toes in the water and splashed my face, I looked for any reason I could to walk away. I might have done so, had it not been for my family, who had made the early morning drive for our 6 a.m. start. That and seeing Todd’s massive grin as he stood next to me, followed quickly by his adrenaline-infused hug.

At the time, I thought it might be the last time I would see either of them.

The thought of looking for a way out haunted me for most of the race as the hours began to pile up—and the pain increased. The idea of bailing out reached its apex halfway thought the bike portion.

As thunder, lightning, and rain began to fill the sky, my thoughts were, what am I doing this for? Is this really worth it?

And then it happened. Closing quickly on my left was Madonna. Not the pop icon like-a-virgin version but Sister Madonna Buder, also known as the Iron Nun, a Roman Catholic religious sister and Senior Olympian triathlete.

It’s worth noting that Sister Madonna currently holds the world record for the oldest woman ever to finish an Ironman Triathlon, which she obtained at age 82 by completing the Subaru Ironman Canada in 2012.

As she began to pass me, I remember thinking to myself, what the *#@^? How is this even possible?

Peddling past me, she turned toward me, smiling as if she was leisurely strolling through a city park, and said, “Keep going. Don’t give up. . . . Find a way!”

Not only was I not expecting to be passed by a 78-year-old nun, but she was encouraging me—something I was not expecting. I assumed she was struggling for air as much as I was.

Initially, her words messed with my head. But as they settled into my mind, they began to shape the rest of my race—even more so when I felt like throwing in the water bottle and energy gels.

Her words played in a continuous loop through my mind and propelled me toward the finish line. And they’ve continued to do so many times since, though not in any Ironman repeats.

I eventually passed Sister Madonna on the run portion of the competition and crossed the finish line in 16 hours and 38 minutes (the cut off is 17 hours), to the applause of my family, friends, and spectators.

But not so for Madonna. When the Iron Nun came across the finish line, she got a standing ovation. The song “I’ve Got Soul, but I’m Not a Soldier” by the band The Killers was blaring in the background. A fitting song for such an iconic, amazing, and inspirational woman.

What did the Iron Nun teach me about COVID-19, and, more importantly, about my life? Simple. The toll this pandemic is taking on our mental health can leave us wanting out, to concede, to want to be driven by others, rather than battling through it ourselves. If not physically, almost certainly emotionally.

Sister Madonna’s tireless encouragement that day during the race to find a way to keep going is more fitting than ever for us today. That may look different for you than me because your way will be different than mine. But there are so many resources available to you to help find your way.

When I finished the race, the medical volunteer asked me, “Are you okay?” I know she meant my physical well-being, but the question drilled down deeper for me on an emotional level.

“Yes, I’m doing good. Really good. Thank you.”

What was not known by her—and what I was hiding from most people around me at the time—was how poor my mental health was before I entered the competition.

During the race, I had a lot of time to think about what was going on inside of me. When I reached the end, Sister Madonna’s words gave me the courage to move forward. And I have never looked back.

Some days are better than others. That can and should be expected for all of us. But with the right resources, commitment to the process, and loving support of family and friends, I found my way.

So can you. And for those particularly challenging days, remember Sister Madonna’s words: “Keep going. Don’t give up. . . . Find a way!”

Quentin Steen is a certified mental health first aid instructor for the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Get your BRAIN right and your MIND will follow!

4 Mental Health Resources to Help You During the Pandemic

  1. Stronger Minds features videos and quick reads from mental health experts, activities to help you gain resilience, and ask-an-expert videos in response to questions.
  2. WellCan offers free well-being resources to help Canadians develop coping strategies and build resilience to help deal with uncertainty, mental health, and substance abuse concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  3. Wellness Together Canada: Mental Health and Substance Use Support provides free online resources, tools, apps, and connections to trained volunteers and qualified mental health professionals.
  4. CLAC is also continuing to make available to all members and their families our employment and family assistance program. If you or your loved ones are struggling, please do not hesitate to reach out for help today.
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