In the Habit of Winning, a Running Nun Sets a U.S. Record in Her Very First Marathon
No track-and-field record is sacred, as Dominican Sister Marion Irvine knows. Last May she set a U.S. marathon mark for women 50 and over in her first attempt to run the 26.2-mile race. Then three months later her time of three hours, two minutes was beaten (by four and a half minutes) by a New Jersey woman. Whether or not she becomes the recordholder again, Sister Marion vows that she, too, will crack the three-hour barrier.
A member of the order for 33 years, Sister Marion, 51, turned to running in 1978 not in search of a spiritual experience but just to let off steam. At first she could manage only two miles. “I must have run 15 percent of it and walked the rest,” she says, “but when I finished I felt like a giant. Within weeks I noticed I was going faster and farther than most people and without much effort.” One Sunday she entered a nine-and-a-half-mile race staged by a local club. “When I finished,” she recalls, “someone handed me a ribbon, and I was smitten.”
A former teacher who now trouble-shoots at 17 parochial schools in the San Rafael, Calif. area, Sister Marion goes to work in her knee-length habit with a gym bag slung over her shoulder. She runs about 75 miles a week, often in the rugged hills behind her convent. “I think some of the sisters were initially a bit put off by the costuming,” admits Sister Marion, who runs in shorts and a T-shirt, “but eventually it became familiar. And my group knows I am determined.” Nervous before her first (and so far only) marathon, in Humboldt County, Calif., she nonetheless surged to the front of the pack. By mile 14 she felt herself tiring, then spotted some fellow sisters cheering her on. “That carried me for two more miles,” she says. “Then I began to wonder, ‘Oh, what am I doing here?’ I was sure I couldn’t make it. But I decided there were two ways of finishing—I could run or I could walk. I decided to run.” She was shocked—and delighted—when she saw her time on the clock at the finish. One memory of the race still bothers her a little. At the 25th mile she came upon a male runner lying on the ground, writhing with cramps. She ran right on by. “I wasn’t,” she admits, “the Good Samaritan I could have been.”