Sr. Marion Irvine aka The Flying Nun

Sr. Marion Irvine with Dominican Sisters. Photo courtesy of Orbis.

Sr. Marion Irvine with Dominican Sisters. Photo courtesy of Orbis.

When you think of the Olympic Trials, you probably don’t picture a fifty-something nun lining up on the starting line, yet in the first U.S. Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials in 1984, there was Sister Marion Irvine anxiously awaiting the gun in the crowd with Joan Benoit Samuelson and other younger – much younger – speedsters.

“There was the grey of the overcast skies and the hair of 54-year old Sister Marion Irvine.”

So wrote runner and author Jack Welch, describing the first American women competing in the marathon distance at the 1984 Olympic Trials in his popular book, "When Running was Young and So Were We."

I recently met with Marion, the Flying Nun to talk about becoming a runner in middle age and how she became the oldest participant, not only in the women’s marathon but also in ANY event at those Olympic Trials!

We’re all familiar with Joan Benoit Samuelson, who rose to stardom and a permanent place in our hearts by winning the inaugural women’s marathon at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games. Some of you remember the Flying Nun, who broke onto the running scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Northern California, as recognized for her age and religious vocation as for her speed. Marion, though, also has a special place in my heart for reasons other than her running accomplishments: she is the aunt of one of my dearest friends, Jill Irvine. "First Friends: Love, Loss and Life in Humboldt County."

Marion’s Running Start

Jill, in fact, cajoled Marion into running in 1978 at the age of 47.  Marion was overweight (almost 200 pounds by her reckoning), a two-pack-a day cigarette smoker, and sedentary. Jill had recently rediscovered her passion for running, reminiscent of her childhood days in England. She spoke bluntly to her aunt: if Marion wanted to live to see her nieces and nephews, maybe even grandnieces and grandnephews, she needed to change her lifestyle. Jill was inspirational and convincing.

Marion took Jill’s arguments to heart: she started running Memorial Day weekend of that year. She measured a mile’s distance with her car, put on some old shorts and red tennis shoes and ran the out-and-back course. Well, she mostly walked because it was hot, maybe 100 degrees that day: she walked in the sun and ran in the bits of shade. Still, when she finished, she wanted to try it again. Marion quickly discovered she had an incredible gift: SHE WAS FAST. She kept running, farther each day. As Jill gathered her friends and family to run, and eventually to train for marathons, Marion became part of the group. The Flying Nun ran her first marathon at the Avenue of the Giants in 1980 (3:01). Marion soon outpaced everyone,  reveling in her physical transformation, finding a way to express her competitive nature, and gaining recognition as a serious, competitive masters runner in that golden age of running.

How Marion Trained to Qualify for the Trials (in her mid-50s!)

What did the aspiring women runners (especially one in her mid-fifties) do to cut her already impressive marathon best down to 2:51:16 and qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials? I was surprised to learn that Marion’s process was like so many of us long distance runners of that era: we had no idea about incorporating speed work into our training program; we didn’t hydrate, training and racing without fluid intake; we didn’t focus on nutrition, except for carb-loading on huge plates of spaghetti the night before a race; we didn’t have much experience, other than perhaps in Marion’s case, of winning long-distance races.

Marion, until then uncoached, picked up a running book by Arthur Lydiard, the legendary New Zealand coach, who focused on establishing a strong endurance base. His book outlined three levels of runners, including different goals for each group: beginner, intermediate, and elite. Marion reasoned she’d already done much more than was suggested in the first two categories, so decided she must be an elite runner. At that time, the common notion was to run at least one 20-mile run during the training months leading up to race day. If one 20-mile run was recommended, Marion surmised, then four or five would be even better. She began running 80-mile weeks (one four-mile run at 4:00 a.m. in the dark, before morning prayers, and a longer run in the afternoons, after her teaching day was completed). She mostly ran long runs, even marathon distances, during her training. By 1983 she was running four or five marathons a year. During one of these pre-OTQ runs a man at the finish line quipped, “You have really bad form.” She laughed him off, but when she realized she’d need to become serious if she wanted to qualify, she called and asked him to be her coach! He accepted and they had a long, sometimes tumultuous, other times supportive, relationship.

Coaching Marion was far from ordinary, as nothing is about Sister Marion: she wanted to race, often favoring the three-day weekends of Memorial Day and Labor Day so she could race all three days. She wanted to go fast, always, not pacing herself, not agreeing to run more slowly (at that time, slow for her was 7:00 min/mile pace). She didn’t listen to her body, until she DNF’ed a 10-miler in the Presidio, then running across the Golden Gate Bridge shortly thereafter because she was ashamed of not finishing, and being totally mashed by the end. Marion realized that her coach did have her best interests at heart and reluctantly began some track work and hill repeats while the long runs were still her go-to for training.

The December 1983 California International Marathon was the race at which Marion set her sights to qualify for the Olympic Trials. At that time, her fastest marathon time was 2:56; she had to knock more than five minutes off that time to qualify. Race day was cold, yet she was on pace to hit her qualifying time when she started to “wither” at mile 23. Another runner noticed her fatigue, asked how she was doing, and what time she hoped to get. She replied, “I have to run 2:51.” The man said, “Okay, I’m hoping for 2:50. Stick with me.” As we spoke, Marion smiled, remembering her “road angel.” She and her unidentified unofficial pacer ran in rhythm until she turned the final corner during the race and saw the California State Capitol building in the distance. She closed her eyes, picked up her pace, and crossed the finish line at 2:51:01. Good enough!

Between CIM and the trials, held in May 1984, Marion continued to run long distances. She worried that she’d forget how to run a marathon, even though she was running 100-mile weeks. Against the better judgment of her coach, she registered for and ran the Napa Marathon. She was admonished to run at the 7:00 min/mile pace but Marion, being her competitive self, just couldn’t do it; even with a bicycle pacer, she ran hard. Finally, at the trials, Sister Marion Irvine aka the Flying Nun, competed with over two-hundred other women in this celebratory, exciting, historical event. She placed 131/268, pleased. As she says, the Olympic Trials were her Olympics. I love her attitude, her spirit, and her honesty!

Sister Marion today remains active, addressing the death penalty, affordable housing, immigration injustice and other issues.

I confirmed that Marion was fast, regardless of her unusual training regimen and without all today’s accoutrements. The US Women’s Marathon record for ages 50-54 is 2:37:36 (pending); it’s 2:52:16 for ages 55-59 (remember, Marion was a month shy of her 55th birthday when she ran her qualifying time, more than a minute faster than this age category). She was fast.

Marion’s story doesn’t end with the Olympic Trials: she had many more marathons and other race distances to tackle. She’s held many age-group records and has been inducted into several running halls of fame. She took up indoor rowing for awhile, competing in this sport, too. Until two years ago, she was still running; however, injuries now limit her to walking 30 miles a week with a cane. A 100k walk on the Camino de Santiago (St. James’ Way) is scheduled for spring 2016 when she’ll be almost 87! She is forever grateful to her niece and my friend Jill for her encouragement, inspiration, and indomnitable spirit. I can only believe that Jill was the wind behind Marion’s back all those years, ensuring her aunt would find joy, health, and happiness in her beloved sport even as running took Jill from us, too soon, too young.