Photo courtesy of Molly Hayes

Nearly 88 and going strong


For the last 32 years, Molly Hayes has been chasing an iron nun – the Iron Nun, actually. At nearly 88 years old, Hayes has completed 337 triathlons and consistently placed second in her age group, right behind Sister Madonna Buder, who is not only her greatest competitor, but also her friend.

She earned first in Worlds in Hamburg, when the Iron Nun did not attend. So, her long- sought first place for her age group – now ages 85-89 – was finally secured in 2019.

“The incredible Iron Nun has just turned 90 and is finally not in my age group,” she said, stating that her goal for 2020 is to place as first again.

Vivacious and determined by nature, her fitness has not been without challenges that might have made a lesser person quit.

She has competed numerous times in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – and also competed in the Team USA Championship competition in the Baltic Sea. Cold water, warm water, salt water, oil, pollution – she has seen and swam through it all.

Yet when she turned 75, things became a little more complex.

“I started getting the swimmer induced pulmonary edema from cold water,” she said. “I’ve had 11 bad incidents where I have needed first aid right when they pull me out.”

Her life was shaped by the mountains and the ocean that were a part of her childhood landscape.

Hayes grew up with three siblings on Camano Island in Washington State. They were poor and fortunate to have fish and crabs from the sea as well as a small garden to provide sustenance. She and her siblings grew up playing and swimming in the chilly Puget Sound. Her older brothers became tugboat captains.

Her father used to load-up a bunch of kids and drive them to Mount Baker for skiing. She does not know how he ever afforded to do that.

Hayes became a nurse after attending the Providence Nursing School in Everett, Wash. She was a good student – and good all the way around – partly because she had to explain herself to the nuns. Fitness was encouraged and the school got her a ski pass.

She began doing competitive cross country skiing and alpine skiing and finished four marathons by 1986. A hike with her husband – who was then her boyfriend – had a degree of serendipity to it: they ran into a guy on the trail who was wearing a Whisky Dick Triathlon t-shirt. She asked questions and her triathlon fate was established. She did the race, with him functioning as crew, packing-up their camping gear by the Columbia River and picking-up her bike when she started to run.

“The exciting thing was I had no idea what an Ironman was or how to qualify. I got a telegram –in 1986 they were still doing telegrams – so I got a telegram that I qualified in Kona, Hawaii’s Ironman. I never did an Ironman because
I always had to work. I did that same triathlon that next year and added about three more,” she said. “Then by that next year I was married and I probably did 115 or so. You could easily do a Sat/Sun triathlon. By that point I was only doing Olympic or International distance: 1,500 meter: a mile swim, 25 bike, and  a 10k run, which is 6.2 miles.” She would then, periodically throughout the years, surprise her husband by signing him up for 10Ks.

Hayes has a remarkable memory for dates and events – something she attributes to clean living.

“We were poor, so who buys alcohol when you’re poor? I was in my 40’s before I saw alcohol. I think no alcohol and no smoking and just staying very active maybe keeps the oxygen good to your brain,” she said.

She will be easy to spot this summer and fall: Hayes will have an 88 on the back of her left calf for races this year.

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