Sherborn, Mass. — From running strictly for recreation through her hometown woods a few years ago, Fordie Madeira has come a long way.She finished an eyecatching 19th in last spring's US Olympic women's marathon trials, has already turned in some outstanding international performances, and now has her sights set on becoming the No. 1 female master runner in the world.
Quite an undertaking for a 39-year-old widow with triplets in the second grade. But considering Fordie's meteoric rise so far at distances from 5 kilometers to the full 26-mile, 385-yard marathon, it seems unlikely that anything can keep her down.
Indeed, based on her times over the past year or so, Madeira will almost certainly start making her mark in world master competition as soon as she reaches the qualifying age of 40 on Dec. 10.
''There are many, many records that she's going to break,'' says her coach, John Pistone. ''She's already a national class runner at 39. When she turns 40 she'll be easily one of the best, if not the best, over-40 runners in the world.''
Not bad for someone who never did much running at all for the first three decades of her life, and who only took up the sport seriously about six years ago.
Hester Ford Sargent grew up in the Boston suburb of Dover, where outdoor pleasures and an interest in sports were basic facts of life. Though she was competitive in school sports such as field hockey, lacrosse, and tennis, it wasn't until Fordie was 30 that she discovered the exhilaration of cross-country running.
At that time her running attire consisted of old tennis shoes and layers of sweatsuits, and her objective was just to exercise and ''have an edge on the rest of the day.''
But in 1975, brother Lee Sargent dared his younger sister to come down off the Charles River embankment, leave the pine tree-studded Dover paths, and show her stuff against real runners in the 9.7-mile Wellesley road race. It all seemed overwhelming to Fordie, who until then had had to push herself to get through 5-mile runs. She entered the race, however, as ''a lark and a one-shot deal'' - then amazed everyone by finishing second in the women's division.
Even this didn't turn Fordie into an instant serious runner, however. She did enter occasional other races, but her running interest remained sporadic and noncommittal for the next few years.
In 1976, though, one year after running her first road race, Fordie's interest was building enough that she decided to run unofficially in the Boston Marathon. Lee was running too, and Fordie thought of it basically as ''a family thing'' that she went along with despite her inexperience and lack of routine training.
''The way I trained for my first marathon,'' she recalls, ''was by thinking that if I could put two 13-milers back-to-back two days in a row, why couldn't I run one 26-miler in one day?'' She laughs now at her theory, calling it ''totally ridiculous'' - then casually informs you that her time of 3 hours and 5 minutes would have been good enough for seventh in the women's division had she been an official entrant.
Fordie is quick to note that this time wouldn't break any records by 1984 standards. ''The whole spectrum of where women have gone in running is just monumental in terms of times,'' she says, citing such efforts as Joan Benoit's Olympic record of 2:24.52 last summer.
A year after that first attempt in Boston, the novice runner increased the Madeira household threefold, a maternal feat which one might have expected to cut down her running, but which actually increased it.
''What really got me running was having the triplets,'' says the mother of seven-year-old Brad, Lindsay and Josh.''Suddenly I really felt I needed an outlet. Running just gave me that sense of space by myself, time away from the screams of the triplets and all the things your mind is on as a new mother.''
Indeed, she developed such an efficient way of juggling her demanding duel role that she was able to run her second marathon when the triplets were six months old.
Three years later, Fordie's husband, Mike, became seriously ill. Running each day during that trying period became a way to deal with her feelings of helplessness and later a means of venting her grief when he passed on.
Running as therapy now, though, is not what makes Fordie move.
''It's exciting, it's exhilarating . . . I'm challenged as I've never been before in a sport. I have goals and aspirations that I never dreamed I would have. I'd like to see where I can go after I'm 40 . . . I just want to see how far I can get with it.''
The move into serious running wasn't all smooth sailing - especially in the early stages when her progress was hindered by too-frequent injuries and overtraining. She attributes much of her recent success to the solid training of her newly acquired coach, John Pistone. ''John got me to develop leg speed,'' she says. ''I had always run on strength and endurance, and for the first time in my life (a little over a year ago) I started getting on the track . . . less garbage miles, therefore less injuries.''
After working for a few months with the former Tufts University coach, Fordie competed in the 1983 World Veterans Games in Puerto Rico - and despite her lack of experience she placed first in the 10 kilometer race, second in the 5k,and fourth in the 1,500 meters. Not bad for a first encounter with the track.
The Puerto Rico experience gave Fordie her first opportunity to compete exclusively with women within her own age bracket, 35-39. It was also the perfect preliminary arena for her next major meet in France at the World Veterans Championships. As before, Fordie was competing with the world's top women runners within her age group. She came in second in the 10k event in 34.14 .
Fordie insists that when she started running she was doing it for herself, but the idea of the Olympic trials must have occurred to her somewhere between the worn tennis sneakers and the Parisian race track.
Having qualified for the trials the previous year in Boston, Fordie had only to jump onto the track in Olympia, Wash., put her feet in motion, and remember all the paces her coach had put her through. All that, plus tremendous drive and stamina hurled her across the finish line in 2.36:35, leaving many 22-year-olds trailing behind her, panting in the dust
Although jokingly referring to herself as ''an old Chevy competing against the new Porsches,'' Madeira set a national age record in those Olympic trials by approximately three minutes.
Pistone wasn't surprised. ''I think Fordie has real intensity about her running . . . she really puts forth her best effort,'' he says. ''I've found that if anyone wants to train and improve they can make that improvement - the key factor is the maturity and the sincere desire. There are probably people who have as much natural ability and more natural speed than Fordie, but what counts a lot is the intensity and the real desire to work at something completely . . . that's the important part.''
Since the trials, Fordie has continued to race impressively, winning the 30- 39 division of the recent 10k Bonne Bell race in Boston, and finishing as the second American and eighth overall in a strong international field at a 15k event in El Paso, Tex.
''All the best 40-year-olds were there, and I beat them handily,'' she says of the latter effort.
Coming up are this year's World Veterans 10k championship in San Diego on Dec. 1 and 2 (when she will still be 39), followed by an assault on the over-40 records at the Houston Marathon in January.
Fordie's typical daily juggling act starts at 6 a.m. with her family. ''Being a mother, my life revolves around the triplets,'' she says. After the three bundles of blond energy catch the 8 o'clock school bus, Fordie dons her running shoes and is out the door. ''With John, I run for time rather than distance, so in preparing for a marathon I run on an average of about 60 to 80 minutes a day.''
These runs always consist of purposeful workouts, different paces for blocks of 20 minutes, track work, or ''ladders'' where she repeats miles starting at a six minute pace and gradually increasing it for seven miles around the track. Impossibly difficult workouts, says Fordie, if not for the company of her brother Lee and running buddy Bill Olson.
''She's phenomenal for someone her age,'' says Olson. ''When she sets her mind to it you really can't get between her and what she wants to do. . . . She's got singleness of purpose.''
Sargent describes his sister as a person possessing ''average athletic ability'' but enormous ''mental toughness.'' ''Fordie has achieved her present status as a runner through 90 percent determination,'' he says, ''and I think she wears that status very well.''
Indeed she does, as anyone talking to Fordie about her running feats quickly learns. She seems delighted and genuinely surprised that she is easily better than many of her competitors. But her newly acquired prominence in the running world doesn't take her away from what she continues to put first - her family. Rather, she sees the running as enriching every aspect of her life.
Running, she says, allowed her to get a better grip on her role as a single parent and caretaker of a sizeable estate. ''Running has given me a great feeling of self worth. I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of managing a household and raising three children . . . but I proved to myself that I was capable of being really quite self sufficient.''
Although she describes herself as a ''tough disciplinarian'' it's hard to see anything but the soft and gentle side of Fordie when she is in the company of the triplets. Whether picking blueberries, gardening tomatoes, or sailing in the backyard pond, the young family works together as a happy, well adjusted unit.
''I feel a serenity with my life that the running has helped top off,'' she says. ''Over the past few years there's been tremendous growth in my life . . . I think you grow through suffering and I had to do a lot of working through anger, frustration, loneliness - all the feelings that anybody goes through when there's a loss.
''The children have grown with me through all of this, too. My faith has been strengthened and I think I've come out a stronger person than I was three years ago - a better person. . . . I'm just very, very content with every aspect of my life.''