Inspirational East Bay:
In 2007, Heather Wajer weighed 315 pounds, drank heavily, and smoked a pack of cigarettes daily. It was a lifestyle she had led for almost a decade as a way to cope with her mother’s death.
“You turn to things to cope and I definitely turned to food,” the 39-year-old Albany resident said. “I gained almost 150 pounds, not overnight, but over the course of six or seven years.”
But since 2007, not only has Wajer lost 157 pounds, quit smoking, and gotten sober, she has also competed in two Ironman triathlons, three half-Ironman triathlons, three Olympic-distance triathlons, and four sprint (short-distance) triathlons.
Unlike the shorter Olympic-distance and sprint triathlons, Ironman Triathlons are long-distance races, consisting of three uninterrupted legs: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon-length run. Professional competitors can finish in less than nine hours, but most racers take far longer.
Hoping to compete in October’s Ironman World Championship in Kona, HI, Wajer recently entered Ironman’s "Kona Inspired" contest, the winners of which will be given spots in the championship race and a Race Week VIP package worth more than $2,000.
Kona Inspired contestants created 90-second videos explaining how they embody the Ironman mantra of “Anything is Possible,” and now the public must vote to choose the winners.
Out of more than 100 entries, Wajer’s video was selected as one of 45 semi-finalists; in her group of 15, the top two vote-getters will receive slots to the 2012 Ironman World Championship and will be highlighted as media athletes. (Eight of the 45 ultimately will be selected for the program.)
LONG JOURNEY TO THE START LINE
Soon after Wajer graduated from college, her mother was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“She went from owning her own business to not being able to walk or talk or do almost anything on her own,” Wajer said of her mother.
Wajer moved in with her parents in their Massachusetts home, acting as her mother’s primary caregiver until she died in 1998. Devastated, Wajer said she used food and alcohol to deal with her emotional turmoil.
Her unhealthy lifestyle continued for nearly 10 years until, at age 34, she decided it had to stop.
“My son was about 3 years old when I realized I needed to make a change,” Wajer said. "I realized that, if I wanted to give him a chance for a good life, I had to change mine.”
After giving up alcohol and cigarettes, Wajer—at that point more than 300 pounds and only 5 feet 7 inches tall—focused on losing weight.
One of her coworkers, Dave Weiss, who was also overweight, proposed a friendly challenge: The two would compete to see who could lose 12 percent of their body weight first.
That challenge soon led to Wajer convincing Weiss and three others to take part in a sprint triathlon in Napa, the first triathlon that any of them had done.
Wajer gained support from her coworkers as they trained together for months but, in many ways, she also inspired them.
Jane Newcomb, another of Wajer’s coworkers, agreed to do the triathlon. There was one problem: Newcomb didn’t know how to swim. But with Wajer’s encouragement, Newcomb took lessons and was ready when race day arrived.
“I thought if she [Wajer] could ... turn her life around, then I could learn to swim as an adult,” Newcomb said. “She just has that inspirational feeling about her.”
Wajer finished that first sprint triathlon—which consisted of a half-mile swim, 11-mile bike ride, and three-mile run—in just under two hours. Her time may not have broken any records, but the race jumpstarted Wajer’s drive to lose weight and become a triathlete.
Over the next year, Wajer participated in five more triathlons of varying distances, including the 2009 Big Kahuna half-Ironman in Santa Cruz, which she finished in about seven and a half hours.
It was after completing the Big Kahuna that Wajer decided she would set her sights on the full Ironman race in Louisville, KY.
For that, she joined a program called Tri2Lose, an online program offered by Trismarter.com that combines physical training, nutritional changes and triathlon participation to promote weight loss.
Wajer’s coach, Lee Gardner, president and director of Triathlon Coaching for Trismarter.com, said Wajer’s motivation has fueled her success.
“Heather is incredibly motivated, so that makes it a hugely easier project on our side, because she’s anxious to do the workouts and lose the weight,” he said.
RACING FOR A REASON
As a single mom, Wajer has sometimes struggled to find time for her training, often having to run on the treadmill or bike indoors in the early morning hours before taking her son to school and going to work.
Pushing her along has been her desire to be a healthy role model for her son, and her desire to stay strong for her mother.
“She would want something better for me. She would want me to keep moving forward,” Wajer said. “I think about her every time I race, and I’m able to connect with her.”
Wajer also found a way to honor her mom through her competitions. For several of her races, Wajer has raised money for the Blazeman Foundation for ALS, a nonprofit that promotes awareness about ALS and funds research on treatments.
(The foundation’s name comes from the late Jon Blais, a famous Ironman triathlete who competed in the World Championships in 2005, after he was diagnosed with ALS.)
After all her training and preparation, Wajer showed up at the 2010 Ironman Louisville ready to compete, and she was not alone.
Newcomb, who said she now loves swimming, agreed to do the race with Wajer, and Weiss came along to show his support.
“I feel like we started that journey together, and it was just a culmination,” Weiss said. “She is, in a lot of ways, my hero.”
Wajer finished her first Ironman in just over 15 hours, and was left wanting more. She went to Ironman Canada the next year, and cut her time down to 13 hours.
Wajer said she hopes her story can be an inspiration for anyone, especially those dealing with addictions and obesity. Her son, Griffin, has already began to follow her example. At just 7 years old, he has competed in four triathlons for his age level.
“I want people to know that change is possible,” she said. “I love the life I have because of this.”
For Wajer to win a spot in the 2012 Ironman World Championships through the Kona Inspired contest, she must be one of the top two vote-getters in Round 2 of the online contest. To support this Albany triathlete, visit the page of her video and vote.
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