(NEW YORK) — When Heather Wajer was 22, her mother was diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative nerve disease that generally leads to paralysis and then death.
For Wajer, the news was devastating. She moved in with her mother, becoming the woman’s full-time caregiver for three years until her death. Seeing her mother, a vibrant woman who was her best friend, fade away from what’s also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease took an enormous toll on Wajer.
“I used food to cope,” Wajer, who just relocated to Austin from California, said in an interview that aired Friday on ABC’s Good Morning America. “You know, some people use drugs. I used food and alcohol to cope with what was going on with her because. I didn’t have a lot of joy in my life. And so I would just eat to make those feelings go away.”
“After my mom passed away, you know, I continued living that way. And five years later I woke up and I was, you know, over 300 pounds. I was drinking every day, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. And I didn’t really know how I had gotten there,” she said.
At her heaviest, Wajer, who’s 5-foot-7 inches, tipped the scale at 315 pounds.
One night, after drinking “too many glasses of wine,” Wajer, who was now a mother, passed out on the sofa. Her son, Griffin, was frightened.
“And I woke up with him sitting next to me, shaking me, saying, ‘Mom, mom.’ And I looked at him. And he was 3 years old. And I was just lying on the couch, unconscious. And he was scared. And he didn’t know what had happened. [At] that moment, I realized that I really needed to change my life for him,” she recalled.
And she did. Slowly but surely, Wajer lost more than 150 pounds. She’s now an Ironman triathlete, and headed to Kona, Hawaii, after winning a coveted spot in the Ironman World Championships being held there on Oct. 13.
The Ironman Triathlon is a grueling annual event during which competitors must do a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike race and a 26.2-mile marathon run, all within 17 hours.
Wajer’s remarkable transformation began with a friendly wager with a co-worker who also was overweight. They wanted to see who could be the first to lose 40 pounds. It was intended just to support each other’s weight loss goals, but it got Wajer moving.
She and a few co-workers signed up for a sprint triathlon so they would be motivated to get up and exercise every day.
“We had the time of our lives,” she said. “And it changed all of our lives in some way. We didn’t all become Ironmen. But it changed all of our lives for the better.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio