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Courtesy photos – 3 total – I like #1 and #3 best if you can’t use all 3…

Heather Hasz of Ayer “before” in November 2006, a day after her first training session.

Heather Hasz “after” significant weight loss, running in the Falmouth 10K in 2010.

Heather and Earl Hasz say they underwent a lifestyle change that benefitted the whole household.

By Mary E. Arata

marata@nashobapub.com

AYER — In November 2006, everything changed for Heather Hasz of Groton Harvard Road. It was a simple routine physical.

Heather had been heavy for most of her adult life, but two life-altering events occurred at the same time a decade earlier.

Heather married Rick Marceau in 1994. In early 1995, Rick was diagnosed with colon cancer. Rick died in August 1997, when Heather was five months pregnant with their first child.

“My daughter had lost her father before she was even born,” said Heather. Abbey Marceau was born in December 1997.

The weight gain was steady and insidious. “It just sort of happens, put on a pound here and there. Life gets in the way of doing anything about it,” said Heather.

“Food was a comfort. Food didn’t ask for anything back. Food was there when I put my daughter to bed at night,” said Heather. “I remember planning ‘What will I have for a snack tonight when my daughter goes to bed?'”

Years rolled by before Heather met her present husband, Earl Hasz, at a play date between Abbey and his daughter, Anne. The two married. The girls are 14 years old now. Earl also has a younger son, Ethan.

In the autumn of 2006, Heather’s doctor gave her a wake-up call. At 5 feet, 1 inch tall and 246 pounds, her doctor suggested she could be a candidate for gastric bypass surgery.

“I just didn’t realize — when did I get there?” recalled Heather. Heather said she and Earl would watch the “Biggest Loser” on television and say “Gee, it’s not me, but when your doctor is telling you you’d be a candidate for gastric bypass…”

She spanned the range of emotions, starting with anger aimed at her doctor. “How how dare you say I’m fat.” But by the time she got to the parking lot, Heather had determined. “I need to do something.”

Heather was then employed as the health inspector for the Town of Acton. She had organized health and wellness fairs for town employees. She knew a personal trainer in town, Armand Cherry, and called him up.

“I said ‘I need something.’ I said we need to do some work. I confided in him. I must have cried all afternoon,” said Heather. Within a week she was working out hard, including training with free weights and heart-rate challenging cardio activities like boxing.

“They throw up and stuff on the ‘Biggest Loser.’ That stuff is real,” recalled Heather. “Being pushed beyond your physical limits is like ‘shock and awe.'”

Despite the rigorous lunch-hour workouts, the weight didn’t come off. It depressed Heather.

“I immediately wanted to see change. Armand said we have to look at your diet,” said Heather. “I didn’t have half the equation — the eating part. I wasn’t making concessions.”

With time demands, Heather turned to the online Weight Watchers program, which she said is “great for working moms” and provided great online tools. With once-weekly weigh-ins performed at home, Hasz said “the weight started to fall off.”

Heather plunged into a daily cardio routine, plus twice weekly one-on-one weight training with free weights and strength-building machines. She ran out of work daily at lunch time, worked out for an hour, “Hit the gym, shower and be back at work. I’d eat lunch at my desk.”

But meals were retooled. Hasz chose to follow the Weight Watchers core program, in which 10 sensible core food groups are listed. “It sounds restrictive, but it forced you to look at foods,” said Heather. “Fruits, vegetables, low- to no-fat dairy, lean protein and whole grains.”

Gone were white pastas and rice, replaced by 100 percent whole wheat and whole-grain options. No more processed foods were in the shopping cart. “Now, if I wanted to make chicken nuggets, I’d get the chicken and make it from scratch. ”

In order to make the change, the house was brought on board. At his heaviest, 6 foot 2 inches tall Earl tipped the scales at 230 pounds. Now Earl is at 200 pounds and cycles regularly. “It’s very sweet,” said Heather of the support and lifestyle changes Earl has made. “He was a golfer. Now he’s doing 200-mile bike rides.”

“We saw a change in our relationship as well,” said Heather. “We were sedentary.” But it was a slow switch over. “It wasn’t just one day that he said, I’m going to start cycling.”

The girls were on board, too. Heather said the goal was to “get them just as excited about eating sweet potatoes as any other food.” But Heather said she remained “respectful” of the teenagers’ food wants.

Boxed mac and cheese is still purchased on occasion. “But its one box instead of the five-pack,” said Heather. “I don’t leave it hanging around. If I go to Hannaford and the kids want dessert, I buy a little box of bakery cookies versus a box of Oreos. In order to get a grip on it, I had to detox our home of foods and then bring some back in gradually.”

If they wanted chicken parmesan, it was made with panko and low fat cheese. The girls are largely onboard with the healthier eating regime. “My daughter only wants turkey burgers,” said Heather.

Anne is sitting on the couch listening. She said Heather cooks a lot from recipes she sees on the Food Network. Anne said she loves Heather’s chicken cordon bleu, made with shredded low-fat cheese and a piece of deli ham rolled up and baked with sprinkled panko. “It’s just simple,” said Anne, “but good.”

“They ask for it now,” said Heather.

Within a year, Heather lost 12 inches around her waistline and dropped to 184 pounds.

With the help of the online Couch-to-5K Running Program, Heather pushed herself to participate in both the Bresnahan 5K and the Ayer Fire Department Thanksgiving 5K in 2007. She started by running a bit, then walking, slowly increasing the run time. “Over the course of six to eight weeks, I developed the ability to basically run a 5K. I turned from a walker into a runner.”

In the summer of 2010, Heather ran the 10K Falmouth Road Race in mid August. In May 2011, Heather traveled to Boulder, Colo., for a 10K which peaked at 5,200 feet above sea level. “That was a pretty challenging race.”

Earl has also taken flight, riding in five Pan Massachusetts Challenges, also riding in a 150-mile Harpoon Ale ride, and is training for his second ride up Mount Washington on bike. “We tease each other. He’s the cyclist and I’m the runner. Our joke is we’re two-thirds of a triathlon team. We just need a swimmer.”

As Heather’s story started to spread, “I started to get messages from people on social media who want to talk about what I’m doing. I get messaged from people who ask about it and what I’ve done and how I’ve done it. I love to talk about it, because I feel like I may even inspire someone to make even the smallest change when they see that I’m just a normal person doing this.”

“I never feel like I’m preaching to anybody but its straight up hard work. That’s the key. Sometimes they’re ready to hear that and sometimes they’re not,” said Heather. “I’m not perfect. I’m still not where I need to be weight-wise,” said Hasz.

Last October, Heather completed the Smutty Nose Half Marathon at Hampton Beach. “I ran the whole thing and Earl was at the finish line. It was a huge moment. There were tears, a little bit of nausea — it’s overwhelming to realize that you’ve pushed yourself to that point.”

“This is the reality. That reality is that I’ve been able to successfully do it with the support of my friends and family,” said Heather.

Heather’s next stop is to run the full marathon course at Hampton Beach. “Walk, run or crawl, I’m going to cross that finish line,” smiled Heather. She turns 40 in December.

“I believe that I’m a better person when I run or the days I exercise,” said Heather. Food is no longer a dear friend. “Running has become my outlet. When I’m out on the road, there’s a lot I think out. Sometimes it’s not pretty, sometimes there are still demons that tell me I can’t finish.”

“It didn’t happen overnight. There were dark moments. There were times I gained weight,” said Heather. “There were moments of victory. You just have to honestly buy into the fact that it’s a complete lifestyle change. To think its immediate is to set yourself up for disappointment.”

“That’s the battle,” said Heather. “The battle is against yourself.”

Follow Mary Arata on twitter.com/maryearata and facebook.com/mary.arata.