HELENA — In 2012, Heather Grahame began participating in triathlons at the tender age of 56.
Four years later, a reason was thrust upon the lifelong athlete to partake in the grueling sport other than just for satisfying her competitive juices.
“My brother, Tom, was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in October, 2016,” Grahame, 62, related. “And although I live in Montana and he’s in Washington, D.C., we keep in regular contact through phone dates, usually late Sunday afternoons. I also fly back to D.C. as often as I can.
“I’ll admit that Tom’s diagnosis devastated me. At first, I wept. Then, I set out to find a way to help find a cure for ALS.”
Grahame’s incentive to help her brother and ALS victims has motivated her to the top 10-percent ranking in the nation, among female triathletes in her age group.
As a member of Team USA, she recently placed fourth in the 60-64 division, at the 2018 International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Championships in Odense, Denmark.
Grahame’s athletic career dates back to her prep years at Staples High, in Westport, Connecticut, where she served as captain of the field hockey team.
Collegiately, she played varsity field hockey at Mt. Holyoke College for two years before attending Stanford University. Grahame also took up recreational soccer, and then after graduating the University of Oregon in 1984, she moved to Anchorage, Alaska.
There, she competed in bicycle racing on the U.S. Women’s Circuit, and trained at the Olympic Training Center. In 1988, Grahame placed sixth in the Olympic Cycling Team Timed Trials.
Her family then became competitive sled dog racers. Her top international finish occurred at the 2000 Women's World Championships, with another sixth-place showing.
A couple years after moving to Helena in 2010, Grahame was introduced to triathlons by Peggy Springer. She started out with short, Sprint triathlons, winning three age-group titles at the Spring Meadow Triathlons.
She steadily increased the length to a full IRONMAN, composed of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. In 2016, she competed in the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships in Australia (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run).
At the ALS Association website, Grahame learned that Team Challenge ALS would be participating in the 2017 New York City Triathlon. She signed up and immediately raised over $3,500 for The ALS Association.
“That triathlon was one of my favorite races of all time, because I was raising money for a cause,” Grahame recounted. “Racing is a completely different experience, and far more satisfying, when you can use the race as a means to help others.”
In 2017, she competed in the USA Triathlon Aquabike National Championships, finishing third in her age group. The race involved a 1.2-mile open water swim, followed by a 56-mile cycling time trial. Her performance qualified her for Team USA in the 2018 International Triathlon Union World Championship in Denmark.
There were five world championships (duathlon, cross triathlon, aquathlon, long distance triathlon, and the aquabike). Over 3,500 athletes worldwide participated, including 600 for Team USA.
In preparation for Denmark, Grahame intensified her swimming training for the open water leg in Odense Harbor.
Competing in the Worlds aquabike event, Grahame completed the 1.8-mile open water swim in a canal in Odense Harbor, and the 75-mile, non-drafting bike leg, in 4 hours, 57 minutes, for her fourth-place medal.
“I had the second-fastest swim of my entire age-group,” she recounted, “and I have to give tremendous credit to coaches Peggy Stringer and Paul Landes for their workouts, and to (my training partners) Jennifer Turchin, Jayme Carlson, Julie Ackerlund and Ann Hill.”
“An ALS diagnosis is unbelievably crushing,” said Grahame, as a reminder that she was able to represent the U.S. in Denmark while raising funds for the ALS Association. “The impact is impossible to fully appreciate until it hits you or someone you know. You progress until you can no longer eat, speak, walk or breathe.
“Research into finding a cure is vital. That’s why I run, bike and swim.”