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Marine staff sergeant Clayton Treska completed the Ironman World Championship 15 months after being diagnosed with stage four cancer.
I was interviewing cycling coach Chris Carmichael for the Triathlon Club of San Diego back in 2009. In the audience, there was one person who stood out from the rest. His skin was pasty, his T-shirt seemed way too big for him, his eyes were sunken deep into their sockets and he was wearing a surgical mask. He approached Chris and me after our presentation and introduced himself.
His name was Clayton Treska, and he had been a 290-pound Marine staff sergeant who could bench press north of 450 pounds. I’ve seen photos, and the guy was huge. He had been attracted to endurance sports since he was a child, but he pursued weight lifting because it seemed a better fit for his body type and personality. “I always told myself that one day I would do an Ironman triathlon,” remembers Treska, “but it was one of those impossible dreams that a lot of us have as a kid, like when we decide that one day we’ll become the president. Sort of a pipe dream, you know?”
While in the Marines, Treska had been diagnosed with and treated for stage one testicular cancer. During his recovery, he took up cycling, running and swimming and trained to do a short-distance triathlon. He was getting fit, but started experiencing sharp pains in his lower back. At a follow-up visit with the oncologist, Treska mentioned the back pain and the doctor insisted he was probably overtraining and it was definitely muscular pain, nothing more.
On July 25, 2009, during another follow-up meeting with his oncologist, everything changed. They discovered a baseball-size tumor on his clavicle—the cancer was back. This time, though, it was much worse. He was told that cancer was all over his body and was now stage 4, which is as bad as it gets.
“I was upset, but when you are in the Marines and have been to Iraq, you have already accepted the fact that you have signed on to put your body in harm’s way and you could die at any time,” he says. “My main concern was not the diagnosis, but the fact that I had to tell my mom and dad that I had terminal cancer. One minute I was fine and in remission. The next minute I was dying.”
So what do you do when you’re told you have very little time left on earth? If you’re Clayton Treska, you go online and sign up to race a half-Ironman that takes place less than a year after your diagnosis. It made perfect sense to Treska. “I needed to stay positive, and I needed everyone around me to stay positive,” he insists. “Setting a goal, even if it was unattainable, seemed like the absolute right thing to do at the time. If I’m terminal, I’m going to do what I want to do, which was the Ironman 70.3 in Hawaii [in June 2010].”
Treska’s father, through a friend of a friend, connected with Lance Armstrong’s physician, Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, who recommended an experimental treatment in which they would harvest some of his stem cells, put him through torturous rounds of chemotherapy, then do a bone marrow transplant using Treska’s stem cells. He was in his own private hell, living in the hospital. When I went to visit him, the former 290 pounder was hovering at 155.
People heard about Treska’s plight and sent him notes and emails imploring him to follow his dream. “Getting letters from people you don’t even know telling you that you are inspirational is life changing,” he says. “I wasn’t doing the training for myself, but for everyone else. When someone tells you that you are going to die and there is nothing you can do about it, it’s almost a good thing. You now wake up each day with one goal and one goal only: to survive.”
His training started with him walking very slowly, along with his IV stand and with tubes sticking out of basically everywhere, around the nurse’s station. By his calculation, it was 36 laps for a mile. “Getting my blood flowing was good, but those first five minutes were awful,” he says. “I’d really suffer.”
The reality of the situation was that everyone in the clinical trials ward was expected to die, and the hardest thing for Treska was masking the awful depression he was going through to anyone outside of the four walls of his hospital room. “There were times it was so horrible,” he says. “I was 30 years old and I was in so much pain I’m saying to myself, ‘If I’m going to die, just let me die already.’ I’m telling people I’m going to do this Ironman thing while I’m lying in bed in a diaper.”
In between the treatments, eventually Treska was able to get outside to ride, run and swim. He had no idea if he could actually finish the Ironman 70.3. He was still living in the hospital when, along with 23 members of Team Treska, he flew off to the Big Island. “I told the doctors I was going to Hawaii for an event, but I kept things vague. I was healthy enough to go outside and train but not healthy enough to leave the inpatient ward.”
He was also healthy enough to complete Ironman 70.3 Hawaii—in 7:28:34. “In my mind, I was competing against cancer that day, and it was the most beautiful feeling in the world,” he says.
After finishing the 2010 Ironman 70.3 Hawaii, Treska was invited to participate in the Ironman World Championship four months later. His story became part of the NBC TV show. He finally moved out of the hospital for good on Aug. 25, 2010, finished Kona in 15:16:58 and got an M-dot tattoo on his calf.
It was the culmination of an amazing journey. In the 15 months since receiving a death sentence, he had gone to hell and back. When he crossed the Ironman finish line in Kona, he dropped to his knees and kissed the ground. “It was the sweetest kiss,” Treska says, “that these lips have ever had.” n
Bob Babbitt (@bob_babbitt) is the co-founder of Competitor magazine, the co-founder of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the host of Competitor Radio and an inductee into the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame and USA Triathlon Hall of Fame. To hear his interviews with more than 500 endurance legends, visit Competitorradio.com.