Ironman Races to Fight Cancer
By Mike Scarr
Editor’s note: Story first appeared on Livestrong.com in September, 2011
Clay Treska expected to be dead.
And for good reason.
The testicular cancer he had beaten was back. He was hearing words like “advanced” and “terminal” and the concept of months might as well have been minutes.
So he took the most logical next step.
He began training for an Ironman.
That’s right. The race that has whipped healthy men and women, exhausted athletes to the point of delirium, put personal lives at risk in pursuit of a goal was his idea of getting better.
“If I’m going to die, I’m going to do it my way and I’m going to go out fighting,” Treska said.
And fight he did, which to those who know him speaks to the simple fact of who Clayton Treska Jr. is.
“He has this tenacity, this drive that he has always had,” said his dad, who passed his name down to his son. “He was going to make sure that somehow or another he was going to get well.”
Understand that Treska is not dead and he did race that Ironman. He also finished the race, and while all full Ironman courses are the same distance, there is none like the annual championship in Kona.
“When I crossed that finish line that made it all worth it,” the younger Treska said.
He wasn’t talking about the personal achievement, though it satisfied a goal since childhood.
And Treska, 30, wasn’t just talking about trying to beat a disease by fighting through the absolute depths of physical and emotional pain to the pinnacle of physical exertion and exhilaration under the darkness of a Hawaiian night. He was also talking about the thousands of names on emails and letters, who were inspired and expressed their support.
“I wouldn’t care if I injured myself or fell off the bike,” Treska said. “I would care for all the people I would have let down and I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
It is the basic underpinning of a young man, who feels his exploits are nothing extraordinary but otherwise necessary in the bigger picture he sees displayed in front of him.
“I felt that my son all through life he had a lot to give and I felt that what a waste it would be if he were to pass on, shall we say,” his dad said.
Treska has opted to lay his life on the line before.
He’s a 12-year Marine Corps veteran with time spent in combat duty in Iraq. A staff sergeant, he’s currently awaiting word to see if he is to be redeployed to active duty.
On the personal front, Treska is a student at San Diego State University and on the good side of a two-round bout with cancer that first surfaced in May of 2008.
What was sent into remission then after chemotherapy came back with a vengeance about a year later. Treska, who had been training for the Ironman, began experiencing back pain and knew something was wrong.
By July of 2009, he was making multiple visits to doctors at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego but it wasn’t until a tumor on the side of his neck that Treska said grew from the size of a pea to a baseball in about 12
hours did the medical staff realize his cancer had become more severe.
Without the necessary facilities to care for Treska at Balboa Naval, he was admitted to the clinical trials program at UCSD Moore’s Cancer Center.
At UCSD, doctors went full-bore with Treska’s treatment by administering courses of high-dose chemotherapy and autologous stem-cell transplants.
The procedures, by all indicators, saved his life.
It is also a delicate balance as the chemotherapy is given at lethal doses while Treska’s own stem cells allow his body to recover.
“It is a truckload of chemotherapy administered and it turns out that amount of chemotherapy, while it can be very effective at getting rid of cancer cells, also eliminates the person’s bone marrow permanently,” said Dr. Peter Curtin, Clinical Director of the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at UCSD. “If you didn’t have those stem cells (available), you’d die.”
Treska was hospitalized for a year, but he began training for the Ironman almost immediately.
First steps were to get out of bed and make it to the bathroom. On good days, he’d cut that path as many times as possible. On bad days, getting out of bed was about all he could handle.
“The chemotherapy regimen for testicular cancer is pretty rough, even for a sturdy character like Clay,” said Dr. Curtin, who is also a Professor of Medicine at UCSD. “He certainly had times in both of his transplants when he was a pretty sick pup.”
Treska, who had resumed training fairly quickly following his first bout with cancer, experienced a much tougher climb the second time around, but his resolve to race never wavered. Faced with skepticism from some of his friends, Treska moved past his doubters to train but the support of his family was strong.
His mother, Alice, and his sister, Julie, remained firmly in his camp, as did his father, but Clay Sr. insisted on one caveat.
He had to stay in school.
“I felt that schooling was, frankly, more important or at least equally important,” said his dad. “Clay said he could do both and I said, ‘if you can do both, let’s do both.’”
Treska proceeded to compete in five races at varying distances and finished three. That was the bulk of his triathlon experience when he toed the line at the invitation-only Ironman on the big island of Hawaii.
He didn’t play sports growing up in Georgia, but lifted weights and became a bodybuilder and trainer as an adult. They swam as a family, his dad said, but nothing beyond the neighborhood pool. Treska said he could “dog
paddle” and neither father nor son could remember the last time he had been on a bike.
Athletes train for years and compete in multiple races to withstand the 2.4-mile swim, the 112-mile bike leg and the concluding run — a 26.2-mile marathon.
Treska was looking to get there in just a few months.
“That is a real endurance test and it’s an amazing test,” said Lawrence Einhorn, a distinguished Professor of Medicine and Lance Armstrong Foundation Chair in Oncology at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
“I think a lot of people that go through hardships in life with things like going through chemotherapy do see if they have the mental and physical toughness to do something like that.”
Einhorn, a physician/researcher at the IU Simon Cancer Center, treated Armstrong for testicular cancer before the cyclist’s run of seven Tour de France titles and is a leading authority in the field.
Treska had trained mostly on his own, but worked with a swim coach who taught him to tread water and work up to the Ironman distance.
Kona is notorious for high temps, high humidity and high winds, all of which were in play Oct. 9, 2010 in a race won by Chris McCormack. Mirinda Carfrae took the women’s crown.
Treska came in at 15:16:58, well under the midnight deadline for timed finishers. On the run, Treska went out in a little over an hour, but came back in more than five.
He said if he had trained with coaches in the other disciplines, he could have shaved considerable time.
But he knows one thing.
“That was absolutely the best I could do,” Treska said.
His dad was there at the finish line and said he felt the pain of every stroke, rotation and step.
“The whole intention was to compete and to complete,” Clay Sr. said. “It didn’t matter how long it took, just to complete it and become an Ironman.”
Treska plans to race again — those two DNFs are playing on his competitive mind — but school is the sole focus now.
After graduation, Treska hopes to ultimately get an advanced degree in physical therapy and create an exercise-based recovery program for cancer patients.
“It is my goal to give everyone in the community the same probability of success that I have had. It would be a tragedy if that were not the case,” Treska said. “It is my calling in life.”
His finish line was only the beginning.