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SDSU’s Ironman: From Terminal to Triathlete

Clayton Treska is beating the odds, one challenge at a time.
SDSU student Clayton Treska will compete in the Ironman World Championships this month.
SDSU student Clayton Treska will compete in the Ironman World Championships this month.

Clayton Treska

The tall, muscular Marine was an emaciated 155 lbs at the beginning of this year.
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Fighting through
The tall, muscular Marine was an emaciated 155 lbs at the beginning of this year.
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Update: Clayton Treska finished the Ironman Triathalon in 15 hours, 16 minutes and 58 seconds, ranking him No. 1,702 overall and No. 157 in his division.

To say that Clayton Treska has overcome the odds is an understatement.

In 2008, Treska was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent treatment at Naval Medical Center San Diego. He was one of the lucky ones. After surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, Treska came out on the other side with a mission.

“I wanted to show my family that I could still do anything, overcome anything,” said Treska, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps.

He set a goal to accomplish something he’d always wanted to do—an Ironman triathlon. Treska began to train immediately after completing treatment, and, by 2009, he was back in peak physical condition. 

But during his training, he noticed aches and pains he didn’t anticipate. For months, the pain was blamed on excessive training, but by the end of the year, Treska discovered it was more.

The cancer was back. And this time it was worse. Stage IV and terminal.

The odds were definitely against him.

“I was angry that I had to tell my family it was terminal. After all that hard work, I felt like cancer was hitting me with a cheap shot.”

Going out fighting

But instead of being angry, Treska resolved to go out fighting. Whether in combat or in the hospital, he wasn’t going to let anything get the better of him. 

Treska entered into a clinical trial using stem cell therapy to try and beat the cancer. He lived in a hospital room at UCSD Medical Center, getting treatments around the clock. By January, the tall, muscular Marine was an emaciated 155 pounds. Walking was a chore.

But he kept fighting. Between treatments, Treska continued training, in part to shift focus away from his illness.  Friends and trainers came to the hospital to help him. He learned to swim. He started gaining weight, and soon he was running and biking again.

“What I was doing was way beyond anyone’s expectations; no one thought it was possible.”

But it was. In June, Treska completed the 2010 Rohto Ironman 70.3 Hawaii. 

Doing the impossible

“All along, it wasn’t about me,” he said. “It was always for my friends, my family and the community. I wanted to prove to them that it was possible.”

Now with his cancer suppressed (he won’t be in remission for at least a year), Treska has started work on a new goal of earning a college degree at San Diego State University. His unique life perspective keeps him focused on the school work.

“I might be a freshman, but I have a Ph.D. in life. I want to take what I’ve learned and what I’ve been able to do during my treatments and show others that they can do it, too.”

Majoring in exercise and nutritional sciences, Treska hopes to develop physical therapy and nutrition programs for post-chemotherapy, post-cancer patients. 

The next challenge

And even though school work now comes first for Treska, don’t think he’s stopped training. Shortly after completing the Ironman in June, Treska was awarded a lottery spot in the Ironman World Championships. He’ll compete in Kona, Hawaii on Oct. 9—swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running a full marathon, about 26.4 miles. 

Similar to the schedule he kept while in the hospital, Treska fits in workouts around his classes and studying. And at the end of his day-long training sessions leading up to the competition, he’ll settle into his hotel room to tackle homework.

Treska hopes to overcome the odds one more time with success in the Ironman World Championships, but whatever the result, he knows he’ll come out stronger than before.

“It was the most horrible experience, but it was also the best experience,” Treska says about his battle with cancer. “I know more about life now than I ever could have learned in 10 lifetimes. It wasn’t until I knew I was going to die that I really started to live.”


Related stories:

Cancer Patient Is a Real Ironman - NBC San Diego

Ironman contestant's biggest foe? Cancer - LA Times


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