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Marine powers through cancer treatment, Ironman 70.3 Hawaii

Clayton Treska wears his Ironman 70.3 Hawaii finishers medal. (Hawaii 24/7 photo by Finn Gallagher)

Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Contributing Editor

Photography by Finn Gallagher | Hawaii 24/7 Student Reporter

Clayton Treska woke up Sunday morning, looked from the pool deck of his bungalow at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows toward the Pacific Ocean and thought it was a good day to start the rest of his life.

Treska is used to tackling challenges head-on, from 12 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, a combat tour in Iraq and a couple of battles against cancer, but Saturday, June 5 marked one of his greatest personal achievements – completing the Ironman 70.3 Hawaii race.

The 31-year-old checked himself out of the San Diego hospital where he is still being treated and lined up with more than 1,300 other triathletes. The start cannon sent them on a 1.2-mile ocean swim at Hapuna Beach State Park, 56-mile bike ride along the Kohala Coast and a 13.1-mile run through The Fairmont Orchid grounds.

Exactly 7 hours, 28 minutes and 34 seconds later, Treska became an Ironman.

“My race number was 1231. That’s like Dec. 31, New Year’s Eve,” he said. “And makes today like New Years Day, the first day of my new life.”

‘M-Dot’ envy

Treska spent the better part of 2007-2008 in the Al Anbar region of Iraq before returning to San Diego. Six months later, he was diagnosed with Stage I testicular cancer.

Clayton Treska talks about the patience and persistence it takes to achieve your goals. (Hawaii 24/7 photo by Finn Gallagher)

“When you go Iraq as a Marine, you are trained. They make sure you know what you’re doing,” he said. “With cancer, you’re just not. There is no training. But I think when you are at your lowest, you decide what you want to do.”

Treska was intent on conquering cancer, and by late 2008 was declared in remission.

“I’ve always been athletic and generally have a healthy lifestyle,” he said. “But when I looked in the mirror at myself, it was so sad. My body really took a turn for the worse.That’s when I decided to do something, I decided I’d do an Ironman.”

He admits he had envied triathletes who earned the famed ‘M-Dot’ Ironman logo tattoo.

“That symbol, that M-Dot, speaks volumes without saying anything. Ironman means adversity and perseveration and prestige” he said. “I have so much admiration for those athletes and honestly, I just wanted it.”

Stage IV and a terminal diagnosis

Treska set about earning the right to a tattoo and began training for the 2010 Ironman 70.3 Hawaii, making the same sacrifices as every serious triathlete.

Sharp pains in his lower back sent him to doctors repeatedly in the spring of 2009. He was told he was just over-training and to cut back on his work outs.

Finally, on July 25, 2009, after a large tumor suddenly popped up under his clavicle, the diagnosis was far more serious – Stage IV testicular cancer.

“I was told I was going to die,” Treska said.

Although the mis-diagnosis gave the aggressive cancer four more months to spread and ravage his insides, Treska isn’t bitter. “Oncology may be a science, but it’s run by human beings,” he said.

Treska’s family set out to find an alternative treatment, as chemotherapy alone was not an option.

“We’re not a privileged family, but we’re not underprivileged either,” he said. “We’re just determined. We were determined to find something that was not ‘terminal.'”

Eventually, the quest led to Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, who treated Lance Armstrong when he had a similarly bleak diagnosis.

Training

“Once Dr. Einhorn was involved, I felt all I had to do was train for a sport I knew nothing about,” he said.

Treska said he figured there was not much he could to have an effect on the cancer, that was Einhorn’s job, but focusing on the future did have a positive effect on his family, friends and supporters.

“When you have no eyebrows and no hair, you really think about the things that are important to you and they are nothing like what you think they are,” he said. “I’ve just had incredible support.”

He was subjected to two auto-stem cell transplants, an experimental treatment that involves siphoning off stem cells from a patient’s own blood. Most patients can tolerate only one such treatment, but Treska toughed out two and kept training.

“Fighting cancer is an endurance sport and I had the support, for sure,” he said. “I’d walk laps around the nurse’s station – 36 laps was one mile.”

The harsh chemotherapy treatments have permanently damaged Treska’s lungs, meaning he cannot take deep breaths. Five months ago, he was so weak he had difficulty walking a flight of stairs. Four months ago, he still had intravenous tubes attached to his chest that prevented swimming.

Today, Treska’s cancer is suppressed. There is no cure and he cannot expect to be declared in remission any time soon, but “of course we’re hopeful we won’t see it again.”

His active military career is over and he will have to retire, although Treska insists “in my heart, I’ll always be in the Marines.”

Race day

“Failure just was not an option. Unless I didn’t live, I was gonna go the distance,” he said. “I’d never done this distance before Hawaii.”

Although Treska said he was a little intimidated before the race, he was not about to give up.

“The day before I think I inhaled about half the ocean during my swim practice. If you noticed to tide was low, that was probably me,” he said. “But it all just clicked for the race.”

The swim was “controlled chaos,” he said, and the winds on Queen Kaahumanu Highway played their usual havoc. “It was the first time I’ve ever had to pedal going downhill,” he said.

Back cramps slowed the second half of the bike leg, but Treska chewed up the run and powered across the beach front finish line.

His mom, Alice, waited as 1,162 triathletes finished the race, but had no doubt his determination would carry her son through the 70.3 miles.

“That’s the way he’s always been. We just sit back and watch,” she said. “We need people like him – for inspiration, hope and battling against all odds. It’s really been amazing how much this has touched people.”

Less than 24 hours after crossing the finish line, Treska reflected on his achievement.

“I never really felt a sense of peace after all this. But in that moment, I finally felt peace,” he said. “I’ve never been happier in my life. This was my celebration.”

What’s next?

“I joke that I’m going home to start a pig aviation farm and teach pigs to fly. Or maybe I can start installing air conditioners in hell,” he said, “because I know anything is possible.”

Team Treska

“I didn’t really like the name. It didn’t seem right that you had the word ‘team’ and then my individual name, but my friends started it and it stuck,” he said.

Now Team Treska has a mission: to help cancer patients and their families; contribute to the scientific advancement of oncology and the fight against cancer; and ultimately give the world the same probability of survival Treska was been given in the face of a terminal diagnosis.

“Some people go their entire lives without finding their purpose. I’ve found mine,” he said. “I enjoy spending time with the families and the patients. I feel very comfortable with them.

“I feel a responsibility to inform. Everyone is affected by cancer in some way,” he said. “I’m not gonna live life with regrets and I have a big enough conscience to contribute back to the community.”

Treska said he is grateful to patients and doctors who have fought cancer through the decades.

“What people before me endured helped save my life and I hope what I’ve been through can help someone else,” he said.

The lessons he learned in his fight against cancer have parallels to preparing for an Ironman.

“Be patient. Be persistent. It takes time to reach your goals,” he said. “Life isn’t a sprint, it’s an Ironman. Challenges are just the triathlons of life and we all have our own Ironman. You can achieve whatever you want.”

— Find out more:
www.teamtreska.com
www.ironman703hawaii.com

Clayton Treska and his mom Alice relax in their bungalow at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel the day after Ironman 70.3 Hawaii. (Hawaii 24/7 photo by Finn Gallagher)

6 Responses to “Marine powers through cancer treatment, Ironman 70.3 Hawaii”

  1. Michele Whittenburg says:

    You did it again Clay, Brought happy, inspired tears to my eyes! I think everyone who reads this will feel uplifted and hopeful no matter what they're going through in life! You are such a warrior, and so gracious for sharing all your joy and pain with all of us. Can't wait to see where life leads you next, I'll be here cheering you on and always remembering you in my prayers<3 Michele

  2. ashley riefsnyder says:

    Great article! Clay, you are such an inspiration, we are all so proud of you!!! Go Team Treska!!

  3. TashaHarley says:

    Way to go. You are an inspiration to so many now, and knowing what you did will help others power through in the future.
    Mauna Lani is the best place in the world. The fishponds are very spiritual. In our hearts, we can be there always.
    MAHALO and ALOHA!!

  4. Garrett says:

    Great job Clayton. So proud of all that you have accomplished and especially what you did on that swim. Goes to show that Gracie really had an awesome impact on your training. Hopefully the media will get the races correct. Not that it takes away from what you did, but it was not a 70.3 Hopefully they realize that is the half Ironman distance. You went the full distance of 140.6 miles. Clayton is a true Ironman!

  5. Michael J. Scordan says:

    You’re a Great Man, Clayton!
    And
    You’re a Great Marine!

    Mike Scordan,
    Redondo Beach, California
    USMC (1952-1955)

  6. Cpl Russell, Arthur says:

    Inspiring story, congratulations on your accomplishment.

    -Semper Fi

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