Reporting from San Diego — The 1,800 competitors in the 2010 Ford Ironman World Championship this weekend in Hawaii will battle the surf (for a 2.4-mile swim), the island's uphill roads (for the 112-mile bike ride) and the rocky terrain (for a 26.2-mile marathon run).
One competitor, No. 156, is battling something else: stage 4 cancer — the kind that kills you.
Marine Staff Sgt. Clayton Treska was back from a 2007 deployment to Iraq when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Undaunted, the onetime power lifter began training to compete in Ironman competitions. With chemotherapy treatments at a military hospital, his cancer appeared to go into remission.
But last year, he felt pain in his back while training on his bicycle. His cancer had returned and was considered terminal.
"He has a disorder that with traditional chemotherapy is not curable," said Dr. Peter Curtin, a leading hematologist and blood and marrow transplant specialist at the UC San Diego Medical Center.
While under Curtin's care, Treska underwent two stem-cell transplants. Stem cells were collected from his body and, after he was treated with a very high dose of chemotherapy, were infused back in.
Each treatment was followed by a month in the hospital and then multiple appointments at UCSD's Moores Cancer Center. Treska jokes that he kept training in the hospital by walking with an IV tube in his arm.
His weight withered from his high of 240 pounds. But he never lost his desire to compete in a major Ironman or go to college.
Out of the hospital, his weight has returned, he's enrolled at San Diego State, and he's been on an unforgiving regimen to get ready for the championship on the Kona coast of the Big Island.
He lives in the Student Veterans Organization house just off campus. Nathaniel Donnelly, a former Marine and now a graduate student and president of the veterans organization, said the vets have been impressed by Treska's enthusiasm.
"He's a soft-spoken kind of guy but very enthusiastic even about mundane things," said Donnelly. "About beating cancer, he's over the moon with enthusiasm."
Treska does not mind talking about his cancer, but he waits for others to inquire. "If you didn't know, he'd never tell you," Donnelly said. "For him, cancer is something other people have; he wants to play a big part in helping people beat it."
Each day he trains for several hours before the sun rises — swimming, running, lifting weights — then he attends class and does more training in the afternoon. He'll take his books to Hawaii; midterms await when he returns.
"He's incredible," said Bob Abbott, longtime Ironman competitor, co-founder of Competitor magazine, and part of a group of supporters who called themselves Team Treska. "News that other people would consider catastrophic, he sees merely as a roadblock."
His swim coach, Grace Van Der Byl of Solana Beach, is amazed by how quickly Treska, 30, went from being a non-swimmer to being able to navigate a rough-water ordeal.
"In four weeks," she said, "he went from not being able to tread water to being able to do a 1.2-mile swim and kill it, well below the cutoff time."
The Kona competition is set to air on Dec. 18 on NBC-TV. Last year Abbott got an early print of a show about the 2009 competition and held a kind of sneak preview at the historic La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas. He hopes to do the same this year, with Treska as one of the stars.
"Athletes who overcome adversity, who don't give up, impress me," Abbott said. "That's Clay."
To compete in the championship, most athletes qualify based on past performances in local Ironman contests. A few, like Treska, are invited by the Florida-based organizers because of their grit.
Although he is dreaming of getting a college degree, maybe even a doctorate, and helping found a program for cancer survivors, Treska knows that his cancer is still active.
"I'm not in remission, yet," he said.
To compete, he needed clearance from Curtin. With that in hand, Treska left for Hawaii on Friday to get ready for the grueling competition.
"If I go down, I'm going down fighting," he said of his cancer. "Being in Ironman is my way of fighting back."