Q&A: From chemo to Ironman with Eddy Clarkson

Eddy Clarkson is a Leukaemia survivor, Ironman finisher and personal trainer. In our latest Q&A, Eddy shares his inspiring story from cancer diagnosis to an Ironman and beyond. We chat about the impact cancer had on his physical and mental health, the effects of treatment, his incredible fitness journey since, the importance of a good diet, what he’s learnt from his experiences, and more. Read the interview below.

The interview

Hi Eddy, please introduce yourself to everyone.

Hi guys, my name is Eddy Clarkson and I am currently based in York, UK. I am an online personal trainer (@eddyclarkson_pt) with a passion for health & fitness, and triathlon. I created the Instagram account @chemo2cardio to document my battle with leukaemia (AML) and my journey to becoming an ironman triathlete and beyond. I look forward to telling you more about my experience and I hope you enjoy the blog.

Tell us about when and how did your love for sport and exercise begin?

My passion for sport has been prevalent for as long as I can remember. I mean, as a toddler I used to demand to watch horse racing on the TV… But my real love for sport has been inherited from my family. Notably, my grandma Pauline Clarkson, who swam in the 100m backstroke at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

In general health terms, I have found the more I move, the happier I am. So, if there is any excuse to be active, I will be. 

That’s pretty incredible! Your story took a turn at 20 years old, when you were diagnosed with leukaemia. What happened next? 

I was in a state of disbelief. I knew I was ill, but I would never have guessed that it was the big C. Truthfully, I was so naïve to what was to come. All I knew was that I had a rough time ahead of me.

I was diagnosed in York hospital, but was approached by Teenage Cancer Trust and offered the opportunity to receive treatment on their ward in Leeds St James. This was a game-changer, the doctors and nurses at York were incredible but the facilities Teenage Cancer Trust offered allowed me to have as much of a normal life as possible.

What impact did the treatment have on your mental and physical health?

Treatment consisted of 4 cycles of chemotherapy. The chemotherapy used was described to me as the asbestos of chemotherapies, aka the strong stuff. It was used to restart my bone barrow with the hope that it would start producing healthy blood cells again. The main side effect was my compromised immune system, which led to multiple infections.

I went into treatment extremely fit, having played national league water polo only a few weeks before. I was weighing 95kgs and the strongest I had ever been. Fast forward 7 months, after multiple infections, a decreased appetite and a trip to the high dependency unit (HDU), I came out weighing 70kgs and only being able to walk for short periods of time before being out of breath. However, I knew my body would always pull through, it was my mental health that caught me by surprise.

I am going to throw myself under the bus here and admit that I didn’t believe in depression or anxiety back then, but my treatment was an eye-opener for me. After my first cycle, mentally I was strong. I had fought off an infection that had taken me to HDU and I was in remission. However, it then started to go south. Actually, I can put it down to one single situation which flipped the switch. During my second cycle, I asked the doctor, ‘what are the chances of my cancer coming back?’. The answer was 50:50. This thought became overpowering and became all I could think about. I kept questioning was this fight going to have been for nothing.

By the end of the treatment, both my physical and mental health was fragile. I was expecting everything to go back to normal overnight but the recovery itself was a whole new battle.

Since remission, your inspiring story has gone from strength to strength. You’ve now run marathons, completed Ironmans and raised a load of money for Teenage Cancer Trust. I can’t begin to imagine what you must have gone through to achieve that. How did you do it?

In my early recovery, I took everything day by day. I listened to my body and reacted accordingly. The days where I felt more energetic, I would go out and challenge myself with short walks, other days I wouldn’t leave the house. Overtime these walks started to build to run/walks and before I knew it, I was running a mile. My main drive at the time was to be as fit and strong as possible, just in case I relapsed and had to undergo treatment all over again.

Once I had regained my basic level of fitness, I wanted to challenge myself even further and raise as much money for Teenage Cancer Trust as possible. To do this, I knew the challenge would have to be pretty epic. So, this is where the ludicrous idea to enter an Ironman came from. At the time I didn’t own a bike, I had never run a marathon and had never been in an open water swimming race. I was well out of my comfort zone.

What really helped me prepare for the Ironman was setting small achievable goals throughout e.g. running 5km, then 10km etc.. When you break an Ironman down into a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile ride and a marathon it seems totally unachievable, especially when you are coming from a poor fitness level. However, running 1km seems doable, then 2km… then soon enough you will be at a marathon. The marginal gains soon add up and long as you keep turning up.

What role did diet play in firstly beating the cancer, and secondly training for endurance events?

The main role of my diet was to try and consume enough calories to maintain weight. This was a lot harder than it sounds. Chemotherapy alters your sense of taste and leaves you very nauseous. There were also certain foods I had to avoid, such a fresh fish, pate, salami… basically all the good stuff, because they all posed a risk to my immune system. The whole situation was difficult but the advice I was told was to eat as much as you could.

Endurance training involves a large amount of volume (often 20h per week training), so you end up burning a huge number of calories. That’s why nutrition is so important. If you are not eating and drinking enough then you won’t be able to sufficiently fuel your workouts, especially if you are looking to achieve optimal performance. To fit in the volume needed to improve, you are often training twice a day. This makes the timing of your meals as important to ensure maximum recovery.

In more technical terms, I have a high carbohydrate diet but that is my personal preference, some athletes strive using a high-fat diet. 

Talking of your endurance events, what has been your best experience? 

There is no experience quite like running down the red carpet towards the finish line at my first ever Ironman. It meant so much more to me than just a swim, bike, run event. The emotions I felt crossing the line were incredibly overwhelming. I had come from such a dark place in my life to completing one of the toughest events known to man. I had silenced the negative thoughts in my head telling me I couldn’t do this and shown everyone that I was not going to let cancer stop me from achieving my goals.

What motivates and inspires you when the going gets tough? 

Motivation comes and goes and that is important to remember. If you only ever train when you are motivated, you are unlikely to achieve your goal. You need to ride the motivational roller coaster, learning to endure the tough times and allow yourself to enjoy the good times. When I am training, I always turn up, if I get part way through the workout and it’s not happening for me then that’s fine, I pull the plug, but more often than not I find my rhythm and enjoy myself.

This is going to sound vain, but I inspire myself. I look back to how far I have come and give myself a little pat on the back. That’s not just me looking back at when I had cancer to now but looking back on how far my running has improved in the last year or how much easier that long ride felt this week. We often don’t give ourselves enough justice for what we have achieved. So the next time you start questioning yourself, reflect on how far you have come and be proud.

What would you say to anyone reading this who is going through a similar journey to yours? 

Times will be tough, and you will doubt yourself, but it is incredible what you can achieve after treatment. You will come out stronger and you will have a new appreciation for life.

On your blog, I read something I thought was really interesting. ‘Cancer has taught me a lot of things and honestly if we found a cure, I wouldn’t go back in time to stop it from happening now.’ What have been your learnings from your incredible journey? 

I have learnt that your body and mind are so much more powerful than you think. Cancer made me so much more resilient allowing me to push myself harder than even both physically and mentally.

Cancer also changed my outlook on life for the better. I no longer worry about the smaller things in life, instead I focus on enjoying myself, loving my family and friends, and making everyday count.

What’s your perception on the health and fitness industry promoting fad’s and unhealthy habits? 

It is so misleading, and pretty horrific to be honest. To say people are making money through promoting harmful/useless products is disgusting. Unfortunately, the health and fitness industry has played on people’s insecurities to make a profit. I feel sorry for people who waste their money on these products thinking they will solve all their problems, when in reality they are just creating more.

My goal as a personal trainer is to right these wrongs and giving straight-talking, open and honest health and fitness advice. It doesn’t sound as glamours and easy as these products, but it will be the truth.

Lastly, what does a ‘healthy lifestyle’ mean to you? 

A healthy lifestyle to me means managing to juggle lots of different aspects of life successfully. 

People often link being healthy to just eating well and exercising but it is so much more. You need to think about your social life, sleep, work, mental health, physical health etc… 

Everyone’s healthy lifestyle will look different, but what I would say is too much of one thing is never good for you. Strive for balance and look after yourself. And If that means getting more sleep, then do it!

Thank you so much for sharing your inspirational story, Eddy! Check out Eddy’s website here.