UAA runner who froze feet felt despondent before vanishing

REPORT: Cheseto was "having to struggle to get through life."

Associated PressDecember 6, 2011 

A campus police report provides new details about why an All-American cross-country runner from the University of Alaska Anchorage spent three days alone in the freezing woods and had to have his feet amputated, saying he went for a run because he was feeling despondent and passed out under a tree.

Marko Cheseto, 28, of Kenya disappeared from the university Nov. 6. He was suffering from hypothermia and severe frostbite to his feet when he staggered into the lobby of an Anchorage hotel three days later.

He was wearing a T-shirt, jeans, two jackets and running shoes but no hat or gloves. His shoes were frozen to his feet.

A university police report obtained under an open records request by The Associated Press says Cheseto told officers he woke up the morning of Nov. 6 and sought out his roommate. He wanted to tell him he was "having to struggle to get through life," but his roommate had to work, the campus police officer's report said. Cheseto's despondency grew.

"He told me that he felt like no one had been able to understand how difficult things had been for him, and that everyone basically just said, 'Hang in there,' " the officer's report says.

The report had sections redacted and didn't elaborate on Cheseto's problems.

Cheseto was a top runner on his team but took last season off after the suicide of his close friend, teammate and fellow Kenyan William Ritekwiang.

Ritekwiang was found dead in February in his apartment near campus.

Michael Friess, the university's head cross country and track and field coach, said Cheseto received counseling after Ritekwiang's death and was still being treated when he took his run in the woods.

The report said Cheseto began his run about 7 p.m. on a popular trail that's covered in snow this time of year. He took a left turn off the trail and ran into the woods, where he told police he passed out under a tree.

When he awoke, apparently in the early morning hours three days later, it was snowing. He didn't have much snow on his upper body but his legs were buried in snow. He realized his feet were frozen.

The report says Cheseto lay there for about another half-hour and realized he was getting even colder. He told police he pulled himself up by holding onto a tree. He started to do exercises to get some feeling back into his legs so he could walk out of the woods.

He walked toward the sound of cars and eventually walked into a hotel lobby, where employees rushed him over to a fireplace, put a blanket on him and called 911.

"He stated that he asked them what day it was and was quite shocked to be told it was Wednesday morning, as he figured it was only Monday," the police report said.

Cheseto is being fitted with prosthetics and likely will be hospitalized another two weeks, Friess said.

"It is hard to understand depression," Friess said. "Yes, he was in the wrong place, he fell down, you could describe it. But in my opinion the strongest aspect is that he got up.

"He wasn't found. He returned to us," Friess said.

Details from the university police report first appeared in The Northern Lights campus newspaper.

Cheseto, a long-distance runner working on a nursing degree, disappeared a day after the university cross-country team's triumphant return to Anchorage from the NCAA Division II West Region Championships in Spokane, Wash. The Seawolves won every championship up for grabs at the meet.

Cheseto had won the West Region Championships in cross-country in 2009 and 2010. He had used his final season of cross-country eligibility but was expected to compete in spring track.

Patrick Cohn, a sports psychology expert and founder of Peak Performance Sports in Orlando, Fla., said it can be a difficult process for student athletes as they move toward careers in other fields.

"When they stop, they lose that identity: 'Who am I? Not the student athlete,' " Cohn said.