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Standout Kenyan runner rebuilds his life

Michelle Theriault Boots
Marko Cheseto wears a bracelet promoting love and laughter as he works in class Thursday April 26, 2012 at UAA.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Marko Cheseto takes notes as he and his classmates collect data and samples at Chester Creek for their Introductory Biology Laboratory class Thursday April 26, 2012 at UAA.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Marko Cheseto holds Ava Kamuyu, eight months, as dad Dickson Matayango watches at a fundraising gathering Saturday, April 28, 2012 on the Anchorage Hillside. Cheseto invited friends to the party in hopes of raising funds so his father could return to Kenya with gifts for numerous siblings and family members back home.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Marko Cheseto takes his turn searching for organisms in material collected from the stream bed of Chester Creek in his Introductory Biology Laboratory class Thursday April 26, 2012 at UAA.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Marko Cheseto and classmates share findings following an outing to Chester Creek for their Introductory Biology Laboratory class Thursday April 26, 2012 at UAA. Cheseto was charged with observing water quality by describing habitat, stream color, water appearance and odor.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Aron Kim and Marko Cheseto lead classmates back from Chester Creek after taking measurements and collecting samples for their Introductory Biology Laboratory class Thursday April 26, 2012 at UAA.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Marko Cheseto provokes laughter from hurdler Shaun Ward with his entertaining commentary as Ward works on a term paper and former sprint standout Mary Pearce observes Wednesday April 25, 2012 in the track and field office at UAA.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Marko Cheseto, right, gives his jacket to his father Dickson Matoyanga after Dickson finished the Heart Run. Cheseto was given the honorary bib number 1, but was unable to race, so he gave it to his visiting father. More than 5,000 runners and walkers participated in the 2012 Heart Run on the UAA campus on Saturday morning, April 28, 2012. The event raised about $200,000 for the American Heart Association.
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News
Dickson Matoyanga gets a hug from Monica Ross before the start of the Heart Run. Matoyanga is the father of former UAA runner Marko Cheseto. Cheseto was given the honorary bib number 1, but was unable to race, so he gave it to his visiting father. More than 5,000 runners and walkers participated in the 2012 Heart Run on the UAA campus on Saturday morning, April 28, 2012. The event raised about $200,000 for the American Heart Association.
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News
Marko Cheseto enjoys a lively discussion in his Sociology of Race and Ethnicity class Wednesday April 25, 2012 at UAA.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Marko Cheseto, left, greets a fellow Kenyan as he walks between classes Wednesday April 25, 2012 at UAA.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Marko Cheseto uses a photo of his own frozen feet while making a presentation in his Standards and Assessment in Health, Physical Education, and Recreation class Wednesday April 25, 2012 at UAA. His presentation dealt with physical therapy for double amputees.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Marko Cheseto makes a presentation in his Standards and Assessment in Health, Physical Education, and Recreation class Wednesday April 25, 2012 at UAA. His presentation dealt with physical therapy for double amputees.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Marko Cheseto entertains classmates Jeremy McClurg, left, and basketball players Kaylie Robison, center, and Tijera Mathews prior to making a presentation in his Standards and Assessment in Health, Physical Education, and Recreation class Wednesday April 25, 2012 at UAA. His presentation dealt with physical therapy for double amputees.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Marko Cheseto, right, and lab partner Aron Kim look for organisms in a stream bed sample taken from Chester Creek in their Introductory Biology Laboratory class Thursday April 26, 2012 at UAA.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Dickson Matayango, left, journeyed from Kenya to visit his son Marko Cheseto in late April and early May. They met up late Wednesday afternoon April 25, 2012 after Cheseto was done with classes and Matayango had returned from a driving tour with one of Cheseto's Kenyan roommates.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

For the first 28 years of his life, Marko Cheseto's feet carried him.

They lifted him up and down the steep red-dirt paths that slice through the verdant mountains of western Kenya, where he grew up in a small village without running water or electricity.

Later they brought opportunity: a cross-country and track scholarship to the University of Alaska Anchorage offered a way for Cheseto and his entire family to escape poverty.

An athlete with talent that his coach describes as elegant and explosive, Cheseto came to America and won race after race, becoming one of the most accomplished runners in UAA history.

Then came the suicide of a cousin -- really more like a brother -- from his village, someone Cheseto himself had recruited to UAA running.

After that, "a fog" of despair descended on Cheseto, coach Michael Friess said.

Last November, Cheseto took an overdose of prescription pills and did what he had always done: He went running.

This time, his feet carried him into a snowstorm. He passed out somewhere in the woods around UAA's campus. Some 56 hours later, his feet, though frozen stiff to his sneakers, gave him a final gift. They got him -- he says he will never know exactly how -- to the lobby of the SpringHill Suites hotel at University Lake, where he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.

Later that month, doctors amputated Cheseto's frostbitten feet and legs just below the knees.

The feet that had carried him from Africa to Alaska and to athletic stardom were gone. Left behind is a Cheseto who seems to his friends both terribly altered and restored to peace in a new life.

ON HOLD

On a late April day, Cheseto sits in his apartment. He is trying to untangle roughly $150,000 in unpaid medical bills. Tall, dark and pole-thin, with a luminous smile and a shambling gait, Cheseto is a natural comedian whose carefree jokes about parties and girls can't quite hide a deep sense of duty and responsibility.

He's not wearing his high-tech prostheses today. Instead, the pant legs of his faded blue slacks are empty below the knee; he scoots around the floor on his stumps.

The tinny hold music of the Medicaid administration on the phone line competes with Kenyan country love songs blaring from a DVD. In the kitchen, his father, Dickson Matayango -- the name means cow with a white head -- visiting from Kenya, chops beef for stew and brews strong tea. A half-written class essay on race in America sits open on Cheseto's laptop screen.

Cheseto wants to show his father Alaska, and help him by getting his bad teeth pulled at the student dental clinic.

Cheseto has a lot to work out. His medical insurer refused to cover any of his bills because of a "self-inflicted act." He has incomplete grades in classes from the fall, and nursing school to start in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, requests for interviews keep coming in. It seems everybody wants to hear his story.

COMING TO ALASKA

The story starts in Ptop, a thousand-person village in the highlands of Kenya, where Cheseto was born and raised as a member of the Pokot tribe. His father is a mason and herder who takes pride in his glossy cows, two wives and 20 children.

Cheseto showed a talent for running early, when he and his siblings chased animals up and down the steep slopes surrounding their village and ran -- sometimes six or seven miles each way -- to school.

But it was only after attending a teacher's college that Cheseto began to consider the possibilities of furthering his education by running abroad. He got in touch with Friess, UAA's head track and field and cross-country coach.

"It is not so much that UAA recruits Kenyans," Cheseto said. "It's that Kenyans recruit UAA."

Friess answered Cheseto's e-mails and ultimately offered him a scholarship. It took years to work out the visa issues, but Cheseto arrived in Alaska on a day of seemingly endless sunlight in the summer of 2008.

"I was like, yes, let's do this," he said of his arrival.

The adjustment was not hard, he said.

Americans tend to focus on the climate differences between Alaska and Kenya, Cheseto noticed. That misses the point, Cheseto says.

In coming to Alaska, "the primary goal is not getting really warm." Plenty of heat is available in Kenya for free, he points out.

Despite the vast differences between countries, Cheseto thrived athletically, academically and socially at UAA.

By the time he arrived, the track and field team included seven Kenyans.

They ran together, roomed together and cooked meals together, like the starchy Kenyan maize porridge staple called Ugali.

For the Kenyan scholarship athletes, the chance to study and run in America is viewed as a precious, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, says David Kiplagat, who was the first from that country to join the UAA track and field program.

"When we are here, we are all the same," Kiplagat said. "Because we all have the same chance."

Taking advantage of the opportunity meant excelling in school, running and working so they could send money home to their families.

Every few months Cheseto managed to carve a hundred dollars or so out of his meager university stipend and minimum wage student job with the athletic department to send to the family that had sold livestock to buy his plane ticket to America. He shared the wealth of America in other ways, too.

In 2010, he told coach Friess, whom he describes as "my parent in America," about another running prospect: his cousin William Ritekwiang.

Ritekwiang came, ran and excelled in school, a quiet "low-tone" guy, according to David Kiplagat.

No one knew he had been struggling until February of 2011, when he committed suicide by hanging himself with a computer cord in the apartment he shared with Cheseto, Kiplagat and others.

Cheseto later told ESPN that Ritekwiang had tried to talk to him the day of his suicide, but he had been at work and put off the call.

After Ritekwiang''s death, the joking, flirting, excelling Cheseto that everybody knew abruptly disappeared.

"He was just devastated," Friess said.

"Marko arranged for William to come to America," Kiplagat said. "Maybe he felt, 'This guy died on my hands.' "

In April, Cheseto took an overdose of prescription pills, which was followed by a 28-day stint in Providence Hospital, according to university police reports and an account given to ESPN.

Over the summer and fall, Cheseto withdrew. "It was like your car and using three wheels," Kiplagat said. "One wheel was not there."

By fall, "the fog seemed to be slowly lifting," Friess said. "Sometimes it would come in. Sometimes it would go out."

NOV. 6, 2011

In November, the fog descended thicker and darker than ever.

According to a statement he later gave police, on Sunday, Nov. 6, Cheseto awoke feeling unhappy. He tried to do homework and meet up with friends but nothing worked out. He tried to eat dinner but had no appetite.

Wearing jeans, running shoes, a T-shirt, light jacket and heavier jacket with a hood -- but no gloves or hat -- he took some of his roommate's prescription painkillers and his own anti-depressants, he told ESPN. Then he took off running into the snow.

"He remembered going up a steep hill, coming back down it, and then taking a left turn off the trail and running into the woods," the police statement says.

Cheseto passed out.

For the more than two days that he was in the woods, snow fell while more than 60 people searched for him.

Many, including his coach and the head of the university police, eventually began to accept that the worst had happened.

"I thought that this was probably a body recovery," said Rick Shell, the chief of the university police department.

And then Cheseto staggered into the lobby of the SpringHill Suites at 3 a.m. on Wednesday, half-frozen but alive.

When he woke up in the hospital, Cheseto said, he felt at peace.

No one believed him. They were all worried about how he was going to take the loss of his legs, which were grotesquely frostbitten. But inside, Cheseto said, he knew he was going to be OK.

He considers his survival a "miracle," he said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense imagining being in freezing temperatures for 50 hours."

Even in the emergency room, just after Cheseto had been found, Friess sensed a profound change.

"He came back to us completely," Friess says. "Not just physically, but the real Marko."

Maybe, Friess said his daughter told him, Cheseto can let go of the guilt he felt about Ritekwiang's death now that he has lost his own legs.

LIFE AFTER

Cheseto and his father sat on a couch in his sparsely furnished apartment eating beef with rice and tomato stew. Matayango wore a suit. He had flown halfway around the world on what Cheseto poetically described as the "aircraft road in heaven" -- the first airplane trip of his life -- to see what had happened to his son.

In Pokot society, Matayango said, you must always go to see a loved one that has been in an accident.

"In our culture, if something happens to someone, even if you are totally scared, you have to go to them and you have to thank people who helped them," Matayango said, with Cheseto interpreting.

He stayed for nearly a month.

The two drove to Fairbanks and back in a day, stopping to pose for pictures in front of the snowy Alaska range. They went to Seward and made appearances at dinners and church services as honored guests.

A lot of people have helped Cheseto. Skinny Raven Sports raised funds that in part helped pay for Matayango's plane ticket. Others have contributed nearly $10,000 to a fund established by UAA.

Matayango said he was thankful that Cheseto was in America when it all happened; the doctors are very good here, he said.

At the end of the visit, Cheseto held a fund-raiser not for his medical bills but to send his father home with clothing and other goods for his family and village. They packed as much as they could into suitcases, trying to obey the 50-pound weight limit.

Cheseto is grateful for all of the fund-raisers and donations and help -- even though they have barely dented his mountain of debt.

He would like to go back to Kenya someday, but only as an educated and financially independent man. If he were to go now, he says, his disability would be a burden to his family. He can't imagine navigating the hills of his childhood without his feet.

HERE IS GOOD

On a Sunday night in May, Cheseto studies during lulls in his job manning the front desk at UAA's athletic complex.

A heavy textbook called "Nursing Pathophysiology" sits next to a large Thermos of strong, Kenyan-style tea. His next week is scheduled down to the hour: studying, attending class, working.

A 15-minute ESPN segment on Cheseto aired that day, and friends and college competitors have been posting about it all over his Facebook wall, telling him how amazing and inspirational he is.

He's sat down in front of TV cameras twice now -- once for ESPN and once for Channel 2 -- to recount the story of the loss of his legs. Now he would rather talk about the future.

"You went through something and you try to forget it," he said. "But people remind you and remind you."

He is astonished to be alive. He says he asks himself: What went right that I am here?

Here is good, he says.

He has prostheses he couldn't have hoped to have in Kenya. He is in nursing school, and talking about prerequisites for medical school. There's also talk about prosthetics that could allow him to run competitively, translating his talent into Paralympic events. Cheseto wants to tell his own story for once, in a book co-written with Friess.

"It will be about Kenya, my first life at UAA, all what has happened," Cheseto said. "But we do not yet know what the conclusion will be."

One thing is certain, though: He doesn't want what happened to him and to William Ritekwiang to scare off the mothers of Ptop from sending their children to America. During Matayango's visit, the two hatched a half-serious plan to conceal the full extent of Cheseto's injuries from the women of the village using staged photographs of Cheseto in his prosthetics and long pants.

Cheseto laughs about it, but as usual there's an undercurrent of seriousness in his voice. He has two younger siblings showing talent in their feet. He hopes that they can come to America to run too.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

Fund to help Cheseto cover debt
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News