With a smile on his face that outshined the sun and a pair of carbon-fiber running blades where his feet used to be, Marko Cheseto lined up for the start of the Skinny Mini 6-kilometer race Friday night in downtown Anchorage.
He was there, he said, to test his new running gear. And to show the people of Anchorage that he's doing OK. And to maybe inspire some of them to lace up a pair of running shoes and get moving.
Cheseto was an All-American runner for UAA who in November 2011, depressed over the suicide of a cousin and teammate, took an overdose of prescription pills and disappeared outdoors on a cold, snowy night.
Two nights later, after a massive, nearly city-wide search, he awoke and managed to walk to safety on severely frostbitten feet. Doctors had to amputate both feet above the ankle, and the story about the gifted runner who lost his feet became global news.
Eighteen months later, Alaska's most famous amputee is racing again.
Friday was Cheseto's first race with his running blades, and though he didn't match his record pace of 2010, when he won the Skinny Mini's companion race, the Twilight 12-K, he turned in a strong performance -- 29th overall in a field of 902 in a time of 26 minutes, 20 seconds.
"I am coming here as a way to show the community that I am doing really good," Cheseto said. "Every person who said, 'We are praying for you,' their prayers and my prayers are working.
"I am very sure I'll be around for a very long time."
'MORE THAN AWESOME'
Cheseto, 29, came to UAA from Kenya, which for several years has been the source of some of the school's most talented runners and students. He just graduated with a degree in nutrition and plans to stay here to attend graduate school -- and to work his way back to elite-class running status.
Starting at the front of the pack, Cheseto drew cheers before the field of 3,000 runners headed down H Street for the 6-K and 12-K races.
All along the race course, he heard people yell his name. "I thought maybe I had (it written) on my back," he said.
Among his fans were members of the Chugiak High track and field team. Cheseto worked as an assistant coach for the Mustangs this spring, and his impact was remarkable, said Melissa DeVaughn Hall, another assistant coach for Chugiak.
"It was more than awesome," said Hall, who said Cheseto taught the students about more than running.
"He would tell them to act like athletes on the track and off," she said. "He told them, when you go to class, you don't saunter, you walk like an athlete. He would tell them, when you go home, ask your mother if you can help, don't play video games and watch TV. It was life lessons."
Cheseto's blades came from the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a San Diego charity that provides assistance for disabled athletes.
The blades were made by Ossur, the company that also manufactures the cheetah blades made famous at last year's Summer Olympics by South Africa's Oscar Pistorius, aka the Blade Runner. Cheseto's blades, made for endurance running, are shorter than the cheetah blades, which are for sprinting.
"The only hard part is going downhill," Cheseto said. "They don't have a heel, so I can fall back."
With the blades, Cheseto's running form is smoother than when he runs with his regular prosthetic feet. Before the race, he unscrewed his regular shoes and socks from the silicone-lined socket that goes over the end of his stumped legs and screwed on the blades.
Then he got up, bounced around a bit as photographers and reporters, including a team working for Runners World magazine, and then caught sight of some of UAA's other runners warming up for the race and joined them for a couple of laps around a block of the Delaney Park Strip.
When he was finished, he took off the blades and shook out sweat that had accumulated in the silicone liners. Then he put the blades back on and headed to the start line.
DIDN'T LOOK AT WATCH
At the finish line, Cheseto said he didn't look at his watch during the race because he didn't want to be disappointed by his time.
This is a man who in 2010 ran the Twilight 12-K in a record time of 37:07.9, which works out to 4:48 miles over a nearly eight-mile course. In Friday's 6-K, his per-mile pace was about eight minutes.
Afterward, he said that if he can run six kilometers with no feet, anyone can.
"If you have your legs," he said, "what excuse do you have to not finish a 6-K?"
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG
Alaska Dispatch Publishing