Into the wild

His feet brought Marko Cheseto from Kenya to Alaska. Then a tragic run into his own private storm forced him to change course.

Updated: May 18, 2012, 3:21 PM ET
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the May 28 World Football Issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

MARKO CHESETO is almost late to class. He enters the lobby of the social sciences building at 9:58 a.m., two minutes before his public speaking lecture begins. He is in no rush, plodding slowly amid the blur of backpacks and students. He stands out: 28 years old, long and spindly, a black man on the mostly white campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage, a Kenyan among mostly in-state students. His skin is as dark as an Alaskan winter morning; patches of frostbite char his cheeks like eyeblack. His lips are dry and crevassed. He is the most famous person on campus, a star runner. And he's pushing a two-wheeled walker.

A blond girl stops him. "Marko!" she says.

"Hellll-oooo!" he replies, voice arching.

"Can I give you a hug?"

"Okay, just don't push me!" he says in fast, accented English. She moves in gently. Marko embraces her with his left arm, his right hand steadying himself. For two months, Marko has envisioned this January morning: First day of spring semester senior year, a chance to prove that he's still the same old sweet, sarcastic, eager-to-entertain Marko. A few nights ago at a UAA basketball game, girls had hugged him in droves. Three former teammates surrounded him for a picture and posted it on Facebook. Marko had ambled around without his walker, showing off, perhaps too much.

Now Marko says goodbye to the blonde and rolls into an elevator. Before the doors close, an older woman whom Marko doesn't know juts toward the narrowing window and whispers, "We love you." The elevator rings open on the second floor, and Marko pushes to Room 251. He rolls toward the desks, then stops like a car that's halfway through a wrong turn.

Those desks -- the normal desks -- aren't for him anymore. He turns toward the lone handicap table, twists and falls into his seat straight-legged, then glances down at the shiny black shoes covering his new plastic stubs.

Those used to be his feet.


[+] EnlargeMarko Cheseto and Family
Courtesy Marko ChesetoMarko chased a new life in hopes of improving his family's old one.

DURING AN AUGUST night in 2008, Marko Cheseto walked onto a plane in Nairobi bound for Alaska. His feet were his own. He had only $100 in his pockets. His luggage totaled one bag containing two outfits. He was raised in Ptop, a village of 1,000 in the western Kenyan mountains, elevation 8,000 feet -- a foggy, damp region without running water or electricity or roads, where the Pokot dialect of Swahili was spoken. His father, Dickson, farmed, built houses and herded animals, many of which he sold to help purchase a one-way ticket to Anchorage, where the third oldest of his 11 children would attend college on a cross-country and track scholarship.

Nobody from Marko's village had ever left to go to school in America, never mind Alaska. Running was not the route out of Ptop as it was in so many other poor villages in Kenya's highlands. But running was something he always did well. After he graduated from a Nairobi two-year college in 2006 and was earning a modest living as a teacher, he noticed that runners -- inferior runners, he felt -- were leaving on scholarship for U.S. colleges. America meant money, and those who left were expected to share it to help back home.

So Marko chased a new life in hopes of improving his family's old one. He wanted, in the words of his cousin Nicholas Atudonyang, "to be a role model for the guys in his village." He enrolled in one of the running academies in Eldoret, training twice daily in the 6,000-foot elevation, and had moderate success in local races. That got his name on American recruiters' prospect lists. Michael Friess, the track and cross-country coach at Alaska Anchorage, already had one star Kenyan on his roster, David Kiplagat, and wanted to add more. Friess, a loving hard-ass who's been UAA's head coach for 22 of his 50 years, offered Marko a full scholarship, without even meeting him

At first, his parents didn't want Marko to leave, fearing that they'd have to support him again. But he argued that although his teaching job was fine for him, his father could desperately use extra income to supplement his typical earnings of $200 a year. In Alaska, Marko said, he'd work part time and send home a few hundred dollars a year. His parents acquiesced, selling farm animals and asking members of their extended family to help cover Marko's expenses. So Marko, seated in the rear, a few rows behind another runner bound for UAA, Alfred Kangogo, flew from Nairobi to Amsterdam to Minneapolis to Anchorage. All he'd heard about Alaska was that it was dark 24 hours a day. But when they arrived in the evening, the sun shining, Alfred turned to Marko and said, "Just like home."


[+] EnlargeMarko Cheseto
Courtesy UAANewcomer William Ritekwiang (No. 55) joins his cousin Marko in Alaska.

MUCH BETTER, in fact. As a student, Marko, who'd always dreamed of being a stand-up comedian, made new friends easily. He dominated his first cross-country season, and the Great Northwest Athletic Conference named him male athlete of the year. His strides were long and quick, and if he ever fell behind in a race, he'd squint his left eye -- a lazy eye -- and hit overdrive. He ultimately won three GNAC titles and was a Division II All-American twice. He became, according to Friess, "by far the greatest runner in the conference's history."

He also became the role model he wanted to be. He starred in UAA promotional videos, posed for pictures that were plastered on campus buses and mailed home a suitcase filled with used shoes to help others in his village. He roomed with fellow Kenyans Alfred and David, and the entire team started calling him Captain. "He was a lively personality," David says. "Very social."

Marko was always working too. Most of the Kenyans logged 20 hours a week at the UAA sports complex, for $7.50 an hour. Nobody knew exactly how much of those earnings each athlete sent home; Kenyan culture doesn't allow for sharing intimate information like family finances with outsiders, even close friends. Marko's job began at 6 a.m., followed by morning classes in his major, nursing. In the afternoon, he would run -- 30 minutes of peace, traversing woodsy trails that surround campus, alone to consider how his feet had created this new life of living in a heated apartment and chatting on a $5-a-month cellphone. Then he'd be out of the woods, back punching tickets at the sports complex in the evening. Many nights, he'd study until 11 p.m.

[+] EnlargeMarko Cheseto
Courtesy UAAMarko and his cousin were two of eight Kenyans on UAA's 2010 team.

But the ease with which Marko and his fellow Kenyans got along with other students belied the fact that getting beyond the surface was difficult. The Kenyans were too busy being unspoken breadwinners to date much. Friess, worried that they were stretched too thin, told them they couldn't begin work at 6 a.m. anymore. They adjusted by working later. They simply carried on, each handling the pressure in his own way. David was driven, eventually graduating with a degree in finance and economics. Alfred was relentless, earning the nickname Bulldog. And Marko tried to be perfect, putting on a positive front even during the occasional month when he didn't earn enough to send any money home. After he paid rent and his school expenses, much of his $450 take-home was spoken for. Usually he was able to save up and wire $100 every few months.

In 2010, Marko persuaded Friess to check out William Ritekwiang, a cousin from his Kenyan village who'd just graduated from high school. Friess offered him a scholarship. Marko and William had grown up together, were initiated and circumcised by their Pokot tribe together, witnessed tribal fights together -- raiders carrying AK-47s, occupying their village at one point for three months. But William neither looked nor acted like Marko. He was shorter and broader. William was as quiet and moody as Marko was social, as raw a runner as Marko was polished.

Marko lent him $2,000 of his grant money for travel costs, and by August 2010, William was in Anchorage, hiking Flattop Mountain and eating Moose's Tooth pizza with five other Kenyan imports. William worked at the sports complex too, scrubbing the hockey rink's boards, sending money and burying his stress like the rest. In an isolated state in a foreign country, the only people who could relate to the Kenyans were the Kenyans, yet they rarely talked about their mutual problems. They just kept their "Kenyan secrets," as Friess says. Until they couldn't.


[+] EnlargeMarko Cheseto
Jose Mandojana for ESPN The MagazineMichael Friess, Marko's coach, helped him cope with the aftermath of his accident.

MARKO'S CELL rang. It was William, calling in February 2011 with an urgency in his voice. "I have something to tell you," he said.

But Marko, as usual, was working and too busy to talk. He said they'd catch up later at the apartment they shared with Alfred. He hung up, then felt bad. William's behavior had been odd lately, manifested in his frequently saying that he was sorry and asking the others for forgiveness. For what? his friends and teammates would ask. William couldn't say. His common response was that he hadn't been "doing the right things," but he didn't elaborate. Marko and the others never pushed further. "I didn't take it that seriously," Marko says.

And Marko was having his own worries. His family, after a poor harvest and land dispute, needed money more than ever. A month earlier, he'd had surgery to correct his lazy eye. It was successful, but his recovery took him out of his routine. Without work or practice, his normal releases, he had more time on his hands to think about life. And for reasons Marko can't explain, he suddenly felt overwhelmed, unable to sleep, his head "full of stuff."

At one point, he had called his cousin Nicholas, a physician who lives near Dallas, to confide that his life was empty, that he wanted to vanish. His cousin told him to visit immediately. Without telling his coaches, Marko bought a frequent-flier ticket to Texas the next morning. That February night, in Nicholas' apartment, Marko seemed fine. But at 5 a.m., Nicholas woke up to see Marko standing by his bed. Nicholas sat for hours asking Marko every question he could think of: Was it money? Family? A relationship? Homesickness? Marko answered no to all of them. "I'm just feeling bad," he said, pacing. "Something is not right."

Marko spent less than 24 hours in Texas. When Friess learned that Marko had picked up and left in the middle of a school week, he got worried and ordered him back to Alaska. Then he turned from coach to father and arranged for him to see a counselor, who prescribed sleeping pills and referred him to a mental health facility. Within days, Marko's insomnia faded and he was back to his routine. Still, on the day William called, Marko was trying to catch up on work hours and was behind in school. So he put him off. By the time they spoke later, William said: "Everything has been forgiven. God has forgiven me. I'm good now. See you at home."

Alfred was the first to arrive at the apartment that night. But the door was locked. He had lost his keys, so he called William. No answer. Alfred then called Marko, who was on campus and had lost his keys too -- someone was always losing keys. So Marko and Alfred spent the night at a friend's place. The next morning, with no sign of William, they called the police. Officers entered through a window. When they finally opened the front door, they told the Kenyans to stay out.

William was hanging in the shower, a computer cable wrapped around his neck.


[+] EnlargeDickson Cheseto
Jose Mandojana for ESPN The MagazineIn Alaska, Marko vowed, he's all work, study and running -- and wiring his father, Dickson, and his family more money.

WILLIAM'S DEATH, Friess says, "sent Marko straight down." The university moved Marko and Alfred out of their apartment and into student housing. In a new bed, Marko couldn't sleep, searching for clues. He first visited William's Facebook page, but every picture had been deleted, with only one remaining status update: "I need you to forgive me." Marko asked friends, "What did he tell you?" Nothing, they said. He asked Friess, who said William seemed distracted. But suicide? Come on.

So Marko blamed himself. "I kept thinking, maybe if I'd made a sacrifice to see him when he called, things would have changed," he says. After a few days of discussing William, the distraught Kenyans established a rule of not talking about him. With everyone rushing between work, class and practice, William was an unspoken ghost, leaving Marko alone with his guilt. "I felt like it was me and only me going through it," he says.

In the following weeks, Marko began to act strangely. He was quieter. Sometimes he'd call Nicholas to repeat that life was empty; other times he'd claim to be happy. Friess decided to redshirt Marko for track season so that he could mourn; he made sure Marko kept seeing a counselor, even attending a session with the runner. He also contacted William's family and discovered that he'd been expected to send home $200 to $300 every month. When William fell behind, a relative told his mother, "Your son is no good." That got back to William, and days later he was gone. Friess didn't want to share that information with Marko. But he did instruct David to stay with him nonstop so he'd never feel as alone as his cousin had.

It didn't help. On April 2, a Saturday, Marko and David went to Walmart to get Marko's sleeping medicine. That night, Marko seemed fine to David. But in his bedroom, exhausted and weak, he swallowed dose after dose until morning. David was cooking breakfast when he heard a thud upstairs. Marko had taken most of his 20 sleeping pills and collapsed. David called 911; EMTs took Marko to the hospital. The next day, Nicholas asked what happened.

"I was tired of life," Marko said. "I just wanted my life to go away."


[+] EnlargeMarko Cheseto
Jose Mandojana for ESPN The MagazineWhen Marko woke up after surgery, he still felt a sensation in his feet and lower legs.

DEEMED BY THE UNIVERSITY to be a threat to himself and others at the school, Marko spent the next month in the mental health unit of Providence Hospital under 24-hour supervision. A therapist told him that he suffered from depression, a disease Marko had never heard of. He was told that sometimes he'd feel sad or weak, or that he wouldn't feel like getting out of bed, with little understanding of why.

During the spring and summer, Marko seemed foggy at times, but he earned straight A's in his spring online courses. He was seeing two counselors. He told Friess he was fine when the coach pressed him. He told Nicholas he was embarrassed after overdosing. "This won't happen again," Marko said. He spent the summer living with his ESL teacher, Melinda Nicholson, and her husband. She was in charge of administering his pills, and his mood improved enough that she trusted him to do it himself. In the battle against depression, Marko appeared to have taken all the right steps. Says Seawolves athletic director Steve Cobb, "He was struggling but winning."

By fall, Marko was back on campus, rooming with Alfred. His cross-country eligibility had expired, so Friess made him team manager as a way to keep him engaged and ready for his final track season that spring. He traveled to meets, cajoling the Kenyans in Swahili as they ran. After a Nov. 5 race, assistant coach T.J. Garlatz asked Marko, "You know what you get if you're a two-time conference champ and a three-time regional champ?"

"What?" Marko said.

"You get to be the grunt carrying gear."

Marko laughed. Maybe, Garlatz thought, Marko was back. But he wasn't. On Sunday, Nov. 6, he worked on a paper but felt too low to finish. He wanted to talk to Alfred about how he felt, but Alfred, like Marko during William's final call, was at work and couldn't talk. Marko ran errands and joined friends for dinner. But he didn't eat -- or say much of anything.

Nobody understood his life since William's death. He was just told to hold on, to keep the faith, and now, alone in his apartment, he didn't want to anymore. He found a bottle of Alfred's oxycodone pills, left over from a dental procedure, and set off for campus. At his locker in the sports complex, he grabbed his prescribed Cymbalta pills. The temperature hovered near zero, with thick snow falling. He wore two jackets and tennis shoes. No gloves or hat.

Marko wandered to the library. He stopped to chat with a friend, feigning pleasantries. An assistant coach waved from across the room. Marko smiled and waved, faking it again. Then he walked back to the sports complex. Halfway there, around 7 p.m., he glanced right at a trail in the woods. He felt an urge to run; he disappeared into the bush.

He stopped after a mile. It was quiet. He was alone. His breath clouded the air, mixing with falling snow. He looked around. This seemed like a good place. He pulled out a cocktail of pills, raised his hand to his lips and swallowed. He chugged water, tossed the bottle and fled into the trees, up a hill, near a fenced-in electrical station. On his way down, his vision became a snowy, woodsy kaleidoscope.

Then everything went dark.


[+] EnlargeMarko Cheseto
Jose Mandojana for ESPN The MagazineMarko's physical therapy is a painful grind.

WORD OF MARKO'S disappearance spread fast. "Missing Runner Sparks Massive City Search," read the headline in the Anchorage Daily News. Campus police, city police, volunteers, emergency response teams with dogs and divers -- everybody was searching for Marko. Former teammate Cornelious Sigei, a fellow Kenyan, rode with police in a helicopter over the trails they used to run. Garlatz hacked into Marko's Alaska Airlines account, hoping to find that he'd fled to Texas again. Friess searched for him too, wandering the woods with his golden retriever, kicking large lumps of snow, unsure of whether he could stomach the sight of Marko's frozen face.

But nobody found him. Twelve inches of fresh snow masked any scent. After 50 hours of subzero temperatures and no leads, police called off the search. Alfred and David went home and cried.


MARKO OPENED HIS EYES to the whoosh of cars on a distant highway. The sky was dark. The air was cold, but he didn't feel cold. The upper half of his body was under a tree, which shielded his face from snow. His fingers hugged his thumbs in a frozen fist. His legs were buried, but his feet were in the air, frozen in stride. He tried to lift his head, but it was too heavy. He tried to scream, but his throat was too dry.

He wiggled his body for 20 minutes, until his legs sprang free. He grabbed the tree to stand, but his head rolled back like an anchor and he fell. Finally he pulled himself up, then waddled up a hill, knees frozen stiff. He saw campus lights a few miles to the south and stumbled through the snow until he arrived at a hotel. As he entered the lobby, he lost and regained sight, as if the power had flashed off and on. He fell to the floor and whispered "911."

Glen Graham, the night manager, recognized Marko from posters and called police. "He's frozen to the bone," he told the operator. He led Marko to a fireplace and looked him over. Frozen snot covered Marko's nose. His lips were cracked. Broken leaves stuck to his coat; snow coated his jeans. His fingers were swollen to twice their normal size. Graham asked Marko whether he wanted hot cocoa; Marko said no. Then he began to shake violently.


FIVE MINUTES LATER, an ambulance arrived. An EMT tried to remove his shoes, but they were frozen to his feet. Medics lifted him onto a stretcher and rushed to the hospital. Visitors arrived at the emergency room within minutes. First Cobb, the AD. Then Marko's roommates. Then Garlatz, then Melinda, his ESL teacher. Then Friess, who told Marko he loved him even as he thought: You son of a bitch. Do you know how much we've done for you?

But nobody was allowed close to him. Nurses surrounded him as he shivered from hypothermia. Heating pads sandwiched his hands. His feet were submerged in a hydrotherapy pool, trying to jump-start circulation. The heat stung so intensely that Marko wanted to scream. Blisters from frostbite inflated all over his hands. But he was alive. Police later speculated that Marko had lived mostly because of the method with which he tried to die. Blood from his feet, frozen in air, caused increased circulation in his central cavity. The painkillers thinned his blood. That, combined with the warmth from the snow blanketing him, allowed organs to continue to function.

Marko's feet, however, looked dead -- swollen, charred and disfigured. Over the weekend, the skin on his feet crusted and peeled around his toes. After six days, a doctor approached Marko and told him his feet would be amputated. "Holy cow," Marko said, the only English phrase he could think of. He watched as a nurse marked severance lines below Marko's knees. Awake all night, he stared at the lines where his identity as a runner would end.

The next day, a nurse entered at 1 p.m. and sedated Marko. He woke up hours later feeling hazy, too tired to lift his head. Then a euphoric rush coursed through him: He could feel his feet. "They didn't do the surgery?" he asked a nurse. She shook her head. "Your mind still thinks you have feet," she said.

Suddenly, Marko felt cold. He lay in the room, wondering where he'd be wheeled next.


[+] EnlargeMarko Cheseto
Courtesy Marko ChesetoMarko wants to find a job in Alaska -- anything to continute to support his family and avoid returning to his village.

"HOW ARE YOU, MARKO?" says Garlatz, looking down at a staircase in the UAA sports complex. It's noon during that first day of spring classes.

"Good -- for someone who just celebrated the two-month anniversary of losing his feet," Marko says, smiling.

Garlatz laughs and moves on. But the distance between Kenya and Alaska is exceeded only by the gap between what Marko feels and what he shows. His legs ache as he holds his walker with one hand, teetering as he climbs each step. An amputee's stumps change shape like clay, and after the grind of his first physical therapy appointment a day earlier and the pain of pushing his walker around campus on this day, Marko wonders whether his prosthetics need altering.

He's in the first days of his new life. A man who could run farther and faster than almost anybody in the world now sits to shower. He washes his hands only in warm water because his frostbitten fingers are sensitive to cold. He removes his legs at night and massages his stumps. In the morning, he fits his nubs into cups at the top of plastic shins, then pushes down hard, as if he's squeezing into ski boots.

He tells everyone he's good. Losing his feet, he says, is sufficient penance for ignoring William. But privately, Marko says what his closest friends now know to suspect: "Just because I say I'm good doesn't mean that everything is okay." He still works at the sports complex, and his money problems are worse than ever. He owes $121,000 in medical bills. He's still on scholarship, but that doesn't cover all his needs. His parents don't have enough money for his three siblings to attend school. He wants to finish his degree and find a job in Alaska -- anything to support his family and avoid his village, 50 miles from the nearest hospital, where he'd be dependent on his parents, their premonition realized.

Marko is now famous all over Anchorage, a one-man charity case. Local fans led a campaign to raise money to fly Dickson from Kenya to Alaska to stay with Marko for a month, the first time he'd seen his son since 2008. They are undemonstrative together -- Kenyan. With his father by his side, Marko has headlined fundraisers for his debt, held a microphone at local races to send runners off, worked with a suicide prevention group and solicited money for the $26,000 prosthetics with which he wants to run in the Paralympics. At each event, he has to deal with the conflicted nature of his fame -- his own self-destructiveness turned him into a reason for people to celebrate him. That gives him more reason to feel alone when he has to be smiling.

During the first week of school, he acted like a man seeking real smiles. One night he went to the movies. The next, he took in a play. Later in the week, Marko attended a basketball game. And on one morning that week, he strutted through campus using his walker. A girl stopped and said, "Dude, you look sharp today."

"I'm always sharp," Marko replied.

"Especially sharp," she said, and Marko rolled on. Feeling cocky, he lifted his walker and said, "Maybe I don't need this."

But by Friday, he's tired. His legs are so sore that he skips physical therapy. He's in a recliner at Melinda's house, pulling his stumps to his chest as if doing a sit-up, touching what's left of his legs. Then he grabs his laptop and opens a photo album from 2010, narrating his old life: "Me, running. This way I can remember what my legs looked like." Click. "Me and Alfred." Click. "Me and Melinda." Click. "Me and Coach." Click. "Me and William." Pause. "It's like he's still here."

Just then, his phone flashes with an incoming text message. It's from a friend with tonight's plans: "Roller rink! You should come, Marko! We could pick you up." He considers it for a moment. But for once, he's honest with himself -- and everyone else. He texts back: "Nah."

It seems like a small step forward.

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Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.