In August 2008, Marko Cheseto, a budding long distance runner from the remote village of Tot in West Pokot, set out on a journey into the unknown.
A graduate of Egoji Teachers Training College, Cheseto had won an athletics scholarship from the University of Alaska Anchorage in the USA where he elected to major in nursing and nutrition.
After going through the rigours of getting a visa and securing funds to buy an air ticket, Cheseto finally left for the “land of opportunity”.
But it was not easy getting there since his father had to sell a few cows to raise funds for Cheseto’s ticket to Alaska, besides relying on the goodwill of relatives.
“While competing in the college championships, somebody walked up to me and asked if I would be interested in joining an American university on an athletics scholarship,” Cheseto said during an interview with Lifestyle in the US last week.
The man he is referring to is American Jon Murray, the Texas Abilene Christian University head athletics coach, who was at the championships hosted by Kigari Teachers Training College to scout for cross-country and distance running talent for his university.
“I told him ‘yes, I’m interested’. He then he gave me his business card and told me to go to the university’s website, see what they have to offer and drop him an e-mail,” recalls Cheseto, one of 20 children from a polygamous family.
But there was the little problem of an “analogue” Cheseto, whose computer knowledge was at best rudimentary.
“In college, we had no access to computers and so ‘website’ and ‘e-mail’ were foreign terms to me. I didn’t know what to tell this man who had unleashed two new foreign terms at a go,” jokes Cheseto, 31, his infectious humour justifying why at one point he considered a career as a stand-up comedian.
The lack of knowledge stopped him from pursuing the offer.
“I even threw away the business card that the coach had given me,” he says.
But when a pack of brochures and university literature landed from Abilene Christian University by courier, it began to slowly dawn on Cheseto that the American coach was serious about seeking his services as a scholarship athlete.
That was when the budding athlete sought the services of Jackson Kemboi, a tech-savvy friend nicknamed “Kabila” for his striking resemblance to the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kemboi, who worked for the Tecla Lorupe Foundation, accompanied Cheseto to a cybercafé in Kapenguria town. They used Kabila’s account to e-mail the coach.
Days later, Kabila informed Cheseto that the coach had responded.
“It was amazing that I had to travel more than 200 kilometres from my village to Kapenguria just to take one minute to read an e-mail,” says Cheseto.
But even then, they were not in luck as the cybercafé was not working. They had to travel to Kitale to read the e-mail.
Nonetheless, coach Murray’s response took Cheseto aback: he said he was interested in Marko Cheseto not Jackson Kemboi. “I asked Kabila: ‘How did the American know you were helping me?”
The explanation that he was using his friend’s e-mail address finally convinced him that he needed to open his own account. From then on, Cheseto started communicating directly with Murray, who eventually secured a place for him in the University of Alaska Anchorage under coach Michael Friess.
Cheseto’s visa application appointment at the US embassy was in June 2008, a few months after the post-election violence ended.
But the athlete — who was then training with world beaters like former 10,000 metres national champion Wilson Kiprop and marathon star Sammy Kitwara around Eldoret, Kiplombe and Flouspar — did not even have a suit and had to borrow one from his cousin to look presentable during the visa interview.
While the coat was a perfect fit for Cheseto, a tight belt was needed to hold the oversized trousers.
“There was a problem when I arrived at the embassy and was told to take off the belt and go through a machine. I had never been through such security checks and this made me a bit nervous. I held my dropping trousers tight in embarrassment,” he says.
Cheseto secured his visa and broke the good news to his father Dickson Matayongo, who later sold a few cows and, with further support of a Sh25,000 donation from his cousin Philip Atudonyang, bought his ticket to the US.
At the time, one of his friends, Alfred Kangogo, had also landed a scholarship and the two travelled together to Alaska.
It was just the previous year that a Kenya Airways plane had crashed in Douala, Cameroon, and Cheseto was understandably jittery about air travel. His mother was equally anxious.
“We bought jackets because we were told Alaska is cold and then we set off at 10p.m. to Amsterdam where we were to catch our connecting flight to Minneapolis and then another to Alaska,” he says.
At Amsterdam, Cheseto and his friend were suddenly confronted with an entirely strange setting.
“We had a major problem because we wanted to go to the toilet at the Schiphol Airport but could not find any. We only saw signs reading ‘rest rooms’,” he recalls.
Fortunately, a woman who had sat next to them on the flight from Nairobi found them looking a bit confused. She explained the “rest rooms” were exactly what they were looking for, and later directed them to a café.
“We could hardly see anything familiar to eat. There was no ugali, nothing!” he says.
The pair arrived in Alaska at 7.40 p.m. local time and were met by coach Friess and a few Kenyan athletes at the airport.
“I wondered how it could be past 7 p.m. yet the sun was still out!” he says
The following morning, the pair was puzzled that part of their breakfast in their kitchen included what Cheseto says was “frozen bread” that they didn’t know what to do with.
“A brilliant idea crossed my mind. We boiled water, wrapped a polythene bag around the bread and put it in the hot water. It somehow worked,” says the athlete, who later learnt that “a small box” in the corner of the room was a microwave that would have solved the problem.
Such was the culture shock during the initial stages of his stay, but he eventually settled down and soon enough, he would frequently fly to other states for athletics competitions.
“The plane became like a matatu because we would fly to Washington, Las Vegas and other states to compete and in between we were in class,” he says.
In 2010, one of Cheseto’s relatives from the village William Ritekwiang also landed an athletics scholarship to study in the US. Cheseto helped him through the immigration formalities and bought the air ticket for him.
“I told him not to worry since he would pay back once he settled in the US and was financially stable,” says Cheseto with a sudden change of tone in his voice.
One early morning in 2011, Ritekwiang called Cheseto saying he had an urgent private matter to discuss.
“It was 5a.m. and I told him it was too early and would talk to him a little later,” says Cheseto.
“He called me again. But I told him to complete his class assignments and I would see him later that evening in the house. He then sent me a text saying he needed to ask for forgiveness,” he says.
Ritekwiang told him he wanted to call his father and apologise.
“I thought he was perhaps under pressure to send money back home, but I saw no need for him to apologise because money on campus was hard to come by despite the huge expectations back home,” he says.
Kangogo would later accompany Cheseto to check on the apparently troubled relative, but when they arrived at his house the door was locked.
“We were a bit worried because the door was hardly ever locked. We decided to alert the police at about midnight, but they said there was no cause for alarm and they would come over the following day just to make sure all was well,” he says.
The police came the following morning and noticed one of the windows was slightly open. They used it to access the house. Moments later, they dropped the bombshell: He had committed suicide using a computer cable.
“I wished I had spoken to him when he called. I was shocked,” he says.
After the funeral in Kenya, Cheseto says friends started telling him that he had changed a lot. Despite insisting there was nothing wrong with him, his coach told him to go for counselling.
“I was put on anti-depressants but things got from bad to worse. One day I found myself in hospital. The nurses told me that I was in bad shape because I had taken an overdose ” he says.
He would later be referred to a psychiatrist who found that the athlete had sunk into deep depression due to the grief.
Cheseto spent a month in hospital but his situation did not improve.
“I was still on anti-depressants and the trauma was building up. I had a poor sense of judgement and sometimes I would find myself somewhere and wonder how I got there in the first place,” he says.
Then on one freezing November weekend in 2011, Cheseto, having finished his day’s classes, decided to go for a run at around 7 p.m.
He set off on a familiar trail, and, initially all was well as he jogged into the woods. He was not wearing a jacket or gloves to beat the chilling cold. What happened next remains a mystery to date.
“I remember the first 10 minutes of my run and can’t recall anything else,” he told Lifestyle.
It was soon all over the news that Cheseto had gone missing for three days.
“Missing runner sparks massive search”, the Anchorage Daily News headline screamed as Alaska police mounted a huge search aided by the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group’s helicopters, dogs, and volunteers who included Cheseto’s Kenyan colleagues and fellow students.
But after 50 hours of trawling through 15 inches of snow in sub-zero temperatures, police called off the search. Cheseto’s colleagues on campus were devastated. They cried.
“I gained consciousness at night covered deep in the snow and I did not know where I was,” Cheseto, already a household name in Alaska for his running exploits, recalls. “I tried to get up but couldn’t because my legs were frozen... I tried to stretch but could not.”
What he went through that night, Cheseto explains, was the worst experience of his life. He wanted to scream but then thought that would take away the little energy he had left. Cheseto only managed three words: “God help me.”
“I tried twisting my body until I finally managed to stand up. But I struggled to walk. I held onto a tree and started dragging my feet through the deep snow for about an hour until I saw some light and soldiered on towards it,” he says.
It was a hotel. The Marriott Hotel. Glen Graham, the night manager, recognised Cheseto from police posters and media reports as he staggered into the lobby and, extremely shocked, Graham immediately dialled 911 for help as he and fellow hotel staff helped the numb athlete to a fireplace. They offered the athlete a cup of hot cocoa which he turned down.
“I remember a hotel worker asking me what I was doing in the freezing cold for three days,” he says.
Cheseto was in extremely bad shape. He was obviously suffering from hypothermia — dangerously low body temperature — and severe frost bite as the medical team and police arrived.
“I could see vehicle lights flashing, with police and medics everywhere. Then everything went dead. My world was thrown into darkness,” he says.
Doctors frantically tried to remove his shoes, but they were frozen and stuck to his feet. When he regained consciousness, Cheseto was in hospital with a big team of doctors and nurses attending to him in the emergency room.
He was suffering from hypothermia, his feet were swollen and the doctors were desperately applying hydrotherapy, using hot water to try and jump-start the flow of blood in his feet.
After six days of futile attempts, one of the doctors delivered the words that would change the athlete’s world forever: “Your hands are pretty good, but I’m afraid we will have to amputate your legs.”
That was on November 16, 2011.
“It was a bombshell. But I said OK, let’s just do it. I was told to sign some papers and then spent seven hours in the theatre having my legs amputated,” he says.
While still in recovery, surgeons organised for some amputees to visit Cheseto and help him with the psychological recovery.
“The amputees told me there was a possibility of walking and running again, but at the time I was still in great pain and on medication so walking or running was not on my mind,” he says.
Someone even mailed him an autobiography of Oscar Pistorious, South Africa’s “Blade Runner” who was the first double amputee to compete alongside able-bodied athletes in an international competition.
Cheseto spent three weeks in hospital after which a prosthetics specialist, Steve Foy, visited him and promised “new legs” soon. In the meantime, he was still on anti-depressants.
“He took measurements of my limbs and said he would get me walking feet as soon as I recovered. Two days later, he came back with the prosthetic legs and I tried them on. It was not easy and I had to use a walker to assist me,” he says.
After a few minutes of trying, he was able to walk steadily.
“I felt tall, perhaps due to the fact that I had spent more than a month in bed,” he says.
On December 19, 2011, a month after his amputation, Cheseto was discharged from hospital.
“I spent four months at a friend’s house because my house had stairs. I continued attending classes and friends would also take me to the movies,” says the athlete.
Cheseto’s recovery was amazing. He lived with his lecturer, Melinda Nicholson, and her family who helped administer medication.
“The doctors had told me that I would be on anti-depressants for three months, but after three weeks, I told them I didn’t need the anti-depressants. I was feeling good!” he says.
Cheseto soldiered on with his education and practised using his new legs, walking for 10 minutes a day, then 15, then 20, then 45. Soon enough, he was walking for an hour.
“I was warned not to be excited and not to walk for too long so as not to affect my stumps. Life was not as bad as I expected it to be and soon, I arranged for my parents to visit me,” he says.
But it was only Cheseto’s father who secured a visa and eventually arrived in Alaska in the summer of 2012.
“I went to pick him up at the airport and I was driving. He could not understand what was happening and although he did not ask, I laughed inside me as I could see my dad trying to figure out how I could drive yet I had no feet,” he says.
US sports channel ESPN then visited Cheseto and ran a moving piece about his tribulations and recovery.
“It was huge to have ESPN interview me and soon, OSSUR, one of the top companies that manufactures braces and prosthetics, approached me and told me they would offer me running feet if I was interested,” he says.
Slowly by slowly, Cheseto was attempting to run again.
“I ran a six-kilometre race in Anchorage and finished in 39 minutes. I was between fun runners and with this progress, I thought I needed to be a bit more serious with my running,” he says.
After graduating in Nutrition, the OSSUR representative from California advised Cheseto to apply for a grant to get special “Cheetah” running feet from the company through The Challenged Athletes Foundation.
“I was among the people who qualified for the grant and on May 21, 2013, I finally got my ‘Cheetah’ brand running feet,” he says.
During that summer, he ran a 10-kilometre race in 39 minutes and thought to himself, “If my personal best time in the 10km as an able-bodied athlete was 29:08, then I’m not doing badly.”
Since then, Cheseto has taken part in many other races in Alaska, including, most recently, the four-mile race at the annual Mayor’s Marathon on June 24 which he completed in an impressive 26 minutes, 33 seconds.
He is determined to compete for Kenya at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“After looking around, I realised that the Paralympics don’t have long distance races for my category (T43 for amputees) and I have now switched from long distance running to sprinting,” says the athlete who is training for the 400 metres race.
OSSUR has enlisted his services as a special ambassador and he is lined up by the prosthetics firm for motivational talks across the US every other month. Cheseto works as a graduate athletics coach at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He trains with the university’s athletics team and remains a popular figure on campus.
“I received my sprinting feet in January and by the end of April, I had run 52 seconds in the 400 metres which was a huge achievement,” he says
In June, Cheseto planned to compete at the US national championships but was forced to withdraw after his father died following a short illness at Kampala’s Mulago Hospital.
“It was a huge blow for me. He was young, just 62 years old,” he says.
Cheseto has improved to a personal best of 50 seconds, less than five seconds shy of the fastest 400 metres amputee runner, beleaguered South Africa’s Pistorious who is currently on trial for the murder of his girlfriend.
“I’m encouraged because I don’t have a coach yet and I’m still in the initial stages of learning how to use my running feet,” he says.
Cheseto’s amazing recovery has also seen him enlisted as a motivational speaker at hospitals to encourage patients facing challenges similar to those he went through.
“People ask me what inspired me to recover in such a short time and I tell them that we all have challenges of one nature or another and the important thing is to turn these challenges into opportunities,” he says.
He adds: “It’s not about what you had, but what you have now. I’m soon completing graduate school and there is absolutely nothing that I did with my feet that I cannot do now.”
He advises young Kenyan athletes to also pursue academics .
“Look at top Kenyan athletes like Betsy Saina and Sally Kipyego. They went through their university studies in the US and are still competing at the highest level,” he says, adding that education gives better value to the money earned from athletics.
But deep inside, Cheseto is still troubled by Ritekwiang’s death years later. “I wouldn’t like you to write too much about William,” he told Lifestyle. “It’s not good to keep reminding his family.”
For Cheseto, Kenya’s Blade Runner, the marathon he started when the American coach spotted him is firmly on course.
1983 - August: Marko Cheseto is born
1999 - Completed primary school education at Tot Primary School in West Pokot
2004 - Finishes high school at Chewoyet Secondary School
2006 - Graduates from Igoji Teachers Training College,
2008 - Travels to US on a University of Alaska Anchorage athletics scholarship
2011 - November 6: Goes missing, prompting a massive search
2011 - November 9: Emerges with feet frozen and is rushed to hospital
2011 - November 17: Loses both feet in amputation to save his life
2011 - December 21: Is discharged from hospital to recover at home
2012 - May: Competes in his first race with prosthetic legs (39 minutes for 6km)
2013 - May 21: Receives special running legs from American firm, OSSUR
2013 - June: Runs a 10km race in 39 minutes
2013 - Graduates as a Nursing major from the University of Alaska Anchorage
2013 - Admitted for graduate studies in Engineering and Science Management
2014 - January: Receives special “Cheetah” running legs
2014 - June 22: Completes a four-mile race at the annual Mayor’s Marathon in Alaska in 26 minutes, 33 seconds.