Six miles into the Disney Princess Half Marathon on Sunday morning in Orlando, Marko Cheseto hit a bump in the road.
No, literally, he hit a speed bump in the road, and for a double-amputee missing both legs below the shins -- running on prosthetic blades specially designed for long-distance running -- that is no passing issue.
Kicking off at a brisk 5:30 a.m., this was Cheseto's earliest race. Portions of the course were still dark, and Cheseto didn't see the bump, and ... thwack. He tumbled. His prosthesis loosened and came undone, falling off 25 feet behind him. For a moment, he was disoriented.
Lost, even just for a moment, and he knows that feeling well.
He's been lost before.
Lost and cold and alone, 8,000 miles from home, wanting not to be found.
He'd stumbled into the Alaska bush on that frigid November day in 2011 already in a haze, reeling from the February suicide of his cousin, friend and teammate on the University of Alaska-Anchorage cross-country team, William Ritekwiang. Cheseto was the one who'd coaxed Ritekwiang to Alaska in the first place, offering him a better life, but one with tremendous stress and pressure.
The life of any college student is intense. A college athlete, doubly so. Ritekwiang, an international student from Kenya, transported to the tundra, with financial obligations to a family back home subsisting on maybe $200 a year? You can't imagine the weight on his already thin shoulders.
Cheseto knew Ritekwiang was already on the edge. He was working the day he received a phone call from his cousin. Cheseto declined and said he'd talk to him later. When they spoke later that day, Cheseto knew something was off. But he did not know how off.
The next morning, Ritekwiang was found in his shower. He'd taken his own life.
"When you're driving and you're on an interstate and you see the traffic in front of you and you decide it's time to switch lanes, and a car hits your blind spot: Was your intention to get killed, or were you trying to avoid a problem ahead of you?" Cheseto said. "It's the problem that's ahead of you. Someone going through a tough time, not making sound decisions, how do we know they wanted to die?"
Cheseto asked himself that question, along with 10,000 others, unable to find answers.
Weeks passed, and Cheseto still could not quiet his mind. For an All-American long-distance runner who needs to be light and carefree, Cheseto was weighed down by guilt, like bags of rocks around his ankles. He got more and more depressed.
Less than two months after Ritekwiang died, Cheseto swallowed a bottle of pills. He was found and rushed to a hospital. He survived the ordeal but spent a month in a mental health ward, then emerged from his haze and went back to work, regaining his footing in the classroom, seemingly back on the right track.
No one understood his inner turmoil, however, and while outwardly Cheseto was on the mend, inwardly he again was reaching a boiling point.
On Nov. 6, 2011, he grabbed a handful of antidepressants and wandered off into the woods. He was ready to go, peacefully and quietly. He found a spot to sit and he downed a handful of pills and drifted away.
Emergency rescue teams comprised of police, campus police, friends and volunteers searched the city for hours. But November in Alaska means snow, and lots of it. After more than two days of searching, there were no signs. The search was called.
Hours later, Cheseto stumbled into a campus hotel lobby and collapsed onto the floor. His body was frozen, his shoes affixed to his feet, which were stricken with horrific frostbite.
A week later, there was no improvement, and his legs were amputated six inches below the knee.
He laid in that hospital bed a tortured soul.
"Losing my cousin to suicide when I know he was calling me to talk, I was so wracked with guilt," Cheseto said. "That guilt was in me. He had tried to reach out. When I was sitting there, I thought I was guilty of not helping that guy, and that something really terrible happened to me because of it.
"But if I had control over things in life, would I not have prevented this from happening? That's when reality hit me -- this might not be the last tragedy you go through that you don't have control over."
Amid the chaos, Cheseto had found clarity. And he'd found purpose. He resolved to share his story, and his cousin's. He realized what he needed to do. He needed to walk again.
"What I need to do is build myself," Cheseto said. "I know I still have the power, the inner power, and it doesn't come from below my knees. That's not where my power is. It's inside. It's inside my heart. I'll build myself and share my story, that bad things happen, but they do not define who you are."
He remembers the feeling of calm that came over him when he realized there would be another day.
But the next day, he questioned it.
"Day 2, I was really afraid to share what I'd told myself," he said. "In the back of my mind, I thought, 'Is this a true turn I'm making or a fallacy?' I said, I feel good today, and I feel good because I told myself something good. So what I will do, every day forward, is positive self-talk to myself. I did that, and it changed my thoughts. I said, I cannot be doubting my good thoughts and trying to replace them with bad thoughts. I will replace my negative thoughts with the positive, every day. I did that over time, and I realized you can truly self-talk yourself into something."
Three weeks after his double-amputation, Cheseto was fitted with walking prosthetics.
Less than five months later, he participated in a St. Patrick's Day 5K in Anchorage.
He was starting to feel like himself again, but it would take another year -- and a donation of running blades from the Challenged Athletes Foundation -- for Cheseto to really feel back.
In Feb. 2013, 14 months removed from having his feet removed, Cheseto was back on the track of his alma mater, running with his old cross-country team.
"That day, I ran around the track and I was starting to sweat," he said. "It gave me this instant feeling: I'm back in the game. I am going in the right direction. I had not realized there was an attachment to sweat. I was surprised by that."
It wasn't just the sweat. It was the competition. The race.
"How can you explain to your coach how you're behind a guy without biological feet?" He said.
One day around a year later, one of Cheseto's coaches coaxed him into a 100-yard dash. Cheseto smoked him, and "that's when I realized, I might have underestimated what I'm able to do."
Cheseto, an all-conference long-distance runner, had never sprinted, but he set his sights on the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. The Paralympics don't have a long-distance category, so sprinting would be his only chance.
He trained and trained, putting miles and miles on his Ossur running blades and cut his 400-meter time to 52 seconds. He did enough to qualify for the games, but logistical challenges with his Kenyan citizenship -- and the birth of one of his children -- kept him from Brazil.
Soon after, he began to reassess his goals, and in January of 2017, he decided to switch back to long-distance running.
His trainer and coach implored him to move to Florida for year-round training, so Cheseto packed up the car and drove the family from Anchorage to Orlando in 16 days in July of 2018.
Just as he was getting settled in his new home state, Cheseto got a phone call from the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which had gotten him up and running in the first place. They asked if he'd run in November's New York Marathon as a fundraiser, and Cheseto gulped.
"I thought, just go there and do whatever you can do, and then make an assessment," he said. "I don't drink, but I told my wife, the problem with running is it's like an alcoholic telling you I'm just going to have one drink and I'm done. Like I'm going to go to New York and then just take it easy? When that bell goes off in you, it just gets in you. So I ran my first marathon in 2 hours, 52 minutes, with no training, and I realized, this is my thing, and I still can do more."
Five months later, in just his second marathon ever, Cheseto finished the Boston Marathon with a time of 2 hours, 42 minutes and 24 seconds, besting the previous world record for a double-amputee by almost 30 seconds.
In October of last year, he lowered the record even further at the Chicago Marathon, clocking in at 2:37:23.
Sunday's Disney Princess Half-Marathon was an important race for Cheseto.
He'd entered the race both hoping to win -- to best even the able-bodied competition -- and to help tune himself up for April's Boston Marathon, which will be the first of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors to offer a competitive para-athletics division, with its own prize money.
After hitting the speed bump, those hopes were dashed. It took him quite some time to get himself together, and to get his prosthesis back on.
He ran the second half of his race with his prosthesis not properly fastened, and he hit another bump near the finish line, tripping once more.
Again, he picked himself up, and was fourth overall to cross the finish line.
"Every day, even this morning, when I was at the start line, I said my goal is to win," he said. "But winning doesn't just mean crossing the finish line first. I fell, I pulled myself together, I didn't have any pain, and if I decided to quit at 6 miles, I'd have given myself an excuse. I realized for me, [it was important] to remember that I did something today, and the only way I'd remember it is by finishing it. I don't care what time, I will finish it. I have a mantra, you never give up. You just keep trying. This was just a bump. It will not define today."
Cheseto has learned to eschew definitions. Kenyan, Alaskan, Floridian, sprinter, marathoner, double-amputee. All the labels fit.
He sees himself now as more of an educator and inspirer. When he is not on the track, he works for Orlando-based Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates as a prosthesis technician and mentor, helping new amputees see beyond their own limits.
"They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, but an action is worth 10,000 words," said his boss, Stan Patterson. "It's one thing for someone to tell you it'll be OK. It's another thing for someone to see it. When they see Marko, and he not only tells them it is going to be OK, but he lives it, too? Maybe walking is their goal, or playing basketball with their daughter in the driveway, and they think if he can do it, I can do it also."
He knows, because he's been there.
"I can see that doubt in their eyes," Cheseto said. He remembers the feeling himself.
Most importantly for Cheseto, he has become a mental-health advocate, hoping to erase the stigma of suicide and depression.
"I am one of the advocates of mental health and talking about it openly without trying to sugarcoat it," he said. "It's just like having any illness. People feel so comfortable talking about a heart attack or cancer, but they don't want to talk about mental health."
Talking about it helps Cheseto get through even the roughest of days, the days he's taken back to 2011, back to two tragedies.
"I have been able to run out of the guilt," he said. "But the thing is, as often as I can, I try to share my story. Nobody would want to share their story and say I overdosed on antidepressants, but we have to end that stigma.
"Had I not made it out that fateful night, what would the headline be? It would have been, 'UA student dies of suicide.' But here I am. People still ask me, did you want to die? In the back of my mind, I say if I wanted to die, I'd be dead. I didn't want to die. I wanted to live. That's why I'm living."