Marko Cheseto will line up for Monday’s Boston Marathon with justified confidence: he has the fastest known time for a double-leg amputee: 2 hours 37 minutes and 23 seconds. In other words, Cheseto is capable of running six-minute miles for just over 26 miles.
The journey he took to get to this stage took him across two continents and through immense physical and emotional pain.
Cheseto’s athletic career began as a boy in Kenya, when he still had both of his feet. He was inspired by Tegla Loroupe, the first African woman to hold the world marathon record and win the New York City Marathon, who also happened to be his aunt.
Cheseto was later recruited to run at the University of Alaska, where he ran the 5k and 10k. He also convinced his coach to recruit his cousin and close friend, William Ritekwiang. But in 2011 Ritekwiang took his own life, and Cheseto blamed himself for not being able to help.
One night, deep in grief, Cheseto took some antidepressants, went for a run in the woods, and blacked out. He had overdosed. He woke up in the snow three days later, unable to feel his legs. His feet were frostbitten and developed gangrene, and his legs had to be amputated below the knee.
His world had shifted. He was fitted with walking prostheses. At first, Cheseto didn’t think running would be in his future. He had never seen anyone wearing prostheses, and he had never heard of the Paralympics.
But he started running again in 2012 on his walking prostheses. Although they were not made for running, it felt good, he says. He decided not to let the trauma of losing his cousin and his feet get the best of him. “I was trying to find a purpose in life, something that I could be proud of,” he says. “And running was that.”
In 2013, he received his first running prostheses from the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). Running blades can cost $15,000 each, and they need to be highly specialized for each person.
Cheseto decided to try to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics in sprinting events, but that didn’t work out, so he shifted course to the marathon. His first was the 2018 New York Marathon, and his second was Boston in 2019.
Running is not merely an athletic pursuit for Cheseto, however. CAF and the prosthesis maker Össur hold running clinics around the country, and Cheseto has volunteered at them over the years, helping amputees learn to run.
“At first, running was for me. I wanted to do this for my own sanity,” Cheseto says. But he soon realized that other people related to what he had been through. “The only difference between me and so many people that I have talked to and have shared their pain is that mine is physical pain. I am not saying I don’t have internal struggles and pains just like everyone else … but my physical wounds helped people to feel comfortable sharing their pain.”
Bob Babbitt, co-founder of CAF, is a keen admirer of Cheseto. “When somebody is going through trauma, somebody is lying in a hospital bed and they turn on the TV and they see Marko running, it gives people hope,” he says. “Not every double amputee is going to run a 2:37 marathon, but knowing the opportunity is there – that is huge.”
Cheseto also works with amputees in his job as a technician at Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates, a company that fits patients with prostheses and that he joined after receiving his own prosthetic care there for years. “That ability to be able to help someone else get a walking or running leg was just so rewarding,” he says.
But Cheseto knows there are still challenges for athletes like him. One example came in February 2020, when he was competing at the Disney Princess Half Marathon, which he had hopes of winning. The race has separate categories for athletes with disabilities and those without. Cheseto said that before the race, the race director, Jon Hughes, told him that if he finished first overall, he wouldn’t be recognized as the overall winner.
For his part, Hughes says he was “thrilled” to have Cheseto in the race but there were concerns his prostheses might give him an unfair advantage. Hughes says he reached out to USA Track & Field for guidance, “and the bottom line is, we could not get anything definitive.” In the end, Cheseto finished fourth overall despite one of his prostheses coming off during the race.
Cheseto is adamant that victory would have been deserved. “There’s nothing advantageous about me losing my feet, and I’m talking from an experience of having been an able-bodied athlete for more than 20 years.”
Stan Patterson, who owns Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates (POA), the company Cheseto works for, backs up the athlete’s stance. “Anyone saying that an amputee has advantages running a marathon on a portion of their anatomy that is not meant to have loading forces applied, and on a unstable platform, really does not understand biomechanics and prosthetics,” Patterson says.
At major marathons, where the presence of the best runners in the world means overall victory is out of reach, the problem is different. Cheseto has never run in a marathon that recognizes him as the fastest in his classification. At the 2019 Chicago Marathon, when Cheseto ran a world best, no race officials acknowledged his achievement when he crossed the finish line. That will change in Boston, which has added its first-ever competitive para athletics divisions, alongside its existing competitive wheelchair division.
“You can have Paralympic gold medalists or athletes who have competed in the World Para Athletics Championships, and yet they come to a major marathon, and they’re just tossed into more of a participatory or adaptive program” and not recognized as the world-class athletes they are, said Marla Runyan, an Olympian and Paralympian, and formerly the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) para athlete manager.
The new para athletics divisions are vision impairment, upper-limb impairment, and lower-limb impairment, and each includes various classifications. Cheseto’s classification is T62, for double-leg, below-the-knee amputees.
“Marko is a fantastic athlete,” said BAA communications manager Chris Lotsbom. “It truly is an honor to have the fastest T62 athlete in the world competing in Boston and supporting the para athletics divisions.”
These divisions create a space for para athletes to be recognized for their achievements with awards and prize money. They also create a physical space: the ambulatory para runners will have a separate start time, no longer mixed in with the main crowd. Cheseto runs on prosthetic blades that are curved in the back, which means he can’t stand still on them without rolling backward. He needs to keep stepping back and forth, which can be a problem in a crowded starting area.
The Paralympic Games do not include a marathon for ambulatory lower-limb amputees. So, for Cheseto and other amputees like him, this Boston Marathon is the highest-profile competition there is. Cheseto said he hopes the amputees running Boston will open the door for a Paralympic marathon. “There are many out there that would come out if there was that event,” he says.
The future looks secure for Cheseto. As well as his job with prosthetics, he is sponsored by Össur and Nike. He says that their help, and the ongoing support he gets from POA and his wife, Amanda, and the rest of his family have allowed him to reach this point.
In the process of sharing his story, Cheseto has become an advocate for mental health. “I have struggles every day about what I went through and losing my feet. But then, at the same time, I’m asking myself: How have I been able to will myself this far, still having a positive attitude toward life? – most days, anyway,” he says. The answer was being able to “transition from your old self to your new self,” which many people struggle to do, he says.
Cheseto decided he could shine a light on others who have gone through challenges, so he has been interviewing people and sharing their stories through his YouTube channel. “I felt like I needed more angles to tell the same story of: You know what? Falling down is OK. But the most important part is how many times you get up,” he says.