First, Mike McKnight began to see things that weren’t there. Then he got emotional.
As McKnight closed in on the finish of the first Moab 240 Endurance Run just after midnight on Oct. 16, he was hallucinating. He saw intricate designs and pictures on the big rocks along the trail. Exhausted after nearly three days of running with little sleep, McKnight was seeing “some weird stuff.”
“We passed a rock and I asked my pacer, ‘Whoa, how do you think that got there?’ ” he recalls. “He was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”
McKnight shook it off and kept going. As the miles slipped away and he realized he was going to finish his third 200-mile plus race in just over two months, it hit him: Not only was he going to complete the first triple crown of 200-milers, but he was going to have the fastest cumulative time among the 14 runners to do it.
“There were multiple times in the hours leading up to the finish line where I just started getting teary-eyed a little bit, just because it’s been so long, and I was actually uncertain if I’d be able to do all three,” he says. “It was a pretty emotional and good feeling to get it done.”
McKnight beat his goal by a couple hours, completing the 239.7-mile route in 68 hours, 26 minutes and 38 seconds, good for third place.
As he neared the end, the 27-year-old McKnight was met by his wife, Sarah, and their infant son. Sarah, who had been his crew for all three races, ran the final yards with her husband and their baby.
Five years after a skiing accident left him with a shattered vertebra and doubts about whether he’d be able to live an active life, McKnight had completed an endurance feat he hadn’t planned until August. Four years after taking up ultra running and two months after running his first 200-miler, McKnight—an event and athlete manager at Altra who lives in Smithfield, Utah—is relishing the accomplishment.
“It feels good to be able to push my body as far as I can, especially ever since I broke my back,” he says. “I don’t blame her, but my mom is always saying, ‘Stop doing this, you’re going to destroy your back,’ and I get where she’s coming from. But being able to do these things that I thought I might not be able to do again because of messing my back up, it makes me more appreciative of it.”
“It was something bad”
McKnight admits he was showing off when he attempted a big jump while skiing in February of 2012. He was going too fast, overshot his landing and landed hard on his back in icy conditions.
“To this day, it’s the worst pain I’ve ever felt,” says McKnight.
He was taken by ambulance to a hospital where doctors later inserted two rods and nine screws into his spine. He was told he’d have to stay in bed for months. Doctors doubted he’d be able to run or be active for at least a year. He lost his job and had to drop out of school.
Yet McKnight had an amazing recovery. He was out of bed and jogging three weeks after surgery and ran a 10K three weeks after that (wearing a brace his friends called his “Ninja Turtle shell”).
McKnight had just begun running when he was hurt. But, it turned out the injury put him on the path to ultras. A friend he made at a new job introduced him to long-distance trail racing. In 2013, he ran his first ultra, a 28-miler in Logan, Utah.
In the years since, he’s done multiple 100- and 50-mile races. This year, he decided to attempt something bigger, the Bigfoot 200 Endurance Run at Mt. St. Helens, Wash., on Aug. 11. Like a growing number of runners, he wanted to try a 200-miler.
McKnight believed he might be suited for the distance because he can manage pain and fatigue. He mentally prepares himself to suffer.
“The farther the distance, the better I am,” he says.
McKnight was seventh over the 205.8-mile course in 69 hours, 18 minutes and 20 seconds, but he was disappointed. He battled digestive issues, and couldn’t hold down food. A friend, longtime ultra standout Jeff Browning (who follows a ketogenic diet like McKnight) suggested the problem could be rectified with salt tablets during the race.
“It got me curious how I could do in a 200 if my stomach wasn’t hurting,” McKnight says.
So, McKnight signed up for the next two 200-mile races being put on by Candice Burt of Destination Trail, the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run on Sept. 8 (205.5 miles) and the inaugural Moab 240 on Oct. 13-16.
At Tahoe, his digestive problems were gone but he developed a painful knee problem about 50 miles in. He pushed through anyway and was fourth in 67 hours, 19 minutes and 20 seconds. That left him about an hour behind the cumulative-time leader for the 200-mile triple crown going into Moab.
Yet it still left him wondering what he could do if he didn’t have physical issues for most of a race.
At Moab, he found out. After a sluggish start he got into a rhythm. For 202 miles he had no issues. He’d planned to sleep for a few hours along the way as he did in the other races, but this time he couldn’t. His body wouldn’t allow it. So he napped for just a few minutes at a time along the trail.
He’d put together a chart for his wife on when he intended to reach each aid station, but was about three hours early at each until he developed shin problems. For about the last 37 miles he fell to a slower run-walk-run pace, yet still almost hit his 68-hour target. Finishing was equal parts joy and relief.
“The other two when I finished it felt good to finish, but then immediately it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, how am I going to do this again in a month?’ ” he says. “So it felt really good to know that was it for the year.”
Following his “dumb” idea
Before they were married two years ago, Sarah McKnight says Mike told her he someday wanted to run a 200-mile race.
“I told him I thought that was dumb,” she says, laughing. “And he’s never let me forget that.”
Once she realized how passionate he was about running, however, she’s supported him and crewed for him, sleeping in their car with their baby on these 200-milers. He says he wouldn’t have been able to do it without her.
Says McKnight: “So she encouraged me to follow my dumb idea.”
Now his plan is to take a year off from ultras (unless he gets into next summer’s Western States or Hardrock). His body is beat up and ready for a rest. But, he says, he learned a lot in racing 651 miles and climbing and descending nearly 120,000 feet over 74 days, often while hurting.
“Even though I was tired my body was able to adapt,” he says. “Your body can adapt to whatever you’re doing, even if you don’t think you can do it.”
READ MORE: Next Level—Inside the 200-Mile Racing Trend