MOAB — A 29-year-old man who grew up in Cornish has done something few athletes would ever dream of, winning three 200 mile ultra-marathons in less than two months. Michael J. McKnight crossed the finish line of the Moab 240 Sunday night, after running nearly non-stop for 59 hours 30 minutes.
The race in Utah’s slick-rock country came three weeks after McKnight won the Tahoe 200, near Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada; and seven weeks after taking first in the Bigfoot 200, near Mt. St. Helen in Washington. The three races were a total of over 161 hours of running.
McKnight has been so tired since Sunday’s finish, he hasn’t really been able to comprehend what happened. He said the last leg of the Moab 240 was pretty emotional.
“I don’t really cry but I was pretty teary eyed during the final couple miles, coming into the finish line,” explained McKnight. “Finishing the first two, Bigfoot and Tahoe, I only had a couple days where I could eat a lot of food, lay down and relax. Then I would immediately have to get my gears turning and get ready for the next race. This one felt like as soon as I crossed the finish line I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m done.’”
By winning each race, McKnight recaptured the “Triple Crown of 200s,” an award he first won in 2017 by having the best combined overall time from the three races. This year he also became the first runner to win all three of the races individually and beat his previous combined time by more than 40 hours.
McKnight explained how he has grown to appreciate the challenges of endurance running and what it has taught him. While other runners choose to listen to music during races, he tries to connect with nature and God, focusing on the sounds and beauty that surround him. At nights while all alone, he self-evaluates the way his body and mind are enduring the hardships.
“I’ll acknowledge and say, ‘my quads are super tight and I’m exhausted,’” he said. “Then I’ll just say, ‘Well, you know you’re in the third race of the Triple Crown. It’s the second night. Of course you’re going to be tired, that’s okay. Everybody else is tired. You’re not going to quit, so just tune it all out and keep going.’”
McKnight admitted that he has a classic rock playlist that he’ll also use sometimes. The mix of AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Guns and Roses help get him through the long and lonely nights.
McKnight hasn’t always had a love for running long distances though. He wasn’t really physically fit until signing up for football his senior year at Sky View High School. He later started running occasionally while serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His passion grew though, upon returning home and running with his sister, while she prepared for a half-marathon.
A year later, as he was training to walk-on the Utah State Track Team, McKnight suffered a tragic skiing accident in February 2012. While trying to impress a girl, he went off a jump, went too far, overshot the landing and crashed. He was taken to the hospital, where doctors told him that he had shattered a vertebrae in his back. They explained that it would be at least a year before he could run again.
“It was a very, very low spot in my life. I dropped out of college, lost my job and had to move back into my parent’s house,” he admitted.
Despite what his doctor had advised, McKnight went for a run three weeks after the accident and ran a 10K race six weeks after surgery. Later he met a local trail runner, Cody Draper, who introduced him to ultra-marathons.
McKnight said he had never heard of ultras before. He started running 10-20 miles a day and helped pace Draper in the Bear 100, an endurance race that goes from Logan to Bear Lake. He later signed up to run his first ultra, a 28-mile race.
“So in retrospect,” explained McKnight, “I feel that I’ve always had the mind of an ultra-runner and I just didn’t know it. I like to push the boundaries a little bit.”
Now that he has recaptured the Triple Crown, McKnight said he is looking forward to some rest. He and his wife Sara recently moved to Denver, Colorado, to continue working for Altra Running. He is already setting his sights on his next race, the Tor des Géants, a 200 mile run in Italy that is tougher than any race he’s competed in so far.