From a broken back skier to a champion 200-mile runner
(Michael McKnight, left, won the fastest combined time for the Triple Crown of 200-mile races. All photos by Howie Stern and Scott Rokis Photography)
It was an icy day in Logan, Utah, in February 2012 when Michael John McKnight “was being stupid and went off of a jump, went too far, overshot the landing, and landed on my back — it was pure ice.”
McKnight was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, then found himself in surgery within a couple of hours.
“I’m supposed to consider myself really lucky because the doctor said that when I landed my vertebrae burst away from my spinal column, but if I landed differently, with the burst going in the opposite direction toward my spinal column, that would have paralyzed me,” says McKnight, who has two rods running up his spine and nine screws in his vertebrae.
At the time of the accident, McKnight was 22, had been skiing for five years and considered himself an “advanced skier but an intermediate jumper.” (He has since returned to skiing but learned his lesson. “I still ski. But I don’t do jumps or tricks anymore. That scared me.”)
But running wasn’t his jam. Although he had started running the previous year when his sister challenged him to run a half marathon with her.
“I was just starting college so I thought it would be fun to get in shape,” McKnight recalls, noting he finished the road race in about 1:29. That would be his only race before breaking his back.
Birth of an ultra runner
Doctors told McKnight he would be lucky to run within a year, though he might be able to swim or do some other low-impact exercise by the following winter and then try biking or running a year later.
Instead, McKnight went for a run three weeks after the accident and ran a 10K race “for fun six weeks after surgery.”
He did shorter distances at a slower pace. “It didn’t hurt as bad as I thought it would hurt.” Then McKnight met Cody Draper, who knew about his history and told him that trail running would be better for his back.
“I went for a trail run with him and fell in love with trails over roads,” McKnight recalls. “Ever since then — except during winter when it snows — I’m on trails.”
At one point McKnight innocently asked Draper if he was running a local 5K the following weekend.
“He said I don’t typically do races under a marathon,” McKnight remembers. “That blew my mind because I didn’t know anything like that existed. The weekend after that he was doing a 50-miler. In a few months, he was training to do a 100-miler. That blew my mind even more. It took me a while to start running with him again because that kind of intimidated me. But I did start running with him again and he encouraged me to sign up for a local ultra, which was 28 miles.”
Without having run a marathon distance, McKnight finished the 28-mile ultra the following year in June 2013. “The furthest I had ever run before was a 20-mile run two weeks before,” he says. “I ended up getting fourth place, which made me happy and I realized that if I trained and would focus on it, I would do better. So I signed up for a bunch of them and have been doing it ever since.”
200-mile trifecta champion
Running ultras was a learning experience for McKnight. Among his biggest takeaways: the longer the distance, the better he performs.
“I am better at going at a slower pace for a long period of time,” he says. “Races like a 50K, or 50-miler, I tend to go to fast at the beginning and blow up. I haven’t been able to figure out the smaller distances yet but for the 100-mile distance and above, I do well. I’m still trying to figure out what my niche is.”
He may have discovered his niche in 2017 when he completed three 200-milers and came away with the fastest combined finishing time: 204 hours, 4 minutes and 18 seconds. The breakdown:
· Bigfoot 200: 69:18:20
· Tahoe 200: 67:19:20
· Moab 200 (officially 238 miles): 68:26:38
McKnight is thankful for the love and support of his wife, Sarah, and son, Kilian.
“I would not have finished the three 200s if they were not there because time and time again I would come into an aid station and feel defeated,” he says. “But my wife would talk me out of it. I want to be an example to my wife and son. I think it’s going to be really cool when my son gets older and can remember and comprehend everything, I am really excited that I have this video I can show him. That way he’ll know that when life gets hard for him, he’ll know that he can finish it and succeed.”
McKnight admits that “ever since I started in ultras I’ve had an all-in mentality.” After that first ultra — the 28-miler in 2013 — Draper recommended doing a longer ultra distance.
“My goal was to do a 100-miler in 2015,” McKnight says. “But I paced my buddy for his 100-miler in 2013. It intrigued me so I signed up for it (the 100-miler) a year earlier. At the end of 2016, I had done five 100-mile distances. I had learned of the 200-mile distance and it intrigued me. At the time there was only the Double Crown, Big Foot and Tahoe. My buddy had the overall combined time winning time. He and I are very similar runners so it motivated me to do the Double Crown and take his record.”
‘It was pretty miserable’
McKnight picked Draper’s brain for advice, adopted the Keto diet and worked more hiking into his training routine. For his training, McKnight focused on time, spending two hours on the trails every morning before work, and three to six hours of intense trail running on Saturdays.
He also created a unique training for the 200-mile distance. He would run 50 miles and meet his family at a campsite, then after sleeping, get up and run five hours, mimicking what happens during those long races. “For me, when I run a long distance, I take a nap and then I am super sore and it’s hard for me to keep doing. So I trained myself to run long, take a nap and then get running again.”
He finished Big Foot, even though he had stomach issues and “threw up a lot in the first 100 miles. It was pretty miserable.” Sarah motivated him at every aid station, encouraging him to continue.
“I swore off the distance at that point because it was so miserable,” he admits. “But then about five days after finishing, I had breakfast with Jeff Browning, and we have the same diet. When I told him about puking, he advised me on how to fix that.”
McKnight, Browning and others who follow the Keto diet get most of their carbs from veggies, fruit and sweet potatoes, along with moderate protein and lots of good fat intake. McKnight also uses intermittent fasting to optimize his fat metabolism. Endurance athletes who follow this diet believe that it trains the body to tap into its own fat during races as a fuel source.
Browning said runners on the Keto diet tend to lose salt more than someone on a normal diet so they need to take in more salt. “So, I started taking in S caps every hour, and it worked and I didn’t have any stomach issues,” McKnight says. “Then my wheels started turning and how I was wondering how well I would do the 200-mile distance if my stomach wasn’t hurting. By the time I got home, I signed up for the second one. And my wife said, ‘If you are doing two of them, you might as well do three of them.’”
In between the races, McKnight focused on recovery. He swam and biked mostly to give his legs a break.
McKnight plans to take this year off from 200-milers but is eyeing a return to the distance in 2019. This year is kind of wide open since he missed out on lotteries to Western States, Hardrock Endurance Run and the Barkley Marathons.
He will do the Bear 100 in Utah and undoubtedly find other long-distance challenges. But McKnight understands that his body needs time to recover from the 200-mile trifecta. “I run with a group out here in the valley, and everyone is worried that I am going to wind up with an overtraining syndrome, doing too much too fast.”
‘Your spine is perfect’
What did his doctors say about his early return to running and his ultra racing? “The funny thing is … I never told them.”
He hasn’t seen his surgeon since 2012. However, McKnight met a chiropractor at an invite-only dinner for those who have undergone back surgeries where he was the only young person. He shared his experience with the chiropractor, telling him “I have some hardware in my spine due to a skiing accident and told him what happened. Then I told him about how I do ultras, which really intrigued him so he invited me to his office for X-rays.”
Afterward, the chiropractor told McKnight, “You know, I did this hoping to get some business from you. But if I am being honest, there’s nothing I can do for you because your spine is perfect. Whatever you are doing is working.”
McKnight knows his return to running was not what the doctor ordered. He also admits that when he first started running, it did hurt his back. And during his early ultras, he would have to lie down on the trail every two to three hours so stretch his back out.
“Ever since I started running in Altra shoes, even for these 200-mile races, it hasn’t bothered my back,” says McKnight, who works for Altra as an athlete manager. “I haven’t even had to lay down to stretch my back.”
For others recovering from severe injuries, McKnight recommends listening to their doctors but not using their predicaments as an excuse to stay in bed.
“Everybody’s injury is completely different so I can’t give advice on when the best time is to start training,” he says. “A general piece of advice or anyone suffering from an injury, for my opinion, physical activity is one of the best ways to recover. Don’t let an injury be a reason to give up on your goals, your passions. My life would be completely different now if I chose to just lay in bed because my back hurt.”
Name: Michael McKnight
Hometown: Smithfield, Utah
Number of years running: 7
How many miles a week do you typically run: 60
Point of pride: Starting to run three weeks after a serious back accident, and spine surgery
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Before a race I almost always have prime rib, and a sweet potato from Texas Roadhouse. During the race, I enjoy Justin's Almond Butter, Honey Stinger chews, dark chocolate, Wilderness Athlete and X-Endurance electrolyte drinks
Favorite piece of gear: Altra running shoes!
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: My classic rock playlist (AC/DC, Guns N Roses, Warrant, etc.)
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Just one step forward
Where can other runners connect or follow you: https://www.facebook.com/mike.mcknight.509 (Facebook) and @dirtymike89 (Instagram)