On October 11, 2019, Kogalla athlete, Mike Mcknight crossed the finish line of the Moab 240, completing the third race in a series of three 200-mile races in two months — the Triple Crown of 200’s. He didn’t just complete the distances, however. The accomplished ultrarunner won every single one, set new course records by several hours for all three races, and beat his own Triple Crown record from 2017 by more than 43 hours.
We're glad we had the opportunity to sit down with Michael and hear about his adventures and challenges while running at night.
Unlike many of the athletes out there on the course, Mcknight did not spend hours sleeping during the night. In fact, the champion ultra-runner only slept a total of 30 minutes in all three races. This allowed him to take advantage of the night-time hours under a moon- and star-lit sky, and a beaming RA Ultra Trail Light to illuminate the trail. But, strange things happen when the sun goes to sleep, and McKnight experienced some unusual things right out of the gate. Lightning and thunder sent soaring sounds and electric flashes across the sky during the first night of the Bigfoot 200, and according to McKnight, not only was it dark, but it was terrifying.
“The first night of Bigfoot made a turn for the worst, and I was absolutely terrified during that lightning storm,” he said. “I was in fifth or sixth place when I left the mile 42 aid station around 5:00 p.m. I could hear thunder off to the distance, but the sky didn't look that terrible. This section included a large climb to the highest peak of the course. As I was nearing the top, I could see lightning and hear thunder quickly after each flash. Right when I hit the saddle of the climb, thunder went off the same time lightning did. I freaked out and dropped to the ground. As I was on the ground, I cursed pretty loudly and saw another runner's head pop up from behind a bush. His name was Dax. We quickly didn't look at each other as competitors and decided to stick together during the storm. As we progressed forward, it started to rain. A lot. It also started to hail. The trail was washing out and we were absolutely drenched. The lightning didn't let up, and the thunder kept sounding immediately after each flash of light. It got to the point where we couldn't stop due to fear of getting hypothermia. We were as wet as you'd be if you were in open water. Temperatures were dropping. We had to keep moving and hoping that we wouldn't get struck. It was one of the few times in my life that I was legit scared of death. We eventually got to the next aid station and took 20-30 minutes to get into dry clothes and warm up around a fire. The rain didn't stop, but the lightning and thunder had passed.”
But there would be another night to endure that race, and it wouldn’t just be spent escaping the dangers of night or frightening weather. On the second night at Bigfoot, McKnight would pass two runners, placing him in first place. Being in the lead is not always an advantageous place to be, however, as you are now the one being hunted.
“On the second night at Bigfoot, I had caught second and first place at the 150 mile aid station,” he said. “First place and I had left the aid station together, and we got to a river crossing with very fast, high water. Since it was dark, I couldn't tell the best place to cross, so I just went forward. As I got about halfway through the river, I stopped out of fear of falling and getting swept away. The river was strong and was up to my waist. I asked the other runner if he saw a better place to cross, and he didn't answer. As I was standing there trying to figure out what to do, I saw the other runner had crossed the river and took off running. He didn't say a word to me. I was honestly furious that he left me without saying where he had crossed. I went back and tried to find the place he had crossed, and eventually saw a rope a little upstream setup to help us cross. I crossed and flew past him out of pure adrenaline and anger that he had just left me in the river. I later found out he was international, so his English may not have been great. But it was still interesting he didn't try to show me the safe spot to cross. Once I passed first, I didn't see another runner til about five miles later. The runner who was in second place at mile 150 had caught up to me and blown past. He was looking strong. A few miles later though I found him sitting down on the trail working on some faulty shoes. Once I passed him, I never saw another racer. Ben Light picked me up at mile 175 and paced me to the finish. I kept asking him to look behind me for another racer, because I was certain they were on my tail.”
The demons of the night would continue into the second race, this time during the Tahoe 200. Unlike the Bigfoot 200, McKnight wouldn’t have support of pacers, having taken this race on as a solo endeavor, leaving nobody but himself to conquer the nighttime demons.
“For most of these 200-mile races, I've experienced minor hallucinations,” McKnight said. “Sometimes they’re so simple, and you know you're hallucinating. At my first 200, I saw a bunch of cats hanging in the trees. I knew that they weren't actually cats, but I couldn't tell what they really were, and couldn't shake the image out of my head.
“At Tahoe, I was so tired and sleep deprived, and entered a deep state of hallucinating, that I had no idea I was hallucinating. It started the second night. I was in first place and second wasn't far behind. I started talking to somebody for about an hour. We had a normal conversation for miles. After an hour, I came to and realized I had been talking to nobody. Minutes later I started talking to my legs, and they started talking back to me. Though, they weren't my legs. They were my dad's legs. They were complaining to me about how tired they were, and I felt bad that I was making my dad's legs work so hard. So I started using my Trekking Poles as crutches for 20-30 minutes, trying to give my dad's legs some relief. I realized what I was doing and tried to stop, but couldn't. Then the scariest thing happened. I thought that I was stuck in a time loop. I couldn't progress forward. I was running into a portal and would pop out of the portal behind me. I kept seeing the same section of trail. Same trees. Same rocks. I wasn't moving. I started to get upset. Then I got disoriented and couldn't figure out if I went in the portal incorrectly. Meaning I was concerned I was now running backwards. I had to stop multiple times to pull my Gaia app out and make sure I was moving forward. I was convinced though the portal was moving with me, as I still kept seeing the same things. Eventually I got to the aid station, took a 5 minute nap, then felt completely fine. It was pretty crazy.”
It wasn’t just crazy weather patterns, leading a race in the middle of the night, or even sleep-and energy-deprived hallucinations that made the nighttime hours a challenge. For the most part, those things are to be expected as part of the game. Sometimes, however, there are things entirely out of your control — things like getting lost because cows ate the trail markings. During the Moab 240, McKnight got lost the first night, and twice on the second night. Getting lost, he said was because cows ate the flagging in the La Sal mountains, and his phone froze from the cold, rendering him unable to use his map.
Enduring the days and nights of each of these three races paid off in the end. After 161 hours 20 minutes and 10 seconds of total elapsed time over 605 total miles, McKnight was a champion and record-holder. And according to fellow ultrarunner, Triple Crown finisher and pacer, Ben Light, what McKnight was able to accomplish is nothing short of amazing.
“Some people don’t realize what an amazing accomplishment this is,” Light said. “Mike not only finished, but he won all three races. Not only did he win, but he did by several hours, and he broke two course records. And yes, he did break his own Triple Crown record from 2017, but he did it by 47 hours. Mike is the real deal, and these records are gonna stand for a while.”
While Mcknight may very well have reached the pinnacle of ultramarathon running, winning championships and breaking records, McKnight says he’s still got many goals ahead.
“My dream race is the Tor des Géants (TDG) in Italy, and to be the first American to win it outright,” he said. “I’d also like to win Badwater and get accepted into Bigs Backyard Ultra. My ultimate goal is to continue to push my boundaries in unique ways and see what I can do. For example, I’d like to see how fast I can run 100 miles on zero calories.”
Even with those big goals set, Mcknight says that he will reach them by doing what he’s always done: Put one step forward at a time. The ultrarunner who is also husband and father of two encourages those who want to try ultrarunning to also set their goals high and keep moving forward.
“Consistency is king,” he said. “As you’re setting your goals high and wanting to push your boundaries, always remember to be consistent. If life gets busy one day, get out for a couple of miles. Make running a priority and do a little every day. Be sure you ENJOY it too.”
To follow more of Mike’s journey, he can be found on Instagram @dirtymike_89.
Article author Arianne Brown is a mom of nine and a lifelong runner competing in anything from 5K to 50-mile races. She loves the written word, and using it to share stories the world needs to hear. For more of he writings, follow "A Mother's Write" on Facebook, @ariannebrown on Instagram.
The awesome video was produced by Van Horn Pictures, @matthewvanhorn on Instagram.