“She’s never just left me before,” Mike said. “She usually waits for me to leave. But this is the first one she could full-on see in my eyes that I was gonna quit.”
Gnarly athlete Mike McKnight decided he was going to quit the Moab 240. He was about 30 percent done with the race, 72 miles out of 242, but he wasn’t interested in continuing. It had rained all day and his back was giving him trouble where he has two rods and nine screws holding a vertebrate together, the remains from surgery when he broke his back in 2012. Stopped at an aid station, Mike told his wife, who doubles as his crew, that he was quitting. Her response? “No.”
He pushed back, saying that he was actually quitting. She pushed back saying he wasn’t. Then she got in her truck and drove away, leaving Mike for the next 52 miles without a real option to quit.
The next two aid stations were too remote to be crewed and too deep in Utah’s desert to have cell reception. Mike said when he asked aid station staff what the process would be if he dropped, they said he’d have to sit there waiting through the night until mid-afternoon when race staff could take him to the finish line on an ATV.
Not interested in that option, Mike kept going, but he wasn’t alone. In what amounted to a thrilling, white-knuckled live-tracker event, Mike raced 210 miles of the Moab 240 with fellow racer Jovica Spajic.
“I usually have a good five or six-hour lead and I can just take my time at aid stations and just kind of run comfortably, but the final 50k, I really had to push it,” Mike said.
Mike and Jovi had finished the Tahoe 200 together in 2017. “Jovi was leading the whole race but he wasn’t sleeping,” Mike said. “I actually found him wandering around and he had no idea where he was, so I ended up showing him where he needed to go.” Mike was walking to the finish with IT band issues, and as a “thanks,” Jovi walked with him.
It wasn’t until the last 30 miles of this year’s Moab 240 that Mike started to break away from Jovi, trying to pick up his pace to set a new course record. Before that, Mike and Jovi had raced together and waited for each other at aid stations – Jovi waiting for Mike’s back to get worked on on day one, and Mike waiting for Jovi to rest on day two. By the morning of day three, Mike recognized he needed to pick it up to set the course record.
Mike won the Moab 240. He credits his wife’s tough love for the win. “If it wasn’t for her, there’s a good chance I would have quit,” Mike said. He also set the course record, finishing with a time of 55:49:58.
Jovi finished second with a time of 56:54:39. In an Instagram post, Mike wrote, “The miles shared with someone I now call my brother is something I’ll never forget. You develop some special friendships with those you get the privilege to suffer with.”
The win at Moab 240 means Mike also won the 2021 Triple Crown, a series of three 200+ mile ultras. Although Mike only won two of the three races because this year’s Triple Crown comes with an asterisk.
In August, Mike won the Bigfoot 200 in Washington state, the first race of the Triple Crown, but after that things went awry. In a story of fire and ice, the second Triple Crown race in September, the Tahoe 200, was canceled because of fire. Then October’s Moab 240 was raced on a re-routed course, bringing the higher-altitude portions lower to avoid an impending snow storm.
“I felt like the reroute section of Moab was more difficult than the normal section,” Mike said, noting that other runners agreed. “There wasn’t as much climbing, but it was two miles longer and there was a downhill section on the reroute that’s basically a river bed full of these big ankle-rolling rocks and you couldn’t really run down it. I had to walk and hobble around, trying to not roll an ankle.”
The course reroute wasn’t the only thing Mike didn’t love about this year’s Moab 240. An experienced ultra-racer, Mike has his race nutrition down and eats low-carb otherwise, but getting in calories during the race proved difficult.
“Usually when I have stomach issues during a race, nothing sounds good and I don’t want to even try to eat anything because it just sounds awful,” Mike said. “But like this one – I’ve never experienced this before, but I was hungry and I didn’t have stomach issues; I wanted to eat, but whenever anything aside from water touched my tongue, it gave me a gag reflex.”
With most food not wanting to go in, Mike only ate a few bites of food for the entire 242 miles. “It’s these moments where I’m super happy that I am a low-carb athlete who focuses on fat adaptation,” Mike said. “It wasn’t ideal but because my body’s used to burning fat I was still able to move at a pretty good pace even though I wasn’t eating much.”
Mike also lucked out with the aid station crew. During the first 24 hours, he stopped at aid stations for 20 to 40 minutes, attempting to get some relief from his back pain. “I was fortunate that one of the aid station crew had back issues herself and the thing that really helped was she taped some hand warmers to my back so I was able to run with a little heat pad on my back,” Mike said.
It’s clear that ultraraces are never an individual effort. Mike won with the help of his wife, the aid station crew, his coach, pacers and fellow competitors. Like the Bigfoot 200, Mike also ran with a picture of a 12-year-old Brodie, on his vest. Mike is working to find a family to adopt Brodie, who has down syndrome. Being an older child in the adoption system, Mike said Brodie is in danger of aging out of his current orphanage. If that happens, he’s at risk of spending the rest of his life in an adult mental institution.
“I’m not going to let that happen,” Mike wrote in an Instagram post. “Please join me in finding him his forever family.”
Mike’s intention for the Moab 240 was to not only break the course record, but to race it in under 50 hours. Conditions didn’t allow for that time this year, in part because of the weather, the rerouted course and longer stops at aid stations to work on Mike’s back pain. But does Mike think a sub-50 at Moab is possible? Absolutely. Does he plan on going for it in 2022? Absolutely not. Next year, Mike is focusing on other races. But it will be just as thrilling to watch Mike crush them, even if that means refreshing the live tracker with one eye open at 3 a.m.