On the list of epic things that have occurred in our lives, it’s not likely many (or any) have occurred in the 3 a.m. hour. That time is reserved for sleeping, attempting sleep on red eye flights and maybe eating breakfast on an especially early start to race day.
Gnarly athlete Mike McKnight has an exception. At 3:39 a.m on May 5, he was the second person to cross the Cocdona 250 finish line, getting redemption for a race that hadn’t worked out in 2021, the race’s inaugural year.
Put on by Aravaipa Running, Cocodona tests endurance runners on 250 miles through some of Arizona’s most picturesque but challenging landscape through old mining towns, the Granite Dells, Ponderosa Pine forests, and the red cliffs of Sedona.
Mike ran Cocodona in 2021, but in stark contrast to this year’s finish, last year he was admitted to the hospital, suffering from rhabdo (rhabdomyolysis) after completing 140 miles. A section of the Cocodona course left Mike without water for two and a half hours. This double punch of dehydration with extreme heat of Arizona’s May sun combined with the stress Mike’s body was enduring while racing all tumbled into rhabdo, which requires medical attention. Mike’s watch buzzed with the DNF (did not finish) notification while he was getting admitted to the hospital.
Later in 2021, Mike went on to win the Bigfoot 200 and the Moab 240 for the year’s Double Crown of 200s. Mike was attempting to win the Triple Crown of 200s, but a wildfire canceled the middle race in the series, the Tahoe 200. He then finished out 2021 with a personal challenge of racing for 24 hours while ingesting zero calories at Across the Years. Not only did Mike say he felt great, but the race was also a massive success, with Mike clocking 118 miles.
Mike has repeatedly and consistently proven he can destroy ultra races. On several occasions, his competition has called him the “Michael Jordan of 200s.” But Mike knew he had something to work on in 2022: Become a beast at racing in the heat, which meant he was heading back to Cocodona 250 for redemption.
For starters, Mike bailed on his snowy backyard conditions in Utah by mid-April this year. He swapped it for Phoenix's sunscorched trails and moved his training to 1 or 2 p.m. “One day when I started my run, it was already 101 degrees,” Mike said. “It snowed that day at home in Northern Utah. Last year when I went from running in 30 degrees to running in the high 80s, low 90s, it was just too much for what I was used to.”
This year’s Cocodona included major rerouting to avoid the area impacted by the Crooks Wildfire. The new course removed the grueling section that left Mike without water and started the descent into last year’s DNF, which isn’t to say this year’s course was easy by any measurement.
Aside from acclimating to Arizona’s temps for several weeks before the race, Mike had a few other strategies to make this year’s race smoother than last. “I made sure I was carrying enough water, I added ice to my hat at every aid station, I drenched myself at every aid station and I wore a sun hoodie,” Mike said. “I did a bunch of stuff that I didn't do last year to be ready for the heat.”
The preparation paid off. After a fairly miserable first day on account of stomach issues, Mike fueled with chocolate milk and potato chips on the second morning at sunrise, and by the afternoon and into the evening, he rebounded from fifth place to second, and held second to the finish line. Along the course Mike also refueled at aid stations with a loaded baked potato, a bunless hot dog and a watermelon slushie, to mention some standout favorites.
This year’s Cocodona was unlike any other ultra race around. Two runners started the course wearing sandals, one runner wore jeans for most of the first day, and there was an engagement at mile 240 (she said yes). But maybe even more impressive is Aravaipa’s almost 24/7 live streaming of the race with commentary that brings this race to a new level for audience interaction. At almost every moment of the 122 hours of the Cocodna 250, fans from around the globe were tuning in. Racers currently on the course even chime in occasionally and viewers gain useful insight from racers’ crew, as well as the intel from commentators.
At one point in the race, Mike, in his endless attempt at keeping cool, fully submerged in a creek which disabled his GPS tracker. The livestream chat lit up with concern. With Mike’s GPS not registering, his name moved to the bottom of the tracking list with a dreaded “DNF” next to it. While the commentators diplomatically discouraged jumping to any conclusions, the live chat realized Mike was nowhere near an aid station, which added to the legitimacy that it was a temporary GPS malfunction and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Aside from finishing in second, Mike says this race was special because it was the first time both of his kids were part of his crew. “At every aid station my son - he’s five years old - kept running over and asked me what I needed. He would bring me stuff I didn't necessarily ask for, but he was just trying to help out,” Mike said. “It was great to have them join in on the whole experience.”
Of course, Mike was stoked to cross the finish line with an incredible time, but he was also waiting on a few others. In addition to being a professional ultrarunner, Mike’s a running coach and had five of his runners race Cocodona and four finish. “It’s a worry that they might not finish and that would fall on me as a coach, so it was good seeing most of them finish,” he said. One racer Mike coached was Stephen Park, the final finisher of the race who left less than four minutes on the cutoff time clock. Mike said when Stephen contacted him in January, he was running about 15 miles per week, making his effort at Cocodona all the more impressive with about four months to train.
Mike follows a low-carb diet, but post-race, he typically has a few treats that aren’t part of his everyday diet, like sweet potato fries. This time, however, Mike stuck with his standard menu fare, which he suspects shortened his recovery time. Mike finished Cocodona early Thursday morning and was back running on Monday, and set several personal records that following week. “I'm feeling super fresh and super light,” he said. “It was a good, quick week.”
Next up for Mike is the Badwater 135, a race that starts in Death Valley on July 11, where temps can reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit. “I’ve definitely got to dial it in even more these next couple months,” Mike said. His preparations look similar but by then the Utah heat will suffice with a few extra layers of clothing on, along with some sauna sessions at the gym.
But Mike’s not done with racing in Arizona. He said that because of the Cocodona reroute this year, he’d like to head back and race on the original course, but he mentioned that might not be next year but sometime in the future. Mike has plans in Arizona this fall that involve an iconic trail through the state, chasing down a Fastest Known Time (FKT) and some friendly competition with fellow Gnarly athlete and friend Ben Light.
Follow along with Mike on his Instagram as he works on perfecting becoming an ultrarunning beast in the heat in 2022.