For most people, the thought of running 200 miles alone in the wilderness probably doesn’t sound very appealing. It may even sound like a form of punishment.
But for Latter-day Saint Michael McKnight from Cache Valley, Utah, running 200 miles through the wilderness is something he looks forward to. It’s a chance to learn what he is capable of, to push himself to be better, to appreciate all he has and to better understand his relationship with God.
Endurance running can change a person’s outlook on life, said McKnight’s friend and fellow ultra runner Ben Light.
“It really has helped me to understand what I’m personally capable of, and how much I can really control,” Light said.
Too often, the world teaches people that what happens to them is beyond their control or that it is OK to blame someone else for how they react or how they behave. But self-discipline is a choice and it plays a key role in determining one’s success, he said. To be a great runner and a great person, a person has to be willing to humble themselves as they face their challenges.
On Oct. 11, McKnight will begin the third and final race of what has become known as the “Triple Crown of 200s” by running some 238 miles through the vast and rocky wilderness near Moab, Utah.
Consisting of three races — the Bigfoot 200, near Mt. St. Helen in Washington; the Tahoe 200, near Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada; and the Moab 240, in southeast Utah — the Triple Crown of 200s is a one of a kind series; even in the ultramarathon world.
“In terms of difficulty, it is up there,” McKnight said. But two key things set this series apart.
First, it is the only triple series at the 200-mile distance. All the other “triple crowns” and “grand slams” of ultramarathons are at the 100 mile distance.
Second, the three races are done consecutively in a three-month period. Unlike most ultramarathon race series, there is very little recovery time for runners between the long and arduous races.
The Triple Crown of 200s was first held in 2017 and, although he didn’t win any of the individual races, McKnight won the series that first year by having the best combined overall time from the three races. With a total time of 205 hours for all 658 miles two years ago, McKnight hopes to win the series again this year with an overall time closer to 160 hours. So far in the series, McKnight is 25 hours ahead of the next runner and around 35 hours ahead of his own pace from two years ago.
If McKnight does win the series again this year, he will be the first person to win all three of the races individually as well the triple crown. He will also maintain his reign for the fastest completion of the series by obliterating his own previous record.
Now, while that sounds cool and all, the question still stands: Why would a person want to run more than 600 miles through the wilderness alone?
Well, for McKnight, the answer is pretty simple: Because he can.
Willing and able
In February 2012, two years after returning home from serving a mission in Toronto, Canada, McKnight was in a skiing accident where he broke his back.
“In the moment, I didn’t 100% know what happened,” he said, recalling the pain he felt after crashing to the ground. “I had that worry that I really messed myself up, and I might be paralyzed.”
After surgery, McKnight was told that it would likely be a year before he’d be up and running again.
After dropping out of school and losing his job because of his recovery, McKnight said the fear of not being able to run weighed on him and, rather than consigning himself to such a fate, he set his sights on getting up and moving as soon as possible. Whether his diagnosis was wrong or his recovery was miraculous, McKnight isn’t sure. Either way, six weeks after his surgery, McKnight ran a 10K race.
“I didn’t have school and I didn’t have a job, so I ran a lot,” McKnight said, detailing how his dedication to running grew. “And I just started to like it a lot more and got a lot more miles under my legs.”
Some time later, when McKnight was working again, he met a co-worker who introduced him to ultra running.
“And that’s kind of how it all started,” McKnight said of his transition from casual 10Ks to 50-plus-mile trail races. Since getting into the sport of ultra running, McKnight has done more than 40 races, all at 50-mile, 100-mile or 200-mile lengths.
“A big reason I do what I do now is because I’m really appreciative of what my body can do and because I was put in a situation where that might have been taken away from me,” McKnight said. “I feel like I’m trying really hard to get out there and really push the body.”
With how much people sit nowadays, too often the potential of the human body gets wasted and one of the things that his accident taught him is that “we shouldn’t take our bodies for granted,” McKnight said. “So doing what I do with running is my way of appreciating what my body can do.”
Another way McKnight has started showing appreciation for his body since his accident is by improving his eating habits.
When he first started running a lot, McKnight said he had a bad mindset. Because he was working out so much, he initially figured he could eat whatever he wanted and his daily diet often included soda, ice cream and other processed foods that he knew lacked real nutritional value.
“From a performance standpoint in my races, I had a lot of stomach issues,” McKnight said, detailing how he would often throw up during races or lose energy from not eating in order to avoid getting sick.
Overtime, learning from other runners and testing out what worked for him, McKnight said he adjusted his diet in a way that would better meet his needs as a long distance runner.
“I started cutting out processed foods … and started eating a lot more vegetables and eating a lot more clean meat,” McKnight said. He also cut out soda and processed sugar all together.
Since shifting his diet, McKnight said he has increased his running performance in ways he never thought possible.
Up for the challenge
As he prepared for the upcoming and final race in the Triple Crown, McKnight described how he has grown to appreciate the hardships of endurance running and what running has taught him.
In the middle of long races, when his physical suffering begins to feel unbearable and his mind floods with thoughts of being too tired and wanting to quit, that’s when he often feels the most connected to God, McKnight said.
“I start having personal conversations with myself and with God and I really start to feel appreciation for what I have in life,” he said.
Those moments of pain and difficulty, when he is pushing his body past his imagined limits, have helped him to realize what is most important in life, he said. And thinking about those things is what carries him through to the finish each time.
For McKnight, his family is what he considers most important, so to ensure he has time to spend with them each day, he gets his training done before his wife and son are even awake.
Climbing out of bed to go running at 5 a.m. can feel impossible some mornings, he said, especially when it is freezing and blowing snow outside. But sacrificing a little extra sleep in the mornings is worth it to keep up his hobby while still prioritizing quality time with his family after work.
“He goes out of his way to make sure that he is making time for his family,” said Sarah McKnight, Michael McKnight’s wife. Even though he takes time for his passion with running, he makes it a point, even with his coach, to not let running be number one, she said. “He puts his family and the Church first.”
Watching her husband push himself to be better each day has helped Sarah McKnight to realize the value of difficult circumstances, in whatever form they come.
Explaining the parallels she sees between the challenges of distance running and the challenges of life in general, Sarah McKnight said, “Pushing through some kind of temporary pain can really help to push through spiritual struggles as well.”
In difficult moments, it can be easy to feel alone or assume no one understands what one is going through, Sarah McKnight said. But by watching her husband battle through numerous, seemingly impossible feats of endurance in his races, she said she has learned — on some level — how Heavenly Father and the Savior Jesus Christ must feel while watching people on earth struggle through trials.
Just like the anguish she feels as she waits at each aid station for an update on how her husband is doing throughout his races, Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ feel the pain and anguish of each person as they work their way through the trials of life, she said.
“It might feel like They’ve stepped back a little bit, but They’re still there, and I’m sure it’s hard for Them to watch you struggle, but They can always see the bigger picture, even when you can’t,” she said.
It’s never easy to watch her husband experience severe pain during his races, Sarah McKnight noted, but she knows he is capable of overcoming the challenges of the races and that doing so will help him grow.
As Light put it, seeing McKnight’s transformation since the last time he ran the Triple Crown in 2017 to now has been nothing short of amazing. He has improved greatly through self-discipline in his training, nutrition, and even in balancing his passion for running with his family and work life, Light said.
In so many ways, McKnight has worked to better himself, Light said. Not only has he worked harder physically to refine himself, but with a sense of humility, McKnight has asked himself where he might have room for improvement and has then made the changes necessary to improve.
Although he won the Triple Crown of 200s two years ago, McKnight was humble enough to realize he could do better, Light said. “He was humble enough to say, ‘I have room for improvement.'”
There’s always room for improvement, both in life and in running, Light said.
Since becoming an ultra runner himself, Light said the way he perceives the world and what he is capable of has changed drastically.
“Life and what you make of it and the success you experience is your choice,” Light said. “Life is not made to be easy. It’s supposed to be tough. There is supposed to be a level of discomfort involved.”
Discomfort can lead to growth and individuals can be strengthened by overcoming the difficulties in their lives rather than giving into what might seem like the easy path, he said. In order to be refined, one has to be willing to go through the fire and work for the changes they seek.
Humility and gratitude are two of the most powerful attributes that anyone can have — they can make a person better with every step — Light said, and McKnight embodies them both.