A defeated Mike McKnight walked into the Kamp Kipa aid station around 63 miles into the Cocodona 250. A 2023 race favorite after his runner-up finish in 2022, all the 33-year-old wanted to do was tap out after his roller coaster first day.
Most ultras have variety, with ups and downs, twists and turns. In McKnight’s words, that day’s ride was “a downhill, super steep drop with absolutely no ups.”
It started even before the race began, with a forgotten two-liter bladder that forced a U-turn back home. Once retrieved, the GPS estimated an arrival four minutes before the start. A master of quick aid stations, McKnight collected his race tracker and got himself to the line with barely one minute to spare. He fumbled to get his GPX file of the course ready to go when his watch flashed, then turned to an Asian language he didn’t know.
In his start line scramble, McKnight forgot his electrolytes, a necessity for a hot day. An aid station supplied him with a handful of salt tablets, but that wasn’t enough to keep his stomach from turning after 60K.
Mostly hiking by this point, the final straw came when he missed the Kamp Kipa aid station by two and a half miles. He turned around to travel the same way back, which was uphill, mentally carrying a white flag of surrender into the checkpoint.
“It wasn’t a crew accessible aid station, so I walked up to the medics and was like, ‘Could you take me to my crew,’” McKnight said. “I was on my way to tell volunteers I was dropping when I found Jeff Garmine and Pete Kostelnick.”
The duo had also been plagued by stomach issues all day. They were shocked to see McKnight, a 200-mile crusher, back around 73rd place. Kostelnick and Garmine convinced McKnight to walk 8.2 miles to Friendly Pines aid station together.
There, McKnight met his crew. They knew he wanted to quit. He barely spoke. He simply climbed into his rooftop tent and said one thing to them: “Let me sleep until the sun comes up.”
His roller coaster had finally found the bottom.
If you asked McKnight weeks or even days before the race if someone could overcome a 50K or nine-hour deficit 80 miles into a 200 miler, he would’ve said there wasn’t a chance. Yet, when he awoke two hours later and was relieved to be able to stomach solid foods, his body and mind somehow found unexpected motivation, or “super drive” as McKnight called it.
They started the day strong, running to Whiskey Row aid station at mile 78.7. He was now in 62nd place. His pacer at the time, Ben Light, told him that if they kept running strong, McKnight could find himself in the top 10.
McKnight had other plans.
“I was super confident and focused, so I looked at Ben and was like, ‘Nah, I’m going for first place and the course record,’” he said. “I gave my phone to my wife so I couldn’t look at the tracker and took off.”
McKnight said he performs best with a carrot dangled in front of him. Between him and the race leaders, Kilian Korth and Michael Versteeg, were about 60 carrots runners to chase down one by one.
Even if he went through dark stretches and felt like a zombie, the sight of another headlamp or shuffling runner ahead of him boosted his adrenaline to push harder. In the first section after Whiskey Row, he caught nine runners. The next section, another 10.
Little victories fueled his rally. That, and raw milk, which he said made up 90-percent of his fuel for the entire race because solid foods caused a gag reflex. Yet, the roller coaster was only ascending. By the time he reached Dead Horse Ranch aid station at mile 135, he was just outside the top 10.
Sure, his quads and hamstrings burned, but he balanced that with things like watching one of his favorite movies, “Wild Hogs,” playing at Dead Horse Ranch. “Volunteers made me some hot food, so I took some time at this aid station, but I was lowkey watching the movie for 10 to 12 minutes,” he said.
Never again did the thought of quitting enter his mind, even as longer stretches lulled him to sleep at times. Passing 50 people had charged his motivational battery enough to keep hammering until the next set of legs or headlamps entered his vision.
The dominoes just kept falling until only two remained, Michael Greer and Kilian Korth. Arriving at Kelly Canyon aid station, all three had now completed 206 miles. McKnight, the last to arrive, found Greer there sitting and resting. Korth was long gone, and a check of the race tracker showed him about 5K ahead, a tenth of the initial 50K deficit that remained at mile 71.
Ultimately, he’d catch Korth a few hours later around mile 215. Korth was struggling to breath and was slowed by what was later diagnosed as a pulmonary edema and pneumonia. After chatting for a few minutes, McKnight took off again.
For the first time, he had no one to chase.
The comeback was complete. Except, the race was far from over, and after chasing people for over 40 hours, there was no one left to catch. He was a dog who caught a car. For the first time in 160 miles, his motivation waned, he struggled to stay awake, and that strong pace faded.
“You think it would be the reverse; that I would take the lead and still be riding that adrenaline,” McKnight said. “It was so much harder when I took the lead.”
The motivation to win was still present. The killer instinct? Less so. He ran scared now, with runners only miles away, including Josh Perry who was charging hard from what McKnight’s pacer saw on the tracker.
A 20-minute stop at Walnut Canyon for a clothing change wasn’t ideal but, a comfortable runner was better for the final 20 miles. This included the last climb up Mount Elden, a 3,000 foot ascent to over 9,000 feet above sea level, over a 13-mile stretch. McKnight maneuvered the roughly 40 switchbacks, occasionally looking down behind him only to see zigzagging headlamps giving chase. They would never catch him.
McKnight led the race for 35 miles out of 250. Coming into Flagstaff, he was overwhelmed with emotion as he crossed the line in 69 hours, 41 minutes, and 31 seconds. After three attempts, including a DNF (Did Not Finish) in 2021 because of rhabdomyolysis and second place in 2022, he had finally won.
Tears were shed as his family and crew greeted him.
“When people ask what my favorite achievement is, it’s this,” McKnight said. “Just because you’re down at mile 70 and nine hours back doesn’t mean you’re out. It’s over when you decide. It was a pretty spectacular moment for me. It’s hands down the most epic race of my life.”