How a broken back recovery began the journey to setting the Triple Crown of 200s overall record.
10-24-2019 By: Altra
Sometimes it’s the worst things that happen to us that lead us to what we love.
In February of 2012, Altra employee Michael McKnight was skiing at Beaver Mountain in Utah. He was approaching a jump he had hit countless times before, but as he got closer, he realized he was coming in with too much speed. He hit the jump, soared into the air and landed square on his back, shattering his L1 vertebrae. Ski patrol strapped him onto a stretcher and brought him to Logan Hospital for surgery, which consisted of nine screws, two rods and even a part of his hip bone was removed to be fused into his spine.
After surgery, Michael was forced to take time off from school. He lost his job and had to move in with his parents. He was immobile and told by doctors that "Running will never be the same” for him again. Stuck in bed for months. No running for a year. Understandably so, Michael said he “completely shut down” for five days.
But Michael carries a “down but not out” attitude. He allowed himself that time to shut down. But afterward, he decided to make a change. He was well ahead of schedule when he began walking a half-mile or so each day with his walker. But it wasn’t easy. He described his back as feeling “heavy”. The half-miles turned into full miles. Then into two, four- and six-mile walks, and he was eventually able to ditch the walker. It wasn’t long before the walks evolved into runs, starting at a half-mile or mile at a time. He was up, he was moving, and he was ready for more. His first official race after the accident was a 10k. He completed the race while wearing his plastic back brace around his torso.... just six weeks after the accident. He got some looks and stares, but the hardest part about it? “It was hard to breathe,” he said. No matter, he finished.
The race gave him confidence and since he was between jobs, he had plenty of time to continue running. Three months later, he was able to remove the brace and was running 10-12 miles each day. He landed a new job as a janitor where his coworker, Cody, opened his eyes to a running world he never knew existed. Cody ran nothing shorter than marathons, distances that were, at the time, mindboggling to Michael. But he didn’t waste much time between being introduced to ultra-races and competing in them. His first one was Logan Peak Trail Run in 2013—less than a year after breaking his back. He finished with a time of 4:46. Since then, he’s tackled several others, including the Bear 100 (2014, 16, 18) the Zion 100 (2015, 16, 18), and Wasatch 100 (2015), to name a few. It wasn’t until 2016 he realized that these races go beyond 100s, to which he said he “was surprised.”
Naturally, his next move was the Triple Crown in 2017, a race consisting of the Bigfoot 200, the Tahoe 200 and the Moab 240. He completed all three with a total time of 205:04:18.
In his first time out, he set the overall record for the Triple Crown, but placed 6th, 4th and 3rd in each, respectively. He was proud of the result but knew he could improve. The record held throughout 2018, but Michael was determined to beat it his next time around.
Between his Triple Crown 2017 and 2019, there was really no time off (even though after his 2017 finish, he felt like he may “never run again”). In Michael’s eyes, training is a year-round business. Whether he’s training for his next race, racing or resting, it’s all working toward constant improvement. He even ran the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run five weeks before the Triple Crown kicked off in 2019.
As the 2019 Triple Crown approached, he had new goals: Beat his previous time by 20 hours and complete all three 200s in less than 60 hours each, including the longer Moab 240. To accomplish these lofty goals, he set a flexible schedule with his new coach and Altra Elite Athlete, Jeff Browning. His new training included strength-focused workouts with more bodyweight training mixed in, and hip and quad work for improved form and posture, along with vert-focused weeks, speed-focused weeks and recovery periods. His nutritional training focused on eliminating grains and focusing more on fruits and vegetables (with some dark chocolate here and there) as well as indulging in carbs when needed.
He made sure to focus on the mental aspect of training, too. To Michael, the mental aspect of running long distances is “just as important” as the physical. The primary focus was limiting stress. “Living with stress is essentially running a race itself,” he said. He focused on having conversations with himself, ones that listened to and accepted what his body was telling him, acknowledging the pain and uncomfortable feelings rather than pretending they didn’t exist.
Another strategy he implemented was having splits, but not being aware of them. “They can affect the way you race,” he said. “If you’re behind where you planned on being, it can add stress and anger to your running.” Instead, he opted to “just run.”
The result of all his training was evident. Not only did he set a new Triple Crown overall record; he won all three individual races. Winning every race outright in record-breaking time meant he demolished all his goals, lowering his total time by 44 hours (from 205 to 161) and finishing each race in under 60 hours, the first person to ever do so in a single season. Even more impressive, he was able to post these results after veering off course for nearly three hours due to wildlife knocking down course markers.
But it wasn’t easy. Over the course of his 161 hours of running, he slept a total of fewer than 30 minutes (2 minutes at Bigfoot, 5 minutes at Tahoe and 20 minutes at the grueling Moab).