He just keeps accomplishing running feats that most wouldn’t even attempt.
Last month ultra runner Michael McKnight was at it again. The 30-year-old Cache Valley native ran 100 miles without any calories.
That’s right. He did not consume any calories during the 18 hours and 37 minutes it took him to circle the valley on foot on May 8 and into May 9.
His reason for doing a fasted ultra run is pretty simple.
“Early on in my ultra running career, I had digestive issues almost every race,” McKnight said in an interview with The Herald Journal this week. “I either puked from trying to eat the needed calories, or lost all my energy from not eating enough.”
Three years ago, McKnight discovered a new diet, along with research indicating fasted long runs were a real possibility.
“I found the work of Dr. Jeff Volek, who specializes in fat adaptation for endurance athletes. In many of his lectures he mentions that even the thinnest athletes have enough onboard fat to theoretically last them for days,” McKnight said. “After hearing that, I started doing all of my long runs fasted.”
With most races canceled this spring and early summer, McKnight had some time to experiment instead of totally focusing on training.
“I’ve always had the question in my mind, ‘how far can one go simply relying on their onboard fat?’ With COVID canceling all of my races, I decided now was the best time to put those theories to the test and see if 100 miles was possible.”
And obviously, it was.
Of course, the run demanded extensive preparation. Four weeks before his feat, McKnight started intermittent fasting every day. He would eat during a six hour window, and fast the other 18.
“My meals were mostly carnivore, and I had snacked on berries after my runs,” McKnight said. “Two days before the run, I started eating more carbs — about 150 grams a day — which consisted of fruits, veggies and sweet potato. The morning of the run I had bacon, eggs, an orange and a spoonful of coconut oil.”
Then it was off and running. He started at his house in Smithfield at 6 a.m. and headed south along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail all the way to the mouth of Blacksmith Fork Canyon. Then it was backroads behind Hyrum Reservoir and over to Wellsville and on to Mendon along a canal trail.
“I had a goal to run under 20 hours,” McKnight said. “I planned on doing the whole route by heart rate. For my age, prime fat burning heart rate is 122-130. I knew that if I wanted to do under 20 and wanted to keep my heart rate in that range, I’d have to limit hills. So I planned the first 30 miles, when I knew I’d be fresh, to be hilly. Then the rest I planned to be flat. I also wanted to get some Badwater training in, so I planned 70 miles of it to be road.”
Badwater is a 135-mile race through Death Valley, which he is signed up to run on July 6. Being a hot race, he will try and do it on few calories if it happens, because the temperature rarely gets under 100 degrees.
From Mendon, he took the highway to Newton and went up and around Newton Dam and dropped down into Trenton. He returned to the backroads through Cornish and across the border into Idaho and up to Weston. Then he headed east for a few miles before dropping back into the top of the Beehive State and into Lewiston. He crossed the highway near Casper Ice Cream and ran through Richmond. There were three miles on the highway to get back to Smithfield. Back in his home town, he headed up Smithfield Canyon, then over to Birch Canyon and dropped down to his house to complete the 100 miles.
“It was fun doing the whole valley because I’ve lived here essentially my whole life,” McKnight said. “I saw some high school teachers — they were following my tracker and greeted me — my grandparent’s grave site, family and friends. It was an awesome day of reminiscing.”
McKnight, who lost his job due to COVID-19, has been coaching and running for Salomon, said he was confident from the start that he could complete the 100 miles, and would have stopped if he had any issues.
“Honestly, it was an uneventful day,” McKnight said. “I say that because everything was essentially perfect. No cramping. No moment where I doubted I’d finish. The only time I wanted food was when I stopped at my parents (in Cornish). Everyone was going in to eat dinner just as I was leaving, and I started to crave my parent’s home cooked food. But about five minutes after leaving, I was back in my groove and fine.”
It also helped that he had friends pace him for parts of the run. Josh Nuckles joined him at Dry Canyon and ran to Mendon, which is about 26 miles. Jason Wooden did nine miles with him from Wellsville to Mendon, while Scott Weaver joined for four miles. A cousin rode his bike with him from Newton Dam to Cornish. Ben Light did the final 20 miles with McKnight.
His wife, Sarah, kept him in water over most of the course. He also refilled water at his sister’s house in Hyrum and changed shoes at his parents place 67 miles into the run.
While he did not take in any calories, McKnight drank about 16 ounces of water each hour.
“I had a custom, calorie free electrolyte set up as well,” McKnight said. “A baggie of Redmond Real Salt, magnesium citrate and potassium citrate. I’d lick my finger every hour, stick in the back and whatever stuck I’d suck off my finger. I did this because electrolyte pills technically have calories in the capsule.”
His recovery from the fasted run has been “amazing.” The father of two said it usually takes five to seven days to get back out running. Normally he is stiff and slow after doing a 100-mile run. He finished early Saturday morning and was running again on Tuesday. Plus, he has been setting personal records.
“I’m running faster than I have in a long time,” McKnight said. “All while keeping my heart rate the same as past runs. The strangest thing is I’ve lost my appetite. I’ve had to force myself to eat most days since. Yesterday (Tuesday) was the first time since finishing that I felt like my appetite was normal.”
Before doing this run, McKnight had hoped to be able to have some testing done on his blood, as well as VO2, which measures oxygen intake. However, due to the coronavirus, that did not happen. He does plan on doing another 100-mile fasted run in the near future and have testing done.
The run has garnered attention in the ultra-running world, and not all comments have been positive. He admits to being a little upset at first, because he wasn’t expecting negative feedback. As some time has passed, he is able to laugh at the comments.
“The biggest criticism I’ve seen is that I have an eating disorder and talking about this encourages eating disorders,” McKnight said. “I’d never want something I do to contribute to someone’s eating disorder. But I’m also not going to stop doing what I love and pushing my limits. Intermittent fasting isn’t an eating disorder. Fasting is healthy. But I’d be happy to challenge these critics and say that feeling like you need to eat from the moment your eyes open to the moment your head touches the pillow again at night is an eating disorder and way more unhealthy than fasting.
“People don’t realize that I used to be overweight. I was addicted to food. I’ve been in that world. I can promise you that I feel 20 times more healthy now than I ever did eating that way. People also need to realize that I broke my back, was told by my doctor to not run for a year, and I ran three weeks later. It’s in my nature to do the extreme. Also, my diet consists mainly of eggs, steak and bacon. I can guarantee you that I get more calories in my eating window than most people do in an entire day.”
McKnight accomplished something last year that had never been done — he won all three races in the Triple Crown of 200’s. He had won the Triple Crown of 200’s in 2017 with the best combined time, but didn’t win a race that year. In 2019, he won the Bigfoot 200, the Tahoe 200 and then the Moab 240.
Will he now run races without calories?
“The purpose of doing this was to see what’s possible,” McKnight said. “It has always been a theory that a fat adapted athlete could do something like this and now we know. While I won’t go zero calorie in an official race, I will have more confidence now to only eat when I need it. There have been times at races when I’ve zoned out and gone two hours without eating. I feel fine but force myself to eat because according to the ‘experts’ I’m supposed to eat. Instead of doing what the mainstream is saying, I can now fully trust myself to have consistent energy and be very strategic with when and how much I eat.”
That’s not good news for those that run against McKnight. He already bettered his combined time in 2019 of the Triple Crown of 200’s by 33 hours over the 2017 effort.
As the saying goes, “don’t try this at home.” But McKnight does encourage those interested in trying a fasted run to carefully prepare. He started by running eight to 10 miles and worked his way up to 32 miles over the span of a couple of years.
“If I went out and tried 100 miles for my first fasted run, I would’ve failed,” McKnight said. “There is a lot of data out there currently saying that you shouldn’t do it. I’m not sure of any nutritionist that would recommend this. But since doing this, I’ve received numerous messages from men and women telling me they’ve done fasted runs for years and feel great. Some of them are doing up to 50 miles fasted. Regardless of what the data and experts say, there is a group of us that feels and performs better on little to no calories.”
McKnight is hoping the Badwater 135 happens, and then he will do another fasted run of either 100 miles, or seeing how far he can go in 24 hours — testing this time. Then he has the Bear 100 in September.
Having accomplished so many long-distance running feats, what is the next test?
“I’ve always had it in the back of my mind to go for the 48-hour world record on the treadmill,” McKnight said.
The record is 251.79 miles, and it would be a wise not to bet against him.