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Zach Bates loves statistics. Ever since he was a kid, he’s scoured Guinness world records for longest, shortest, fastest, coldest or hottest. He could recite the Scoville rating for every hot pepper. Being autistic, that’s how his mind has always worked. He loved to focus on specific topics, and the numbers called to him.
That might be why he fell for running. He joined the cross country and track teams his junior year of high school, memorizing his teammates’ PRs and paces. Eventually, his sights turned to the pros. From Usain Bolt to Zach Bitter, he studied all of their career numbers. He also got the itch.
“He didn’t want to just know these times, he wanted to do it, too,” says Rana Bates, Zach’s mother. “He begged me to sign him up for a marathon during his senior year. He was really interested in the longer stuff in track. He wanted to go even farther.”
Because of the pandemic, most marathons during his senior year had been cancelled. So the 19-year-old waited patiently until graduation day in May 2021. That day, he turned to his mom and said, “I want to do a 100 miler before I turn 20.”
Rana was thrown off by the request. No one in their family ran. Not his father, his mother, his sister or his twin brother. Now Zach wanted to run triple-digits in less than 10 months. She let the idea sit for a few days before Zach followed up. “Did you sign me up for a 100-mile race yet?”
“He’s really mild tempered and doesn’t ask for much,” Rana said. “When he does ask for something, he really means it and we take him seriously. So, I bought some books.”
A Crash Course
Rana found herself whisked into the world of her son’s dreams, researching and formulating a plan for Zach to be able to run 100 miles in a safe and healthy way. With Zach unable to plan himself, Rana had to take a broader approach, acting as his coach and instructing him on every logistical necessity for training.
“All of the thinking end stuff, I do,” Rana said. “Zach does the running.”
Rana’s crash course worked smoothly for the first few months, but books only went so far. One of the first things she learned about distance running was the generosity of the community. The more she mentioned the goal to people, the more people came into Zach’s life.
First, there was John Hendrix, a local ultrarunner. He offered knowledge about injury prevention, gear and nutrition for ultradistance running. But more than anything, he shared knowledge of the local trail systems and became an occasional running partner for Zach.
When it came to training, Zach and Rana had a process for each new trail. First, they had to hike it together so Zach could familiarize himself with the route and what landmarks to look for. Then, Rana would tag along in the car, driving between trailheads to meet Zach and field calls in case he got lost.
It’s a lot of work, but Rana wants to live out the message she and Zach want to share.
“There’s a list of things you do when you find out your child has autism,” Rana said. “But we need to be careful not to let those things become the priority of what our children want. We need to listen to them, hear their dreams. Zach wanted to run so badly, he just didn’t have the resources to find routes, sign up for a race, or things like that. You can’t just say, it’s too hard for us. We need to respect them as individuals and help them reach their dreams.”
As Zach started to race, more and more people noticed him. By October, he’d finished the High Mountain Half, the Beaver Canyon Marathon, and the Do-Wacka-Do Trail Run 50 miler. He made friends everywhere he went, astonished at someone his age running the distances he was. At races, autism wasn’t the defining feature of who he was.
Runners treated him like anyone else. For one 40-mile training run, Zach was supposed to pace Hendrix for the Javelina Jundred. Hendrix dropped out at mile 60, but word got around in the crew area that Zach was willing to pace.
“There was such an openness and willingness from runners,” Rana said. “He paced one guy from Boulder, Colorado, and the guy came back stoked, saying this was the most fun he had with a pacer. Another guy from California picked him at mile 80 and Zach paced him to a sub-24 finish. It’s the coolest thing ever to have a support system like this. These runners have stayed in touch with us and offered help. It’s amazing.”
After finishing the 50, Zach signed up for the Coldwater Rumble 100 in January and started TikTok and Instagram accounts (@running.farther) to share his progress. That left three months to prepare, but Zach was feeling burned out. Rana was out of her depth for guiding him, so they sought a professional coach. With a reference from Run Flagstaff, they connected with Nickademus de la Rosa.
“You can always tell if there is a deep, intrinsic reason someone does a 100 miler, and that often proves if they will do whatever it takes,” said de la Rosa. “Zach had a deep reason to be there. You see it in his eyes when he talks.”
They dropped Zach’s mileage down to get him healthy, mentally and physically, then began ramping it slowly back up. The biggest week came four weeks before race day: 10, 20, and 30 mile runs back to back to back.True to form, Zach hit all his splits on the dot.
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There’s an infinite number of variables in a 100-mile race; often, things simply go well until they don’t. For Zach, the first roughly 80 miles went smoothly. He was far way ahead of the cutoff when he picked up de la Rosa as a pacer for the final 20 miles. But he started to get quiet, only occasionally breaking the silence.
“If my legs could talk, they would say, ‘Whyyyyyyy!” de la Rosa recalls Zach saying.
Then a problem arose at mile 88. A hip flexor tweak forced Zach into a limp. They tried stretching, but that only worked momentarily. The limp lingered, but they pressed on.
De la Rosa could see the teenager doing calculations in his head, watching his time goals get further and further away. It was a place de la Rosa had been many times since he started running ultras in 2008. In that moment, captured on video, de la Rosa thought of what he would’ve wanted to hear if it were his teenage self.
In the next miles, Zach slowed to a painful trudge, about 45-minutes per half mile. Finally, a stroke of luck found them at mile 94: a runner with two Tylenol. The pain wasn’t gone, but Zach started running again, dropping three straight 12-minute miles. With that, finishing under the 32-hour cutoff was assured.
“That’s called a comeback!” de la Rosa hoots in the video. “That’s called rallying! Woohoo!”
At the finish line, the Bates family waited. Zach’s watch had died in the night, leaving them reliant on texts from de la Rosa to track his progress. Finally, the final text came in. Zach was moving slower again, but they were a mile away.
Rana rallied a friend who rallied the entire 250-yard string of tents along the final stretch. When Zach arrived, a massive cheer tunnel awaited him. Zach looked at de la Rosa, as if to ask permission to run through it.
“You’ve got this,” de la Rosa said.
Alone, beneath the roaring crowd, Zach ran. He stopped when he crossed the finish and embraced his family. His time was 28:06:36, good for 38th overall.
‘I’ll cherish that moment forever,” Rana said. “Our family will never be the same.”
Zach’s royal entrance was completed with a camping-chair throne and a parade of well-wishers. Unable to stand when it was time to leave, Zach was lifted by his father and uncles over the crowd and carried like a king to the car.
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What Lies Ahead
The limited mobility lasted a few days. After a long postrace nap, Zach eventually made it to the bath, an endeavor so challenging he made a TikTok of himself easing up the stairs set to the “Mission Impossible” theme song.
By a week later, he was moving better, already eyeing what’s next. He’s got the Canyons 100K and Javelina Jundred on the calendar for 2022, but it doesn’t stop there. He also wants to do the Cocodona 250, but that’s for down the road. For now, he’s back to running and chasing his dream.
“Even if Zach never ran again, the last eight months have changed us as a family,” Rana said. “The outpouring of love from everyone, everywhere, for this kid chasing his dreams and making them come true. Not everyone is able to. Because of everyone, Zach did.”