Ultramarathon runner with autism Zach Bates still inspiring after hitting 100-mile goal

·Writer
·9 min read

Rana Bates was tucked away in her cot one night in January, trying to stay warm in the cold of the Arizona desert.

Her son, Zach, was just a few miles away from her.

Zach, 19, who was diagnosed with autism as a child, had fewer than 10 miles to go in his first 100-mile race — something he had made his goal to do before turning 20.

That journey, which he and his mom started documenting on TikTok and Instagram from the beginning, has helped inspire countless across the world. Running, which was all that Zach seemed to care about, was something with which he quickly fell in love.

But with his end goal nearly in sight, Zach was struggling. Badly.

Rana was sent that video from one of Zach's coaches, who also told her and her husband, Brian, that Zach was dealing with a hip injury in the final stretch of the Coldwater Rumble 100-mile ultramarathon in Goodyear, Arizona.

“That’s tough when you’re the parent and you’re sitting back there at the finish line and you get that video of your son out there on the course,” Brian told Yahoo Sports. “That’s really hard to see him in that much pain.

“You just want to go out there and pick him up and bring him back, but he wouldn’t have been very happy about that.”

It’s a good thing Brian didn’t go rescue his son.

“I was just trying to finish that race,” Zach said. “And after a while, it was starting to feel like too much when I got around the 90-mile mark. I didn’t really have any injuries until like [mile] 89 or 88. I had some hip problems … I could feel it hurting, and I could feel it hurt when I lifted my leg. It was getting harder to run.”

Zach pushed through that early morning pain in the final lap and finished the Coldwater Rumble in about 28 hours — officially accomplishing the goal he set for himself on the night of his high school graduation.

Even though the last stretch felt impossible, Zach ran through the finish line and finished 38th out of the 99 runners. Almost immediately after crossing, he started tearing up.

“He just started grinning coming down this last 250 yards,” Rana said. “He loves to cross a finish line fast, that’s kind of his hallmark. He just loves to book it through the finish line. He built himself up and just pushed past the pain and just grinning down this last little bit running down that tunnel and into his dad’s arms.”

When Zach finally returned to their Lakeside, Arizona, home, he wanted to go to sleep instantly. He’d been up for more than a full day running in a circle, after all.

But after trekking 100 miles, he took one look at the stairs that led to his bedroom and turned around.

He couldn’t do it, and retreated to the couch. He could barely move.

“I couldn’t really lift up my right leg, so I couldn’t really move very well,” Zach said. "Then after a while I figured I could walk around backward easier, so I was just walking around [the house] backward.”

'It just feels right for me'

Zach, who was diagnosed with autism at 4 years old, was always competitive.

But when he started running — he joined his middle school’s track and cross country team in eighth grade, and competed all throughout high school — he usually stuck to the normal distances.

Even as a kid, Rana said Zach was obsessed with records. The “biggest whatever, or the longest or the tallest or the shortest.”

“Extremes” was his thing.

“He’s always just been really interested in those things,” Rana said. “One year for Christmas he got a pogo stick, and he always tried to beat his high score of how many bounces he could do before he fell. He got up to like over 5,000. He would just jump for hours. He’s always been that way, challenging himself to do bigger and grander things all the time.”

There was one moment Rana remembers from when Zach was a sophomore in high school, a couple of years after he started running, that made her realize how important that actually is to her son.

The two were arguing about something — neither can remember what specifically anymore — and Zach stormed out of the house.

“He just went out there and started running around and around and around the block,” Rana said.

Zach Bates running in the 2022 Canyons Endurance Runs. (Scott Roikis/Canyons Endurance Runs)
Zach Bates running in the 2022 Canyons Endurance Runs. (Scott Roikis/Canyons Endurance Runs)

Every once in a while she’d peek her head outside or take a glance out the window, and there was Zach.

“About an hour later I saw him running by and I yelled, ‘Zach, come back in!’” Rana remembers.

“And he said, ‘No, I’m not done!’”

He was still mad.

“It ended up being three and a half hours. He ran around that little block for all that time and finally he just got to the point where he was like, ‘OK, I feel better now,’” Rana said.

“He came back in and that experience I think really just changed him. He learned how to self regulate those feelings of tension and he knew that running really made him feel better. It really changed him after that.”

Who knows how far Zach actually ran that day, but it really sparked his love for the sport. He kept competing throughout high school, though he never ran farther than about a 5-kilometer race. There were a few times on his own where he thinks he came close to about 20 miles, but never in a competition.

As he was finishing high school, Zach really wanted to run a marathon. He kept asking his parents to sign him up, but the COVID-19 pandemic was at its worst and races were constantly getting canceled.

“I think the mileage of what he wanted to do during his senior year kept building and building and he was really frustrated that he couldn’t do a marathon,” Rana said. “By the time he graduated, his mind had graduated to 100 miles. He was beyond wanting to do a marathon at that point.”

Zach didn’t waste any time after graduation to set that goal, either.

As they were walking off the high school football field following his commencement ceremony, Zach turned to Rana and said he wanted to finish a 100-mile race before he turned 20.

“She wasn’t quite sure about that,” Zach said.

But, Zach said Rana quickly got on board — and reached out to other runners in the area who could help her.

The two started working with mentor John Hendrix and coach Nickademus de la Rosa, who got Zach on a training program and quickly built him up to a 50-mile race. That first race was what really got everyone around him convinced.

“He had a ways to go, but over the course of a few months he became equipped to do this,” Hendrix said. “I was so impressed, and he has just skyrocketed in his ability.”

While it wasn’t easy — or the traditional path for runners by any means — Hendrix said Zach never wavered in his training one bit.

The mental side of running long distances isn’t intimidating at all.

“I very quickly learned that he already knows that. The option of quitting or saying, ‘I just can’t do this,' or, ‘This isn’t fun anymore,’ is just not the case with him,” Hendrix said. “He is just so focused and committed to not just completing these workouts , but doing the races. Quit is not an option for him.”

Zach’s explanation for that is much simpler.

“It just feels right for me,” Zach said. “It’s how my brain works.”

Focusing in on 250

Just a few days after finishing the Coldwater Rumble, Zach was already looking forward.

“At first I was really tired,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking too much about the races after that. But after a few days, I was wanting to do them again, after I had rest and everything.”

Zach ran a 50-kilometer race earlier this year, and then ran the Canyons Endurance Runs 100-kilometer race in Auburn, California, on Saturday in about 17.5 hours.

Though it’s a few years out, Zach already has his next running goal locked down.

He wants to run the Cocodona 250 — a brutal 250-mile run from Black Canyon City, Arizona, to Flagstaff, Arizona — in 2024. That’s more than double his initial goal.

Throughout that process, both Zach’s parents and Hendrix know how much his story can mean to others — both for people with autism, their families and those with no personal connection to the condition. That’s one of the reasons why Rana started sharing Zach’s journey on TikTok and Instagram in the first place.

His story, everyone around him says, is truly special.

“I hope that people look at [Zach] and go, ‘What excuse do you have for not accomplishing great things?’ It doesn’t have to be running,” Hendrix said. “What things in your life are you postponing or putting off or doing second best because you have so many excuses. … He looks at other people and says, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’ I just think that’s so inspiring.”

Zach knows he has a long way to go to get to the 250-mile mark.

He said his plan is to get a few more 100-mile races under his belt and start getting used to going longer distances on his feet while running, hiking and more.

“The harder it is, the more thrilled he gets to do it,” Rana said. “We’ll see where it takes him. But we’re excited for him, we think he’s got a lot of talent. We wouldn’t be doing it unless it’s something that he loved. … We’re just really happy that he gets to live out his dream of what he loves and it’s inspiring people along the way."

While a 250-mile goal may sound like a big jump, even for somebody who has progressed through the sport as fast as he has, Zach is clearly well equipped to get there. He hit his 100-mile goal in less than a year while running on an injured hip, after all, and has proven to himself that he can push through anything.

Zach Bates crossed the finish line at the 2022 Canyons Endurance Runs 100-kilometer race in about 17.5 hours. (Scott Rokis/Canyons Endurance Runs)
Zach Bates crossed the finish line at the 2022 Canyons Endurance Runs 100-kilometer race in about 17.5 hours. (Scott Rokis/Canyons Endurance Runs)
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