With an injured hip, blisters on his feet and experiencing the sort of exhaustion few would be familiar with, Zach Bates retained a steely focus and determination.
Fighting through pain after running for 28 hours, and amid the sound of tired feet struggling through the Arizona dirt – finally soft, soothing music grew over the horizon.
The sights and sounds of cheering family, coaches, and supporters grew closer and louder with every step. The finish line, which was once 100 miles away, was right in front of him.
A small, roaring human victory tunnel welcomed Bates as he ran across the finish line and cemented himself as an ultramarathon runner.
“I saw the finish line and people made a tunnel with their arms for me to run through. I also saw my cousins with their signs. Just really exciting,” Bates tells CNN, reflecting on his accomplishment.
Diagnosed with autism at the age of four, the 20-year-old American completed the Coldwater Rumble 100 mile Ultramarathon earlier this year, becoming the youngest finisher in the race’s history, aged 19.
Completing the 20-mile loop five times across a rugged terrain is an accomplishment itself but Bates finished 38th overall out of the 99 starters in just over 28 hours - and it is worth noting that 33 runners didn’t finish.
The achievement makes Bates seem like a seasoned ultra-runner but he and his family are just beginning their journey into the ultramarathon world.
‘it seemed different’
Bates was a member of the cross-country team in high school but, after graduating in May 2021 he surprised his family with a new goal.
“Graduation night, he comes to us and says, ‘hey, I want to run a 100-mile race before my 20th birthday’ which was about eight months from that date. And I was like, oh, that’s a lot,” his mother, Rana, tells CNN World Sport’s Patrick Snell.
Of his decision to run 100 miles, Bates says: “I’ve seen people’s journeys and then I thought they were really cool and interesting, and it seemed different than other races. I wanted to try to do that.”
Neither he nor his parents had any prior experience of preparing for the task at hand, but Rand and Brian, his father, found ways to help, truly making it a family affair.
“We search out trails for him to do. We’ll go ahead of time as a family and hike a trail to make sure it’s safe,” says Rana.
In addition to finding trails, they read books together, organize all his nutrition, and make sure their son has the right equipment - like the watch he wears on long runs so they can track him and make sure he’s safe and on course.
Rana and Brian even helped with training schedules before finding more experienced ultramarathon runners – such as mentor John Hendrix and coach Nickademus de la Rosa.
With Hendrix and De la Rosa’s expertise, the young American prepared by competing in shorter distances and successfully worked his way up to the 100-miler in short time.
Rather than having his autism be a reason to make the goal unreachable, his mum explained how it might have helped him stay focused.
“With autism, there is this hyper focus and when they have this focus on something that they love and they desire to do, it takes them so much further than maybe what I can accomplish,” she explains.
“It’s really important that they are treated as an individual. That we can look at them and hear what their dreams are, what their hopes are for their life.
“If we listen to our children and allow them to do what they want to do and be a support to them, you’ll be so surprised at where they’ll end up.”
For Bates, he’s achieved goals and distances that were once just dreams. As he continues to train for more challenges, he’s turned to social media to help capture his journey along the way. In doing so, he has been embraced by runners from all over, but Rana says that’s not the only way social media has helped.
“It has helped Zach realize that what he’s doing is special and that what he’s doing is inspiring people and that’s what helps Zack want to continue to participate in the social media because he feels like it’s worth it to go out of his way to do something uncomfortable for himself, which the social media is a little bit uncomfortable for him, if it’s going to help somebody else do something hard and reach their dreams.”
“I’ve had dreams my entire life, things that I’ve wanted to do. This journey has kind of given me the courage to go forward and do some of the things that I’ve been really excited about and given me the courage to take some initial steps,” adds Rana.
“Having him in our family is just a light and I’m just inspired by the light that he is to everybody that he’s around.”
He’s already scheduled multiple races of various distances this year, but when asked about his next big ambition, Bates has his sights set on loftier goals.
“I have seen the Cocodona 250. It’s like a 250 mile race I’ve thought about before. It might be a little while before I try doing that race. It’s not just 250 miles, but also has [close to] 50,000 feet of elevation!”
With the support of Rana, Brian and the rest of the family, it feels as though nothing is impossible when it comes to Zach Bates. No matter where the next trail in life takes him.