Autistic Runner Zach Bates Chasing Dreams at The Canyons 100K

On Saturday, April 23, 2022, top ultra-trail runners will be competing at the final HOKA Golden Ticket Race of the year, the Canyons Endurance Runs 100-kilometer race in Auburn, CA, where the top three men and women will earn “Golden Tickets.” These sought after tickets grant the recipients a guaranteed entry into the historic Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.

Other 2022 HOKA Golden Ticket Races included three races held in 2021, UTMB, Endurance Trail des Templiers, and Javelina Jundred, as well as 2022 events including Bandera Trail Races, and the Black Canyon Trail 100k.

In the following Q&A style interview, I speak with Zach Bates, an autistic runner who has been training for the Canyons Endurance Runs, who has high hopes of someday earning a Golden Ticket. Bates has brought awareness to the underrepresented autistic community in trail running and aims to show the world that autistic runners don’t have to feel limited on trails or in the natural environment outdoors. In this interview, Zach and I cover topics including how he became a trail runner, his preparation for the Canyons 100k and future running goals.

[Editor’s note: Responses to the following interview questions were written by Zach’s mother, Rana Bates, in conjunction with Zach.]

Photo: John Mark Hendrix.

[TAYTE POLLMANN] Firstly, you’re a runner with autism. Let’s talk about what that means. Most people don’t fully understand the meaning of autism and the various ways it can be expressed. How would you describe your autism?
[RANA BATES] Autism has become a lot more common, and awareness is more widespread. Autism has a variety of characteristics that are common, but it is a spectrum. Some people on the spectrum may have strengths or weaknesses in any of the common traits. Many people have sensory issues such as sensitivity to light and sound. Zach falls on the opposite end of that trait. This helps him as a runner because he has incredible physical toughness. He can handle more pain than the average person. He has been like this since he was little. He has enough sensitivity to keep him safe, but he will push past things that will deter a lot of people. This helps him in endurance.

Autism often gives individuals a challenge in social circumstances and communication skills. This continues to be a challenge for Zach. Participating in social media has given him a great opportunity to practice these skills; It has given him a community where he can be himself and talk about what he loves. We appreciate the great friends we have made and the confidence those friendships have given him. Autism often causes anxiety and difficulty handling stressful situations. Running has given Zach the ability to self-regulate those feelings. When he runs, he can reset.

[TAYTE] How has your autism impacted your running career? Are there ways you see it as a strength? What have been some of the hindrances?
[RANA] Zach doesn’t think that autism has any effect on his ability to be a successful ultra-runner. We talk about autism occasionally, and he realizes that some of his determination, mental toughness and drive are a result of his autism. He has a strong interest in learning about his favorite runners and wanting to achieve similar success. Autism often gives people a hyper-focus. I have no doubt that this gift from autism is his strength as a runner.

He spends a lot of time running, reading about running, listening to podcasts about running, watching videos about running, thinking about running, talking about running, eating, or sleeping. Zach is also blessed with physical toughness. He can accept pain as part of the process and is willing and ready to do all the hard work to be his best. Another gain from autism is his ability to not worry about a lot of details that plague most runners.

He doesn’t second guess or worry about the process. He plans with his coach and team then he trusts that plan. The hindrance from autism is that Zach needs help learning to navigate new trails. He has a good support system, and we work together to make sure he has what he needs to train and stay healthy. He is getting much better about packing his own hydration and nutrition – up until recently I did that for him. I also help him make sure we have everything he needs for a long run or race.

Photo: John Mark Hendrix.

[TAYTE] What was your first trail race? What drew you into trail running as opposed to road, track, and cross country?
[ZACH] I started trail running in high school during cross country. We competed in the 5k, but sometimes I would go for long trail runs on the weekends. My first long trail race was on September 11, 2021. It was a 50-mile race in Erick, OK called Do-Wacka-Do Trail Run; that race was tough because it was over 100 degrees that day. We also underestimated how hilly it was. Most of the runners didn’t finish. I pushed through and got it done and ended up with a second-place finish (first place male finisher) in just under 12 hours.

Road running can be fun because I can go faster but I don’t like to be running next to cars. I love trail running. It’s a lot more interesting. I like to be in the woods. I like to have a long journey on the trails— it’s quiet and nice. I like to read about long trail races and get excited about doing them. There is a race in Arizona called Cocodona 250. I am planning on pacing a friend while she runs it in 2023. I want to run it in 2024. Two years should be enough time to train for that. I will probably always be drawn to long, hard, steep races. I am inspired by people who work hard to accomplish things like that. It motivates me to want to do it too. It’s exciting to think about doing hard things.

[TAYTE] At the young age of 20, you have already achieved so much as an ultrarunner including a 100-mile finish at the Coldwater Rumble 100. You’ve also completed the High Mountain Half, Beaver Canyon Marathon, and the Do-Wacka-Do Trail Run 50 miler. Can you share some highlights from your trail running career thus far?
[ZACH] I started training right after high school with a goal of doing a 100-mile race before my twentieth birthday on March 2. I was already a pretty good runner because I trained every day in high school with my cross-country team, track team or running club. I also ran alone in my free time. I started training right after high school for a 50-mile race in September. There were several races along the way. I ran the High Mountain Half Marathon in August and came in 8th place with a time of 1:41.

The next week I was scheduled to run 25 miles, so we decided to find a marathon. I ran the Beaver Canyon Marathon and learned some hard lessons about shoe choice (I didn’t have any road shoes) and nutrition. I finished in under four hours but really slowed down after mile 22 due to blisters and not enough energy. In September, I ran the Do-Wacka-Do 50-mile trail race in Erick, OK and finished in 2nd place.

That was my first ultramarathon, and I was proud of myself for staying strong and getting it done on a tough course on a very hot day. I ended up with a nice trophy. In October, I ran a steep 26k trail race in Flagstaff called Flagstaff Sky Peaks and came in 6th place. I sprained my ankle at mile 11 and pushed through and finished in just under 3 hours.That was a fun race. In November, I ran a 50k trail race called Pass Mountain near Phoenix and came in 10th in just under 6 hours. In December, I ran a 25k night trail race called Mayhem Night Runs and came in 2nd.

I signed up for that race to get practice running at night with my headlamp to prepare for the Coldwater Rumble. It was fun, and I was happy with my finish. On January 15th I ran my first 100-mile race, the Coldwater Rumble. It had five 20-mile loops. It was tough and had a good climb. The first two loops went well, and I was feeling strong. During the third loop I started getting red. My mentor and friend John Hendrix got to pace me on loop four. He encouraged me through the night, and it was nice to have him there. My coach Nickademus de la Rosa paced me through loop five.

Around mile 88 my hip was hurting, and I had to walk for a while until we found someone who had Tylenol; that helped, and I started running again. I finished in just over 28 hours, and it was cool to see so many people cheering for me and making a tunnel for me to run through. In February, I ran a 32k trail race called Copper Corridor and came in 5th (3rd male). That race was exciting, and I made some new friends. The scenery was cool.

This was one of my favorite races. I felt strong and worked hard to stay at the top of the pack, which paid off. In March, I ran a 50k called Crown King and came in under six hours, on an extra hot day. People say it is the hardest 50k in Arizona because it is all uphill with a climb of 6500 feet. I was proud of finishing strong. I made more friends at that race. I like how nice runners are. Everyone is so helpful. On April 23, I will be running Canyons Endurance Runs 100k. That one is very steep, around 16,000 feet. In October I will be doing my second 100-mile race, the Javelina Jundred in Arizona.

Zach Bates

Photo: John Mark Hendrix.

[TAYTE] Let’s talk about your training. Do you have a coach? Who have been your trail running mentors, or people you’ve looked up to that have inspired you on the trails and with your trail running goals?
[ZACH] At the beginning of my training, my mom and I read books about ultra-running and found training schedules online and in a book. I followed that training plan and started learning about things like nutrition and foot care. My mom also helped me find trails around our hometown. I think my training for the 50 miler was too easy. Training for my 100 milers before I got my coach was hard.

Right after my 50-mile race in September I met John Hendrix. He ran a lot of marathons and several ultra-marathons including the Tahoe 200. He taught me about the importance of going slower during training. He told me and my mom about headlamps, shoes, socks, and other gear. Most of all, he has spent time running with me. He has helped us with crewing and race nutrition as well.

After Flagstaff Sky Peaks last October, my mom started wondering if my training was not right for me. She started wondering if I needed a coach. She reached out to the Run Flagstaff Store and asked if they could recommend a coach. They told us about Nickademus de la Rosa. At the time he was working for them at their Sedona store, Run Sedona, and he also had his own coaching business, Lighmoot Coaching. Nickademus has been great. He is kind and cares a lot about the mental parts of training and racing. He understands anatomy and how to evaluate form and improve it with custom exercise plans.

He’s helped me recover from the sprained ankle during Flagstaff Sky Peaks and helped me to avoid more injuries. I really admire Nickademus’s running career. I also have a lot of other runners I look up to. Camille Herron is cool. She pushes herself to achieve her goals and is always joyful and positive. Dean Karnasas ran 350 miles without sleep and that is amazing. Andy Glaze is cool too. He will also be at the Canyons 100k. He has been kind to me on social media and encourages me in the comments. I’m excited for him to run Cocodona 250 on May 2nd. David Goggins pushes himself hard, that guy is tough. Yiannis Kouros is the best at doing distances over 24 hours. I am inspired by people who run long distances.

[TAYTE] You are currently training for the Canyons 100k. This is certainly recognized as a competitive race on the American trail running circuit and is even a “HOKA Golden Ticket Race” for one of the most historic trail races in the country, The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. How did you decide to run this event? What are your goals?
[ZACH] I was originally supposed to run the Overlook Endurance Runs 50-mile race last September. We had signed up for it before we knew a lot about how to pick the right races for me. That race was canceled, and I did the Do-Wacka-Do 50 miler instead. That led me with a credit I could use to do another E-3 event. In the meantime, I wanted to do the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

I love to accomplish hard goals. I decided I would use my credit to do a race that would earn me a ticket into the lottery for Western States. The Canyons 100k was the only one and so we decided to sign up. By then we had learned a lot about how to understand the difficulty level of races. It was good to wait until I got stronger with more training to tackle such a difficult race. I’m feeling strong, ready, and excited about the 16,000-foot climb. I’m also excited about the journey. The only other point-to-point race I have done was Crown King 50k and that was fun. My goals for Canyons are to have a lot of fun and do my best while earning a ticket for the Western States lottery.

Zach Bates

Photo: John Mark Hendrix.

[TAYTE] How do you feel your training has been for the Canyons 100k? What do you think will be some of the most important considerations on race day (nutrition, how you handle uphill, staying with the top runners, etc.)?
[ZACH] For about a month after the Coldwater Rumble 100 mile, Nickademus really cut back on running miles and focused on strengthening and stabilizing my muscles. I did weight training and yoga for a while. By the middle of February, he started having me climb a lot while gradually increasing my weekly mileage. My climbing and descending muscles have been working hard. My last two races were chosen to help prepare me for the huge climb at Canyons 100k. I have continued to climb in most of my runs until one week before the race and then taper to be strong on race day. I have trusted Nickademus to get me strong and protect me from injury. I feel ready.

Nutrition on race day is important. I like to make a race day plan with my coach, and we will be talking about strategies. I know there are a lot of strong runners, and I am not coming to win this race – I want to enjoy the journey while doing my best. I have my dream finish time and a realistic finish time in mind. It will probably be somewhere in the middle. I get excited about competing with fast and strong athletes. It inspires me to keep working hard. Someday a podium finish in a race as competitive as Canyons will be possible if I keep training for it.

[TAYTE] What are your big picture goals as a trail runner? Would you like to pursue a professional career in the sport? What are some races or trail running projects (FKTs) that get you excited?
[ZACH] For now, pushing distance gets me excited. I am doing the Javelina 100 miler in October. That will get me another ticket into the lottery for the Western States 100-mile endurance run. I really want to run in the Cocodona 250. I’ve read a lot about it, watched videos, and talked to participants. I love that it is a journey across a lot of miles. It ends in Flagstaff, AZ which is where I grew up. I have an opportunity to pace a friend in that race in 2023. I hope to be ready to run the full race in 2024. I think I will keep running all my life. It would be cool to get to the level of a professional runner. Since I’m only 20 I have a lot of time to get stronger and faster. I have had three podium finishes and that feeling motivates me to do my best.

[TAYTE] Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we didn’t already cover?
[ZACH] I just love running. It’s fun. I love seeing how far I can push myself. I love the competition. I love the training and the races.

[RANA] A documentary is being made about Zach. Most of the filming has already been done. Travis Hamilton from Holt Hamilton films heard about Zach’s journey and was inspired enough to want to share it with the world through a documentary. We are excited about this and hope it will motivate people to reach their own dreams.

Zach Bates

Photo: John Mark Hendrix.

Looking for more stories from the autistic running community? Check out these great reads from autistic runner Harrison Walter and his father Hal, based in Westcliff, Colorado:


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