As Zach prepares for his first ultramarathon, he sometimes finds himself 20 miles into a training run deep in the Redwood Forest with tears streaming down his blond-bearded face.
It’s not pain from the grueling run or sadness from a sometimes difficult past that brings them. They are tears of appreciation that he, born without part of his right leg in 1984, is able to do what he’s doing now.
And as he runs – mile after mile, day after day, in preparation for the April 10 ultramarathon in Utah’s Zion National Park – his mind flies away from his current home in Medocino, California, more than 2,100 miles east to Shriners Hospitals for Children – St. Louis. As he drips sweat despite the cool shade provided by trees so large their tops seem to funnel to a point against the pale-blue sky, as his specially made blade-style prosthetic leg pounds on the uneven rock-strewn trails, he thinks of the place that changed the course of his life and the people who treated him for 18 years, crafting and fitting him with prosthetic leg after prosthetic leg.
“I broke them all the time,” he said. “My mom was always embarrassed because I was always beating the heck out of the thing and she would have to take me back for a new one. But they would always tell her that they liked to see the broken and dirty legs because it meant you were living life.”
Zach is definitely living life.
The starting line: Shriners Hospital
Zach was born to two young parents – Dwight and Maureen, both 18 at the time – who lived in the Kansas City, Missouri, area. He was missing his right leg from above the knee, and a few of the fingers on his right hand were connected.
“My first memories of my life are at Shriners Hospital,” he said. “I remember being in a crib there and having a bandage on my hand and being surrounded by strangers who cared.”
Which would be amazing, considering that surgery happened when Zach was 6 months old.
He also remembers a woman named Chris who fitted his prosthetics legs at the St. Louis Shriners Hospital for the first six years of his life before she moved on to the Texas Shriners Hospital to change more lives for the better.
“She was so kind and compassionate,” he said. “Everyone there was.”
But there’s a reality about Zach’s “now” that makes him think about what might not have been. It’s a series of dots that can be connected only if you start from the right point. For Zach, that point is Shriners Hospitals for Children.
The dots, connected
Money was so tight when Zach was born that had the treatment at the St. Louis Shriners Hospital been anything other than at no cost to his family, he might never have had a prosthetic leg he believed was so strong he encouraged friends to take swings at it with a baseball bat (It wasn’t), might never have thought he was good enough to compete in football and wrestling (He was).
Which leads to the next dot, the one where a confident Zach finds running as a 22-year-old young man, just four years after prosthetists fitted him for a new leg a final time at the St. Louis Shriners Hospital. Onto the next dot, where he tries on a blade for the first time and where, despite warnings it would take him a few weeks to get used to it, Zach takes off in five minutes as if he were blasted from a cannon. Which takes us to the next dot – more than a half-decade training for the U.S. Paralympics team in the 100-meters and long jump.
And then the next dot, the one where a frustrated Zach goes on a spiritual journey that includes time in India, a life-altering encounter in California with a shaman named Fred and a whole lot of what he calls “inner work” to free himself from anger. At this dot, Zach learns he actually runs faster when he simply runs instead of when he runs to make a team or to please his ego.
And that connects to the dot where he runs a 5K on a lark despite never running more than 100 meters at a time, then the one where he goes to support a friend who is running an ultramarathon and spontaneously decides to run a 10-miler despite never running more than 3. This is the dot where he discovers he is really good at trail running and where the idea ignites in his soul that completing 50 kilometers might be a fun thing to try.
And then we arrive at the last dot on Zach’s life journey so far, the one where he creates a non-profit, the Medocino Movement Project, which seeks to unite people who want to start moving, whatever their physical or spiritual condition, and that, post-COVID, aims to provide prosthetics to kids around the globe.
Sometimes a journey that now has been literally hundreds of hard-won miles begins as an infant with his mom on a four-hour trip via a Shriners shuttle from Kansas City to St. Louis.
‘Yeah, I want to give back’
Zach is now near the zenith of training for his much-delayed first ultramarathon, which consists of 50 harsh kilometers on trails that undulate like an old-school rollercoaster – up and down, up and down. He was scheduled to run one in April 2020… but then COVID. Five times his first race was nixed as the pandemic boiled, but Utah’s restrictions now are less stringent, and Zach is ready to run.
He credits his parents for helping him get where he is – nearing the starting line of a grueling race he hopes to finish in 10 to 12 hours. “They never treated me like I was any different,” he said. “I didn’t realize until the second grade that there was something different about me.”
Before that was the time 5-year-old Zach ran the family four-wheeler out of gas on acreage far away from his home. He trudged back to tell his parents, expecting one of them to go get it – or at least to help.
“My dad told me I better get going to push it back home,” Zach said with a laugh. “There are lots of different moments like that, where my family just treated me pretty normal. Some people might say, ‘Oh, wow, what a jerk,’ but it helped me out a lot later in life.”
Zach knows that at some point along the trail during his first ultramarathon, he’ll think about Shriners Hospital.
“My story happened very fast,” he said. “People will ask me, ‘How did you get there so quick?’ Well, I grew up in this organization called Shriners Hospital that helped me for 20 years of my life and that helps people from all over the world. It was very easy for me to say, ‘Yeah, I want to give back.’ I basically owe it to the world.”
And so he does give back, with even more than the Medocino Movement Project. When staff from the Northern California Shriners Hospital asked Zach to accompany a child on the boy’s first visit, he didn’t hesitate.
“It was like the universe was just plopping these things right in front of me,” he said. “It makes it easy for me to go out there and do the things I do because, hey, I’m a Shriners kid.”
Yes, he thinks about Shriners Hospitals nearly every time he runs, whether it is the St. Louis hospital where he was fitted with his first prosthetic legs, the Texas hospital where his prosthetist later went to work, the Northern California hospital where he volunteered his time, or the Salt Lake City hospital a few hours north of where he’ll tackle his first ultramarathon.
His goal is to simply finish the April 10 race, whatever the time, then run in some competition every month leading into 2022. There, he is casting a tentative glace at the world’s tallest mountain and the Everest Marathon, a 60-mile trek downward from basecamp in Nepal’s Himalayas.
‘Then I go be that person’
Though the running might sound like the central part of Zach’s life, it’s not. Not even close.
“The running is just a front for me to help people,” he said.
Every race he competes in, more people learn about the Medocino Movement Project. Every time he posts a training video on Instagram or Facebook, he hears from a handful of young people, most with leg issues like his own, who look to him for inspiration and growth. This is his burgeoning tribe.
“I get to be that person I didn’t have as a kid. People with blades who were disabled weren’t really around back then,” he said. “I just ask myself, ‘Who does 8-year-old Zach need?’ Then I go be that person.”