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A 13-year-old ultra running champion

Sebastian Salsbury is quick to point out that young people hiking or running long distances is nothing new. He’s correct, of course, even though the youth obesity rate is soaring.

For Sebastian, his love of running and trails began when he was a toddler. His parents took him out to the trails near their home in Santa Barbara, Calif., for hikes. In time, hiking turned into jogging and the distances became longer.

“I have a lot of energy, so sitting around on the couch wasn’t an option for my parents or me,” he recalls. “I love being out in the mountains and nature. I realized the farther we went the more I got to be outside! Trail running to me is a way to be free and together with nature. I move over trails and rocks smoother than I do walking down the street. It was also a really fun way to spend time with my family.”

Sebastian has participated in events of various distances, literally from mile-long road races up to the 100K Black Canyon trail ultra this past February. But he didn’t just run Black Canyon.

His time qualified him for Western States — notably becoming the youngest person, at age 13, ever to qualify for the historic race. However, he’ll have to wait. Western States only allows runners age 18 and older to run.

'Nice and inspirational people and runners'

While he may not be able to run Western States — yet — there are no limitations on his ability to inspire others.

“I’m really proud that I have heard from parents and kids from all over the world who have been inspired by me to start trail running, or hiking, or just getting out in nature,” he says. “Ultra running is still 99.9 percent an adult sport with very few kids, and in that respect I feel sort of like a pioneer.”

He credits other ultra runners for blazing the trail for young runners like him.

“There have been kids before me that have stopped or lost interest, and some others like James Bonnett who grew up like me in the world and culture of ultra running and ran and finished Western States when he was 18. He is still a great runner to this day,” Sebastian says. “Elite runner Lucy Bartholomew who has been running since she was young with her dad, just like me. I have met them both and they are such nice and inspirational people and great runners!”

An introduction to ultras

In November 2015, 9-year-old Sebastian ran his first ultra, the 28.5-mile Santa Barbara Red Rock Trail Marathon.

“Luis Escobar (of ‘Born to Run’ fame) is the race director and gave me my first chance to run in a longer distance trail race,” says Sebastian, pictured with Escobar at left. “By this time I had already been trail running and hiking for a couple years so I was really excited and ready. I ran with my dad and my sister and we had so much fun!”

Next up was the Nine Trails 35-Miler the following March. The race features more than 11,500 feet of climbing but that didn’t stop Sebastian.

“The race is legendary in Santa Barbara and has been going on for almost 30 years,” he says. “My dad and I ran it and finished it together. It was one of my proudest moments! The next year at Nine Trails, when I was 11-years-old, I was running with my dad and he slipped and broke his wrist and I finished the last 11 miles on my own. That was a pretty big deal for me.”

Sebastian has been getting bigger, stronger and faster. He credits his coach for his progress.

“The last year has been really fun,” Sebastian says. “Coach Tyler Hansen has brought me along slowly and had me doing non-trail things I don’t really like (track and speed work), but it really has helped! So instead of being ‘the little kid’ I’m now actually competitive with the adults in most races I enter.”

An impressive year of ultras

It’s been quite a year for Sebastian, even beyond his Western States qualifier at Black Canyon.

The following month, he and his friend, Kevin Cody, won the two-person men’s relay at Nine Trails. Then in May, at Escobar’s Born to Run Ultras in Los Olivos, he finished 10th in the 30-mile race. And, on Oct. 5, he won the 12-hour Back on the Ranch.

“I chose Back on the Ranch first because Luis is the race director and there is a main group that come to all of Luis’s races to run and volunteer that I have literally grown up around, and they seriously feel like my second family,” he says. “Second, because the race is on an easy and fairly flat rolling dirt loop course instead of mountains I’m used to running in, I felt like I could do something special. After finishing Black Canyon I was also now familiar with how it felt running 100 kilometers.”

Sebastian has learned how to overcome adversity. During Back on the Ranch, he dealt with a rolled ankle at mile 43 and then a poorly timed burger at mile 53 that “felt like a baseball under my sternum until about mile 60.”

He persevered, kept a positive mindset and ended up on the podium.

“I was very proud that I never panicked and kept moving forward even after dark,” he says. “In ultras I think the most important thing is having a positive attitude, and know that you will have good parts and not-so-good parts but they are both what makes the journey and the adventure special. Hearing my name introduced as the winner by my friend Luis Escobar was an honor and I think he was very proud, too. I’m very proud that the first (long) race I won was Luis’s race.”

Running approved by doctors

Sebastian’s parents have talked to sports doctors, and none have discouraged his running.

In fact, doctors and researchers have changed course over the years, now encouraging kids to run at young ages.

“My growth plates are fine,” he says. “I’ve never had a running injury. I’m pretty sure I’m as physically fit as any 13-year-old anywhere. Some kids are just more adapted to certain sports. I definitely don’t look like a football player. When I was 12 my vo2 max measured 77 so I feel like I have the heart and lungs and cardio of a runner.”

Moderation is key, and that Sebastian takes that to heart.

“A 12-year-old who starts trail running and building up distance gradually is not any more likely to get injured or burn out than an 18-year-old, as long as they don’t overdo it,” he says. “There are kids and families all over the world that go on summer through hiking adventures where they hike 15 to 30 miles or more each day for days and weeks. And you will never hear about them. Young people moving long distances on foot is nothing new.”

To fend off injuries, Sebastian races a variety of distances and Hansen focuses on quality runs.

“Just like any other sport ultra-distance trail running isn’t for everyone no matter the age,” Sebastian says. “Everyone is different. And I actually don’t run that much in terms of total miles. My races are sometimes longer but sometimes I race just a mile or 5K, but what many people don’t realize is that a big part of ultras is walking and hiking — and eating!”

Inspired by older runners

There are a lot trails, miles and aid stations in Sebastian’s future. Right now, he is enjoying the journey and lists Western States, Hardrock and Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc as his goal races. But he’s not pressed for time, he’s embracing the community.

“If there is one thing people should know about ultra running and ultra runners is that they are the greatest people in the world,” says Sebastian, with legendary Tarahumara champion Arnulfo Quimare at left. “It is such a nice and kind and welcoming community. No matter where they are from or what age. I have met so many great people from the best runners in the world to the back-of-the-pack runners and I have never met a mean ultra runner.”

Beyond the running community and his progression as a runner, Sebastian is driven by his quest for learning about running long distances.

“You always learn something new about yourself and what others can do! No matter what age you are, you can almost always surprise yourself and do more that you ever thought possible,” he says. “I’m only 13 and I guess I’ve done some amazing things, but I’ve seen way more amazing things! I’ve seen 80-year-old men and women run 200 miles, and I’ve watched kids much younger than me that have never even run complete marathons and more on a track to raise money for their school! In ultra running you can always find something to inspire you!”

Speed drill

Name: Sebastian Salsbury

Hometown: Santa Barbara, Calif.

Number of years running: Trail running for seven years

How many miles a week: 25 to 30 miles

Point of pride: Becoming the youngest runner to ever qualify for Western States.

Favorite race distance: Still deciding but the longer the better.

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Nothing special. It just depends on what I feel like.

Favorite piece of gear: My Suunto watch that my friend Max King gave me as a gift.

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: ”We Up” by Kick Lee

Where can other runners follow you:

  • Instagram: @sebrunsfar

  • Facebook: (athlete page) sebrunsfar

  • Facebook: Sebastian Salsbury

  • Youtube: Chasing Sebastian - One Boy’s Ultrarunning Odyssey (an award-winning documentary by Jeff Zahn).

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