Youngest Western States Qualifier Makes History…
Embarking on the Longest Run
The temperature was at most 40°F, relatively cold for Arcosanti, AZ, even at 7 am in February. In the distance, granite summits shed their shadows, revealing their prickly scruff. Freezing rain pelted nearly 600 ultrarunners as they tore off into the sunrise. Among them, a 13-year old wearing a Cold Spring School hat, black gloves, and a blue windbreaker. His name is Sebastian Salsbury, and he was about to embark on the longest run of his young life.
The youngest competitor in the Black Canyon 100k ultra, Sebastian took home his 4th finisher’s belt buckle after completing the trail race on Saturday, Feb. 16th. What makes this belt buckle different from his others is the qualification that came with it. Runners who finished the 100k distance in under 17 hours qualified for the 2020 Western States Endurance Run lottery, technically making Sebastian eligible to put his name in for the grandfather of all ultras.
Although it’s unclear if there is an age minimum for the coveted Western States 100, there is no denying that Sebastian’s 15hr 49min 32sec finish was well under the 17 hours he was given. When he crossed the finish line of Black Canyon, Sebastian became the youngest known Western States qualifier in history! Up until that point, James Bonnett was the youngest known runner to qualify and race the Western States at 18-years old.
It isn’t every day you encounter a 13-year old that has been running for a decade. If you do the math, you’ll realize that equates to a biography that began at 3 -years old, and that’s just the age Sebastian was when he started to run.
A roadrunner at the time, his Dad, Mike, reveals that Sebastian went straight from riding in the baby jogger to hiking with his parents. Short hikes progressed to longer and longer hikes, and it was all downhill, and uphill from there! At 9-years old, Sebastian made his debut in the Born to Run race in the Santa Ynez Valley.
“It was pretty bizarre actually, watching him run 10 and 15 miles,” Mike recalls.
By November of that year though, 15 miles was just a warm-up for Sebastian. He ran his first endurance race, the Santa Barbara Red Rock Marathon, with his Dad and his sister Lauren.
The winner of that race was a 34-year old that the Salsbury family knew from the Santa Barbara running community. Many know him as Tyler Hansen, but it wouldn’t be long before Sebastian would know him as coach.
Growing Up in the Ultra World
“Very few kids have the opportunity to grow up in this sport of positive adults. It’s fun watching Sebastian grow up with a positive influence!” says his proud father.
Growing up in the world of ultramarathons means that Sebastian has been surrounded by some of the sport’s pioneers, including influential ultramarathon runner, photographer, and coach Luis Escobar. As part of the original Mas Locos that ventured down to Mexico’s Copper Canyons in 2006, which Christopher McDougall documented in his adventure-packed book “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” Luis is quite the trail idol. Sebastian idolizes him for a different reason, however.
The boy wonder’s early attempts at entering endurance racing were met with resistance. After being turned down repeatedly by race directors because of Sebastian’s age, coupled with unbending age requirements, Luis, who also happens to be a race director, took a chance on him, allowing him to enter and run that first marathon in Santa Barbar
“Luis has been one of his biggest supporters from day one,” Mike affirms. “Aravaipa’s Jamil Coury is the same way!”
Allowing Sebastian to run the marathon was not a decision Luis took lightly. “My wife and I have known he and his family for a long time. Sebastian would come along with his Dad to races, and he was always the little kid hanging around,” recounts Luis, pointing out that Sebastian’s participation in endurance events did not come out of the blue, but was a rather gradual process of growing into the sport.
“Eventually Mike started bringing him to training runs,” Luis says of Sebastian’s ability to keep up on long runs. “I recognized that Sebastian was able to run with us and hang with the group. I knew that it was not unrealistic that he could do Red Rock.”
Luis opened the door for Sebastian to run the marathon, but there were necessary conditions. His Dad would have to stay with him every step of the way.
Sebastian went on to toe the line with his father at several other races, including the 2016 Nine Trails 35 Mile Endurance Run, a mountain ultramarathon which race director Luis notes is a race with rocky, steep, and often inaccessible trails that athletes can easily get lost on. Although he demonstrated signs of out-running his father, Sebastian raced with Mike as promised.
At 11-years old though, Sebastian’s tenacity would be tested in the 2017 Nine Trails race when Michael slipped on a rock at a stream crossing and broke his wrist. Fortunately, the Salsbury family lives near the trails, and Sebastian had trained in every section of the course with Mike. His son ran the last third of the race solo, and even managed to shave one hour off his finish time from the previous year!
“Sebastian was welcomed and will always be welcome at our races,” Luis declares. “I’m proud of him!”
A Tale of Two Tylers
In addition to his parents and Luis, Sebastian credits Tyler Hansen and Tyler Clemens for the positive experience he had at the Black Canyon 100k. Not only do the two men share a first name, but they also share a selfless commitment to helping other runners.
Although Sebastian and Coach Tyler Hansen were both finishers of the 2015 Santa Barbara Red Rock race that launched Sebastian into the ultra world, the Salsbury family got to know Coach Tyler though the tight-knit Santa Barbara trail running community.
Tyler Hansen was already coaching high school runners when the Salsbury’s approached him about training Sebastian, who was 11 at the time. To this day, Sebastian trains with Coach Tyler one day a week for an hour or two, following the training plan his coach provides him on the other days. For the past two years, he has worked with Sebastian on form, race strategy, and post-race reflection while being intentional about making his workouts fun and engaging.
Coach Tyler isn’t one of those autocrats who stands on the sideline shouting splits to his athletes either. He’s out there in the trenches with them, and even ran the last 26 miles of the Black Canyon 100 as Sebastian’s pacer, who was running with Tyler Clemens up until that point. With two Tylers accompanying him, Sebastian was in good company as the sun set on the desert and the headlamps turned on.
Tyler Clemens and Mike connected through the very social Javelina Jundred Ultra in Fountain Hills, AZ. Both men ran Javelina, the original costumed 100-mile trail-run party, in October of 2015. When Sebastian registered for the Black Canyon 100k, Michael reached out to Tyler C. about running with his son.
An ultra runner since 2013, Tyler C. accepted the offer in a heartbeat. He has several 100-mile finishes under his race belt buckle and could have run his own race at Black Canyon. Instead, Tyler pinned on his official race bib and stuck by Sebastian’s side for all 100k! When asked about sacrificing his own race for the sake of a fellow runner, Tyler doesn’t hesitate to explain his choice. “It wasn’t a sacrifice,” is his reply. “I love going out and helping other people with their goals and adventures!”
Tyler C. is currently training for the Western States 100 this year. His friend, coach, and 2017 Western States champion, Cat Bradley of Boulder, CO was in complete support of his decision to run the 100k with Sebastian as part of his training for the June race. “Just don’t get dropped by Sebastian!” was her advice for Tyler leading up to Black Canyon.
Bouncing Back at Black Canyon
Originally created to be a livestock driveway, many segments of the Black Canyon National Recreation Trail which the 100k participants typically run on more or less parallels the old Black Canyon stagecoach road between Prescott and Phoenix, AZ.
The Black Canyon 100k promises athletes a runnable 55-mile stretch on this trail, starting at Arcosanti in Spring Valley, AZ and finishing at the Emery Henderson Trailhead near New River. Runners of the 2019 event looked forward to crossing through Black Canyon and the Agua Fria river several times along the way… until a rainstorm hit the Agua Fria watershed just two days before the race. In the aftermath of the heavy rain showers, the river rose to flood levels at certain points, and the Agua Fria was deemed unsafe to cross. Race officials hustled to implement the High Water Route from Mile 35 on.
The first water crossing was still in place, and unlike the other athletes, Sebastian found the water refreshing, not freezing! “It was my favorite part! And my feet dried fast!” he points out. From plunging into cold water to following the re-marked course, Tyler C. was by his side.
“We started out pretty talkative. There were lots of people on the course that we knew, and people we could talk to, so Sebastian didn’t get bored with me!” says Tyler with a laugh. “But running down to the river, well that was a pretty tough space for him.” Like many of the other runners, Sebastian was prepared for a point-to-point race. What he got was a route that consisted of back-tracking for safety’s sake.
This entailed crossing the Black Canyon finish line, heading back out to the river, crossing the finish line again, and then trudging all the way back to the Mile 24 aid station before turning around and returning to Black Canyon for his official finish. Mentally and physically, the out-and-back nature of the High Water Route was especially taxing.
“I was feeling really low on that 2.5-mile out-and-back. My pack was bothering me too,” Sebastian discloses. Fortunately, he had both Tyler’s by his side for the last 26 miles. “By the last point-to-point, I finally started feeling better!”
Observing this, Tyler C. was beyond impressed.
“Coach Tyler and I were with him from Mile 36 on, and even when he hit that low point, we all kept chatting. He bounced back and got in a rhythm again!”
Wise beyond his years, Sebastian credits positivity and all the energetic runners on the course for his resiliency. “Everyone was supporting each other out there!”
Despite the back-tracking that threw a lot of the 100k runners off track, Sebastian’s love of running and his fellow runners propelled him forward. He finished with a smile… And a Western States qualifying time!
Although qualifying for Western States was a motivating factor for Sebastian, his passion for being outside was an even stronger driving force. Most 13-year olds are not known for the brand of dedication it takes to remain focused hour after hour (let alone adults), but his secret to committing to a goal as immense as a 100k is refreshingly simple. “I found something I love!”
Sebastian’s uncanny ability to run so far is not based strictly on a positive attitude and passion for the outdoors, as Mike points out. “I’ve had a number of people tell me the way that Sebastian runs and moves on the trail is so light and effortless that it’s more like he’s moving with it than on it. It’s really a gift that not only does he love it, but it comes naturally to him too.”
As proud as he is of his son’s accomplishments, it’s this connection to nature that Mike emphasizes. “He has a special relationship with mountains and trails that we hope will last a lifetime.”
Watching someone step out of their comfort zone to face a challenge for the sake of realizing their dreams is inspiring, especially when it is someone this young running as far as Sebastian has. But if we assume that the lesson we can learn from Sebastian is that anyone can run an ultra, we’re missing the mountain’s forest for its trees.
This 13-year old’s success in ultra running should be a reminder to others that everyone has a natural skill or gift that is worth investing in. We are never too young or too old to explore what those abilities are and pursue our passion, be it ultra running or climbing Mt. Everest or knitting.
“You can do anything if you set your mind to it!” exclaims Sebastian.
This is the very message Luis hopes that young people will glean from Sebastian’s story. “Not every kid can or should run long. But Sebastian can inspire kids to be dedicated to their goals,” Luis emphasizes. “He is just a kid doing his thing, and he is physically capable of this. But there are so many little bodies out there who are not ready for this and a lot of kids who could do serious damage to themselves if they try to run as far as Sebastian is going.”
His body’s ability to adapt to 25 to 35 mile training weeks is anything but common for a young athlete, making Sebastian’s talent for ultra running all the more extraordinary.
Making Every Run Count
In an age when sport has become oversaturated with apps and tracking technology, young runners like Sebastian represent an alternate approach. “Most kids don’t do that with running and they shouldn’t do that,” Luis asserts. “Their reason for running is pure.”
When asked why he runs, Sebastian’s reasons vary but are always commendable. Last March, Mike and Luis coordinated the Montecito Cold Spring School Tuff 24 Benefit Run, a multi-distance 1/3/6/12/24 run for the school community. Entry fees went directly to benefit the Cold Spring Elementary School and the school families who tragically lost children and family members during the Montecito Mudslides.
In an effort to help his community, Sebastian participated in the 24-hour challenge, running 52 miles on the track to raise money for local families who lost loved ones. The cause was close to his heart, as a girl in Sebastian’s 6th-grade class lost her life in the Montecito tragedy.
Along with using sport to make a difference in the lives of others, enjoyment is up there on Sebastian’s list of reasons for running.
“There’s no point in running if you aren’t having fun. I look at my pace sometimes, but I realize that pace isn’t a big deal. Don’t look at your watch the entire time,” suggests Sebastian. “You have to enjoy the moment!” Along with running in the moment, Sebastian challenges his fellow runners to make every run count simply by being himself.
“We think we need so much vert and so many miles in our legs,” Tyler C. says of what we can all learn from Sebastian. “I often think I need to hammer out big miles. I judge my training and think it goes to crap if I don’t hit a certain weekly mileage. But he runs less weekly mileage, and he makes every run count!”
Quality over quantity is certainly a value Mike and Coach Tyler work to instill in Sebastian.
“Sebastian only does a big run once a week, and he does not run every day,” Mike comments. “You don’t have to run massive miles to be an ultra runner. That’s a misconception.”
Choosing Quality over Quantity
In Sebastian’s training, Coach Tyler reinforces this belief that quality is superior to quantity, and the difference it’s made in his running is monumental. The 13-year old still runs the trails of the mountains, rising like waves behind Santa Barbara. But with the improvements in his form, he is one with the dirt waves he is riding.
Coach Tyler is serious about making his young runner’s workouts fun and preventing burn out. To accomplish this, he keeps Sebastian’s mileage low in comparison to an adult’s weekly mileage leading up to an ultra. His biggest week maxes out at 35 miles.
By getting creative with the workouts he prescribes, Coach Tyler keeps Sebastian engaged. “Roads are the same thing over and over again. You get to see so much more on the trails,” is Sebastian’s perspective. Because he enjoys the trails, Coach modifies traditional workouts to get Sebastian off the road. An all-out effort up the Jesusita Trail and back down, which is 7 miles round trip with 1700 feet of elevation gain, replaces many tempo runs. Sebastian can finish this workout in under an hour, and what’s more, he digs it!
“Sebastian knows the trails. He is trail savvy. He can throw down, he doesn’t trip, and he can descend really fast.” Mike affirms. Coach Tyler considers it his responsibility to cultivate this natural off-road skill by creating quality workouts that incorporate Sebastian’s craving for running with the mountains.
In addition to Sebastian’s trail savvy, his ability to handle adversity is one of the attributes Mike most admires in his son. He is aware that by honing Sebastian’s capacity to face adversity, he will be equipped to deal with success and failure in life, and bounce back just as he did in the blackest moments of Black Canyon.
“Sebastian, like any kid, will sometimes say ‘I don’t want to go run or hike’ but without exception, once he’s out on the trails it’s like he’s back with his best friend,” Mike attests. “He’s had to dig deep. He’s had to fight through pain, exhaustion, doubt, everything you experience during ultras. He just turned 13, but trail and ultrarunning have already taught Sebastian that when he feels bad or something goes wrong, he has to be a problem solver.”
Which may explain how Sebastian is able to effectively train for ultras, while maintaining straight A’s in school, being part of the cross country team, and even playing tennis. It also helps that he is what Luis describes as “inquisitive, like a little sponge absorbing information.”
“He doesn’t stop talking, and always asks questions,” confirms Mike. And his fun-loving, inquisitive, social nature has garnered Sebastian a lot of admirers. Those who encountered the youngest Black Canyon participant during the ultra had as many questions for him as he did for them!
Throughout the day, he answered “How old are you?” and “Are you that 13-year old?!” countless times as he ran through the tired dust of the often narrow trails he shared with his fellow runners.
Tyler C. recalls a few of Sebastian’s biggest fans, such as the man who joyfully cheered “Welcome to the big show!” out of his excitement for seeing the young participant crush it on race day. A seventh-grade teacher from Chicago ran with Team Sebastian for a time, expressing how impressed she was by the perseverance of a boy the same age as her students. It may have been the first time Sebastian ran further than 52 miles, but he’s no stranger to dispensing inspiration and smiles.
“I love being outdoors and challenging myself. And I take my friends out on runs!” He says of sharing the sport he enjoys so much with his peers. His reputation for inspiring adults and young people alike to do just that is not unfounded.
When Sebastian ran the Born to Run 30 Mile Ultra, a handful of his buddies came along to run various distances, including the 10 Miler. At a time when an alarming number of young people spend their free time indoors interacting with technology, Sebastian represents the potential his generation still retains for connecting with nature.
“What’s always important to Sebastian is that he inspires other kids!” Mike exclaims. “He loves to inspire young people to get out and connect with nature.”
“These 3 did something very special together,” says Mike, reflecting on the race. “It’s very heartwarming when your gift can encourage others!”
Sebastian Salsbury’s ultra adventure in Black Canyon may have begun under the chill of a stormy sky, but it would end with the warmth of hugs from his coach, family, and the ultra running friends he made over the course of 100 cactus-lined kilometers.