Humble lessons from an 11-year-old ultrarunner

Sebastian Salsbury just returned from a trail running camp on Oregon’s Mount Hood.

“It was pretty difficult,” he told GrindTV. “I ran half marathons the first two days, then an ultramarathon, then another half marathon, then 8 miles on the last day.”

Salsbury is 11 years old.

The rest of the youth runners at the Max King Youth Trail Running Camp were, on average, 17.

But Salsbury already has a few miles under his feet. After hiking around his hometown of Santa Barbara, California, with his parents as a toddler, he started going longer and faster around age 7.

“Before we knew it 8, 10, 15 miles came easily for him,” Sebastian’s father, Michael Salsbury, told GrindTV. “We told people, ‘Plenty to eat, plenty to drink, plenty to talk about and Sebastian can go all day.'”

Sebastian entered his first ultrarunning race — the Santa Barbara Red Rock Trail Run marathon — when he was 9.

Sebastian is emotionally spent after finishing 35 grueling miles in the mountains. Photo: Courtesy of Howie Stern

“We ran about 28 miles, and tough ones at that,” Michael says. “He ran with his sister and I, then went home and played basketball for several hours!”

Sebastian dabbles in soccer, tennis and volleyball, too.

But it’s no joke. Sebastian has since finished 10 long-distance trail races, repeating favorites like the Santa Barbara Nine Trails, featuring a brutal 12,000-foot elevation gain over 35 mountain miles, and the Born to Run Ultra under the wing of legend Luis Escobar. He recently soloed the last third of Nine Trails after his dad fell and broke a wrist.

“I try to find people to talk to and try to stick with them if they’re going my pace,” Sebastian says. “I’m not that competitive. I’m just focused on finishing it, pushing through it and having fun. But I hope to inspire some other kids to do it.”

Sebastian talks on camera for a documentary filmmaker Jeff Zahn is making on the young runner.

He’s also learned some tricks: “When you go up mountains, swing your arms back and forth, and if gets steeper, you can put your hands on [your] knees,” he says.

Sebastian follows ultrarunning the way other kids follow the NBA or NFL, according to his dad. While spectating the iconic Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, for example, Sebastian chatted up Jim Walmsley, arguably the planet’s hottest trail runner, who was fully expected to win the race, but had to drop out that day.

Sebastian learns from the best at Western States. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Salsbury

“Being the inquisitive 11-year-old that he is, Sebastian simply walked into the finish aid tent and spent the next half hour talking to winner Ryan Sandes and Walmsley,” says his dad.

Right now, for Sebastian, it’s still one part studying the sport and one part playing in the woods.

Sebastian hugs local trail-running legend Patsy Dorsey post-race. Photo: Courtesy of Howie Stern

When asked what trail running means, Sebastian struggles, then finds remarkable clarity for a child yet to hit his teens.

“It’s a really good feeling to be alone in the mountains and be able to think about anything you want,” he says.

“Trail running is a sport of … just … freedom.”

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