I recently had the opportunity to speak on a panel at the US Trail Running Conference. My focus was on youth inclusiveness in the sport of trail running; I also had the true honor of sharing the panel with mountain running legend Pablo Vigil who spoke of elder inclusiveness. While I enjoyed my experience on the panel, I felt I had more to say.
I know I am an anomaly when it comes to the sport of trail running, and even more so, to the sport of ultrarunning. For the past nine years (since age six), I have literally grown up in the culture of trail and ultrarunning. I’ve hung out, helped, ran, paced and raced. I have made more great friendships with fellow trail runners from around the world, from elites to back of the pack, than I could have ever imagined.
I have run with Tarahumara great, Arnulfo Quimare, shared entertaining miles on the trail with Barefoot Ted, ran across the Grand Canyon with Max King, and have discovered mentors in the sport like Max and Luis Escobar who took me under their wing and always encouraged and supported me while giving me valuable advice. As an elementary school kid, I grew up idolizing athletes on film like Max, Kilian Jornet, Geoff Roes, Rory Bosio, Stevie Kremer, Darcy Piceu, Tim Tollefson and Dylan Bowman, while dreaming of being like them one day. Greats like Jim Walmsley, Courtney Dauwalter and Francois D’Haene make me believe that with a pure love of the sport, hard work, dedication and determination, anything is possible. But the one common thread in all of the running relationships I have made is that they are all adults.
As much as I love trail running, I have grown up in the sport alone. Writing this, I cannot think of any kid my age who can currently claim this and is still in the sport. I have seen other young trail runners come and go. I know I’m not the only one, but there are not many. It is a unique thing to be able to claim longevity in trail running at 15 years old. The great news is that I am slowly beginning to see a change. It is subtle, but it is happening.
When I was younger, I didn’t think about it because I was having too much fun just running in the mountains. As I get older, I realize that I not only have a voice, but also a responsibility to help it grow. And to do that we need to have kids who are interested. To get them interested, they have to be exposed to the sport, and the best way to do that is through their parents.
I also think there are misconceptions about youth trail and distance running that are both inaccurate and fueled by a lot of opinions coming from the couch rather than science. I only found out years later because my parents shielded me from it, but out of the thousands of positive and uplifting comments I’ve gotten over the years, there were a small few that ranged from critical and negative, to threatening my parents with child abuse. I learned to ignore them. This has thankfully faded away, but it got my parents thinking. They did their own research and actually took the time to look at youth sports injury statistics and scientific studies. To date, there is no scientific study or evidence that links distance running in youth athletes to injury. On the contrary, one study on youth distance running and sports injury states, “If a youth remains asymptotic there is no reason to discontinue the activity, and in fact, it can reduce the possibility of injury in other sports”.
It is a very common and convenient adult argument to lean back on the old “running at a young age stunts growth plates,” although not a bit of scientific evidence exists to support this well-used claim. If you look at youth injury statistics by sport, it is shocking to see the huge numbers of bone, joint, ligament and tendon, and concussion injuries just with the top three “ball” sports. I’m talking about thousands. Running is not even in the top 20, and the few injury types attributed to running are classified as “minor.” Like I tell my parents, I like my odds.
Young people traveling long distance on foot is nothing new. It has and is still being done in countless cultures around the world. Today, ultras are happening all the time. Families with kids on full-day hikes in the mountains often cover 30-pluse miles, and nobody says a word. But if you are a kid and happen to be registered in a 50k, they accuse the parents of trying to destroy their children.
Shortly after the 2017 Thomas Fire and deadly 2018 Montecito mudslides that took the lives of 23 people, including one my sixth grade classmates, Luis Escobar helped my elementary school organize a 24-hour track run to raise money for families who lost loved ones. Many of the school kids and adults participated by running, walking, talking and laughing around a track all day and into the night, and numerous kids, mostly non-runners from ages 5-12, completed distances from a few miles to well beyond a marathon. The parents and the kids themselves were equally amazed. That day I ran 51 miles with my classmates and never even realized it until I got tired and wanted to sleep.
I realize I am talking to readers, most who are parents, and that’s good – you are where it begins. I was a very high-energy kid, nothing unusual, but by the time I outgrew my baby jogger my family said that everywhere I went, I was running. My parents decided hiking on our local trails in the steep and rugged mountains above our home in Santa Barbara would be the perfect way to burn off my excess energy. Hikes got longer and by the time I was seven, I was going on short trail runs with my parents. It was great family time in nature, which we still do as a family, that I will always remember. Get your kids outside and in nature as young as possible. If they develop a love of being outside and learn to respect it and how to be safe, you have already given your kids a huge gift.
If race directors want their events to be more family friendly, they need to include kids. Have a free kids fun run. It makes the event a family outing instead of mom or dad having to go to a race alone. A great example is the Broken Arrow Skyrace. A few years ago when I was 13, I ran the Broken Arrow Skyrace Vertical Kilometer. The month before, I had just won the Nine Trails men’s relay (with my adult teammate), and the past February, had finished within the qualifying standard for Western States at the Black Canyon 100K. As a 13-year-old trail runner, I was having a great year. The day before the VK we noticed they were having a kid’s race and there must have been 100 kids of all ages. At first, I thought at my age I was too old, but as I saw kids line up, many were at least my age or older, so I jumped in and ran. It was so much fun and great to see so many kids feeling so accomplished and happy. For me, it was a rare opportunity to actually run, even for a mile, with other kids. Looking back now, what I have missed most is not having other kids my age to run with. At the Ultra Marathon Caballo Blanco in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, the kid’s race is huge and given the same attention as the adult race.
Parental encouragement and support is important. My parents had three rules: I always had to run with my mom or dad (or adults when I got older), I couldn’t overdo it and it always had to be fun. I totally agree that kids running to their ability is very important to avoid injury. I have been consistently trail running for almost nine years and have never had a running injury. I don’t do “training blocks” and I’m rarely on the roads or track.
There is also a misconception from parents and adults, and a built-in skepticism that trail running is going to damage their kids. I grew up playing team soccer and basketball until I was 12 and noticed it getting a little meaner and dirtier, and my family was much more concerned about me being injured on the soccer field than on a trail.
Regarding the “don’t overdo it” rule—the comment I have gotten regularly for as long as I can remember is “How can you, and should you run that much?” Everyone is different but my answer has always been the same, and hopefully it helps parents and kids who are thinking of starting trail running. My answer is: “I don’t run that much.” I never have. An average week for me is about 30 miles. In fact, I run much less weekly than a typical high school cross-country athlete. Sure, I have run a bunch of 50ks, a few 100ks and lots of 25ks, but my running has never really been structured. Instead, I base it more on feel and effort and just moving in the mountains. My advice is for kids to take it gradually and work their way up in time or distance (slowly).
I once said in an interview when I was 12, that as one of very few kids involved in ultrarunning I kind of felt like a pioneer, and I hoped to encourage more kids to start trail running “because then I’d have other kids to run with.” It’s now a few years later and I don’t know whether I’m part of it or not, but I am finally seeing more kids getting involved. I see them on the trails, more often with their families, and when I go to a race, I usually see at least a couple of kids running. It’s not a stampede of young people taking up trail running yet, but it’s a start.
Sebastian Salsbury is a 15-year-old trail and ultrarunner who has been involved in the sport from the age of six. He can usually be found outside adventuring in the mountains.