Colin Sahlman chases mile record at Prefontaine Classic

First, Colin Sahlman came for his mother’s records.

Chrystall Sahlman noticed that Colin, their oldest son was very keen on competing and not just participating. It was why, shortly after she suggested joining Camarillo Cosmos, their youth track club, the then-7 year-old became very interested in learning about the personal-best times run and recorded by his mother, a former collegiate mid-distance runner.

“‘How fast did you run that? 12.3 was your 100 [meters]?’ Then he was like, ‘26.4 for your 200? And 55.1 for your 400?’”Chrystall stated. “He was going for my records.”

They were not the first people he would chase.

Sahlman, the top runner of a Newbury Park High School Cross Country team, broke a 21-year old national record for 5,000m. In February, he became 13th high schooler to run the mile in under four minutes and third indoors. And Saturday, Sahlman will line up here inside Oregon’s Hayward Field alongside professionals and Olympic gold medalist Jakob Ingebrigtsen in his attempt to claim one of the most hallowed marks of all, the high-school mile — 21 years after this same meet was the backdrop for Alan Webb’s record-breaking run of 3 minutes 53.42 seconds.

Colin Sahlman (left in yellow) and Lex Young, his teammate, train on the Newbury Park High Track.

(Andrew Greif / Los Angeles Times)

“I remember thinking at the beginning of the year, I don’t even know if I can touch that,”Sahlman said. “But as the season has gone on it’s just been more and more of a reality because we’ve been doing workouts just proving that I can go out fast.”

The 18-year old with the floppy mop and brown hair is even more important to his record pursuit.

Sahlman was the fourth fastest high-schooler over 1,500m, running his final lap in 55 seconds on a track at San Juan Capistrano. It was a hard week of preparation. It was the signal Newbury Park coach Sean Brosnan needed for him to know that a record pursuit was possible. That feeling was emboldened two weeks later, during an 800-meter tune-up race in Walnut, when Sahlman’s kick in the last 100 meters helped him pass nearly an entire field despite windy, cold conditions.

“I was standing next to his future college coach,”Brosnan, who is a Newbury Park coach with Tanya, said, “and he turned to me and he’s like, ‘This guy can win NCAA titles.’ I was like, ‘Yes, he can.’

“The stars might have to align that day [in Eugene], weather and different things,”Brosnan agreed. “But at the end of the day there’s a difference between somebody saying they can do something and actually really believing it, or trying to convince themselves they believe it.

“No, he does. He believes it. And he knows he can do it.”

In 2001, even before the starting gun went off at the Prefontaine Classic, Webb was already notable — the first U.S. high schooler since 1967 to run a mile in less than four minutes. Pulled along by the pace of a race won by world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj, Webb crushed his personal best by six seconds and surpassed Jim Ryun’s 1965 record of 3:55.3.

Newbury Park junior Colin Sahlman, left, sprints to the finish line

Colin Sahlman, a junior from Newbury Park sprints to the finish, being followed closely by Lex Young, a sophomore teammate, in 3200 meters at Arcadia Invitational on May 9, 2021.

(Steve Galluzzo/For The Times).

It is not uncommon to break the four-digit mark. Since 2015, 12 high school students have achieved this feat. Doug Binder, editor in chief of the running and track & field outlet, is one of them. Dyestat.comHe said that he wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two more break the four-minute barrier within a month. This year’s sub-four class includes Sahlman and Pennsylvania’s Gary Martin, whose 3:57.98 on May 15 is the fastest ever in a high school-only field.

“When I saw [Martin] do that I was shocked,”Sahlman stated, “but that just sets the bar even higher to run even faster.”

Theories abound for the boom time for fast times at all levels — the men’s and women’s world records for both 5,000 and 10,000 meters each falling since 2020 — and start with improved shoe technology featuring carbon plates and thicker soles. Binder believes that the pandemic allowed for more time of uninterrupted training and increased aggression to run fast when they meet again. Social media makes it easier for competitors to keep track of one another. Brosnan believes high school methods are getting more advanced as they adopt professional, collegiate techniques. This argument supports trickle-down sophistication, which one Division I track coach agreed to.

Yet even amid a boom time for fast high schoolers, Sahlman and Newbury Park are unique in their stature as celebrities within track and field’s obsessive, if niche, fandom. Two years after Nico Young was named the nation’s top high school runner and established Newbury Park’s mystique, Sahlman, his younger brother Aaron, and Young’s younger twin brothers, Lex and Leo Young, have run times so dominating that Binder likened it to having four Steve Prefontaines on one team.

When the Panthers won California’s state cross-country title last fall with 16 points, just one off the sport’s mathematical perfect score, “they were like rock stars, like the Beatles had shown up,”Binder stated.

Fans stick around after the quartet’s post-race cooldowns for autographs and selfies and subscribe to the YouTube channel run by Lex and Leo Young, whose nearly 23,000 subscribers — “No one ever really cared to watch them until we started running fast,” Lex said, shrugging — receive an insider’s look at the lives and fast times of some of the country’s fastest teenagers.

In person and online, Brosnan has encountered fans determined to uncover any scrap of insight into the program’s workouts, saying their motivations vary from admiration to criticism. The latter can be very helpful. “out of control,” he said, saying he receives sometimes dozens of messages weekly from anonymous social media and email accounts complaining to school and CIF officials that say his team’s success stems from being rich and pushing athletes too hard. He dismisses such claims. He cites the fundraising he and his wife and athletes undertake to pay for the team’s month-long summertime training at Big Bear, the collegiate success of his alumni, the weekly mileage for Sahlman that has never exceeded 64 miles. Chrystall Sahlman credited the Brosnans for their guidance that has put Colin in a position that would have seemed outlandish when he joined the Cosmos a decade ago — going professional.

Sahlman stated that he will honor his commitment to Nico Young at Northern Arizona next season. He believes it is the best route for what he hopes to be a pro career.

“I just feel like they’re a pro group in themselves, in college,”He said.

Newbury Park's Aaron Sahlman, Leo Young, Colin Sahlman and Lex Young, from left, start the boys' 3200 meter run

Newbury Park’s Aaron Sahlman, Leo Young, Colin Sahlman and Lex Young, from left, start the boys’ 3,200-meter run at the 2022 Arcadia Invitational.

(Michael Owen Baker/Michael Owen Baker/For the Tim)

Despite all the attention on Sahlman’s distance running, he is actually in the midst perhaps the most dominant Southern California season that few know about.

Saturday could be a different day. The mile, which is similar to the 100m, is perhaps the most accessible event in a sport that has so many events and so many technicalities it can feel overwhelming. The four-minute mile is well-known across cultures. Anyone who has ever run the gym-class mile knows the feeling of the countdown from four laps to his final sprint, the lactic acid buildup. Sahlman’s entrance in the Prefontaine Classic led enough interviewers to his high school on a recent afternoon that he had to skip his forensics class to accommodate them.

The “life-changing” fame Drew Hunter received when he broke Webb’s indoor mile prep record in 2016 wasn’t driven solely by the track obsessives who knew everything about his training, he said.

Are you able to complete a 4-minute mile? “Any Joe Schmoe can relate to that,”Hunter said.

Sahlman’s family knows him as a teen who took his friends’ senior photos on the beach. Who thinks a good afternoon is throwing the ball to the family’s dogs, Riggs and Harbor. Who is so fascinated by aviation that he can recognize a plane’s sound as it passes overhead? Who went to prom last weekend?

Sahlman still views himself in these normal terms. But he is also a teen who also pushed himself and hoped for a moment like this, to the point Binder says it’s accurate to say that Sahlman’s senior season is at least on par with any other in U.S. prep distance history, from Webb to Ryun, Dathan Ritzenhein, and Hobbs Kessler.

“He has to do exactly what Alan did”Brosnan said Webb would break the record. He knows Webb from their training in Portland. “Once he gets to 1,000 meters he has to start moving up and start picking people off and then that last 300 is going to be huge.”

Potentially, this will also be the rainy outlook, which could make it less than ideal for a fast track.

The driven, perfectionist side of Sahlman’s personality his parents noticed as a child fit hand-in-glove with the Brosnans’ coaching, which for all of its technical expertise guided by Sean’s experience running professionally for a time, essentially poses one, unerring challenge: You can always run faster.

During last summer’s Big Bear retreat, Sahlman recalled Sean Brosnan wondering aloud why the Panthers couldn’t smash the prep cross country record for 5,000 meters. In December, Sahlman crushed the record by seven seconds — a mark also broken by Leo and Lex Young, who finished only two seconds behind him.

“To see what Nico [Young] did, even though people were saying, ‘Oh he’s running super fast, no one will touch him’ and even little freshman me, I was like, ‘Well, I want to beat that when I’m there,’”Sahlman said. “Here it was just like really focused on what you can do, what your limits are or if you can go past those limits. I feel like here I really channeled just perfectly.”

His parents can see this analytical side before and after each race. It has become a family tradition to talk through their son’s performance. Chrystall Sahlman explained that Sahlman accepted the invitation to race in Prefontaine Classic earlier this spring without ever consulting his parents. He was convinced.

“With the team being so good, everybody expects them to be better than they did last time and that’s just not reality,”She said. “We wanted to make sure that he was willing to try that. It’s a big burden to carry with expectations of everyone’s eyes on him, can he do this?

“He hands down said, ‘Oh yes, I’m not going to be the best if I don’t race the best.’”

For as much as Chrystall Sahlman has told family members stunned by Colin’s running celebrity that “this is the new normal,” he is here because this is a hallmark of the way he has always been — a boy independent from the start and competitive until the end. Webb was a junior when Sahlman first met him. They met Webb in person this year.

He hopes to pass him Saturday.

“I’ve watched his video multiple times, his 3:53,”Sahlman said. “Knowing that he did that in this Prefontaine race and that I’ll be in that same position, it’s just — I mean, that’s where the magic happens.”

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