Rob Parsons on racing Big's Backyard Ultra World Championships
Post by: Gaby Villa | December 11, 2023
Rob Parsons is one of the four athletes I had the honour of working with in preparation for the Big’s Backyard Ultra World Championships held in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, at the end of October. As Rob's dietitian, I had the privilege of supporting and witnessing the incredible journey that led to an impressive 11-lap personal best, covering a total of 84 yards and placing Rob among the top 10 distances covered during the event.
In this interview, Rob generously shares insights into his running background, the inspiration behind running backyard ultras, and the meticulous preparation—both physically and mentally—that fuelled his success at the Backyard Ultra World Championships.
Please share a bit about your running background
I grew up playing Rugby union and joined a triathlon club in the off season to keep fit. I started with the short course then the long course then found out about half and full ironmans. Eventually I ran the 6 inch trail in WA as my first trail run. I went out with a triathlon mindset of wanting to run a specific pace over this course (a course I had never seen) and the first 2km are all up hill. I then spent the next 20km trying to get back to my average pace and absolutely cooked myself and had to death march the last 10kms to the finish line. After that, I fell in love with the trails and eventually did UTA100 in 2017 and Delirious 100 miler this year.
What inspired you to start running backyard ultras?
I have followed the format for a few years and in 2020 one of my friends ran Herdys Frontyard Ultra. I had such intense FOMO watching him race and grind out lap after lap that I couldn’t wait to sign up for the race in 2021. I am not a fast runner so the fact that all you had to do was grind out an 8ish minute per kilometre lap and just keep turning up to the start line and not quit was really appealing to me.
How did you prepare both physically and mentally for the Backyard Ultra World Championships?
Two key training sessions for me was back to back long runs, so rather than going for a 6-8hr run I would do a 4-5hr one day and a 3-4hr run the next day. Something new for me was walk training, I have never done specific walking sessions and as backyards are half walking this really helped me increase my comfortable walking pace. Mentally I did a lot of work with Rob Donkersloot at Mind Focused Running. Rob was great at getting me to focus on the journey and the running itself and not to worry about the overall outcome. This allowed me just to focus one lap at a time and not stress what lap I was on or how far I (may) have to go.
How did your nutrition strategy play a role in your training and preparation?
Different nutrition strategies that Gaby suggested like combining real food as well as lower concentration carb drinks made my long training runs much more enjoyable and palatable. Practicing a backyard nutrition plan is hard. Doing an 8 or 12 hour race simulation will never truly prepare you for what you feel like after 30, 40 or 50 hours and how your gut reacts. I was lucky enough to be able to test my plan at Birdys Backyard ultra which really helped fine tune it.
What are some memorable moments or challenges you faced during the race?
I vividly remember around 11am on day 3 out on the trail working out that I was out there running for the 3rd day in a row. My mindset was to not think about what lap I was on as it can make a potential goal seem so far away it is unachievable. So I never took notice of what lap number we were on and it was so effective I was about 4 laps into day 3 before I even realised I had run that far.
Were there any unexpected situations that tested your preparation and adaptability?
I am a very heavy sweater so my crew and I keep a close eye on how much I am drinking and how often I go to the bathroom as I have had a number of races go south very fast due to dehydration. Even though we were keeping a close eye on it I got really dehydrated on day 1.
On the last day loop (lap 11) I started to feel some cramping in my thighs which was a big red flag
for me, then on the next lap (first night lap) both my calf started grabbing like they were about to cramp forcing me to run very flat footed as I couldn’t push of my toes.
When I got back in on that lap I lay down to try stretch my calfs and my left leg locked up in the most agonizing cramp I have ever had. It required the father of Bartosz Fudali (eventual 3rd last runner) who was next door to me to run over and stretch out my leg for me as my crew wasn’t strong enough to push through the cramp. At this point I thought my race was over. Luckily I had packed a single shot of Crampfix I got for free at a previous race and after drinking this (tasted horrible) I could feel the cramps dissolve in my legs. For the next 7 hours I changed my plan of sleeping during night 1 and ran slow laps to allow my body to absorb as much fluid as possible.
It took approximately 7L of fluid before I had to go to the bathroom again but by about 3am I felt good again and ready to keep pushing through the race.
You achieved an 11-lap PB with a total of 84 yards. What do you think were the key factors in ensuring this successful experience? I managed to get through the whole race without having to run through any acute injury pain I think my training plan and focus on mobility played a big part in this. The mindset was another big piece as well, I wasn’t focused on a big lap total that at some stages would seem unachievable I was just focused on the lap I was running that hour and everything else would work itself out.
Were there any key nutrition strategies that helped you stay energised and focused during the race?
Drinking trail brew and HEED out on the laps was a great way to get carbs in during the hour rather than cramming them in during the break time. Something that seems small but helped keep me hydrated after day 1 was carrying my water bottle in my hand not having it in a pocket on my shorts. This meant it was much easier to take more frequent small sips and get through a lot more fluid each hour than when I was waiting for an up hill walking section or flat spot to take the bottle out of my pocket and have a drink.
How did you approach recovery after completing such an intense event?
Poorly. Looking back I wish I had put a lot more effort (I put in no effort) to planning my recovery. I could only manage small meals soon after the race so had to eat more often but I regularly found myself in situations where I was really hungry and food was not available. If I did this again I would carry a bag of food around with me for 2 days to help re-stock my stores.
What valuable lessons did you take away from the Backyard Ultra World Championships, both in terms of racing and nutrition?
Never give up if you can keep moving then you are still in the race. From the nutrition perspective it is important to know the macros (carbs, fat, protein) you are trying to achieve each hour. No matter how organised you are or how much you have tested your nutrition you will have laps where the food on your plan is the last thing in the world you want to eat. At these points, it is critical for your crew to know what alternative they can offer while still getting all the nutrition you need. Hydration, stay on top of this and don’t let it get away from you as it can be very hard to pull back.
Do you have any advice for aspiring ultra-runners who hope to one day take on this race?
As long as you can run 6.7km in under an hour you are ready to give this race a go. You can read all the race reports, listen to all the podcasts and watch all the documentaries but nothing will teach you more about this race than getting out there and running a lap.
Is there anything else you'd like to share about your journey and the importance of nutrition in multi-stage racing?
Temperature. Something that caught me out with my nutrition was the heat during the day. I tested my plan at Birdy which was cool but when I tried eating similar solid food during the day at Bigs I really struggled and had to change my plan to easier to digest food and liquids. This could really throw some people out, but my crew was prepared for it and was able to offer me plenty of alternatives to keep the calories going.
Is your nutrition race-ready?
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Previously during Ironman distance events I had issues with hydration and fuelling resulting in a few subpar performances on the run. After speaking to a few other triathletes as well as my coach I decided to contact Gaby at IntensEATfit to get help in identifying and solving these issues to improve my overall performance. While working with Gaby we uncovered that I wasn’t fueling my training sessions well enough, I wasn’t practicing fueling through training enough to condition my stomach to take onboard the required amount of carbs and through testing that my fluid and salt loss was well above average.
Gaby was great at explaining how these things impact my performance and it was a surprise to find out exactly how much carbohydrate and fluids it takes to successfully fuel and Ironman training & racing. Gaby instilled the importance in training nutrition, and we worked on my nutrition plan weekly allowing my body to get used to the amount of carbs it was taking on board, optimizing the plan to get the best result. This enabled one of the best training blocks I have completed and set me up for a great race in Cairns where I had a strong run to PB by over 10 mins on a challenging course.