Training for Desert Rats: How to Succeed at the Kokopelli 150 Stage Race

Heather Hart – Find Heather at Relentless Forward Commotion

Training for Desert Rats Kokopelli 150 multi day foot race is no small feat.  Mainly because the act of running the Desert Rats is also no small feat:  6 days of extreme heat, dry desert conditions, climbing, and back to back days of running high (even ultra marathon) mileage.  For some, this may sound like a miserable time.  For adventurers and endurance thrill seekers, it sounds like a dream come true.

My name is Heather Hart, and I’m a hopeless trail running  junkie.  I’m also an Exercise Physiologist and running coach, certified through the American College of Sports Medicine and Road Runners Club of America, respectively. I’ve been running for over a decade, and training clients nearly as long.  My race resume contains a lot of diverse events, from 100 mile trail runs to sprint triathlons, ultra distance obstacle course races to 6 day stage races, and pretty much all of the “distances” in between.  But what it does not include is the Gemini Adventures Desert Rats Kokopelli 150 Stage Race.


Training for Desert Rats

I am thrilled to share that I will be attending and racing this event in 2018, and I cannot wait to join all of you for what will undoubtedly be the adventure of a lifetime.

Our friends over at Gemini Adventures asked me to put together a “Training for Desert Rats”post, and I was more than happy to oblige…not only to help others, but to perhaps keep myself accountable for this upcoming adventure.  Listed below are key components and suggestions that should be a part of every athlete’s routine when training for  Desert Rats.  Of course, YOUR training plan outline may vary, based on your goals (are you trying to win? Or just trying to finish?) and personal limitations (physical, time, etc.)  In this particular post, “succeed” refers to crossing that finish line happy, healthy, and hopefully injury free.

Training for Desert Rats: How to Succeed at the Kokopelli 150 Stage Race


I bet you never would have guessed this one, right?  This is a running event, so naturally the majority of your training should consist of running.  But it’s more than aimlessly logging miles and building long runs.  Let’s break it down:

Effort Based Runs

The desert is going to be hot and dry.  (I’m assuming, I’ve never actually been there…East Coast girl here).  The physical response to the increased temperatures and brutal conditions are going to drastically change your running pace.  Therefore, it’s important to learn how to run based on effort, not simply on pace.

When training for any endurance event, the majority of your running should be done in the easy effort zone (often referred to as “aerobic” or “Z2”).  May runners have success with heart rate training for ensuring that their bodies are truly staying in this zone.  However, if you do not use a heart rate method, I suggest going by the “Star Spangled Banner” method.  In other words, at any given time during your run, you should be able to bust out your very best rendition of the Star Spangled Banner without gasping for air.

Learning how to base your run on effort, rather than sticking to a specific pace, will allow you to stay in that efficient aerobic zone despite the temperature or harsh conditions.

Training for Desert Rats

Back to Back Long Runs

If you haven’t looked yet, the daily mileage for Desert rats looks like this: 20 miles, 39 miles, 9 miles, 43 miles, and 26.2 miles.  You are going to be running long mileage on already fatigued legs.  Therefore, it’s important to train your legs to be able to perform while tired and sore.   Further, back to back long runs allow you to put in more mileage over the course of a week, rather than having to spend your entire Saturday putting in a 50 mile run.

Read more about back to back long runs here:
How to Survive Back-to-Back Long Runs

Hill Training

Don’t be fooled by the word “desert”, this race is anything but a flat oasis.  With a total elevation gain (according to recorded Strava segments) of approximately 23,294 feet over the course of the 5 stages, you are going to need to practice your climbing skills.  Some of you may be lucky enough to have hills everywhere you go, but here in Myrtle Beach, it is pancake flat.  Therefore, twice a week I incorporate some sort of hill training workout.  Hill repeats on the bridge, hill repeats on a treadmill, or a stair climber at the gym are our only options, but they are better than nothing.

Teach your legs to climb, but also practice descending if you can.  As we know, what goes up: must come down.  Descents can be very hard on the quadriceps due to constant eccentric contractions…not to mention tough on the toes!

Simulated Conditions

Training for Desert Rats should mimic the conditions you will face at Desert Rats. The terrain of the Desert Rats course will be dry, rocky, sandy, exposed, and did I mention…hot?  It is important to find similar conditions to train on, at least some of the time.  If you are training on a paved, tree covered and shady park path all of the time, you will be doing yourself a disservice.   Further, much of the running will extend into midday, and maybe even evening, for most of us non-elites.  Practice training at various times during the day to ensure you are not a “morning only” runner.

Training for Desert Rats

Train with your Gear

During the event, you will be required to start the race and leave every aid station carrying a minimum of 80 ounces of water.  That alone weighs 5.2 pounds…not including the weight of your hydration pack and all of the other mandatory gear within it.  If you are not accustomed to running with a weight on your shoulders over the course of multiple hours of running, you need to start practicing (see more on this topic in “upper body strength training”, below).

Further, now is the time to start deciding what shoes you will bring, if you will use trekking poles, what water bottles you plan on carrying…you get the idea.  PRACTICE with your gear so come race day, every last piece is helpful, not hindering.

Strength Training

If you aren’t new here, you  already know that I am a huge stickler for making sure my running athletes incorporate strength training into the training routines.  If you are new here, know this: I get on my strength training soap box often.  In my professional opinion, running slightly less but incorporating regular strength training will make you a stronger, less injury prone runner than just running all of the time.   And though I spend all of my non running free time in the gym I’m writing this post from there now!) I know most people don’t have that kind of time.  So your strength training doesn’t have to be terribly in depth (or even done in a gym), just consistent.  I recommend runners aim for a minimum of two days of upper body and two days of lower body strength training per week, of each major muscle group.


Your core, including your abdominal muscles, lower back, hips, and glutes, are key to running success.   These are the muscles that keep you in an upright position (and who doesn’t want that!) and help assist in forward movement of your legs, as well as climbing those aforementioned mountains!  Work on strengthening all of the layers of your abdominal muscles (rectus, transverse, and obliques) but do not forget to target your low back, hips, and glutes, as these are all important for overall core strength.

Upper Body

Remember the aforementioned 5+ pounds of water you need to carry?  Plus the weight of your hydration pack, required nutrition, and anything else you may be carrying with you?  That weighs heavier on your shoulders and back than you may think.

And those trekking poles? They may feel light at first, but after multiple hours, will be taxing on your shoulders and triceps.

Having a strong upper body, specifically strong, balanced shoulders, chest, and back muscles, will not only help you haul your gear through the desert, but will encourage proper posture, preventing you from hunching over as you get tired.


Lower Body

I often hear runners say “I don’t need to strength train my lower body, I already do that while running.”  Well, that’s only partially true.  Yes, the weight bearing exercise of running does indeed help strengthen the muscles of your lower body.  However, running is also a very repetitive movement movement.  Stronger muscles will help slow down the rate of fatigue, as well as help prevent injuries associated with running or even a slight misstep on the trail.

Self Care & Recovery

As every experienced ultra and stage race runner knows, training goes well beyond simply putting in the miles.  Here are a few more things to consider:


I am not a registered dietician, so I’m not going to sit here and tell you WHAT to eat while training.  I will, however ,tell you that making healthier choices while increasing training volume will help your training feel easier, and will allow your body to recover better.

While on the topic of nutrition and hydration, start practicing what you are going to use as fuel during Desert Rats.   Chances are, most of you are already experienced enough runners that you know the “try nothing new on race day” theory, but I felt it was worth mentioning, just incase.


One of the biggest mistakes many runners make, especially those who are excited for an upcoming event, is training TOO hard and not allowing enough time for the body to rest and recover.  It is during rest periods (specifically during actual sleep) that our bodies work hard to rebuild the muscles we broke down during training.  Training for Desert Rats is going to require a high volume of training, so rest periods need to match the effort.  In other words: don’t ignore rest days and adequate sleep.

Mental Fortitude

I suppose this training aspect is option, but it is an incredibly important one for me.  Let’s face it: there are going to be some downright sucky moments out there on the trail.  I’m pretty sure we all expect it, that’s part of what we sign up for these events for.  Training your mind to be able to recognize these lows, and eventually climb out of them, is paramount.

Personally, I’ve recently taken up yoga.  This practice pushes me wildly out of my comfort zone, and is teaching me to really listen to my body, stay present in the moment, and know that I can get through it. Plus, hot yoga is teaching me to suffer while dripping sweat in 105 degree temps, which is an added bonus!

If you are training for Desert Rats, I hope this post was helpful.  No matter what our training techniques are, it is bound to be the adventure of a lifetime.  See you in Moab!

Sunday, 18 March 2018 10:09

Desert RATS Bio 2018 – Heather Hart

Stage Race Sunday! Who’s coming to play in the desert this year?

A rescue bunny wrangler, Heather Hart, joins us from the hot & humid training grounds of South Carolina!

Marital Status: Married

Number of Children: Two boys

Occupation: I am a certified exercise physiologist, and I spend my days working as a personal trainer and group exercise instructor at a local gym, and also “run” (put totally intended) an endurance coaching business with my husband.

Years running: 11

Years running ultras: 3

Ultras I have done: Knock on Wood 100 miler Hallucination 24 hour (84 miles) Swamp Fox 50 mile Frozen H3 – 100K Endurance Society Infinitus (54 miles) Paris Mountain 50K One Epic Run 24 hour Xterra Myrtle Beach 50K

Favorite race and why: In 2015 my husband and I were fortunate enough to run the TransRockies Run 6 day event. It was life changing in so many ways, from pushing at altitudes we had never experienced (these “sea level” legs tackled 12,000+ feet above sea level climbs) to seeing the beautiful Rocky Mountains…to getting engaged on the top of Hope Pass in Leadville, CO. It was an adventure I will never forget!

Best results in races: I’ve had a number of overall placings and age group placings over the years. I think my favorite, however, was placing 3rd at my first 100 mile race. Mostly because I *almost* dropped out due to a medical issue (I had an umbilical hernia flare up! It was surgically repaired just weeks after the race) In retrospect, I certainly don’t recommend pushing through something so serious, but I was proud of my determination for finishing out a very tough event.

Tell us something about yourself, running related or other: A year and a half ago, my husband brought home an abandoned pet rabbit he found. I was so mad, we did not need that responsibility. And a rabbit? Who has pet rabbits? Now, we are the proud “parents” of three rescue bunnies who live in and free roam around our house. Forget cats, I’m slowly becoming known as the “crazy bunny lady”.

What’s your favorite way to train for Desert RATS: I’m very fortunate that my career revolves around exercise, so every day is an opportunity to become stronger. I’m currently focusing on heavy strength training, and getting ready to switch my focus back over to long distance running. I love running on our local trail here in Myrtle Beach, “the Hulk”. But when I’m not on the trail, the stair climber is one of my secret weapons!

What are your goals for Desert RATS: Goal number one is to finish! Goal number two is to mentally push through the heat. Goal number three is to smile through every mile, no matter how difficult it may get!

Wednesday, 14 March 2018 10:08

Pain and Glory

Pain and Glory

Last year’s overall winner Brian Passenti shares the pain and glory of persistence in his race report from the 2017 Desert Rats Kokopelli 150 stage race.

My feet are raw, really raw. Specifically my heals. I have hardened callus skin on most of my toes. Basically dried out blisters. I am sure I will lose two of the toe nails. My calf is tight, the right one. My left is much worse. My quads are literally peeling, sunburnt. My shoulders too. I’m driving eastbound. I was in this same spot a week ago, but westbound. I can see sections of the course. I have a much greater respect for the trail seven days later.” Read More…

Sunday, 11 March 2018 10:07

Desert RATS Bio 2018 – Phil Pinti

Stage Race Sunday! Who’s coming to play in the desert this year?

Taking a step up in distance, Maryland’s Phil Pinti will be representing his crew of crazy running friends.

Marital Status: Widower

Number of Children: 2 kiddos; 5 year old and a 3 year old

Occupation: Analyst

Years running: 14

Years running ultras: 2

Ultras I have done: (2) 50 Milers; (4) 50K

Favorite race and why: I have run the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) the last 4 years; 2014-2017. Upon running the MCM 5 times, runners are inducted into the “MCM Runner’s Club,” exempting them from having to partake in the lottery system for gaining entry in future marathons. Having served in the Marine Corps the MCM holds a special place in my heart and this is the one race I would like to streak, run continuously for as long as I can. I love the location; Washington, D.C., I love the spectators, and I love the support from the Marines along the race route.

Best results in races: The Stone Mill 50 Mile 11/11/2017 I ran my best (PR) 50 mile in 11:07:33. September 3rd of 2017 I ran my first 50 mile at the Labor Pain 12-hour Endurance Challenge in 11:34:30.

Tell us something about yourself, running related or other: I’m what folks in the running community consider a “clydesdale runner.” At 5’8″ I weigh about 205 lbs. and although “I don’t look like a runner…” pound for pound I can carry my own. LOL

What’s your favorite way to train for Desert RATS: Long distance trail runs with some good elevation to boot. Where I’m from in Maryland I have many National Parks and the Appalachian Trail in close proximity. I also have some “crazy running friends” who keep me busy.

What are your goals for Desert RATS: The Desert RATS Kokopelli 150 is my first race beyond 50 miles. I’m excited and also nervous to be running continuously for multiple days under extreme conditions… but I know I’ve got what it takes. My goal is to finish and to do so with a smile on my face. Complete the mission, enjoy every mile, thank every staff member/volunteer, make some new life long friends, and show my beautiful children that anything is possible… if you dedicate yourself, remain optimistic and believe in yourself… obstacles are just opportunities in disguise, Keep On Keeping On!

Eight Tips in Preparing for Desert Endurance Races

Are you a desert Runner? You will be soon!

Running in a hot, dry climate comes with its own challenges, as does the sometimes soft, sandy footing.  Think through your training and equipment ahead of time to give yourself the greatest chance for a successful day on the trails!  Susan Nowell shares her top tips for desert running on Ultra Running Limited:

1. Be Adaptable to Weather Changes
The first thing most people think about when they think of the desert is….. HEAT!!! But don’t be surprised if you find yourself running in the wind and rain. My first adventure in the Sahara desert was accompanied by rain and hail during the last stage of the four day race. Honestly, I WELCOMED the rain as it made it easier to negotiate running in the sand. And the hail,…well, it kept me alert and on my toes, which helped lighten my steps. Being adaptable will serve you well!

2. Get Savvy with Gear 
Temperatures in the desert can be extreme and can range from 37 to 0 degrees Celsius (100 to 31F). Come prepared with the right gear to dress for success. This includes: light, breathable material that moves away water for running in the heat and polypropylene layers, fleece and hat for cold nights. Packing a windbreaker for windy moments on or off the run is also a desert savvy thing to do!

3. Know Your Salt Type
Read more

(Want even more?  Talk Ultra’s Ian Corless writes in detail about Desert & Multi-Day Races)

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