I’ve completed two Spartan Ultra’s in beautiful North Lake Tahoe (at the Squaw Valley Ski Resort), here’s what I learned.
North Lake Tahoe (Squaw Valley) Venue
The World Championship Spartan race has been held for several years in North Lake Tahoe. Set over a weekend in either late September or early October, racers convene upon the Squaw Valley Resort to compete against the most elite racers in the world.
How to get to the Venue
From: Sacramento, CA
- Miles: 116 Miles
- Drive time: 1 Hour 50 Min
- Pros: Easy to follow highway with multiple lanes 95% of the way. Flights may be cheaper into Sacramento than Reno. Cars were cheaper to rent out of Sacramento than Reno when I looked.
- Cons: Further drive time than flying into Reno, NV.
From: Reno, NV
- Miles: 47 Miles
- Drive time: 47 minutes
- Pros: Quicker drive into town.
- Cons: It may be more expensive to fly into Reno, cars may be more expensive to rent a car out of Reno.
Parking at Squaw Valley Resort
Depending on where you stay, it should be a pretty quick drive to get to the resort for the race. Since you’ll be racing in the Ultra, you’ll need to be at the venue around 5 AM to get your gear all squared away. There won’t be any parking issues at that time of day and you should be able to get a close spot.
For beast runners, the later you arrive the harder it will be to get parking. They do have several over-flow lots so you shouldn’t have trouble finding something (even if you have to walk a bit). This is a venue that’s used to having large amounts of people showing up for events.
Parking Cost – Free
The cost of parking is free (as of September 2019). I would be surprised if a charge for parking is implemented simply due to the layout of the resort and the local businesses that rely on foot track to survive.
Guest Tickets – Free
Spartan does not charge a fee for guest viewers at the Tahoe location. It would be impossible to regulate visitors viewing the racers at this location due to the layout of the venue (which is why it’s free). If you paid for a guest viewing past I recommend contacting Spartan for a refund. (This does not apply to other Spartan race venues). Check out their website for current rules.
Race Registration at the venue
Ultra racers need to pick up their race packet the day before the race. In 2019, the packets were available from 12 PM – 6 PM. You get to pick up your timing chip, headband, drink ticket and start time at the registration tent. They also have last-minute race gear available for sale.
You don’t have to print out your bar code anymore as it’s all electronic, but I usually print it anyway to make sure there are no issues. Don’t forget your ID. The waivers are all electronic too so you don’t need to print those out anymore.
Race Day at Spartan Ultra Beast
It’s the big day! The day you’ve been preparing for and training for (you’ve been training right?) has finally arrived.
Once you arrive at the venue and park, you’ll want to head over to the bag check and then drop off your bucket before heading to the start line.
The bag check rules have changed in recent years. They used to be available for $5 each. In 2019, the bag-check was free and included as part of your race ticket. Check out the Spartan website for current rules.
Limit the number of valuables you have. They are not responsible for any loss or damage to your items. I’ve heard rumors of problems in the past, but I’ve never had an issue. Additionally, the bag-check at the Tahoe venue was in an area where it’d be much harder for “bad-people” to do their thing.
Spartan allows Ultra racers to have a 7.5-gallon bucket waiting for them in the transition area (accessible a little over half-way through the race). You’ll want to have your bucket filled with anything you may need halfway through the race. Later on, we’ll go over what you might want to have in your bucket.
Bonus tip: Don’t leave anything valuable in your bucket. At the 2019 venue, anyone could venture into the bucket area and take whatever they wanted. There was almost zero security (from what I saw). It’s highly unlikely anyone will be in those buckets, but I can’t recommend leaving your $1,000 iPhone inside and expecting it to be there when you get done. Just don’t.
Historic Weather at Squaw Valley
Squaw Valley in the early fall can be a mixed bag. It might be nice and sunny, it might not. One thing you can count on, the weather is unpredictable.
In 2019, the weather forecast was all over the place leading up to the race. The two columns in the image below are from the base of the resort and the top of the mountain. Spartan is notorious for running people up and down the mountains, so you need to be ready for all sorts of weather.
What’s not reflected in the view below is how the weather drastically changed during the actual event. Around 2 PM a hail and lightning storm moved in and closed down the course for almost 2 hours. When the racers were finally let back on the course, the final climb was closed and at least an inch of snow blanketed the hills.
A word of caution. It’s easy to type in “Squaw Valley, CA” and get a weather station nearby that is not reflective of the true conditions on top of the mountain. Even Spartan itself made the mistake of sending out the wrong weather forecast the day before the event.
Current hourly forecast here.
The official weather from each of the Spartan Ultra’s over the past few years can be found in the table below. These readings can be found on the NOAA site and were taken from the top weather station on the mountain. The base of the mountain is usually 5 to 10 degrees warmer.
Weather Station: Squaw Valley – elevation 8029 ft.
|Date||Min Temp (F)||Max Temp (F)|
|2016 (Oct 2)||28||39|
|2017 (Oct 1)||32||55|
|2018 (Sept 30)||38||54|
|2019 (Sept 28)||24||32|
10 Essentials for the Spartan Ultra in Tahoe
1. Trail Shoes
If you don’t already have a solid pair of trail shoes, you should get a good pair. I recommend breaking them in before race day. I’ve been using a pair of Inov-8’s for all my Spartan races and after trying multiple pairs, I recommend them the most. I’m partial to the Inov-8: X Talon 212 (Women) or Inov-8: X Talon 230 (Men). That being said, most trail shoes will do the trick. Look for something that is quick release for water obstacles, lightweight and has traction on the bottom.
Bonus Tip: Throw your shoes in the wash when you get home, most shoes clean up great. They’re also great for regular hiking trips and take up less space than hiking shoes.
There’s only one rule to follow here: no cotton. I consider the “no-cotton” rule mandatory.
Why shouldn’t you wear cotton? It takes forever to dry when it gets wet, it doesn’t wick sweat away and it gets heavy when wet.
The average temperature in Squaw valley during the time of the Ultra is around 25 – 55.
What to wear during 35 – 55-degree weather?
For temperatures in the 35 to 55-degree range, my go-to is a long pair of compression pants and a long-sleeve compression top. If it’s on the lower range, I may add a hat and some gloves. As long as I’m moving, I don’t need a windbreaker or additional layer. The only exception is if the wind picks up. Then I need another layer.
I recommend Under Armor Cold Gear for the best running garb if you aren’t on a budget. If you are, check out Tsla. They have a ton of cold gear compression garments that stand up to the test in both durability and warmth.
Bonus Tip: If you’re worried about the weather and don’t want a lot of extra weight, consider taking a black garbage bag with you. It’s lightweight, will keep the water off and keep you warm. Yep, you’ll look ridiculous, but who cares? It might be the difference between DNF’ing and getting that shiny belt buckle.
What to wear during 25 – 35-degree weather?
If you think the course is going to take you longer than 10 hours, you’re probably going to be out there when the sun goes down. Once the sun drops in Tahoe, the temperature plummets with it. To make matters worse, if you’re going to be on the course that long, it means you’ll be getting back to the second swim around 3-5 PM. Fully immersing yourself in a lake and then running with the sundown is a recipe for disaster.
For weather that’s colder than 35 degrees, I make sure I have a hat, gloves and a windbreaker. You can leave those items in your bucket and pick them up on your first lap to avoid carrying extra weight.
If you get really hot when you’re running, you can always join the handful of people that decide to wear shorts when it’s 25 degrees out. Have fun with that.
Will my clothes get ruined?
I’ve only ruined my clothes once and it was 100% my fault. It happened on a barb-wire crawl and I failed to get low enough. My pants snagged on the barb-wire and left a lovely hole. Wearing light colors with the wrong material wouldn’t be advisable (especially if they’re cotton), but other than that everything should wash up just fine.
3. Race Fuel
For Ultra racers, this is the number one thing I have found I need to be wary of on the course. The average person expends a massive amount of calories during a race of this sort and experts recommend approx 100-250 calories for every hour out on the course.
I can tell you from personal experience that I did not want to eat anything while I was the course in 2017 and it cost me dearly. The dreaded “bonk” that happens when you’re body is depleted of the carbs it needs to tackle what you’re putting it through is not something anyone should have to experience. I was about 4 hours into the race when I realized I hadn’t eaten anything.
By that point, my stomach was revolting and it didn’t want to eat the gummy chews or gels that I had brought.
For my 2019 race, I did some research and learned to eat earlier and often. I also found some things my stomach could tolerate.
Eat early, eat often. At least 100 calories per hour.
What do I eat now?
- Clif shot gel packs – My favorite is the double espresso.
- Clif Chews – My favorite is black cherry.
- Honey Stingers – I’m partial to the honey stinger waffle. I also like their energy chews.
- Swedish fish and gummy bears
- Beef Jerky
- Almonds, pistachios or other nuts
- Dried fruit (mangoes, cranberries, pineapple, etc)
My recommendation would be to test out what your stomach can tolerate on a long training run. I learned I cannot tolerate “fats” on my run. For example, cheese or pizza. I can tolerate chews and gel (in moderation), and small amounts of “real” food such as dried fruit, nuts, jerky and chicken soup (at the transition area).
The bottom line: Eat early and eat often. Don’t wait until you “feel” hungry as by that point it’s too late. You should be forcing down at least 100 calories each hour you are on the course. If you’re like me and you don’t do training runs (first of all why are you doing an Ultra?) I recommend picking something that you like to eat when you’re sick.
Spartan encourages racers to bring a hydration pack and they provide water filling stations along the course. I never bring water. For me, it’s too much weight. Spartan typically has a water station about every 1 to 1.5 miles which I have found to be plenty, regardless of the course length.
Hydration is important which means ensuring you have a source of electrolytes during the course. The easiest thing to grab is some Gatorade powder packets. Dump a package in your dixie cup full of water at the aid station and be on your way.
5. Preventing Cramps
Preventing cramps is key to finishing the race. There’s nothing worse than having to stop on the trail in agonizing pain while everyone gets to run by. That last part doesn’t happen as the Spartan community is amazing and you’ll usually find someone who will lend you a salt pill or other remedy you might be lacking.
- 30 minutes before the race: 2 salt or electrolyte tablets.
- Every 60 to 90 minutes I take 1 – 2 tablets. (Favorite brand is Rapid Rehydr8).
- This equates to every 2nd or 3rd water station on the course.
I have found that if I don’t take some kind of anti-cramping remedy I start cramping around 2 hours into the race.
Alternatives to salt pills that people swear by:
- Mustard packets
- Pickle juice
- Electrolytes in various forms
I can’t vouch for mustard or pickle juice (Ewwww), but good luck if you go that route.
Gloves for warmth
In late September, you’re bound to get cold on the course. I was glad both years I ran that I had gloves. I recommend a lightweight pair of running gloves that dry fast. I take the gloves off for obstacles as they are only meant to keep my hands warm during the long-running periods. Tsla has a great pair of cheap lightweight gloves. I recommend getting at least the medium size (even for women) as they tend to run small.
Gloves for obstacles
Many racers prefer using gloves for obstacles. If you’re considering using gloves on the obstacles you’ll likely want to keep them in your bag for the majority of the race. I have found that during the water obstacles and the barb-wire crawl the gloves become saturated in mud and become useless on most obstacles.
I never did find a great pair of gloves with a better grip than my bare hands so I can’t recommend a brand.
Spartan requires you to have a headlamp available if you’re going to be on the course after 5 PM. They will pull you off the course if you don’t have one.
If you’re going to be on the course over 10 hours you need to have one ready. Regardless of the rules, you will be very happy you a headlamp if you find yourself on the second climb after dark. It is pitch black up there.
Make sure you get a bright headlamp. Some people had chosen a low wattage headlamp and it barely made a dent in the darkness. Most of them take three batteries so make sure you have some spares just in case. I recommend getting something with 12,000 lumens or greater. Here’s a great option.
8. Spartan Transition Area and Bucket Drop
Ultra racers are allowed one 7.5 gallon bucket to be placed in the transition area which is usually just over the half-way mark.
Bonus tip: No one is going to regulate your bucket size and I won’t tell if you get one a little larger.
What should go in the bucket?
- Headlamp with extra batteries. Yes, the race will start just before dawn, but you won’t need your headlamp in the morning and there’s no sense in carrying it for the entire race.
- Extra race fuel. I like to keep a re-fill of race fuel for the second half of the race. I take any food I didn’t eat on the first lap and trade it out for my second half. This way I don’t have to think about what I may or may not need.
- A thermos full of hot soup. When it’s cold outside, there’s nothing better than a warm thermos full of soup. (chicken noodle is my fav). Bonus, chicken noodle soup is easy on the stomach. After 14 to 17 miles of rough terrain, it can be a real mood booster to have a warm cup of soup.
- Extra shoes. I have never needed to change my shoes mid-way through the race. Your feet are usually wet and you can waste valuable time trying to change out your shoes at this point. Some people love having a fresh pair of shoes and socks at the mid-way point. I say you should have them in case your laces break or you have a bad blister that could be solved by throwing on a new pair of shoes. Otherwise, they aren’t needed.
- An extra shirt. It may be difficult to change your shoes, but it’s easy to throw on another shirt. Especially if you’re cold and it’s wet.
- Cold gear (hat, gloves, windbreaker, warm layers). This is the last chance to grab any warm gear you may need when the sun goes down. In 2017, I almost didn’t grab my extra warm layer. At the last minute, I grabbed it and I was thrilled that I did. After getting out of the last swim right before the sun went down and the temperature plummeted I found I needed the extra warmth.
- Pain killer and electrolytes – It’s not a bad idea to have a back-up of any pain killer or extra electrolytes you may need on the second lap.
9. After Gear
You did it! You finished the race. There are a few more things you should consider for just after the race.
- Bring a complete change of clothes, including shoes. Make sure the clothes are looser and easy to put on. It’s tough to change when you’re wet and cold.
- Bring extra garbage bags for your muddy clothes and shoes.
- If you’re close enough to the venue, you can walk back to your hotel or put down some garbage bags in the car to make it back to your lodging. This is a great option if it’s really cold outside and the only option is a freezing cold “shower” (ie, hoses with freezing water to clean up).
- Bring towels you don’t mind getting muddy for a general clean up and/or for the car afterward.
- A sweatshirt to throw on after the race is always a nice to have!
It’s time to celebrate! You have your medal and your bragging rights. Enjoy it!
The Tahoe Ultra Course
The Ultra used to be a double loop of the Beast course. In 2018, the format changed to be a more unique race. I found the newly revamped course to be almost identical to the old format.
For the 2019 race, the first lap around was approx 17 miles. It included an additional 3-mile loop that regular Beast participants skip. The extra 3 miles was a brutal climb up the mountain and I was glad on the second lap we didn’t have to repeat that portion of the course.
The 2019 course elevation clocked in around 9,600′ of gain and a distance of 30 miles. For comparison, Mount Everest is 29,029′. That’s the equivalent of climbing up 1/3 of Mt. Everest in one day.
Tips for after the Ultra Beast
Snacks & refreshments after the race
- After the race, Spartan usually provides a banana, a protein bar and some sort of post-non-alcoholic beverage.
- As an alternative, bring extra snacks to place in your bucket you know will be tasty after the race.
- Spartan also provides one wrist-band for those 21 and over to have a free beer following the race.
- There are numerous restaurants and shops in the Squaw Valley Village for a quick meal or a sit-down restaurant. Beware they can be quite busy.
Pick up your medal and finisher shirt
After the race is over, you’ll need to go find the tent to pick up your Ultra medal and finisher shirt. They only pass out the regular beast medals at the finish line.
Bonus tip: Don’t leave the venue until you pick up your medal as it can be difficult to pick up later. (It usually requires going to another Ultra in the same year and convincing Spartan you didn’t already get it at the previous venue).
Download your pictures
A few days after the race is over there will be free pictures to download on the Spartan website.
Bonus tip: Try searching around the time you think you went through various obstacles. Sometimes your headband isn’t visible to the cameras or their tagging software doesn’t work properly.
Sign up for your next race
Love it or hate it, you’ll be itching to sign up for another race. I swore up and down the day I finished the Ultra in 2017 that I would never do another. Fast forward to 2019 and I found myself registered again. To save some cash, why not find the special tent after the race that offers a discount for your next race and get signed up before you head out.
Are you ready to join the spartan ultra club?
The Spartan Ultra is one of the toughest physical and mental challenges out there. The feeling of elation and accomplishment will blow your mind. Don’t wait, sign up today. You’ll be glad you did.