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December 30, 2012

Farewell and Amen

“Sometimes the light's all shining on me –
Other times I can barely see –
Lately it occurs to me –
What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
The Grateful Dead, “Truckin’ (video after post)

“Don’t let it end like this.  Tell them I said something.”
 Last words of Pancho Villa

(I couldn’t decide which quote I liked better as a last hurrah, so in true Running and Rambling fashion, I decided to go with both.)

For my final run of 2012 – and by extension, my last as a regular blogger – I took on one of my favorite challenges: a three-mile climb to the southern ridge line overlooking my home town of Carmel Valley.

Fall colors were equally vibrant on trees overhead and fallen leaves underfoot.  The previous week had brought significant rain, leaving the trails muddy enough to be adventurous, but not sloppy enough to slow me down.  And on this morning, the clouds temporarily relinquished their grip, so when I finally reached the top of the ridge, the skies were clear enough to see for miles in every direction.  It was one of those perfect California winter mornings that make me grateful to be alive.

Looking back toward Carmel Valley Village; my house is a tiny dot in the distance 

And as soon as I thought this, I realized, I won’t have anyone to share this with anymore.

More than anything else, that’s what I’ll miss the most after closing the doors at Running and Rambling.  This space has become my primary outlet of expression, and the most dependable way to process and crystallize my experiences wandering through the big, wide world.  I’m a fierce introvert by nature, but there was something about this website that emboldened me to step out of my comfort zone and connect with people in ways I never could have imagined prior to its existence. 

The whole notion was quite unsettling at first – the way I would frequently encounter someone on local trails, or in the mountains, or even in another state, and they would ask how my broken toe was healing, or if I was still riding bikes with my son, or if I remained impressed with the Vibram Spyridon LS, without my even knowing his or her name.  Nowadays when that happens, I find it totally cool – and my first reaction is usually to flash a smile and shake the person’s hand.  Without question, those connections have been the biggest – and also the most unexpected - benefit of being a blogger for the past seven years. 

A scene from the Western States trail during the 2009 training camp - a day when I fell in love with ultrarunning as well as with the blogging community.  Not coincidentally, a cropping of this photo has served as the title banner for Running and Rambling ever since. 

Obviously, there have been a lot more benefits along the way, and I can honestly say that having this website has been one of the most memorable and rewarding things I’ve ever been involved with.  So the decision to walk away is a hard one, and it’s a sad one in many ways … but it’s also 100% the right one.

As much as I love Running and Rambling, I’m also really looking forward to being free of it.  I desperately want to spend fewer hours staring at my laptop, and more time interacting with my family.   I’m tired of sitting at a water polo game, or watching a school concert, or playing a game of Chinese checkers and thinking about the contest giveaway or product review I need to publish later that night.  Because those moments will be gone before I know it, and I don’t want to be caught trying to remember what they felt like.

A call to mindfulness from a run to the Tassajara Zen Center: "Wake up! Life is transient, swiftly passing.  Be aware, the great matter: don't waste time."

Also, there’s one more crazy goal I’d love to accomplish.  Something I never would have had the audacity to dream of when the blog was still going.  Something I’ve heard people talk about, but never believed I had the ability to achieve myself.  Wanna hear what it is?

I want to read a book.  I know, right?  Insane.   And I’m not talking about the “3 pages at a time before falling asleep” or “Read 2 chapters and then put the book on the shelf for 3 months” kind of reading – I’m shooting for the real deal: curling up on the couch with one of the many titles - non-running-related, even! - that I’ve stacked on my bookshelf in hopes of enriching myself someday.  I made it 300 pages into a Civil War history book last summer before filing it away, and I’ve yet to return (but don’t tell me who wins, because I want to be surprised).

A "recreational" run in the Sierras, circa 2009.   See the beautiful model in the distance?  That would be my wife.  I need to spend more days like this.

Of course, life won’t all be laziness and family bonding, and I’m still hoping to spend as much time on the trails as possible.  I’ve often said that I’d rather be a runner who didn’t blog than a blogger who didn’t run, and the time to put that philosophy to the test has arrived.  I don’t have any concrete race plans for 2013, but don’t be surprised to see me rambling along at some ultra or another – I’ll be the oafish guy with the moccasins on his feet and the goofy grin on his face.  Feel free to say hi; I promise at least a smile and handshake in return.

I’m not completely abandoning the writing or gear review game either, and I’m excited to continue making contributions to a handful of operations (both print and web-based) that are much bigger and more influential than I could ever hope to accomplish on my own.  On that note, if you haven’t already discovered the Feed the Habit or Gear Institute websites, be sure to bookmark them as top-notch resources for all manner of outdoor gear.  They’re both operated by amazingly cool guys who have assembled a massive collection of talent around them, and I’m confident they’ll both continue to grow and thrive in the future.

This website will remain live as well, for the benefit of anyone who wants to go through past photo tours or race reports, or Google searchers who stumble across one product review or another.  The sidebar at right has been updated to include all of the minimalist footwear reviews I’ve done over the past few years.  All of the product links will remain in place, as will the Amazon.com banner at top right, which I’m now calling the Unemployed Blogger Relief Fund.  If you want to shop at Amazon.com and feel like clicking there from my site (remember, it’s completely anonymous and doesn’t cost you anything), whenever I see a few cents drop into my account I’ll know that someone out there is thinking of me.

(End of shameless pandering.  Oh, wait … I also have a book you can buy.  OK, pandering over now.)

Otherwise, it’s time for me to head off into the sunset - or, to mix my metaphors a bit, into the dawn of a new year and new possibilities.  The past seven years have indeed been one long, strange trip … and one that I wouldn’t trade for anything.  To everyone who has shared any or all of this journey with me, I’m more grateful than I can possibly express.  I offer all of you sincere thanks from the bottom of my heart; it has truly been a wonderful run.

The Grateful Dead, “Truckin’” (click to play):

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December 27, 2012

Soft Star Rogue Review; Soft Star Metro Review

*Admin note: we’re in the homestretch!  One final product review here, and a farewell post before 2012 expires.  Thanks to everyone who has been sending well-wishes over the past couple of weeks – they mean more to me than you can possibly imagine.

It’s no coincidence that my final product review for Running and Rambling features Soft Star Shoes.  Among all the companies I’ve partnered with over the span of this website, there are none I appreciate more, and none - for better or worse – with whom I’ve been more closely identified.

Just because it seems so long ago ... Team Soft Star at Tahoe

That last point is one I’ve taken fairly seriously, especially as the company started increasing their sponsorship support and I started doing crazier ultra adventures over the past couple of years.  I’ve always had this low-grade but generally constant anxiety about making the company look bad at one event or another, either by some sort of gear malfunction, or losing traction on some gnarly hill and injuring myself, or simply not being able to finish a race.  Thankfully, none of that ever happened, which is as much a testament to Soft Star’s willingness to work with me and come up with solutions to every obstacle I encountered as it is to my own accomplishment.

But I’m digressing somewhat, because today’s reviews don’t have anything to do with athletic performance.  Rather, they are focused on two new casual styles the company introduced this fall – one a brand new model, the other a more formal styling of a classic model they released last year.

Soft Star Rogue, in Aged Walnut

The new model is the Rogue men’s shoe, which I think of as a hybrid between the company’s flagship Rambler outdoor moccasin and the innovative Moc3 running model that’s probably the most comfortable athletic shoe I’ve ever owned.  It comes in two colors, both curiously starting with “Aged”: the Aged Walnut color I tested, and an Aged Oak that is a lighter shade.

Both colors feature full-grain leather on the outer surface of the upper; the leather is highly flexible and pretty much conforms to the shape of your foot almost like a sock would.  The uppers are secured to the outsole by external stitching, and if your feet are wider than average, you’ll probably notice the upper stretches over the top of this external seam, further contributing to the general slipper appearance.  

This overall slipper vibe is great from a comfort standpoint, but the functional effect is that the Rogue looks much more like a house shoe than a dress or work shoe.  When I saw photos of the Rogue, I thought it would be a great work option, but now that I’ve worn them I’d say they’re definitely more of an after work or Casual Friday shoe.

Moc3 on left, Rogue on right

Another contributor to the cozy upper fit is an internal layer of Breathe-O-Prene, the same odor-resistant, breatheable neoprene material that lines the interior of the Moc3 and wraps around your foot.  This material is visible around the ankle area on both models, and lines the entire interior surface of the Rogue as it does on the Moc3.  The Breathe-O-Prene lining is one reason that the Rogues are highly comfortable without socks …

… and the second reason is a super-soft genuine sheepskin footbed.  This sheepskin is different than the type Soft Star uses on other models like their Roo slippers; it seems to have finer fibers and feels softer against bare skin than the regular sheepskin.  I typically wear my Rogues with socks, but that’s my own aesthetic preference; there’s certainly no reason why the Rogues can’t be worn sockless.

The outsole of the Rogue features a Vibram Geo outsole that is among the thickest in the Soft Star catalog at 8mm (compared, for example, to my 5mm RunAmocs).  However, the rubber material in this outsole is quite lightweight and very pliable …

… which, like all Soft Star shoes, allows complete barefoot-style flexibility and movement.  The outsole is also somewhat soft, so ground feel isn’t compromised nearly as much as a firm material would be.

RunAmoc on top, Rogue on bottom

From a traction and durability standpoint, the outsole is outstanding.  How do I know this?  It just so happens that I’ve been testing the exact same outsole on a pair of RunAmocs, so I’ve used it on steep hills and loose gravel and slippery mud.  By appearances, this outsole pattern doesn’t seem very aggressive, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised in my testing to find that it’s virtually the equivalent of the original RunAmoc trail outsole.

While it’s not the formal shoe I was anticipating, the Soft Star Rogue is an attractive casual option that is equally home with a pair of jeans or long pajamas.  It retails for $125 from the Soft Star website.


Our second review is the women’s Metro, which is a formalized update to the very popular Merry Jane mocs that the female Running and Rambling crew loved testing last year.  It comes in a stock burgundy color, but can be made in custom colors such as the chocolate brown pair my wife has been wearing this fall.

Soft Star Metro

The updated Metro features an interior seam between the front and rear portion of the shoe, giving it a cleaner – or as the website describes it, a more “elegant” – appearance.  The natural leather uppers certainly have a dressier look than the Merry Janes, and (unlike the Rogues) could definitely pass for formal wear.

Another classy upgrade is a true strap and buckle fastener on the side of the shoe.  On the Merry Janes, the buckle is a Velcro attachment, which is perfect for kids racing out the door to school, but maybe not so much for an elegant night on the town.

The Metro’s insole is made of the same soft leather that lines RunAmocs, but is also available in a sheepskin option if that’s your preference.  And this is going to sound like déjà vu, but speaking of RunAmocs …

… the outsole of the Metro is made of a 4mm Vibram Cherry sole that I’ve also tested on a different pair of prototype RunAmocs.  It’s more than adequate for trail running, and is a significant improvement in traction and durability compared to the outsole on the regular Merry Jane model.

And do I even need to say this part anymore?   As natural as natural movement can be.

The elegant-ization of the Merry Jane doesn’t come cheap, as the Metro is priced 40 dollars higher than the more casual option – but if you’re looking for something that is truly formal, the looks of the updated version is probably worth it.  The Metro retails for $125 from the Soft Star website.

Finally, although I try to be objective with these reviews, there’s no question that I’m completely biased when it comes to the Soft Star company.  Whether it’s the charming Mom and Pop backstory (they literally lived and worked in a school bus), the barefoot ethos, their 100% Made in America commitment, or their willingness to partner with a complete idiot in developing the ideal moccasin for running crazy mountain trails, I pretty much love everything about this company.  Soft Star absolutely deserves your business – if not for the models described here, then perhaps a rugged RunAmoc or super-comfy Roo slipper – and even though my website is closing its doors, I’m still going to do everything in my power to make sure people know about them.  These are the kinds of things you can say when it’s time for goodbye.

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December 22, 2012

Random Shots of Christmas

A truck full of toys …

All laid out on a stage …

Plus a joyful (if somewhat weary-looking) Santa* …

Equals one special afternoon at an after school program for local at-risk kids:

It’s projects like this and days like this that make the holidays somewhat frenzied at times - and also makes me feel like I have little initiative or motivation for training.  However, these are also the things that make me see that in the grand scheme of things, training really isn’t that big of a deal.

*By the way, see that hair and beard on Santa?  It’s all real.  And apparently he owns his own suit and makes several appearances like this every year.  On this particular afternoon, Santa spent time with more than 90 kids, spoke with each of them individually while handing out presents, and hung around afterwards to spread Christmas cheer to kids who sorely need it.  So, yeah, he looks a little tired … but this guy lives for this sort of thing, and it shows.  Maybe we should all be tired like that.

"Christmas is Coming", from A Charlie Brown Christmas (click to play):

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December 19, 2012

GoLite Black Mountain Thermal Wind Pants Review; GoLite Cross Timbers Zonal Tights Review

It’s not exactly a coincidence that I’ve talked about GoLite a few times in the past month or so, and today’s review is a perfect example of why I’m such a big fan of the company.

I have to admit I wasn’t certain how the company’s “no marketing, no retail sales, just rock bottom web pricing across the board” strategy would play out when they announced the paradigm shift earlier this year.   Based on initial results from the first several months, I’d be terribly disappointed if it doesn’t succeed – and you should be too.  The reason why is simple: you simply cannot get better gear for lower prices anywhere.  Period. 

Two perfect examples are two pairs of cold-weather running apparel I’ve been using: the Black Mountain Thermal Wind Pant, and the Cross Timbers Zonal Tight.  You may recall that I mentioned receiving these earlier in the fall, but our temps weren’t yet cold enough for me to test them.  Well, the weather has finally cooperated here – I guess that’s how I’m referring to it - with overnight temperatures into the low 30s and upper 20s, so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to try them.

The ornament says "Winter is Coming", and belongs to my 14-year-old son.  Apparently it's a Game of Thrones thing.

However, one disclaimer on the product photos in this post: I don’t have action shots, because I’m much less inclined to arrange self-timer photo shoots on dark freezing mornings than I am when the sun is out.  So you’ll just have to take my word for it that I’ve run in these things.
GoLite Black Mountain Thermal Wind Pant

First up is the Black Mountain Thermal Wind Pant, which I was somewhat anxious to try, primarily because I haven’t had a lot of luck with non-tight bottom garments in the past.  The fit always seems too baggy here, too tight there, and I eventually end up going back to wearing tights again.  But with the Black Mountain pants, the fit is pretty well dialed in from waist to ankle.  There’s just a bit of roominess through the thighs and calves, but not so much that the pants feel baggy or bulky.

The Black Mountain pant is also super-duper warm, thanks to material construction that’s hard to assemble with traditional tights.  The exterior front panels are made of windproof polyester that’s been treated with DWR for water resistance, but the interior front surface has a soft fleece material for comfort and additional insulation. 

Fleece interior lining, drawstring in front, rear zipper pocket

Brushed microfleece lines the entire interior surface on the front and back side, and it stretches very nicely to provide full range of motion.  Another cool construction element for comfort and range of motion are fully articulated clamshell knee joints, which prevent the stretching of material on the front of the knee and bunching on the back side.

Articulated clamshell knees; 

Because they provide outstanding protection from the elements along with comfort and freedom of movement, the Black Mountain pants would probably be good for a variety of winter aerobic sports such as cross country skiing or snowshoeing in addition to cold-weather running.  And here’s where GoLite’s new business strategy is a wonderful thing, because pants like this would normally retail for close to 200 bucks, and at this time last year, GoLite would have sold them for $160.  Today, the Black Mountain Thermal Wind Pants retail for $64 from the GoLite website – trust me, you won’t get a better running pant for less money.

If you’re looking for traditional tights, the Cross Timbers Zonal Tight is a lightly compressive legging that provides a good combination of warmth and breathability.  It has brushed stretch fleece throughout the front of the legs (but not the back), and soft flatlock seams that minimize chafing.  Overall comfort is pretty nice; these are the kind of tights you can wear to start a multi-hour run in the dark, but still be comfortable when the sun comes up later in the morning.

GoLite Cross Timbers Zonal Tight

All the other basics of traditional running tights are included as well: ankle zippers, a drawstring waist, a zippered rear pocket, and reflective accents and logo.  Basically, it’s a solid high-performance piece for a bargain price; instead of a pre-business model change price of $120, GoLite now sells it for $48 from the company website.

*Products provided by GoLite

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December 16, 2012

Random Shots of Christmas; Injinji Sock Contest Winners

Apologies for another late weekend post … and let’s get right into things.  In honor of the season, I’m converting the customary weekend fare into a Random Shots of Christmas:

(click to enlarge)

This one’s a family tradition: a table full of decorated sugar cookies that my wife spent a full day baking, and all of us spent most of the evening decorating.  Unfortunately, the “eating” part doesn’t last nearly as long as the preparing part, but we at least manage to save a few of these to pass around as gifts over the next week or so.

Longtime readers will recall there’s often some imaginative nonsense involved with my cookie decorating, but this year the creative torch was passed to our kids, who came up with some pretty clever things …

… such as these, clockwise from top left: a Rastafari snowman, an apparently quite overweight Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes fame), Beaker and Dr Bunsen Honeydew (from my 11-year-old Muppet freak).  The last one is something called Steve the Minecraft Player, courtesy of my 14-year-old son.  No, I didn’t know that one offhand – and the fact that I have to Google my kid’s Christmas decorations is a sign that I’m getting either too old or hopelessly out of touch.  Probably both.

Thankfully, my kids managed to keep in mind the reason for all this holiday busy-ness:

As you see in these Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus cookies.  Sure, it’s a beautiful thing – but I’m already cringing at the inevitable debate in the near future about who gets to eat Baby Jesus. 

We also have one order of business to wrap up: announcing winners of the Injinji sock giveaway contestRunning Farmer, Jessica (Book of Life), and Maggie Wolff: e-mail me your contact info – you’re the winners!  Thanks very much to everyone else who entered; normally I’d say to stick around for the next one … but with the current state of things here, I’m afraid this is probably the end of the contest posts. 

So, um … yeah.  I guess goodbyes are awkward sometimes.  I’ll try not to make a fool of myself over the next couple of weeks – but there’s probably as much chance of that happening as those cookies making it past Christmas.

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December 12, 2012

Injinji Performance 2.0 Sock Review; Injinji Sock Giveaway Contest

Before today’s official review, a cool sale offer to pass along: GoLite is in the midst of a 12 Days of Savings campaign, featuring a killer deal on at least one item each day.  I receive banner links to a new item each day, but since I’ve long since stopped posting every day around here, I’m just including a direct link (on the photo below) to their site so you can return back later and check out the savings for yourself. 

And now we resume normal programming …

Even before embracing minimalism a few years ago, I was familiar with Injinji socks.  They were something of a novelty among ultrarunners, although those who used them seemed completely enamored with their ability to prevent blisters on or between your toes.

Shortly thereafter, the whole minimalist thing exploded, and Vibrams became the sexiest thing going – sometimes literally.  And since most of us live in places where the weather gets cold – yes, even here in California – Injinjis soon became the cheese to Vibram’s macaroni, and surged in popularity along with the FiveFingers.

Here’s the thing, though: I wasn’t exactly wild about Injinji’s early offerings.  They were fairly comfortable and great at keeping grit from grinding against your bare skin during a long trail run, but I wasn’t really impressed with their insulating capacity or ability to dry quickly.  They also seemed to stretch out and lose their shape fairly significantly after a handful of wash cycles.

So when I was offered a few pairs to try again this fall, I made sure to ask the rep if something had changed from the pairs I tested from a few years ago.  It turns out, something had – and the new Injinji Performance 2.0 series will be available in early 2013.

Injinji Performance 2.0 series socks

The new line has less of a cottony feel than the previous versions, with improved CoolMax fabric that is more similar to technical running socks in its wicking ability and moisture management.  They use a variety of fabric combinations and weave patterns to improve the fit, and they seem more compressive than the previous line.  I’ve washed mine several times, and so far they are holding their shape quite nicely.

Injinji classifies the Performance 2.0 line according to activity, such as Run, Trail, and Sport. They are further categorized by height – from knee high all the way down to micro - and by fabric weight (lightweight, original, and midweight).  In other words, there are a lot of options, which should make it easy to find a variety you like.

My favorite of the new collection is a wool model from the trail line.  Although it isn’t as comfortable as some other materials, I’ve gradually become a fan of wool socks during wet or cold-weather outings, mainly because of its ability to maintain insulation even when wet.  Injinji’s wool socks are thicker than its other fabric blends, but they are quite effective at keeping your toes warm in shoes with highly breathable uppers.  The only downside is that if your FiveFingers are a snug fit, you may need to size up for winter running.

I suppose the bottom line is that if you liked Injinjis in the past, you’ll like the Performance 2.0 line for sure – and if you (like me) weren’t wild about Injinjis in the past, it may be time to give them a second look.  And following this post, a few readers will get the chance to try Injinjis for themselves.  The company is offering three winners a running sampler pack including a road model, trail model, and wool Injinji sock.  There’s no criteria to enter – it’s simply a luck of the draw thing of this one.  Leave a comment below to enter, and I’ll announce the winner on Sunday night.

Thanks very much to Injinji for sponsoring this giveaway, and good luck to everybody!

*Products provided by Injinji

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December 9, 2012

Christmas Time's A-Coming

“Christmas time’s a-coming – and I know I’m going home”
-      -  Patty Loveless, “Christmas Time’s A-Coming” (video after post)

Even though we don’t live in a winter climate, our little hometown of Carmel Valley takes Christmas time pretty seriously.  For proof, you need look no further than this weekend’s annual festivities that never fail to draw virtually every man, woman, and child in town – partly due to the fact that almost everyone is involved in some capacity.

And since this is the weekend, we’ll use this as a starting point for an extended Random Shots of Beauty, which may also be rightly called Random Shots of Christmas, or even Random Shots of Life in a Small Town.

The fun gets underway with the approach of a helicopter to the Valley’s abandoned old airstrip …

… that carries special passengers from the North Pole.

It’s Santa Claus and Mrs Claus, escorted by a fireman.  It’s worth noting that in Carmel Valley, firemen are right up there with Santa in terms of admiration from local kids – which is exactly as it should be.

The Advantages of Being a Girl Scout in Carmel Valley, Part 1: the local troop gets first dibs at greeting Santa after touchdown.  It’s a great advantage to have …

… because as soon as they’re done, Santa gets the complete rock star treatment.

In case you doubted that Santa’s arrival is a big deal here: See that guy in the Hawaiian shirt?  He’s a United States Congressman.

After the Fly-In, our one-street village hosts a Christmas parade that tells you as much about the town as it does about Christmas …

… beginning with another star turn by the local fire department in an old-school fire truck.

Advantages of Being a Girl Scout in Carmel Valley, Part 2: the local Brownies get another featured role in the big day.

Then again, the local dirt-bike kids also get their spot in the show …

… as do a lot of farm equipment, usually towing a load of kids.

In an old ranch community, you know you’ll see a lot of horses …

... and in our part of California, this is the only kind of snowman most of us will ever see.  Also, did I mention the tractors?

Of course, the nicest tractor is reserved for the star of the show, fresh off his helicopter landing, along with some lucky kids who get to share the ride with him.

I don’t know whether it’s the impending joy of the holiday season, or the yearly reminder of what a special place this is to live – but our annual Christmas parade is one of the many things that makes Carmel Valley feel like home.

And continuing last weekend’s reference to our family’s favorite Christmas songs is this one from a Patty Loveless album that – seeing as how I never considered myself a huge bluegrass fan - took me completely by surprise when it gradually became one of my most-loved collections a few years ago.

“Christmas Time’s A-Coming” by Patty Loveless (click to play):

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