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March 30, 2009

Sunrise, Fort Ord

Midway through a long run last week, I found myself here:

This trail is part of the Fort Ord open space between Monterey and Salinas. As the sun crept over the distant hillside, I was about ten miles into my run, with another eight still to go.

Sometimes during these high-volume training weeks, I question whether it's really worth it to drag myself out of bed almost three hours before sunrise just to get some extra miles under my belt before clocking in with the rest of the working world. Other times - especially when the morning breaks like this one did - I wonder why I don't do it more often.


Truthfully, if it weren't for the specter of Western States looming over my training schedule, mornings like this would be very few and far between. Aside from everything else I gain from the sport of ultrarunning, it's these opportunities to bask in the natural beauty of this place I live that help make the whole journey worthwhile.

As luck would have it, I wasn't completely alone in Fort Ord on this particular morning - in fact, I had to share my beautiful sunrise with these guys:


The photo's a little dark, but I'm guessing you can still come up with a positive ID on the group. They're a well-known entity around Fort Ord - and I've actually got a whole separate story to tell about them, which will be the topic of my next post.

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March 26, 2009

Lessons From a Loser

As a writer, it’s a great thing when stories just fall into your lap.

More specifically, as a running columnist with a pop culture fixation, it’s absolutely fantastic when a story involving distance running and a reality TV star unleashes an honest-to-goodness Internet scandal. In that regard, Dane Patterson's attempted marathon last month was the race heard ‘round the World Wide Web.

When such circumstances collide, the appropriate question to my sports editor isn’t, “Should I write about that?” but rather, “How many words do you want, and when would you like it?” The answers were 1) 600, and 2) this week, and the result is the Monterey Herald column that follows.

However, since the cyber-storm had sort of blown over by the time this article saw newsprint, I wanted to refrain from piling on criticism of what went down. (God knows enough bloggers have done that already). Instead, I used the occasion to look at one particular, slightly troubling aspect of today’s distance running culture, and to offer a reminder of an important strategy for long-term fitness success.

Finally, actual footage from the episode has been removed (for obvious reasons) from the NBC website and most of the Web, but I linked to a post that contains the clip in question if you're interested.

**
Running Life 3/26/09 “Lessons From a Loser”

Of all the cardinal sins a runner can commit, the greatest is claiming to run a marathon when you really haven’t. The commandment is clear: Thou shalt not call thyself a marathoner if Thou hast not covered the entire 26.2 miles.

Dane Patterson, a contestant on this season’s Biggest Loser, learned that lesson the hard way last month, and incurred not only the wrath of God, but of thousands of angry marathoners. His is a cautionary tale that highlights a couple of vital lessons for novice runners.

First, some background. After being voted off of the show’s Feb 25th episode, the follow-up piece [video link] showed Patterson running a marathon in Arizona. Viewers saw him cross the finish line, and wear a finisher’s medal as the crowd cheered him. Meanwhile, a caption reported that he completed the race in 3 hours, 53 minutes, and Patterson’s voiceover described it as “the most amazing experience of my life to run an entire marathon.”

It was a great story, except for one problem: he didn’t actually do the whole marathon.

Patterson entered the race and ran about 17 miles before NBC producers realized that he wouldn’t make the finish line before the race finished and the sun went down. Somewhere around mile 23, Patterson agreed to ride the NBC van to the finish, where he was filmed crossing the line victoriously.

Like other scoundrels of the information age, Patterson’s undoing came via the Internet. A fellow runner wrote on her personal blog that she saw Patterson and his wife get out of the van just before the finish line, and others who were present confirmed the report. Mainstream media picked up the story, and NBC was soon apologizing for creating a staged accomplishment.

After the controversy broke, Patterson reasserted that he only rode for 3 miles in the van - but to anybody who has ever run a marathon, it didn’t matter. He became a lightning rod for an angry mob of runners accusing him of the highest form of treason.

The whole fiasco raises two interesting points – the first of which is that almost everybody is trying to do a marathon these days.

Twenty years ago, new runners targeted 10K races as incentives to get in shape; today, the marathon has become an entry-level race. Training programs - many of which are fundraisers - promise to turn sedentary people into marathoners in a period of weeks. 10Ks and half-marathons aren’t impressive enough anymore; everyone is reaching for the brass ring right out of the gate.

While the notion is admirable, this isn’t always a good thing in practice. The injury risk for a novice runner starting a marathon program is quite high – and many of those who do complete the race find the process so dreadful that they never return to it.

Which brings us to the second lesson from Patterson’s story: the importance of setting manageable goals.

A new runner would probably benefit more by building up to the marathon challenge slowly, after successfully completing shorter distances over a longer period of time. Your chance of long-term success is much greater, which should be the primary reason you start running in the first place. Besides, it’s not like marathons are going away anytime soon – your goal race will still be there for you to tackle when you’re properly prepared.

We’re glad Dane Patterson was able to run 23 miles last month. He is trying another marathon in April, and we sincerely wish him the best of luck in finishing it. Above all else, we wish him the many years of health and happiness that dedicated runners have come to enjoy.

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March 23, 2009

Montrail Wildwood Shoe Review

"Oh, baby, baby it's a wild world ..."
- Jimmy Cliff, "Wild World" (video after post)


It’s not very often that a running partner asks me to run in his shoes - not in the figurative, “get a sense of what my life is like” sense, but the strictly literal, “here’s a pair of my shoes – go running in them please” manner that happened last month.

The occasion for such a request was my friend’s immediate dissatisfaction with his new Montrail Wildwood shoes. He ran in them twice, and experienced all sorts of problems. Since he and I have the same shoe size, he handed them off to me to see if I had any better luck. I figured it was a great opportunity to try a (nearly) new pair of shoes I was really interested in – and even if my I didn’t like them, I could use the opportunity for another gear review. (Have I mentioned before how much I love reviewing new products? Just checking.)

This review is also a companion piece of sorts to my New Balance 858 review (see right sidebar), where I described how I usually buy shoe models that are one generation old. The main reason for doing so is to find better prices - but an additional benefit is avoiding shoes that fall short of lofty expectations. Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what happened with the debut version of the Montrail Wildwood.

I should preface all of the following remarks by saying that I absolutely love Montrail shoes. I’ve used several different models over the past 10 years, and I ran the entire Headlands 100 last August in one pair of Hardrocks. Montrail’s commitment to ultrarunning – as demonstrated with race sponsorships, a team of supported runners, and the Ultra Cup series - has always been strong, and they’re a company that I feel good about supporting.

So when I heard the buzz last fall about the new Wildwood, I figured it was only a matter of time before I tried a pair. The shoe was reportedly inspired by Portland’s Wildwood trail, a 30-mile gem featuring a variety of terrain - from asphalt to wide gravel to muddy single track to technical rocky sections. In other words, the Wildwood offers something for just about every trail runner.

Advance reviews of the shoe promoted it as a perfect hybrid for people who have to run a few street miles before reaching a trailhead – which is exactly what I do here in Carmel Valley from time to time. The Wildwood claims to blend the comfort of a road shoe with the toughness of a trail shoe – which sounds like a combination anyone would appreciate.

You can understand how I was eager to try it; you can also understand how disappointed I was to find that the shoe was a bit of a letdown.

The first thing I noticed when lacing them up is that they are incredibly wide – so much so that I checked the tongue immediately to see if my friend had maybe ordered a wide version by mistake. However, this was the normal “D” width. The toe box is intentionally roomy to provide space for swollen toes during ultras, and to prevent impingement on steep downhills – but in this case, it seems like there is way more lateral forefoot space than is necessary. The result was that my forefoot moved around much more than I wanted on technical terrain, and never felt comfortably supported.

The excess width of the Wildwood even extends to the rearfoot, as I had to cinch up the laces as tight as possible to make the upper feel snug and secure. Both times I wore the shoe, I stopped about one mile down the road to cinch up the laces a little bit tighter, because my foot was still moving around more than I cared for.

I wore the shoes for a 10-mile road-to-dirt outing to test their performance as a hybrid. On the asphalt, the Wildwood seemed reasonably cushioned for a smooth ride - but when I reached the dirt, it felt much less supportive than my typical trail runners. Eventually, the overall lack of lateral stability left me with some arch issues and forefoot pain after what should have been a routine run. As a point of reference, my favorite shoes for road-to-trail transitions are the Vasque Mercury or the Montrail Continental Divide; unfortunately, the Wildwood didn’t even approach these two models in regards to comfort or performance.

Before writing this review, I was hesitant about completely bashing the Wildwood, so I did a Google search for some other reviews. Reactions seem to be a completely mixed bag: some folks (most notably Runner's World) seem to love it, while others have similar findings as me. One point worth noting is that a couple of the favorable reviews indicate that the tester used orthotics or arch supports inside the shoe – which would not only correct the “too roomy, too wide” problem, but also provide extra support on technical footing.

Ultimately, the Wildwood isn’t the shoe for me, but I may be an exception to the general consensus. My body type (tall, heavy, moderate pronator) may not be the right profile for the shoe, or maybe the size I wore was a half-size too large. Or maybe it just wasn’t a good match (or - to use a phrase du jour - maybe the shoe's just not into me.) Your results may vary. If you’ve used these shoes and like them, feel free to let me know in the comments section.

My recommendation for anyone interested in the Wildwood is to try it on first, as you may need a half-size smaller than Montrail’s normal sizing. Or try a regular size with orthotics or cushioned arch supports. Or, if you’ve had a great history with Montrail products as I have, maybe you can wait until these shoes go on sale and take a chance – hopefully they’ll work for you better than they did for my friend and me.

On that note – and for anyone who REALLY wants to take a chance – if you’d like to make an offer on a gently used, low mileage, somewhat smelly pair of size 11 Wildwoods, I know somebody who can give you a very good price.

**

And on a completely random note: every time I ran in these shoes, I found myself singing the chorus of Jimmy Cliff’s classic reggae cover of the famous Cat Stevens song. The lyrics are close enough that “Baby it’s a Wildwood” didn’t seem the least bit ridiculous – but maybe that’s just me. Anyway … it gives me a reason to post the wonderful song below. (Click to play):



See previous product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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March 19, 2009

Asking, Seeking, Knocking

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”
- Matthew 7: 7-8

Hey ... remember when I used to write about races on this blog?

In some ways, that seems like very long ago. However, as spring approaches and my huge goal race looms over summer’s horizon, there’s no escaping the fact that racing season has come around again, like a runner’s version of the circle of life.

Last year, I prefaced a race schedule post with the expression “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” It proved far more prophetic than I hoped for, as the Western States 100 – the event I built my entire year around - went up in smoke thanks to extensive wildfires on par with some crazy Biblical plague. So this year, I’m leading with a much more optimistic scripture passage; perhaps I’ll influence God into a little less capriciousness, and a little more compassion. (Its a longshot, but what the heck.)

With that, here’s the list. As in 2008, everything builds towards the main event in June.

1. Diablo 50M, April 19. Last spring, I entered this race after a full training week, and encountered the toughest 50M course I had ever seen (over 13K of climbing) on a day when temperatures soared into the upper 80s. Needless to say, it left me broken, beat, and scarred (random Metallica shout out! See video after post.) – and equally needless to say, it was the perfect prep race for a summer 100-miler. It’s also a wonderful event by the best trail running organization anywhere, Pacific Coast Trail Runs - and a race that should be on every ultra runner’s wish list.

2. Big Sur International Marathon, April 26. That’s right … I’m running Big Sur again. I’ll have more about this later on, so for now I’ll just say this: since Big Sur is only 7 days after Diablo, I will definitely be running this marathon as opposed to racing it in years past. (And if I keep repeating that promise to myself every day for the next five weeks, I might actually follow-through on it.)

3. Quicksilver 50M, May 9. I haven’t signed up yet, but I’m 95% committed – in other words, all the way committed except for typing in my credit card number. Initially, I viewed this race as a fallback option in case I didn’t get into the Miwok 100K – but when I lost out on the Miwok lottery, and started looking more at the Quicksilver site, it immediately started looking like a better option than Miwok. It’s one week later, which gives me some extra recovery time after Diablo and Big Sur. It has just as much climbing and is more likely to have warm weather to mimic conditions on the WS 100 course. And it’s close enough to home that I can just drive up on race morning and knock it out.

The only drawback in comparison to Miwok is the obvious one: Quicksilver is only 50M instead of 100K. Last year's Miwok race seemed like the perfect distance for that point in my training – so although the mileage difference isn’t huge, it’s one that will bug me unless I compensate for it somehow. I’m bouncing a couple of ideas around about running extra miles either before or after the race; if anyone has first-hand experience with doing this at Quicksilver, I’d love to hear from you.

4. Western States 100 Training Camp, May 23. I’m tentatively planning on attending the first day - for the 32-mile run on the major climbs of the Western States course - then bailing on the final two days of camp to catch up on some family time over the Memorial Day weekend. I know that there is usually a group of runners who tack extra mileage onto the first day’s run; as with the last item, if you know anything about a similar plan for this year, please contact me.

Those are the tune-up events, all of which are preparation for …

5. Western States Endurance Run, June 27-28. Um … you know what? I’m not really ready to start talking about this yet. Rest assured, you’ll hear about it ad nauseum as the date approaches. In the meantime, if you're really looking for a time-killer, feel free to scroll through the 10-part Western States Training Diary (on my right sidebar) that I published for the Monterey Herald last year.

In some ways, it’s hard to believe I’m right back where I was before: asking for advice, seeking the best path, and knocking on the door of the Western States 100 again in a few short months. My biggest hope this summer is for that door to finally be opened and welcome me in.

**

Music bonus! Although Metallica didn’t invent the expression “What don’t kill ya make ya more strong,” they’ve definitely staked their claim to laying down the coolest musical accompaniment to the phrase. It’s prominently featured in the live version of “Broken, Beat, and Scarred” that follows below. Although less than one year old, this song has rapidly become one of the most awesome ultrarunning songs ever written. (Click to play):



*Bible verses and a Metallica video in the same post … welcome to the dichotomy that is my life.

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March 16, 2009

Vespa Sport Supplement Review

This product review took me far longer to write than I ever anticipated; in some ways, I’m still not sure I should be writing it.


Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been using Vespa Sport Supplements to augment my mileage buildup towards ultramarathons in the spring and summer. During that time, I’ve gone back and forth about ten times about whether or not to recommend it to other ultrarunners. I’ve finally concluded that I would, but only under certain circumstances – as I’ll explain a bit later.

First, the product. Vespa is an amino acid supplement named after the Asian Mandarin wasp (Vespa mandarina) from which its main ingredient is extracted. Not to be confused with the motor scooter or the Druish Princess of the same name, Vespa’s primary notoriety is that it can optimize the body’s ability to metabolize fat during endurance activities.

Physiologically, the human body stores glycogen in both fat and muscle tissue; during exercise, muscle glycogen is utilized more quickly and effectively (based on oxygen consumption) than fat stores, but becomes depleted more rapidly - the dreaded bonk - than fat does. Therefore, if we could somehow burn a higher percentage of fat while running, we would be able to run for longer periods of time without needing to refuel so frequently – not to mention, it would be a fantastic way to lose weight and get leaner.

The quest to unlock fat metabolism is nothing new; as far back as 20 years ago, running magazines promoted the idea of Long, Steady Distance (LSD) training, which supposedly taught your body to burn fat sources at a lower intensity. Unfortunately, for many runners, this training adaptation had very poor carryover to race performance – all that long, slow training guaranteed was long, slow race times. That’s when folks started experimenting with supplements to facilitate the fat-burning process.

Vespa has been around for more than a decade, and began turning heads when their athletes won high profile races such as the 2000 Olympic Women’s marathon and the 2007 100K World Championships. More recently, they have targeted ultrarunners - and to a lesser extent, triathletes - with an impressive roster of runners who have won overall titles at several ultras. (It also has something of a cult following with NHL teams – which may not be representative of endurance sports, but helps confirm the widely held notion that hockey players will try almost anything for a competitive edge.)

The focus on ultrarunners is primarily due to Peter Defty, Vespa’s United States sales and marketing representative, who is an accomplished ultrarunner (sub-24-hr Western States) himself. Peter and I exchanged several e-mails and spoke on the phone during my trial period with Vespa, and he helped explain a lot of the intricacies of the product and its optimal use.

Ideally, Vespa is used in combination with a comprehensive diet strategy (the Paleo diet – more on that in a minute) and system of training (the Maffetone method) to achieve its intended results. For example, Peter’s recommendation to me prior to a long run was to eat a rare steak the night before, take a Vespa pack 45 minutes prior to exercise in the morning, and start my long run about 1-2 minutes per mile slower than usual. During the run, instead of replenishing my calorie stores, I only took a diluted sports drink, and another Vespa sometime around the 3 hour mark. Gels or similar energy sources should only be used very sparingly, such as 1 or 2 per 50K of running.

Used properly, Vespa helps mobilize fat sources and keeps blood sugar levels constant throughout the activity, which prevents the typical highs and lows that many ultrarunners experience due to fluctuating glucose levels. It also reportedly reduces the amount of lactate that is produced during an exercise session.

(This seems like the right time for me to point out that the actual science behind this is subject to a lot of study right now, and has been a topic of spirited discussion amongst ultrarunners and medical professionals over the past couple of years. Some folks dismiss it as 21st-Century snake oil; others claim that it will revolutionize everything we know about sports physiology. Like everything else, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. For the purposes of this review, I’m going to leave the scientific validity for others to debate, and just report on my own experience. Moving on … )

Looking back at my long training runs over the past three months – some using Vespa, some without - I’m convinced that there is a noticeable difference in my performance on the days I’ve used Vespa. It’s not necessarily a feeling of being supercharged, but I tended to avoid the low energy points that inevitably occur during a multi-hour run. Last year, before I tried Vespa, I would frequently pack sandwiches and Clif bars and Sport Beans and all sorts of things to keep my caloric intake steady during a long run. This year, I haven’t used more than a single gel on any of my long training days. I also feel like I recover from long runs more easily, which is another benefit that the product claims.

Sounds too good to be true, right? Well … right. There are some definite downsides to using Vespa that made me hesitate to recommend it right away. The primary drawback from the everyday runner’s standpoint would probably be cost.

Each 2.7-oz pouch of Vespa sells for $5.99 at Zombie Runner; there is also a junior version (for athletes less than 160 lbs) that sells for $5.49. Either way, that’s a pretty hefty price tag for a product that is supposed to be used both before and during each long run. Apparently the extraction process is fairly laborious – I can’t imagine being the person responsible for milking this stuff out of live wasps – and Vespa distinguishes itself by using only natural ingredients, which are more costly than synthetic imitations. One potential tradeoff for the expense is that you will consume fewer supplemental calories during each long run – so instead of going through 5 dollars worth of gels and bars during a workout, you just use one or two Vespa instead. It’s up to each individual to determine whether that math works in his or her favor.

For me, the primary drawback was the taste, and some stomach issues that developed during my early training phase. There’s really no polite way to say it: Vespa tastes pretty awful. It has a sharply bitter taste that was so persistent that I would immediately brush my teeth after taking the pre-run pouch. Taking it on the trail, you’re kind of stuck with that taste for a lot of miles, even after chasing it down with water or sports drink.

I also noticed some queasiness that occurred pretty consistently after taking Vespa. It was like a very mild level of nausea – not enough to make me sick or slow me down, but just enough to feel weird and uncomfortable. Discussing this with Peter, the solution came back to the dietary strategy that is recommended when using Vespa.

The Paleo diet primarily consists of lean meats, plants, fruit and nuts, with very little calories from what modern-day man considers traditional carbohydrate sources. According to Paleo proponents, my stomach is too accustomed to the carb-rich diet that is typical of most Westerners - particularly runners – and because of that, it doesn’t process the ingredients of Vespa in an efficient enough manner for me to avoid getting some nausea. The solution would be to radically change my diet towards strict adherence to the Paleo guidelines, and eliminate processed starches and other carbohydrate-rich foods. (Like cookies. And pumpkin muffins. And you can see how this is the point where my faith in the product started slipping a bit).

The obvious question from all this seems to be: If I just switched to a Paleo diet, and did a high volume of regimented training, and took in fewer calories – during exercise in particular, and overall in general – and didn’t use Vespa, wouldn’t I still see improvements in weight loss and fitness? It’s a question that I never answered, namely because I’m too set in my ways to turn my diet upside down for several months just to test a hypothesis.

So where does that leave us? I indicated at the top of the post that I would recommend Vespa under certain circumstances – but first, I’ll tell you who probably won’t benefit from this product. If you’re generally happy with how your training and diet are going, and are just looking to tinker with something here or there to augment the things you’re already doing, I doubt that you’d have much to gain by trying Vespa.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking to completely overhaul your fitness program, to simultaneously revamp your training philosophy and monitor your nutritional profile, then Vespa would probably be very effective. Some marathoners and ultrarunners spend years frustrated about lack of progress towards weight loss or performance goals; in those cases, small changes typically aren’t enough to shatter the mold – it takes a dramatic shift to break through stubborn barriers.

So in summary: I don’t know how Vespa works, but I think it does work. I don’t feel like it’s an essential part of my training program, but it could be an essential part of yours. I can’t recommend it to everybody, but I would whole-heartedly recommend it to some people. Considering all that … is it any wonder this review took me so long to write?


See previous product reviews on right sidebar. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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March 12, 2009

Racing Innovations

A few weeks ago, I had never heard the phrase “virtual velocity”; two days ago, I started putting it to use.

My friend and fellow Monterey Herald columnist Mike alerted me to the concept after visiting last month's Running USA conference. We included it as a small addendum to an otherwise mindboggling assortment of technological developments that were on display at the conference, and which are described in the Monterey Herald column that follows.

As luck would have it, two days ago I was sitting at a race committee meeting for an annual rinky-dink 5K/10K race in Salinas (obviously, “Rinky-Dink 5K” isn’t the official name, but you get the idea), and mentioned the idea of virtual velocity. The girl sitting next to me happened to be a rabid Facebook user (not only that, but she’s on my friend list!!), and ran with the idea from there. The race is in May; I’ll report back if the Facebook strategy made a noticeable impact for us.

(And yes, I realize that in light of my recent little Facebook rant, this development is terribly ironic. I don't have to like the game, I just have to know how to play it.)

In the meantime, here’s the article that appeared on Thursday.

**

Running Life 3/12/09 “Racing Innovations”

These days, it seems like technology is taking over every aspect of our lives. Even the sport of running – the simplest activity imaginable – is susceptible to the avalanche of high-tech innovation, as Mike learned at the 2009 Running USA conference in San Diego last month.

That’s not to say that all of the applications are beneficial; in fact, many of them seemingly exist just to make an otherwise basic pursuit overwhelmingly complicated.

For example, you can now download something called iMapMyRun for your iPhone to help measure your distance, speed, and average pace with GPS tracking. Because as we all know, you really can’t have peace of mind on a run unless you’re carrying your iPhone. The product is marketed as “Your Redefined Running Partner,” so be sure to let your current partners know that their services are no longer necessary.

Many years ago, races started with someone yelling “GO!” and the first person to the finish line was the winner. Then we evolved to the more sophisticated method of giving every finisher a numbered popsicle stick. When we first strapped timing chips to our shoes, we felt like we’d entered the Space Age – but nowadays, race timing continues to evolve exponentially.

One company offers modular timing systems that are flexible and scalable. Another uses a disposable RFID tag placed on each runner’s shoe. Another has a J Chip attached to the race bib to time the athlete’s torso instead of his or her feet. We have no idea what any of the technical jargon means – but we’re eagerly awaiting the inevitable ZZZ tag as all the letters of the alphabet are eventually exhausted.

Modern timing systems also allow runners to have their split times during a race e-mailed or texted to their relatives and friends, via desktop, laptop, cell phone, or other hand-held devices. This way anyone wanting to see you at the finish line can wait until the last possible moment to finish their latte before heading to the finish line to scream your name.

Besides being technical, many races are striving to be greener as well – which is the kind of technology we all appreciate. For instance, some race bibs are now recyclable, and others have self-adhesive to avoid the use of safety pins – an especially nice perk for small children doing youth races. You can even buy race bibs that have seeds in them, so that instead of recycling the bib after the race, you can plant it in your garden, water it, and a short time later you have flowers. Honestly, we’re not making this stuff up.

Technology is also changing the way races are promoted. Several speakers told race directors to create “virtual velocity” for their races by generating buzz about the event on YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, blogs, running forums, and other on-line communities. One went as far as to say that, “Any race that doesn’t use virtual velocity is in the dark ages.”

Listen to these sales pitches for long enough, and it seems pretty amazing that we were ever able to run races and enjoy them at all without so many modern advances. While we appreciate any development that improves the experience for race committees or participants – as well as anything that helps the environment – we never want to lose sight of the basic qualities of running that we fell in love with in the first place.

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March 9, 2009

Let Her Go, Dude

“If you need somebody, call my name –
If you want someone, you can do the same …
If you love someone, set them free.”

- Sting, “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free” (video after post)

Several weeks ago I described (in this post) my five-year-old daughter’s adventures in learning to ride her bike without training wheels, as well as my preferred method of safeguarding her along the way: rolling behind the bike with my inline skates in order to keep a supportive hand on her seatpost as needed. In previous experience with my two older kids, it only took a couple of afternoons like this before I felt confident enough to release my grip and let the kid roll off across the playground.

This time around, for some reason, I’m finding it much harder to let go.

Part of it has to do with the girl; of our three kids, she’s far and away the most easily distracted by everyday wonders. The smallest pretty flower, colorful bug, fluttering bird, or any of a thousand other chance observations will cause her to stop in her tracks and marvel at the rich details of life. (It’s a great quality to have when you’re strolling in the park; when trying to focus on steering your handlebars properly, not so much.) She’s also an incessant chatterbox, and sees no reason why learning the hardest new skill she’s ever encountered should detract from her telling an important story in the process.

Consequently, my girl wobbles and weaves much more than she should, then barely gains her balance before she starts looking at the trees, or finding shapes in the clouds, or singing me some new song she’s learned. Throw in all the times she looks over her shoulder to see if I’m still supporting her, and you can appreciate my hesitance to let her out of arm’s reach.

However, a larger part of the problem has to do with me. Skating circles on the blacktop behind my daughter’s bike, at some point I realized that this was the last one; this was the last kid I had to teach on a two-wheeler before that aspect of my job description was no longer necessary. On some level, I was sad that my youngest child was gaining the freedom to not need me anymore; not only that, but I was the one who was teaching her to do it.

So it was that I found myself rolling along behind my daughter recently with part of me coaching her and reminding her to pay attention to her task, and the other part reluctantly hoping that she’d take just a little bit longer to accomplish it. Finally, a few seconds into a ride when she seemed to be in a groove, I actually had to whisper a command to myself: It’s OK. Let her go.

I eased my fingers off the seatpost, and she was riding. I drifted to the side of her bike so she could see me, and her face burst into an enormous smile. The maiden trip lasted a handful of seconds before she coasted to a stop, but progressive attempts lasted upwards of 60 seconds or more. All I gave her was a gentle push to start, then followed far enough behind for her to know she was flying on her own now.

Less than 10 minutes later, she did a faceplant into the asphalt.

As crashes go, it wasn’t terribly tragic; a long hug and some encouraging words were all it took to get her back on the bike. However, she was slightly more cautious with the rest of her riding that afternoon, and wanted reassurance that I would stay close by her for the remainder of the day. Obviously, I was happy to oblige.

And that’s where things stand now: a 5-year-old girl who is independent enough to suffer her own crashes, but insecure enough to want me alongside her when they occur. It’s a situation that I’d love to somehow maintain as she faces down one challenge after another on her road to maturity.

Even though I can’t prevent her from falling anymore, I guess that sharing the adventure with her is the next best thing.

*
Sting, “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free” (click to play):

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March 5, 2009

New Balance 858 Running Shoe Review

When it comes to shoes, I’m the Imelda Marcos of runners.

I’ve got a designated pair of running shoes for just about every conceivable condition. I’ll wear a different pair of shoes for a hilly 3-hour trail run than I would for 90 minutes on fire roads, another pair for slopping through the mud, and still another for a hybrid road/trail run. On the roads, I wear different pairs depending on whether I’m doing a tempo run or base mileage around the neighborhood. And I haven’t even mentioned the variety of track shoes I own.

It’s gotten to the point where shoes overflow my closet space, and end up getting stacked upon each other on bedroom shelves or – more commonly – strewn across the bathroom floor. I’d describe the situation as problematic … except that I’m not quite ready to admit that I need help yet. I’m like the addict who has to hit rock bottom first – and in the meantime, I just tell myself that everything is perfectly fine.

Things didn’t used to be this way. In fact, for the first several years that I was a runner, I didn’t have trail shoes or road shoes or track shoes; I simply had a pair of running shoes, that I would use wherever, and through whatever conditions, my feet carried me. More often than not, that pair of shoes was made by New Balance.

When I was a dedicated road runner, I spent several years logging between 50-80 miles per week, and racing three or four marathons per year. During that period of time, my favorite shoes were the New Balance 850 series – they were comfortable and durable enough to tolerate the high weekly mileage, versatile enough to use on either roads or trails, and light enough to use in races (at the time, doing four marathons per year wasn’t enough to justify having separate racing shoes; I was a lot cheaper back then than I am today). Best of all, as the models were periodically updated, New Balance was usually smart enough to not make dramatic changes – they simply made minor improvements to a line that enjoyed widespread popularity – and I continued to buy one pair after another.

So when New Balance Harrisburg offered me a chance to review the New Balance 858, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. (I know, I know … I always say yes. But occasionally I hesitate.)

The 858 (and its more recent offspring, the 859 – more on that in a minute) is designed as a high-mileage stability shoe. Since I’m 6’2”, 190 lbs, and pronate my feet, the structure and weight of the shoe is just about perfect. For smaller runners, or those without pronation concerns, the shoe may feel a bit too bulky.

I could go into specifics about all of the technological developments these shoes feature – such as the NLock lacing system, Abzorb SBS shock absorption, TS2 pronation support, or Acteva midsole foam – but honestly, I probably can’t explain them adequately, and you probably don’t care. The most important thing I can tell you about the 858s is that when I laced them up and started cranking out the miles, they felt exactly the same way that all of my old 850 series trainers did. They’re still comfortable, versatile, and durable – and if you’re a larger runner looking for a single all-purpose shoe, these would be a great choice.

The 858 even won a “best update” distinction from Runner’s World magazine when it was released – but if you look on the New Balance website today, you won’t be able to find it. That’s because it has been updated and replaced by the 859 – which warrants a brief description of my shoe buying practices.

Almost without exception, I buy shoes that are one model behind the current version – the benefits of which are twofold. First, I get to read plenty of reviews and hear feedback about new models after they’ve been tried and tested by the masses. In some cases, lukewarm reviews will help me avoid a shoe that had great buzz but ended up being kind of a dud (like this year’s Montrail Wildwood – which I may discuss in a future post). The primary benefit, though, is cost – because if you think I can stock a closet full of running shoes by paying retail price every time, you’re crazy.

Since the 858 has been updated, a Google search will give you several vendors who sell it for less than $60. New Balance Harrisburg, who sponsored this review, sells the 858 online, although they still charge close to full retail price. The good news is, even at retail, you’re still getting your money’s worth with these shoes – but if it were me, I’d probably shop around to find the best deal.

The 858s probably won’t cure me of my shoe fetish, but I'm definitely pleased to have them in my closet.


See previous product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you'd like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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March 4, 2009

After the Final Wash

Actual, unsolicited conversation between my wife and me sometime yesterday evening …

Wife: Hey, I think that WIN detergent works better than the ProWash.

Me: Really? I thought you said they were the same.

Wife: I know … but it seems like my clothes smell better after I use the WIN.

Me: Well, it’s kind of too late – I already wrote the review.

Wife: Maybe you can put in an update or something.

So there you go. It’s belated, but we’ll score a victory for WIN in the Running and Rambling household. Here's the link to the Amazon deal if you’re interested. And you can forgive my wife for having a change of heart – she’s been watching a lot of The Bachelor this week.

New product review coming tomorrow.

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