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May 30, 2009

Fuzzy Math

Admin note: I'm going to need another day or two for a National Spelling Bee recap; I'm finding it quite challenging to sit through seven hours of taped coverage when I'm only averaging about four and a half hours of sleep per night. Sometimes the body just wins. In the meantime, another fatigue-related post ...

**
Actual e-mail exchange between a running partner and me during the middle of last week:

Him: How many miles are you running over these two weeks?

Me: I’m hoping for 80 this week, and 65-70 next week before tapering. I’m a little tired lately.


I usually track my weekly mileage from Monday to Sunday - for no significant reason other than that’s the way I decided to do it many years ago – and I generally don’t spend too much time worrying about reaching a certain number from week to week. I just figure that if I run as much as I’m able to from one day to the next, and one week to another, the numbers will work out where I need them to be.

That’s why it took me by surprise when my oxygen-depleted brain started rearranging days and numbers and mileage in the midst of a slow two-hour run on Friday. Maybe it was trying to make sense of how tired I felt, and why this week became exponentially harder to drag myself out the door with each passing morning.

And it took me by even greater surprise when I started doing the math: If I switched the days around and counted the week from Saturday to Friday, my mileage total was a bit higher than I expected.

It was higher than 80. Even higher than 90. And 100. During that seven day stretch, I ran 108 miles.

At first I was certain that I was counting the numbers incorrectly - that it must have been some fuzzy math that was a byproduct of chronically fatigued gray matter. So I recounted after I came home, and again in the middle of my work day, and again during a long set of my swim workout (Like how I threw that in there? I'm still swimming a couple of days per week, too). Every time, the numbers came out the same.

So, um ... did I say I was a little tired lately? I should probably clarify that to say that I'm a LOT tired. Exhausted, really. That's not to say that there's anything wrong, or that I'm in a situation I'd rather not be. It's simply a means I've chosen to accomplish the result I'm going after at the end of June.

The funny thing is, having full awareness of the mileage I'm posting seemed to make me even more tired than I was before knowing - like the way you don't fully notice the pain from a sunburn until people start saying, "Wow, you're really getting burned!" This whole training period has been a slow boil of sorts, building so gradually that you might not notice except when it becomes highly dangerous.

I only have a couple more weeks of heavy training ahead of me, so the light is definitely glimmering at the end of this particular tunnel (I know, that's three consecutive sentence analogies - but sometimes I just can't help it). However, to ensure that I get there in one piece, I'm making a couple of modifications to my training plans: I'm going back to my Monday to Sunday schedule, and I'm going to try not to count the mileage anymore.

It probably won't give me any more energy, but I think it might make me happier - because this feels like one of those situations where ignorance is bliss.

**
Footnote: The following song doesn't have anything to do with the post, but I'm posting it for a couple of reasons: 1) I'm LOVING the new Green Day album, and 2) I'm just feeling generous. Here's a live version of one of my favorites, "The Static Age" (click to play):

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May 29, 2009

Nathan HPL 020 Hydration Vest Review

Of all the hydration packs I’m testing, I was most eager to review the Nathan HPL 020.

A couple of years ago, I started noticing Nathan vests more and more frequently at races, and shortly concluded that they were the brand of choice among ultrarunners. (Since I’ve been paying closer attention this spring, I’d now say it’s a two-horse race between Nathan and Ultimate Direction – but I’d still give the edge to Nathan at this point.) You don’t see the same product at race after race simply because it has a slick marketing campaign – so I knew there must be something compelling about this vest.

One reason for ultrarunners’ attraction to this product is that the HPL 020 was created specifically to race in ultras. It doesn’t pretend to be any kind of backpack or mountain biking hybrid – its sole purpose is to get you through a 100-mile footrace. If you want something for multiple activities, this probably isn’t the product for you. However, if you’re looking for an ideal blend of hydration and cargo storage for your multi-hour trail runs, this vest should suit your needs perfectly.

The HPL 020’s ultrarunning focus comes naturally - it was designed and tested by Dana Miller, a 16-time finisher (and 5-time winner) of the Wasatch 100. Miller (nicknamed “Mud n’ Guts”) is one half of Nathan’s product development team, sharing responsibilities with Bryce Thatcher, an adventure racer and speed climber. The two of them have worked together for more than 20 years, and as Nathan's About Us page makes clear, you won’t find a more badass pair of outdoor athletes to put new products to the test.

(And before we go any further, I’ll answer the obvious question – HPL stands for Human Propulsion Laboratories. According to the website, the HPL “conducts brutal product experiments with the help of dozens of top-level athletes … the HPL Series includes the products inspired by and named for their respective athletes.” It sounds both hardcore and scientific - so if these products don’t work for you, maybe it’s not Nathan’s fault … you’re probably just not good enough.)

So there’s your background – let’s look at some details of the vest.

You’ll notice two things almost immediately when you pick up the HPL 020: the first is how lightweight it feels. The vest weighs just 14oz when empty; except for the hydration unit itself, the entire piece is composed of a lightweight mesh material that is very comfortable and breathable, and weighs next to nothing.

The second distinction is the fit of the HPL 020 compared to traditional hydration packs. You’ll notice that I’ve been using the word “vest” instead of “pack” to describe this product so far – that’s an intentional distinction indicating that the HPL 020 is meant to be worn differently than other packs. The vest intentionally has a loose fit - the information tag describes it as “more like a hug than a weight on your back” – that is anchored by a 3-way propulsion harness device in back. The harness is like a pulley system that articulates back and forth with the small (but normal) movements of your upper torso while running, and allows each of the shoulder straps to move independently. The front of the vest has one simple sternum strap (which doubles as a drink tube clip) to hold the left and right sides together.

At first, it’s a strange sensation to feel the pack shifting while running - your first instinct will be to look for a strap to tighten – but the net result of this design is a very minimal vertical or lateral movement of the hydration pack.

Fighting the heat at Diablo

The looseness of the HPL 020 also helps with air movement and prevents the vest from feeling too warm against your body. This is the vest I wore at Diablo in April, where temperatures were in the 90s for much of the day; although I was suffering general heat-related issues like everybody else there, at no time did the vest feel uncomfortable, or like it contributed to increased body heat. In those conditions, I suspect that a larger, heavier, or more snug-fitting pack might have caused some unwanted problems.

The front of the vest consists of mesh storage compartments: one has a zipper, one has a drawstring, and one is a holster with an elastic border on top. The zipper compartment is roomy enough for a headlamp or small flashlight, and the elastic pocket on top of it is the perfect size for my camera. The drawstring compartment is great for gels or energy bars. Since all of these pockets are in front of you, they are extremely easy to access on the run. The largest storage areas on the HPL 020 are two rear zipper compartments above the hydration unit, bringing the total storage capacity to 100 cubic inches.

Like other models in this category, the fluid capacity of the HPL 020 is 70 oz, with a screw-top reservoir that is very easy to open and close. Compared to other brands, the Nathan reservoir isn’t particularly remarkable – but it is the source of my one critique of the vest.

I found the drink nozzle to be a bit problematic, in that it’s not a typical bite valve – it’s a “pull out and bite” valve, which is supposed to decrease leakage. However, the pullout part isn’t easily done; you have to really get a good grip on it, and in my experience, almost every time I successfully pulled the nozzle out, the pressure of my fingers caused a few drops of fluid to splash out. You also have to careful about which part you’re pulling, as the plastic cover of the valve can detach from its base – a feature that is provided to facilitate cleaning the tube, but caused some frustration when I accidentally detached it on the trail a few times.

Aside from that, the HPL 020 very much earns its lofty status in the ultra community. Some summary bullets:

Strengths:
• Extremely lightweight
• Loose fit is very comfortable, even in severe heat
• Harness systems prevent excess movement of fluid reservoir
• Front storage areas provide quick access and enough space for essentials
• Rear storage and shock cord for carrying larger items
• Gender specific models (see below)

Drawbacks:
• Since the vest is so minimalist, there aren’t any adjustments to make aside from the sternum strap – but this is a potential liability as well. If you don’t happen to like the fit, there’s not much adaptability to play with.
• The drink nozzle issues mentioned above were an inconvenience, especially in light of everything else being so simple and effective.
• Probably not suited for activities besides long-distance trail running.

Additionally, Nathan makes a women’s model of the HPL 020 called the Intensity, with the propulsion harness system designed for a shorter torso length; it retails for $73 from Amazon.com. The men's HPL 020 is available at a killer discount from Amazon, where it retails for just $56, which is definitely the best deal you'll find anywhere. If you’re a dedicated trail runner looking to make longer distances easier, the HPL 020 makes an excellent choice.

*If you’ve used this product, please weigh in with a comment to agree, disagree, or share your experience.

**See other 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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May 28, 2009

Drymax Lite Trail Socks

Admin note: It’s National Spelling Bee day! Clear out your TiVos for Thursday’s prime-time broadcast, or – if you’re crazy obsessive like me – set aside a half-day to watch the preliminary rounds on ESPN before the evening’s main event. Check back here on Monday or Tuesday for a recap – and until then, feel free to browse through previous years’ editions on the sidebar at right.

And now back to the running stuff: I’m interrupting the regularly scheduled gear review to bring you … another gear review of sorts. Actually, it’s an update about a company and products I’ve already raved about in the past: Drymax socks.

Last Saturday’s 32-mile run on the Western States course was an experiment of sorts in what conditions my feet would be able to tolerate on race day. Specifically, I was concerned about immersing myself in the rivers, and being able to run comfortably up the canyons on the other side.

No worries with Drymax socks!

As you can see, I didn’t bother with taking off shoes, socks, or gaiters during my river plunges. Four separate times, I dunked myself at least waist deep (two of which, as evidenced above, were head deep), then hopped out of the river and kept running – no shoe (Montrail Hardrock, if you’re curious) or sock changes necessary. After seven hours of running, my feet were in almost perfect condition.

One more note on the socks: I was wearing a new Drymax model called the Version 4 Lite Trail Running sock. It’s a bit thinner than the standard Drymax trail sock, but it performs just as well – so if you’re someone who prefers a very thin, lightweight sock, you’ll probably love the Lite Trail. It’s not available online yet, but probably will be within a few weeks - just in time for some hot summer trail running. They are are available at Wilderness Running Company for $11.00, minus a 10% discount if you use coupon code R&R10.

I’ll probably stick with the standard Drymax trail sock at Western States, and I’ve got great confidence that they’ll be up to the task. And I’m totally looking forward to diving into those river crossings again.

*See other product reviews - including my previous Drymax review - on sidebar at right. If you have a product you'd like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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May 26, 2009

Western States Training Camp Report

As strange as it may sound, on some level I was a bit reluctant to visit the Western States course before race day.

Part of what pulls me through long trail races are the series of continual “Oh, wow!” moments as I’m traveling down a new path, taking in all the sights like a wide-eyed toddler going around Disneyland for the first time. I was afraid that some of that race-day luster might fade if I was revisiting places and reliving experiences that I had already been through before.

On a related note … have I mentioned that I’m an idiot?

Of COURSE it was a good idea for me to go to Western States camp – and the more I thought about it, the less sense my little “faded luster” theory made. After all, if you are lucky enough to see the pyramids twice, or visit the Sistine Chapel twice, they would be equally wonderful and impressive both times, right? I figure that the same can be said of the Western States trail – because it’s probably as beautiful and inspiring a creation as you’ll ever see. Throw in the fact that it’s a perfect opportunity to get familiar with the challenges that await you on race day, and it was kind of a no-brainer that I needed to be there.

However, I’m not going to post too many trail photos here or do a standard course review, because I’m filing most of what I gathered away for a race report in 5 weeks. What I will share, though, are some of the more prominent thoughts I brought home after spending 32 miles on the course last weekend.

Western States trail sign

1) These people are crazy

You know the old expression, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”? Well, at Western States camp, that can be modified to read “In the land of a 3-day, 70-mile trail run, the man who only runs one day is a sissy.”

I only planned on doing Saturday’s run, which featured the most mileage and covered the signature climbs of the course, and then returning home to balance out the rest of the weekend being a Dad and getting some chores done. It worked out just fine for me, but I found I was in a very small minority of single-day runners.

Just about everyone was staying for back-to-back long runs on at least two days – and by the end of Saturday's run, I got tired of saying “No, I’m just here for the day.” As challenging as the run was, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was taking the easy way out. I wonder what obsessive-compulsive people did before ultrarunning was invented?

2) These people are fun

Without a doubt, my favorite memory of the run will be the impromptu beach parties that took place at the bottom of Deadwood and El Dorado canyons. Temperatures weren’t even that severe – probably about 80 degrees, which is quite mild by WS standards – but refreshing our legs in the cool water proved to be the perfect prelude to the killer climbs that awaited on the other sides of the rivers. The atmosphere at these crossings was a blast, with everybody marveling at how good the water felt, how glad we were that we stopped, and how fortunate we were to be enjoying this day.

Scott Dunlap kneeling by the river

Some of us grabbed a little more enjoyment than others:

Chilling in the water: photo courtesy of Scott Dunlap

Is there a Western States duathlon? Because I felt like could have swam laps in that water all afternoon. Unfortunately, there were still about 10 miles of trail that we needed to knock out, so I eventually dragged myself out of the river.


3) These people are awesome

Given that this was a training run, there was absolutely no pressure on anybody to post a certain time, maintain a given speed, or keep up with anybody else. Consequently, there were some extremely good runners interspersed throughout the course with the rest of us, and people got to spend more time than usual socializing on the trail. Western States veterans shared information about the course, and the newbies kept peppering them with questions.

Lots of time for picture taking: photo courtesy of Sunshine Girl

Throughout the day, I probably had extended conversations with about 20 different people – trust me, this is a HUGE number for a guy who typically keeps his head down and mouth shut in the midst of a 50K. Bloggers and non-bloggers, familiar faces and strangers, runners and volunteers – everybody was fair game for a little bit of socializing.

Best of all, this was clearly a group of people who shared a common passion for the Western States trail, which underscored the camaraderie we enjoyed throughout the day. The next time we’re here, most of us will be worried about course conditions, pace times, and various physical ailments – so it was nice to see that this group of crazy obsessive-compulsives also knows how to get along with each other so well.

4) This is really happening!

The thought that struck me most frequently during my day on the Western States trail was, Hey - I’m actually here! The point was reinforced a bit stronger almost every time I saw a sign.

I suspect that most folks who do Western States for the first time have a similar experience: at first, the race is just a crazy event in some kind of parallel universe. Then you start learning about the race, and hearing about places like Michigan Bluff and Foresthill and No Hands Bridge, and they begin to take on some vague meaning. When you’re entered in the race, you start studying maps, and the names of different sections of the course become increasingly important landmarks: Last Chance. Dusty Corners. Deadwood. Devil’s Thumb. El Dorado. You burn them into your brain, even though you have no idea what they look like up close.

Notice the shoes?

However, it’s one thing to memorize these places on a map, and an entirely different feeling to actually see those names on signs everywhere you look. For me, this weekend was when the idea finally started sinking in: This is where it takes place – and now I’m here. This thing is really happening. And if that doesn’t make your heart race a little bit faster … I guess there’s not much else I can say.

So let’s mark the countdown timer at T-minus five weeks until I get to return to this beautiful area, to share a life-shaping experience with some of the best (as well as craziest) people in the world. I suspect that between now and then, it might be hard for me to concentrate on anything else.

See you soon!

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May 25, 2009

National Running Day

Admin note: This is a potentially crazy week in Running and Rambling Land. I'm still sifting through photos and thoughts from my time at the Western States camp on Saturday, which will be the topic of the next post. I've got two more hydration pack reviews to bang out, and there's this little event on Thursday called the National Spelling Bee that - in case you're a newcomer to the blog since last year - I'm an absolute freak about (see the right sidebar for evidence of this). Oh, and by the way - I'm also in the middle of my two highest-volume training weeks in preparation for running 100 straight miles next month.

Accordingly, over the next several days, one of the following things is likely to happen: 1) I'll push the physiological limits of sleep deprivation and Diet Pepsi tolerance to crank out the miles and reviews and reports, or 2) I'll completely burn out, have a nervous breakdown, and some stranger will find me walking naked on the streets of Carmel Valley at 3AM muttering things like "Devil's Thumb ... Ultimate Direction ... Jacques Bailly" incoherently over and over. Honestly, it could go either way.

Regardless, it promises to be interesting. To get us rolling, though, I'm keeping things fairly down to Earth, with an article from last week's Monterey Herald.

*
Call me a cynic, but I've never been a fan of the myriad designated "national days" intended to make us healthier in one way or another. For example, the Great American Smokeout has been going every November for over 30 years - but I suspect its contribution to the decreased smoking rate is rather miniscule compared to measures like legislative bans (widespread no-smoking areas, etc) and enormous taxation that impact people every single day.

It often seems to me that the national day designation is a kind of last-ditch attempt to raise awareness of an issue when the organizing group has completely run out of other promotional strategies - and the effectiveness of such a ploy is generally limited to a subset of people who go, "Oh, really? They have a day for that?" before resuming their normal lifestyle for the next 364 days.

Already in 2009, we've had National Give Kids a Smile Day, National Wear Red Day (for heart health), National Black HIV Awareness Day, National Donor Day, National Kidney Day, National Women's HIV Awareness Day (meaning that if you're a black woman, you've already had two HIV awareness days to observe), National Native American HIV Awareness Day (boy, the HIV lobby loves those awareness days, don't they?), National Diabetes Alert Day, National Tubercolosis Day, National Alcohol Screening Day, and so on. (I'm not linking to them ... but go ahead and Google any of those if you think I'm exaggerating.)

What's more, the "national days" are only the tip of the iceberg compared to the number of "awareness months" for just about every health related issue you can imagine. The sheer volume of good causes and healthy habits is so overwhelming that it seems hard for any one of them to capture anyone's attention in a manner that leads to long-term improvement. That's not to say that any of these aren't worthy causes; it's just that the idea of creating an awareness day to permanently change behavior seems like a longshot.

So you can imagine my reaction when I learned about National Running Day.

My first instinct was to ignore the event, dismissing it as another gimmicky ploy - but then I remembered that I'm the author of a newspaper column about running. If nothing else, the idea gave me something to fill my usual allotment of column space - and who knows, maybe the day will actually inspire somebody. I can't say that I'm confident of that happening, though - and you can probably sense my ambivalence in the Monterey Herald column that follows below.

**
Running Life 05/21/09 “National Running Day”

Are you getting excited for National Running Day yet?

If you’ve never heard of National Running Day, don’t feel bad – neither had we until recently. That’s because this is the first annual event – and it’s taking place on Wednesday, June 3rd.

Of course, regular runners already recognize the many gifts that running provides. However, National Running Day is a great chance to get the word out and help our friends and co-workers get started. If you’re not a runner, this is a golden opportunity to give it a try – use this occasion as your first day to get out and run.

National Running Day is a grassroots effort to promote the benefits of running as a healthy, fun, easy, accessible, and inexpensive form of exercise. Across the country, the day will celebrate the benefits of running as an integral part of a healthy and active lifestyle.

The foremost race organizations in the country, including the Big Sur Marathon, are encouraging everyone of all ages and fitness levels to get out and run. Big Sur Race Director Wally Kastner says the message of the day is that “Everyone can run.”

Anybody can join in the National Running Day festivities simply by going for a run. A website has been created at www.runningday.org with advice for beginners and activity ideas for June 3. You can even download an “I’m a Runner/I Ran Today” Facebook button - because as everyone knows, it’s not a real party until someone puts it on Facebook.

Your responsibility as a runner is to find one non-runner and get them started. Provide advice to one person, or schedule an informal run at work and encourage sedentary co-workers to get involved. Teachers or administrators can have their students run that day as part of relays or other fun activities. Look at justrun.org for great running related activities for kids.

If you manage or own a business, make it a priority for your employees to schedule a run that day. Give them time off in the middle of the day and encourage them to start a healthy lifestyle. It will save you medical costs and raise employee energy and morale.

If you have a retail or food service business you can provide special discounts to runners on that day. How do you know who is a runner? By the smile on their face and the sweat on their brow when they ask you for the discount. Or just check their shoes.

Our two local running stores are both providing great deals. The Treadmill in the Carmel Crossroads is providing a 25% discount on running shoes on National Running Day and will throw in a free pair of socks as well. Fleet Feet at Del Monte Center is providing a 10% discount on shoes from now through June 3rd as an incentive to get started – just mention our article and say that you’re a new runner. Fleet Feet also has programs to help new runners train for local races.

Doug Logan, CEO of USA Track and Field, says, “This is a day to celebrate the most universal of all sports. You might be running toward a goal, running with a purpose, or even just running away from your problems. Any reason is a good reason to run, especially on National Running Day.”

We encourage you to get out and run on June 3rd. Wave and smile to others who are doing the same thing. Remember, if you get someone started, it’s the best gift you can give to a friend.

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May 21, 2009

My Personal Jesus

“Your own personal Jesus -
Someone to hear your prayers, someone who’s there.”
- Depeche Mode, “Personal Jesus” (video after post)
*
Here is the “tease” for this weekend’s sermon at a local church:


It just spoke to me, like … like … it was some kind of sign or something. And I figured that since they asked … I should go ahead and offer a couple of answers. Just what IS my Jesus like, anyway?

Almost immediately, I thought of the ridiculous Sports Jesus statues (often referred to jokingly as "Jesus Got Game" and other silly monikers) that have become a bit of an Internet laughingstock, and the goofy thought that came to mind was this: my Jesus is a trail runner.

Ultra Jesus!

I mean ... you know Jesus would be awesome at it, right? He’s probably got leg strength and lung capacity that’s completely off the charts. He’s not much for frills – in fact, he’s content to run with long hair and sandals like the Tarahumara runners who once visited (and dominated) the Leadville 100 in the early 1990s in nothing more than shorts and leather huaraches. I can run beside him like a child; he runs alongside me like an eternal pacer, able to pull me through the toughest, darkest sections of any adventure.

Granted, my example is kind of corny - and the statue is patently absurd - but there’s actually an element of seriousness to such thoughts for me. As it happens, this same topic came up in a small group discussion a couple of weeks ago, where I made a statement that might be somewhat objectionable: namely, that I get far more spiritual meaning out of a multi-hour trail run than I do while sitting in church.

If I ever begin to wonder about the presence of some divine hand in my life, I usually need look no further than the trails I travel day after day. The easiest way to for me restore my faith is to become immersed in the beauty of God’s creation - and there’s no more effective way for me to do that than to experience humility on the slopes of a high mountain, in the depths of a forest, or through a vast open countryside.

These are the moments where I marvel at the grand design; these are the places of beautiful seclusion where I sense God’s presence most acutely. I’m reminded that I’m another one of His creations, just as fearfully and wonderfully made as the most majestic surroundings I’ll ever encounter. It’s humbling, and inspiring, and the most compelling path to worship that I’ve ever known.

So yeah, as corny as it sounds … my Jesus is a trail runner. I’m not sure if that’s the answer the pastor has in mind on Sunday, but it’s the one that works for me. I’m hoping that’s all that matters.

*P.S. This Saturday, my Jesus and I will be taking in the sights of the Western States trail, at the first day of the WS training camp. The 32-mile run will be my first taste of the challenge that awaits in (gulp!) a mere five weeks – and it should give me lots of material to pray about.

*
“Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?”
- Job 12:7-9 (New International Version)

**
“Reach out and touch faith.”
- Depeche Mode, “Personal Jesus” (click to play)




(P.P.S. I actually like Marilyn Manson's version of this song a lot better ... but those guys are WAY too creepy for me. So you're getting the original, which is still pretty darn cool.)

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May 20, 2009

GoLite Rush Pack Review

The first thing I did when I received my GoLite Rush pack in the mail was to check through the reminder of the box, as one particular component seemed conspicuous by its absence.

Finding nothing I had overlooked, I wrote an e-mail to the GoLite rep with a simple question: Where’s the fluid reservoir?

Her answer was equally simple: there isn’t one. But it’s the longer explanation that tells you what you need to know about the GoLite company in general, and the Rush pack in particular.

GoLite was founded in the late 1990s by a husband and wife who were active mountaineers and backpackers frustrated by the combined weight of all the gear necessary for multi-day expeditions. They now offer a full line of clothing, equipment, and footwear, and remain focused on one primary objective: creating technologically superior products that provide maximal performance for minimal weight. (There’s a fairly detailed company history on the GoLite website, complete with quotes from Thomas Jefferson and Mahatma Ghandi. Clearly, they take this gear stuff pretty seriously.)

The company has expanded its scope to include trail runners, adventure racers, cross-country skiers, cyclists, and all manner of outdoor enthusiasts. One key factor in the success of GoLite products is their versatility: a single pack can be many things to many people. Or better yet, it can be many things to one person. And that gets to the longer answer of why the GoLite Rush doesn’t have its own hydration reservoir.

the Rush pack

Reflecting their origins as a backpacking company, GoLite has opted to stay out of the hydration reservoir business – but their packs can accommodate nearly any type of hydration setup the user would like. Almost any reservoir holding up to 3L of fluid will fit in the interior mesh sleeve of the Rush pack, which allows you to customize with whatever your favorite reservoir might be.

The hydration reservoir sleeve, with storage space in front. Your hydration tube can thread through outlets on either shoulder strap.

If you don’t want to deal with hydration reservoirs, the Rush has you covered there as well. On either side of the main storage area are water bottle holders, which is a great option if you want to load the pack with extra cargo in the space that a reservoir would normally fill. Or, if you really want to haul a lot of fluid, you can carry both a reservoir and bottles – which is exactly what I did on an all-day excursion last month.

You can't see the pack very well here - I just thought this picture was cool!

Remember how I said that 99% of the packs I saw at Yosemite were CamelBaks? Well, I was part of the 1% exception. When my wife and I hiked to Yosemite Point, I filled a 2L CamelBak reservoir with fluid for me, and carried two 24-oz water bottles for her. Sure, I felt a bit like a mule, but this setup was perfect for the conditions: our cargo didn’t consist of much more than a windbreaker and some food, but it was important for both of us to drink a lot of fluids throughout the day.

A better look at the pack: two water bottles, hydration reservoir tube over my right shoulder, and gear in every compartment. And I just noticed that my haircut is crooked in back. Crap.

Even with the pack loaded with fluids, the Rush provides a ton of storage space – in fact, its 900 cubic inch capacity is more than twice as much as any other pack in this review. Cargo can go in the same compartment as the hydration reservoir (separated by a thin border), or in the large center mesh pocket. Bigger pieces of gear can be stuffed in the center pocket and secured with the bungee straps above it; you can keep a whole jacket in this compartment if necessary, without any parts hanging loose from the pack.

Roomy center compartment with bungee cord to secure larger gear.

The Rush also has angled mesh pockets on either side of the waist strap where I stored a GPS device, batteries, and camera for the hike. The side pockets are very conveniently located for quick, repeated access to your gadgets.

Despite the added weight I was carrying, the Rush proved to be remarkably comfortable during a long day on the trail. The weight of the pack by itself is 1.25 lbs, and GoLite uses a material called “space mesh” on the back panel and shoulder straps to enhance air flow and comfort. Load control straps and a sternum strap on the front of the pack allow you to adjust the weight distribution to your preference.

In addition to hiking in Yosemite, I used this pack for several long trail runs as well, and I was just as impressed by its overall utility and comfort. One small issue I had while running was with the side pockets: while they are perfectly convenient for accessing items like gels or a camera, their placement interfered with my normal running form just a bit. The inside of my elbows frequently brushed against the outside of these pockets, and I found myself slightly adjusting with a wider arm carriage than usual. When the pockets are empty, it’s not an issue – but if the pockets are empty, they’re really not much good to you. This detail might just be due to my particular mechanics - or maybe I still have a few more layers of abdominal tissue than I should.

The only other drawback I can find with this pack is that – strange as it sounds - it might actually provide too much storage space. The Rush is marketed as a “fast and light” racing model, and it’s the smallest pack in GoLite’s product line. However, for ultrarunners who prefer a hydration pack with minimal excess bulk, 900 cubic inches of storage may be unnecessary and/or too bulky. On the other hand, if you’re planning an all-day excursion without refueling, or running an ultra with minimal aid station support, this pack is ideal for carrying fluids along with a lot of extra gear.

Summary bullets …

Strengths:
  • Excellent versatility. Use the Rush with a 2-liter fluid reservoir. Or a 3-liter one. Or with water bottles on the sides. Or with all of these. Or with none. Whatever your hydration needs are, this pack can accommodate them.
  • Outstanding cargo capacity compared to other packs in this category.
  • Given its overall size and cargo capacity, the pack is remarkably light.
  • Very comfortable for long-duration activity, even with large cargo loads.
  • The pack comes in gender-specific models as well as different sizes to ensure proper fit to various body types.
Drawbacks:
  • Side pockets may interfere slightly with running form.
  • Given that you’ll have to buy a hydration reservoir separately, the Rush ends up a bit more expensive than its competitors – but with multiple applications, probably worth it.
The Rush is a true multi-use pack that is equally suited for ultrarunning, day hiking (in fact, it received a top designation from Backpacker Magazine), adventure racing, mountain biking, or any outdoor endurance sport. If you’re looking for a single piece of gear to use in a variety of adventures, this would make an excellent choice.

The GoLite Rush typically retails for $70 from multiple vendors (if you use Wilderness Running Company, remember coupon code R&R10 for a 10% discount), and Zombie Runner currently has last year's models on sale for $50.

*If you’ve used this product, please agree, disagree, or share your experience in the comments below.

**See other 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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May 18, 2009

Where Everbody Knew My Name

A couple of administrative notes before today's post ...

1) Over the past couple of weeks I've had some interesting discussions with a rep from the Wilderness Running Company, a new online vendor for trail running and outdoor gear. They're just getting off the ground, and they're dedicated to selling quality gear and building a loyal following one satisfied runner at a time.

They're also providing a very generous offer to readers of my blog, as indicated in the sidebar banner at left. Shop around their website for a bit, then enter coupon code R&R10 for a 10% discount on whatever you decide to buy. They seem like good people, so I'd like to help get their business rolling.

2) This one's completely random ... but I've spent the better part of the past 72 hours listening to the long-awaited new Green Day album 21st Century Breakdown. Musically, it's a remarkable effort; with a few exceptions, the songs don't grab you by the throat like old-school Green Day used to, but after a few listens they'll have you tapping your toes and pumping your fist and jamming on your air guitar just like the old days ... or maybe that's just me.

If you liked American Idiot, definitely give this album a listen - it's a very worthy sequel from three guys who have, to everyone's surprise (including their own), become the elder statesmen of punk rock. To pique your interest a bit, I've embedded the title song after this post. Speaking of which ...

*
This Monday is the 24th running of the Los Angeles Marathon, an event that will always occupy a special place in my heart.

Many years ago, this was the race that inspired me to become a runner. I eventually ran the LA Marathon several times, sometimes coming away with an enormous feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction, and other times an unbearable sense of frustration and regret – which, now that I think of it, is a great summary of my experience with the city on the whole.

It was also the inspiration for one of my first articles that ever gained traction outside the little circle of acquaintances who normally read my writing. Shortly after I wrote some observations on the (brand new, at the time) trend of putting names on bib numbers, I was contacted by the LA Marathon, who said they loved the article and asked if they could use it for marketing the following year’s race.

Later that year, I found a paragraph of this article printed on the official entry brochure for the 2004 Los Angeles Marathon. Knowing that I had made a tangible (if small) contribution to my favorite race, and also knowing that about 20,000 of these brochures would be printed and distributed all over the world, I felt like I had reached the pinnacle of my writing career. (It may still be that way; the point is certainly debatable.)

My days in Los Angeles are behind me, and with my athletic exploits venturing away from the marathon, chances are pretty good that I’ll never take part in the LA Marathon again - so this article also has a bit of sentimental meaning to me as a reminder of days gone by. In light of that, it’s kind of surprising that I’ve never posted it here until today.

**

Where Everybody Knows My Name

The Los Angeles Marathon likes to be innovative. They were the first West Coast marathon to use the now-ubiquitous space blankets we see after every race. They were also the first major marathon to use chip timing for more accurate results, which render bib numbers unnecessary except for their nostalgic appeal.

This year the marathon capitalized on that needlessness by attempting to start another new trend in racing - placing the participant’s name on their bib, in addition to a traditional race number. Anyone who pre-registered for the race by a set deadline had this new feature automatically provided for him or her.

At first glance, I figured this was some kind of corny gimmick, in a city that is known for creating a lot of them – like the marathon equivalent of Joe Millionaire. The idea also made me a bit apprehensive in a Big Brother sort of way; at most races, I tend to be a quiet, analytical observer, taking in the scene around me, but keeping to myself and enjoying the experience is a somewhat introspective manner. Even though I’m sharing the day with thousands of people, I generally prefer to be anonymous.

On race morning in Los Angeles, I quickly found out that things would be different.

It began as I stood in silence in the parking garage elevator, staring down at my feet, and suddenly heard a cheerful voice say “Well, are you ready, Donald?” It took me a second to wonder how this complete stranger knew my name, and then I remembered. So I told Hiroshi that I felt OK, wished him luck, and resigned myself to commencing a weird day.

A few other people greeted me by name, and I reciprocated. In a strange way, I felt like I didn’t have a choice; I kept having flashbacks to the Seinfeld episode where people posted their names and photos by the elevator, became uncomfortably friendly with each other, then turned resentful and angry with anyone who didn’t follow the new code of openness and camaraderie. The last thing I needed was to irritate an anxious mob of runners.

As the race unfolded, I began to suspend my early judgment of having my name on my bib, and the gimmick became more of a curiosity to me. Part of the intrigue was wondering what name the spectators would yell; although I signed up for the race under my proper name, many folks shortened it like we were longtime friends. Others tried to cover their bases by yelling multiple versions like “Go Donald! All right Donny! Go Don! Go D!”

My name also changed depending on what area of town we were in. Most of the Mexican spectators called me “Donaldo”, and periodically I heard the incessant LA Marathon cheer of Si, se puede! replaced by Andale, Donaldo! In Koreatown the locals got tripped up by that pesky l/r thing, and my name often came out as “Do-nard” - but they said it with such enthusiasm that it still felt good to hear.

Complete strangers expressed a sometimes-frightening level of good spirit towards me. Somewhere on Exposition Blvd, an enormous woman with a booming voice stood on the street corner and shouted “WHOOOOO! Yeaaah, Donny baby! You looking GOOD to me! I’d like to eat you up!” I picked up my pace around that particular turn, more out of nervousness than inspiration, but it did help move me down the road.

At each aid station it seemed as if the volunteers had been waiting just for me to arrive. They handed out cups and said things like “Here you go, Donald!” - and as I thanked them for the cup, I heard “You’re welcome, Donald!” in reply. The thought crossed my mind that maybe next year the volunteers could wear name bibs, too. That way, runners could call out “I want YOUR cup, Eddie!” or, “Nice handoff, Maria!” Friendships could be forged in the passing of Gatorade cups. I’ve certainly met people in stranger ways.

I became entertained by hearing my name in ways that I never had before. On one corner, a punk-rock band hammered out some rapid-fire one-chord song, with the singer growling “run, run, run, run” into the microphone, interspersed with people’s names he saw, including mine. The Crenshaw High cheerleaders put my name into a cheer while they were jumping and kicking on the sidewalk. Late in the race, I passed a Spanish-radio broadcaster’s booth, and I think I heard my name mentioned by the commentator. Unfortunately, it was in the same sentence as the words despacio (slow) and lucha (struggle) - but hey, sometimes it feels good just to be noticed.

By the time the race was over, I had changed my mind about the whole name-wearing thing. There aren’t many ways to make a race of over 20,000 people feel intimate and personal, but this is certainly one of them. It certainly made the race more memorable – almost entirely for the better.

At this point, there’s no telling if the L.A. experiment will last. [2009 postscript: clearly, it has]. Now that the novelty is faded, I’m sure plenty of people will take advantage of the system to create trash-talk names a la the XFL, or try to sneak dirty names past the race censors like they do with license plates at the DMV. There’s no shortage of people willing to ruin a good idea. Then again, this may turn out to be the wave of the future.

I’m sure that in most of my future races I’ll go back to the same reticent, inconspicuous person I usually am. But the next time I enter the L.A. Marathon, I’ll know that all the course is a stage, and everyone is a player. I’ll gladly reprise my role as Donald the Runner, and revel in my (approximately) three hours of fame.

**
Green Day, "21st Century Breakdown" (click to play):

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May 17, 2009

Inov-8 Race Pro 4 Hydration Pack Review

Considering that they are a relative newcomer to the business, Inov-8 has enjoyed a rather impressive rise to prominence within the trail running and adventure racing communities.

Inov-8 was founded in the United Kingdom in 2003, and established a US presence in 2004. They quickly made their mark in the sport of ultrarunning by every conceivable means: sponsoring numerous events and race series, establishing and supporting teams of runners on both sides of the Atlantic, and contributing to extensive trail maintenance programs. (They also have a Facebook page – but as I’ve explained more than once here, that hardly impresses me.)

From the start, however, their primary focus has been product development. The company’s stated mission is to create functional, lightweight products to meet the highest demands of all athletes – from elite adventure racers to everyday outdoor enthusiasts. They do extensive field testing and utilize athlete feedback to enhance its line of what it calls next generation products.

In recent years, Inov-8 has earned numerous accolades for their footwear, but their line of hydration packs are equally (pardon the pun) innovative and well-developed. The Race Pro 4 is the base model of this product line, which differs only in the cargo capacity that goes along with the hydration reservoir: the RP4 has 4L of cargo space, the RP12 has 12L, and so on up to the Race Pro 30.

The most obvious distinction that makes the Race Pro 4 unique among all the other 2-liter hydration packs on the market is that it is strictly a waist pack; there is no upper body component to the pack. This fact alone makes the simplicity factor about 10 times greater than any similar sized fluid carrier (for example, the only size adjustment is a single waist strap – no harnesses or torso straps to deal with).

The key to this design - and the integral component of all Inov-8 hydration packs - is the H2Orizontal reservoir, which flares out sideways rather than vertical, with a shape that (to me, anyway) somewhat resembles a stingray. This distributes the volume of fluid across your flanks and the small of your back, keeping the load close and secure under all circumstances.

the H2Orizontal bladder

Other companies have introduced waist-mounted fluid reservoirs in the past, and they all suffered the same problem: bouncing of the fluid reservoir due to the pack protruding too far away from the body. By contrast, the H2Orizontal reservoir wraps very comfortably across the lumbar region, which is the most ergonomically efficient placement of fluid during activity.

The reservoir pack is also segmented on each side, meaning there’s a small plastic divider between different regions. This design is intended to facilitate load distribution, which it does very well – but it also makes cleaning somewhat difficult, as I’ll explain shortly.

Functionally, the reservoir pack is very easy to use; it has a super-wide top opening that makes filling fast and easy, and it seals quickly and securely with a slide cap. The reservoir capacity is 70 oz, and both the main bladder and drink tube are covered with a Source “grunge guard” antimicrobial coating. The end of the drink tube also has a cap to prevent dirt or sweat from contaminating the contents inside, which is a nice extra touch.

The shape of the reservoir does present one difficulty, though: namely, the same design that allows for ergonomic positioning also causes a bit of difficulty when it comes to cleaning. The segment dividers make reaching the ends of the reservoir somewhat tricky. I used the contoured brush from my CamelBak cleaning kit to wash it, and clumped up paper towels in each side of the reservoir for drying, but it was still tough to allow air access to all parts of the bladder while drying.

Since the entire Race Pro 4 is about half the size of conventional shoulder-mounted hydration packs, its weight is lower as well. The pack weighs a mere 7oz when empty, but it still provides plenty of room for cargo. There are three separate pockets that combine for 244 cubic inches of storage.

large storage pocket in front of blue reservoir; waterproof pocket on left; mesh pocket on right

The largest of these pockets occupies the same space as the fluid reservoir, separated by a soft divider. The other two pockets are on either side of the reservoir compartment; one has a stretch mesh covering, and the other has a waterproof/weatherproof protective coating. Both of these side pockets are easily accessible on the go, even while running at high speed.

Likewise, nearly every aspect of this pack allows for maximal efficiency during long training days. I wore this pack for my Big Sur 36-miler, going in and out of the weatherproof pocket at least 50 times for my camera, and refilling the hydration pack within a few seconds at the aid stations – instead of unhooking out of a vest, all I had to do was spin the pack around to the front to access it easily. The drink tube can exit the back pouch from either side, so you can clip the valve at the most convenient point on your waist for quick access.

All in all, this pack handled just about every need I had during training or racing. Some summary bullets:

Strengths:
  • Very comfortable, very simple to use
  • H2Orizontal bladder is easy to fill initially and refill on the go
  • Side pockets provide quick, convenient access to storage contents
  • Waterproof pocket is perfect for cameras, iPods, other electronic gear

Drawbacks:
  • Difficulty with cleaning H2Orizontal reservoir due to unorthodox shape. Inov-8 doesn’t have its own cleaning kit, and the website instructions just say “We recommend regular cleaning and sterilizing,” but there aren't any specific instructions for doing so.
In short, the Race Pro 4 is a great choice for anyone who wants all of the benefits – primarily fluid capacity and storage space - of shoulder-mounted hydration packs, without the hassle and inconvenience of strapping into a vest. This is a true “think outside the box” product that befits its company’s name and upholds its mission of providing high-performance products to endurance athletes.

The Inov-8 Race Pro 4 sells for $70 at Zombie Runner, as well as other vendors.

*If you’ve used this product, please comment below to agree, disagree, or share your experience.

**See other 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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May 15, 2009

Try the Tri

I’ve been doing triathlons for so many years, in some ways it’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t consider myself at least a part-time triathlete.

What I still remember vividly, however, was that initial trepidation about making the transition from a single-minded runner to a multi-sport athlete, and all the specific fears that accompany it. Fears like being terrified of open-water swimming. Wondering what kind of bike to use. Or whether or not to wear socks.

Since my newspaper column is generally geared toward novice runners, it’s logical extension to write a column every now and then about making the transition from running to triathlon, and that’s the subject of the Monterey Herald article that follows below. The intent was to describe the simplest route to becoming a beginner triathlete.

The column is also noteworthy for a couple other reasons …

1) After I got called out last month for committing the high crime of misidentifying the color of a marathon shirt, I set a little goal for myself to use the word “periwinkle” in as many newspaper columns as possible from now on. So far I’m one for one.

2) Also in the wake of that marathon board fiasco, it was a refreshing contrast to work with Terry Davis, the owner of
Tri-California Events. He’s one of the most gracious, humble, and generous people you’ll ever meet. You’ll also be hard pressed to find someone who’s done more for the sport of triathlon over the years than Terry and his wife Betsy. I’m always happy to give them a little extra publicity.

**

Running Life 5/7/09 “Try the Tri”

Let’s say you’ve recently completed a marathon, and you’re wearing your periwinkle race shirt with pride, but wondering what your next big challenge could be. Or maybe you’ve done so many road races that they seem repetitive, and you’re looking to add a little more excitement to your athletic exploits.

If so, we’ve got the perfect antidote for you: taking on the Triathlon at Pacific Grove this fall.

September 12th and 13th will be the fifteenth anniversary of the PG Tri (as it’s locally known), which was one of the first races created by Tri-California Events, owned by Terry and Betsy Davis of Pacific Grove. The race is another example of the world-class offerings we have right in our Monterey Peninsula backyard.

Through the years, both Tri-California and the PG Tri have enjoyed enormous growth in size and prestige. The first Pacific Grove race had just over 200 entrants, and the business operated out of the Davis’s garage on David Avenue. This year nearly 2000 triathletes will participate in what has become a two-day event, with an Olympic Distance race (1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run) on Saturday and a shorter Sprint Triathlon (.5mi swim, 12.4mi bike and 2mi run) on Sunday. Go to http://www.tricalifornia.com/ for detailed race information.

Tri-California has expanded to include races throughout California (including the world-famous Wildflower and Escape From Alcatraz triathlons), and has grown from a shoestring budget to a successful enterprise that also raises thousands of dollars for charity. Their events attract top professional talent as well as amateur and novice triathletes of all ages – and the PG Triathlon is definitely the best opportunity for locals to get their feet wet in the sport of triathlon.

Transitioning from running to triathlon isn’t as complicated as it might initially seem. Obviously, you’ll need to adjust your training schedule a bit, and make a few investments in (or borrow some) basic gear - but your general fitness from being a runner will carry you a long way towards getting started in triathlon.

The timing of the PG Tri is perfect, as warm summer days and long daylight hours provide expanded opportunities for training. The race date in September typically sees ideal weather conditions. And if you start now, you’ve got more than three months to prepare, which is plenty of time.

Here are some tips to get started …

· Assuming you’re already a runner, decrease the number of days per week that you are running, and substitute a swim or bike workout instead. You won’t lose overall fitness by cutting down running mileage to cross-train; in fact, it will probably improve. Try to bike and swim at least once per week.

· Get a bike – but it doesn’t need to be expensive or fancy. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a road bike; many first-time triathletes use off-road bikes for the sprint distance. Use whatever you already have or can borrow; you can splurge on a bike after you decide to become a full-time triathlete.

· Likewise, you’ll definitely need a wetsuit for the cold ocean swim. If you can’t borrow one, you can rent one online at http://www.wetsuitrental.com/ or similar sites. Until then, your swim training can be done in a pool.

· Fleet Feet Sports in Monterey schedules coaching sessions for new triathletes. Call 831-372-5664 for details and times.

Many local athletes successfully jump back and forth between the sports of running and triathlon; with a good plan and a little bit of help, this may be the perfect time for you to join them.

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May 13, 2009

CamelBak Octane XC Review

It seems only natural for any hydration pack review to start with CamelBak. After all, this is the company that created the mold.

CamelBak introduced the hydration pack concept almost 20 years ago, revolutionizing the training practices of millions of endurance athletes seemingly overnight. I had one of those first CamelBaks in the early 1990s, and while they served a particular need - allowing for longer duration workouts without refilling – they weren’t entirely comfortable (in fact, I used to get big chafe marks on my back after multi-hour runs) or user friendly. They were messy to fill and hard to clean and often made your liquid taste like plastic.

Over two decades, CamelBak has evolved and adapted and continues to dominate the market, remaining the most prolific manufacturer of hydration packs today. They have diversified to a remarkable degree, with models designed for military and law enforcement personnel in addition to runners and cyclists. There’s also a series of packs categorized as government/industrial, featuring a fluid reservoir that is resistant to chemical or biological agents. You could say the company has gone high-tech.

Anecdotally, they also seem to have the hiking market cornered; during my visit to Yosemite last month, probably 99% of the hydration packs I saw on people (yes, I was paying attention to this – I knew this gear review was coming) were CamelBaks, and both general stores in the Yosemite Valley stock a large inventory of exclusively CamelBak products.

On the company website, the Octane XC is billed as a “lightweight pack for trail runners and adventure racers.” The specs list the pack at 1.3 lbs when empty, and 5.56 lbs when the 70-oz fluid reservoir is filled. Its cargo capacity aside from the fluid is 90 cubic inches.

(** This is probably a good time for me to point out that in my summary post after all the reviews are written, I’ll put numbers like weights and capacities of all the products side by side, so you have an easy point of comparison. In other words, don’t worry about taking notes – I’ve got you covered.)

This was one of the first packs I received to review, and it quickly became a key component of my mileage buildup over the past several weeks. I’ve probably put about 200 miles on it thus far, including several runs of 20+ miles. I also conducted an “off label” use on my mountain bike while riding around the Sea Otter Classic with my son last month, and it suited my needs quite well in that setting.

Remember what I said about my back chafing with early CamelBak models? That’s definitely a thing of the past. The Octane XC has something called an AirDirector back panel (basically a contoured, aerated mesh design), and a soft mesh harness to keep the pack in place securely but comfortably. The only time I noticed any bouncing from the pack was when the fluid reservoir was filled to capacity; once I took a few drinks, the pack seemed to mold quite well along my back. There is a lot of potential adjustability with the straps and harnesses of the Octane XC, but I found it fairly comfortable right out of the box with very little modification.


view from the front

The Octane XC has three storage pockets: one on either side at approximately the level of your elbows, and one on the top flap that closes the fluid reservoir. These are all zip pockets and they are fairly water-resistant; the back zip pocket also has a key clip and a cell phone holder. I found the storage perfect for carrying a few gels and a camera, and also to stash a hat, gloves, and headlamp after the sun came up on my early morning runs. There’s also an external bungee cord for securing larger items like a windbreaker or poncho if weather conditions are uncertain.


bungee cord and side storage pockets

While I liked the volume of storage (not too much, not too little), I found the side pockets a little bit difficult to access while running. Part of this may have to do with my arm flexibility; I’m one of those guys who has trouble scratching the small of his back. Sometimes I had to unbuckle the lower torso strap to give myself a few extra inches of space to reach all the way into these pockets. During a training run, this isn’t such a bad thing – but if you’re looking for quick access to your goodies during a trail race, or need to repetitively go back and forth to the pockets (for instance, if you’re taking a lot of photos), then the placement of these pockets may get frustrating.

The fluid reservoir is made of burst-resistant polyurethane, and is as rugged and durable as anything you’ll find from other brands – in fact, CamelBak supports it with a lifetime warranty. The screw-top opening (named Omega) is quite large, ostensibly making it easy to fill. One thing I noticed when filling the reservoir is that it’s really helpful to pull upward on the hard plastic tab below the opening to create some air space inside, otherwise the fluid has trouble reaching the bottom of the reservoir. While this isn’t a big deal in training, I imagine it might be somewhat problematic if you’re trying to fly through an aid station during a 50K race.

Other features of the reservoir are a PureFlow delivery tube which prevents any plastic taste from infiltrating your drink, and a Hydroguard anti-microbial coating to eliminate bacteria – very convenient for those times when you run 20 miles and then stash the pack in your car for an 8-hour workday. The Big Bite Valve provides a high volume of fluid with each sip, so you don’t have to suck on the valve like a milkshake straw.

When it comes to cleaning the reservoir, CamelBak has the system dialed in. They are the only brand I’m testing that has its own cleaning kit for the fluid reservoir – complete with a cleaning solution, reservoir brush, drying hook, a narrow brush to clean the delivery tube (a very sweet little tool), and a plastic piece to keep the reservoir open to air while drying. Even without the cleaning kit, the shape of the reservoir (basically rectangular) and size of the Omega opening make cleaning fairly simple: I just rinsed it with warm soapy water, then stuffed a bunch of crumpled paper towels inside to maintain air access while drying.

Overall, I was so impressed with the utility and durability of the CamelBak reservoir that I also used it in another pack that I’ll be reviewing in a future post.

So that’s the pack at a glance. Some points to summarize:

Strengths:
• Overall comfort, easy adjustments of chest and abdomen straps
• Adequate storage for several hours of activity
• Reservoir is durable and very easy to clean, with anti-microbial and taste-preserving technology features
• Specialized cleaning/drying kit (at extra cost) for added convenience
• Comfortable for mountain biking as well as running

Drawbacks
• Slight bouncing when fluid reservoir completely filled
• Reservoir capacity is listed as 70oz; true functional capacity seems closer to 60-65 oz.
• Reservoir may be difficult to refill quickly during races
• Stash pockets on sides difficult to access at full speed

This pack proved to be a true workhorse for me this spring, getting me through multiple long training days while meeting my hydration and storage needs, without any comfort or durability problems. For racing, I’d probably consider using something that allows for quicker refueling and easier pocket access – but for the countless trail miles between races, this pack is an excellent companion for long-distance adventures.

The Octane XC retails for around $60 (give or take a few dollars from different vendors – it’s only $55 at Amazon.com) and comes in various colors.

If you have used the Octane XC, feel free to weigh in to agree or disagree with this review, or share your own findings.

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

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May 11, 2009

Quicksilver 50M Race Report

“Now hush little baby, don't you cry –
Everything's gonna be alright.”

- Eminem, “Mockingbird” (video after post)

Yes, it’s a strange tune to introduce an ultra report, but Eminem’s surprisingly tender love song to his daughter was bouncing through my head for the better part of 50 miles last weekend. It even played a role in my thought process at the end of the day, influencing a decision that was equally surprising to me in light of my pre-race plans. Hopefully this will all make better sense at the end of the post – but for now, let’s just get to the report.

I had known about the Quicksilver 50M race for years, but never really considered it in the same category as some higher-profile Northern California ultras. Maybe because the race takes place only one week after the Miwok 100K, Quicksilver always struck me as a younger sibling struggling in the shadow of an older one. Truthfully, if I hadn’t been bounced from the Miwok lottery, I would have bypassed Quicksilver again this year.

In that regard, Quicksilver is like Nicky Hilton to Miwok’s Paris: while the older sister enjoys huge name recognition for being crazy/sexy and wildly popular, the younger one is still pretty attractive – and still fairly crazy. Even though this race is 12 miles shorter than Miwok, it’s still an awful lot to handle.

This year, little sister Quicksilver enjoyed two advantages that weren’t present in years past: 1) it’s publicity-hogging older sister went to a lottery system and turned away dozens of runners, and 2) Miwok was rainy, cold, and muddy (with about 50 no-shows on race morning) while Quicksilver saw perfect sunny and breezy conditions. The course features 50 tough miles in a beautiful setting, with generous aid station support and great organization. The timing makes it an excellent tune-up for a summer 100-miler. Best of all, it’s less than a 90-minute drive from my house.

So … why hadn’t I ever done this race before? Oh, that’s right - I’m an idiot. On to the pictures:


The speedsters all seemed to be in great spirits prior to the race – maybe they knew about the ideal conditions we’d enjoy. Or perhaps they just felt confident: Chikara Omine (in blue) would go on to take 20 minutes off the course record, and Jean Pommier (in black) would shatter the masters course record by the end of the day. I took this picture, then quickly moved out of their way.

(By the way, the name of this start/finish area is Mockingbird … which immediately triggered the permanent mental loop of the Eminem song I mentioned above. Still more on this later.)



One noticeable difference between Quicksilver and other NorCal ultras like Firetrails, Miwok, and Diablo is that the climbing doesn’t punch you in the nose right away. The first mile is fairly gentle, allowing folks to spread out without being bottlenecked by a steep hill or narrow single track.



Of course, the hills are out there, and it’s not long before everybody’s walking up a major climb.



The sun was starting to peek over the hills, but wouldn’t be a huge factor for a little while yet ...



… because we soon headed into the shade of a beautiful single track. This was one of the prettiest sections of the course …


… complete with some unique challenges.


Towards the end of the single track section, the sun was starting to burn through the shadows …


… and by mile 9, we were back out in the open.


The remainder of the race was almost exclusively fire roads, beginning with a climb to the Dam Overlook aid station. It’s tucked in a bend in the road here, so you can’t see it in this photo – but don’t worry, we’ll be back here later on.


Most of the climbs during the first 50K were very gradual, and almost entirely runable. Although this 50M course has 8500’ of elevation gain (even more than Firetrails), much of it is condensed to a stretch within a few miles of the start/finish area. The rest is fairly tame.


The fire road passes by an old Quicksilver mine, which was the first of several historical remnants we’d end up visiting during our 50-mile journey. This land was a lucrative mining area from the 1840s to the 1970s, whose history lives on in the name of the park and the race.


Here’s the story in a nutshell: Ohlone Indians harvested cinnabar from these hills to use for painting or religious ceremonies. They introduced it to European settlers, who discovered that the cinnabar could be heated to release mercury (nicknamed Quicksilver for its liquid property at room temperature), and made mines like this one to extract large quantities of cinnabar from the hills. The industry boomed, and at one point nearly 2000 people lived in settlements - complete with their own schools and churches and stores - in this park.

(See? Ultras aren’t just good for your health – they’re educational! Meanwhile, back at the race … )


Mile 17 begins a long descent towards the dam again. It starts as a fairly gentle slope, but it’s hard to get too excited about doing two straight miles downhill, because …


See those arrows? They mean that we’ll be coming back up this trail later. Kinda takes some of the fun out of it.


As the trail gets steeper, you get some pretty cool views of the dam. The aid station we’re headed toward is a tiny dot on the right here …


… and a slightly bigger dot here.


Eventually we reach the Dam station again which is a beehive of activity, as 50K and 50-mile runners all pass through here three times. 25K runners also use this station before heading for home – so before long, it’s especially tricky to tell who’s going where. In other words, it’s a busy dam aid station. Thankfully, they have great dam volunteers to keep everybody happy.


Leaving the station, you continue descending to the base of the reservoir, and start a 4.5-mile loop to bring you back to the same spot.


The loop is a popular place for hikers and joggers, and the hills aren’t terrible – but with 20 miles on our legs, every incline presents a challenge. It felt strange to see little kids going up and down these trails, while at the same time wondering why I couldn’t run very well anymore.

Before long, I made it back to the Dam aid station. I was really glad to see that dam place again. Have I mentioned that they have fine dam people there?


One of them even took my dam picture.

(Is that enough dam jokes for one report? I could keep going – but for brevity’s sake, let’s just move on.)


The initial climb away from the station isn’t too dam steep (sorry, that’s one more – it was easy), but the real fun of the course is yet to come.


Beginning at about mile 28, the course gets crazy steep in both directions – you go up and over hills like this one …


… only to plunge down the backside. It’s hard to appreciate the slope in this picture, until you see that the hikers are taking it sideways.


The final descent brings you back to the Mockingbird station, which is the 50K finish line. See what’s happening in the background there?


It’s a barbecue. I don’t know about you, but I have a really hard time walking away from a good barbecue on a beautiful day after I’ve run 31 miles. A REALLY hard time.


Sometime back around mile 20, I ran alongside a guy who had done this race before, and he gave me this warning: “There is a hill after the 50K … it will take something from you. It will not even say please or thank you. It will not even ask for a tip.” I have no idea what the heck that even means … but this hill was pretty long and steep. I’m assuming that’s what he meant.


The views from this section of the course were quite nice, and the trail led us back into quicksilver history …


This is English Camp, which used to be one of the largest settlements. At one point, almost 1000 people lived in this area. Now it’s the site of an aid station. Whether that represents progress is debatable, I guess.


Further along the road is a dilapidated rotary furnace. 37 miles into the race, I felt about the same way this place looks.


The final checkpoint on the course lies 4 miles into the Sierra Azul open space, after which point you’ll retrace your steps back to the start.


Almost the entire 4-mile stretch looked exactly like this: wide, smooth, intermittently shady fire road, with an uphill grade on the way out that was so gradual that it’s hard to see. Your legs sure feel it, though, and this road seemed to go on forever.


That’s Mount Umunhum. Apparently it’s a forbidden place. Good thing – otherwise I’m sure we’d be climbing it.


I don’t know who was happier: me, for finally reaching the turnaround point, or these enthusiastic volunteers stationed at this remote outpost.


One of them offered to take my picture – he’s as nice as those other dam people!


Since the turnaround is the highest point of the course, most of the return trip to Mockingbird is fairly runable – and because I could sense the finish line off in the distance, I caught a second wind of sorts during the final 8 miles. However, while aimlessly pondering the views on my way to the finish, I was contemplating another decision I had been kicking around all week.


Basically, I wanted to keep running after I crossed the finish line. Even though this was a challenging race on its own merit, I was mentally hung up on the idea of “only” doing 50 miles instead of the 62 I could have done at Miwok, and whether missing those miles would be a big factor in my Western States buildup. So my plan coming into this race was to take it easy for 50 miles, then refuel and head back out for another 10 or 12.

That never happened.

A few things foiled my harebrained scheme: first, I had anticipated crossing the 50M finish line prior to the 50K cutoff time – but with my conservative pace, by the time I got to Mockingbird, the aid station there had been broken down. I was hoping to refuel there, but there was no race fuel to be found. However …


Did I mention that there was a barbecue? And if you think I had a hard time walking away from a barbecue on a perfect day after running 31 miles, imagine how tough it would be for me to do it after 50 miles. I feel like I could have done it, though – I ran a steady pace all day long, and my legs were still in decent shape. It wasn’t a deficit of ability or confidence that kept me at the finish line – it was one of desire.

Honestly, I just didn’t want to do it. In part, I blame that dang Eminem song.

Throughout the day, I had been contrasting the wonderful experience of doing this race with what was going on without me at home. More specifically, on the day before Mother’s Day, my wife was at home doing yardwork that was my responsibility, and taking care of two sick kids while trying to prevent a third one from getting ill as well. At the rate I was running, 12 more miles would have taken me three hours – which would be the difference between whether or not I even saw my kids before they went to sleep.

It would just be a day … but on the other hand, it would be another day that I wasn’t there. And on this day, I just wanted to hang with my family - and slogging through three more selfish hours seemed kind of greedy. So I grabbed a burger and some strawberries, and pointed the car towards home. I made it back in time for dinner, inspected my son’s brand new snakebite (a whole separate story) and tucked in both of my girls at bedtime.

Of course, in hindsight, I’m already second guessing the decision. I don’t know what I feel more foolish about: hatching such a crazy scheme in the first place, walking away from the opportunity when it was there, or the little pangs of regret I’m now feeling for placing family interests over being a mileage junkie.

I’ve explained before that I’m an idiot, haven’t I? Of course, to succeed in this sport, I imagine that a little bit of idiocy helps.
**

“Now hush little baby, don't you cry –
Everything's gonna be alright –
Stiffen that upper lip up little lady, i told ya –
Daddy's here to hold ya through the night.”

- Eminem, “Mockingbird” (click to play)

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