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August 31, 2009

Patagonia Release Shoe Review

We interrupt this barefoot running series to bring you … a traditional shoe review!

Truthfully, talking about traditional footwear isn’t really a disruption; as I’ve mentioned in my training updates, only a small percentage of my overall mileage has been barefoot. Most days, the barefoot miles are tacked onto the end of a longer run in the trail shoes I’m reviewing here, or the road trainers I’ll review next time.

Like many of its competitors in the field, Patagonia is one of those companies with a long history of involvement in other outdoor sports, who have turned their sights to the booming trail and ultrarunning business in recent years. To date, the Release (and its Gore-Tex counterpart) is the only model in the company’s trail running footwear line.

Patagonia was founded by Yvon Chouinard, a southern Californian who spent his formative years participating in and contributing to the sport of rock climbing. As a young man he frequented some of the most famous climbs in Yosemite, Canada, and the Alps, and eventually started manufacturing climbing gear out of his parents’ garage in Burbank. Patagonia was launched in 1972, with an early emphasis on outdoor clothing and climbing gear. While their capilene garments have been longstanding favorites of many ultrarunners, the company is a relative newcomer to the world of footwear.

(Somewhat related tangent #1: to this day, mountain climbing remains the company’s passion – as evidenced by their spectacular seasonal catalogs, featuring descriptive essays and breathtaking photography of climbers on the most formidable peaks in the world. Even if you don’t like receiving catalogs in the mail, you should sign up for Patagonia’s catalog for a 4-times-per-year dose of mojo. Trust me, it’s that good.)

(Somewhat related tangent #2: On its website, Patagonia has one of the most thoroughly documented company histories I’ve ever seen. If you’d like a much longer read on the company’s origins, development, and philosophy, click here.)

Chouinard is a passionate environmentalist, and throughout its history Patagonia has taken a leadership role in protecting our natural resources. They are a major contributing partner towards numerous environmental causes, and are deeply committed to a whole series of global climate and ecosystem initiatives. This social responsibility carries over to the production side as well: any customer can go to this website and track the global impact of Patagonia products from design to delivery. The company has won several honors for its environmental practices, such as the “Eco Brand of the Year” in 2008.

So while it’s true that Patagonia has a bit of a reputation (“Patagucci”, “Pradagonia”, etc.) for high-priced gear, bear in mind that purchasing Patagonia products supports some very worthwhile global causes - and the overall quality of their gear is generally outstanding. Which brings us back to the Release.

Reflecting Patagonia’s southern California roots, the Release, according to its webpage, was built to traverse the Backbone Trail, a 67-mile traverse of the peaks and canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s marketed as something of a multi-purpose shoe, targeting light hikers and adventure travelers as well as ultrarunners. The terrain description of the Backbone Trail - lots of steep 500-1000’ climbs, with minimal flat terrain in between - sounds an awful lot like my normal stomping grounds in Carmel Valley, so I figured these shoes would be an ideal companion for long climbing days.

Thankfully, I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve found the Release to be a fairly durable and comfortable ride for all the trail conditions I’ve tested it on this summer.

As far as the specs go, there’s nothing really eye-catching to grab your attention, but Patagonia focused its attention in all the important areas. The upper is quite breathable and is treated with DWR (durable water repellent - the same stuff they use on water-resistant jackets) to help seal out water when you go splashing through puddles or streams. It has a Dynamic Fit Lacing system with loops that are separate from the instep, which custom-wraps the upper around the forefoot. There’s an Ortholite footbed to wick moisture and neutralize odor while adding to the cushioned feel.

On the underside, the Release uses a Vibram outsole (See? I told you nearly everybody uses Vibram) imbedded with rubberized spikes for improved grip and traction on sketchy terrain. (The tread pattern is supposedly different for men’s models and women’s, but this feature seems like a stretch; do men and women really need a different gripping pattern?) The midsole of triple-density EVA provides pronation control, and also demonstrates Patagonia’s eco-friendly approach to craftsmanship, as it uses recycled EVA from discarded running shoes. Stability is further enhanced by an arch bridge through the midfoot. Finally, there’s a thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) shock plate to distribute impact pressure across the sole. The entire shoe weighs 14.5 oz.

Seems like I've written about Vibram before ...

After a short breaking-in period, the Release felt very comfortable through the upper, while solid and responsive enough underneath to perform well on my hilly, moderately choppy terrain. I’ve compared some other brands of running shoes to sports cars, and others to SUVs; using that same metaphor, I’d say that the Release is more like driving a Toyota Camry: there’s nothing especially flashy about it, but everything is well-built and works exactly as it’s supposed to, to the point where you don't even have to think about it. These shoes will keep your feet well-protected and give you a nice dependable ride for as many miles as you’d like to travel.

The Patagonia Release sells for $110 at Endless.com, with free shipping and free return shipping. The price is on the high end of the bell curve for this category, but offset somewhat by all the upsides of this shoe and the Patagonia company.

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


August 30, 2009

The Barefoot Revolution

Will barefoot running ever become mainstream?

That question has been bouncing around with increasing frequency over the past several months. Between Christoher McDougall's Born to Run book (and subsequent Jon Stewart interview), growing acknowledgement of the barefoot community from both major running magazines (Running Times is linked here, and Runner's World hosts a barefoot runners forum online), and focused attention from major shoe manufacturers, it seems as if more and more runners are at least considering giving barefoot running (or its close cousin “minimalist” running, the proper term for those who use Vibram’s Five Fingers or similar products) a try.

Numerous newspaper and magazine writers have also contributed to the barefoot groundswell, and with my latest Monterey Herald column, I count myself among them. The article was a fairly big challenge for me: how to distill all of the information and enthusiasm I’ve written on this webpage for the past several weeks down into a single 600-word column? The result follows below – and by way of fair warning, much of the language below will sound very familiar if you’ve been following along here for the past month or two.

I’m the first to admit that a mention in the Monterey Herald doesn’t constitute an enormous leap in the popular conscious; we’re such a small media market that it often seems like I’m writing simply for the benefit of the birds whose cages my column will be lining in the following few days. That’s why I was excited to see the New York Times get in the act, with this outstanding piece published on Saturday. (And in a related story … I scooped the New York Times!) When “The Paper of Record” gets involved, you’ve got a full-fledged national trend on your hands.

Personally, I don’t believe that barefoot running will ever become mainstream; it requires too much persistence and patience - commodities in short supply among most Americans, it seems - and has a lot of potential for harm if entered recklessly or carelessly. And the convenience and fashion factors of wearing shoes are virtually impossible to overcome. However, if barefoot practitioners can establish a permanent seat at the running community’s table, I think they’ll consider that a significant victory.

Whether you prefer to wear shoes or not, there should be room enough on the playground for all of us.

Running Life 8/27/09 “The Barefoot Revolution”

We’re on record several times claiming that running is the simplest sport in the world; all you need is a pair of shoes.

However, a steadily growing contingent of runners is determined to prove that notion incorrect. Not the part about the simplicity - the part about needing shoes.

Barefoot running is nothing new, of course – it dates back many millennia before the waffle sole launched Nike into the stratosphere. Some anthropologists believe our prehistoric ancestors were tremendous runners, hunting animals by chasing them to the point of exhaustion. (It makes sense if you do the math: hominids were on Earth 6 million years ago, but mankind’s first known weapons are only 500,000 years old. Unless all those cavemen were vegetarians, they must have had some means of catching and killing prey.)

Even in the modern era, barefoot runners have competed at world-class levels. Abebe Bikila won a gold medal and set a world record in the 1960 Olympic marathon. Zola Budd is notorious for her collision with Mary Decker at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, but she also won back to back world cross-country championships in the 1980s. A handful of elite ultrarunners often run barefoot on mountain trails to complement their high mileage training routines.

You may think that this is terrible for your feet – but the truth could be exactly the opposite. There’s currently a philosophical war among shoe manufacturers: on one side, the folks who think that foot asymmetries and irregularities should be corrected by various means of support and motion control. The other side believes that less is more: just allow the foot to work naturally, and the other irregularities don’t matter. Not only that, but overcorrecting the foot’s natural motion actually leads to higher injury rates.

Think of it this way: if you were engineering the perfect weight bearing structure, you’d create an arch. For perfect shock absorption, you’d allow that arch to flex slightly upon impact. For dynamic energy transfer, you’d surround it with several interlocking components that move in multiple directions. For durability, you’d make the building blocks out of the hardest material you can create.

Well, guess what you’ve just designed? The human foot!

From a biomechanical standpoint, there’s no reason why you need to wear running shoes – so why doesn’t everyone just run barefoot? The primary drawbacks are comfort and speed.

Running barefoot is certainly uncomfortable right off the bat; our feet aren’t used to the lack of artificial cushioning, and our skin needs time to build resiliency to irritants like gravel, sticks, and pointy rocks. In order to accommodate these, the runner is forced to slow down much more than he’s normally accustomed to.

Most of us aren’t patient enough to put up with it – but the drumbeat of barefoot runners is growing ever louder; so much, in fact, that the running industry has taken notice.

The Vibram complany makes a brilliant product called Five Fingers, which is basically a glove for your foot with a thin rubber coating underneath: they allow you to run barefoot without worrying about injuring yourself on ground hazards. Other high-profile shoe companies, including Nike, ECCO, and Clark now have shoe models that allow the natural biomechanics of running barefoot.

One important caveat to all this: to become a barefoot runner, you have to progress extremely slowly to avoid injury. We’ve been experimenting with barefoot running for a few months now; if you’re interested in finding out how to start, feel free to contact us.


August 28, 2009

Apparel Sale; Vibram USA CEO Video

A couple of brief weekend notices to follow up on some earlier posts ...

First is a reminder about the summer apparel sale going on at Wilderness Running Company.

Almost all of their shorts and tech shirts are on sale for at least 20% off, not including the additional 10% discount you get by using coupon code R&R10. So the least you will save is 30% - and perhaps more. C'mon, it's the weekend ... go shopping!

Second, I didn't even know there was such a thing as "The Raw Food World", let alone that they have an online TV series. Obviously I don't get around the Internet nearly enough nowadays. Anyway, earlier this month they somehow grabbed an interview (it sounds like they might have snuck in) with Tony Post, CEO of Vibram USA, with a preview of upcoming FiveFingers models. The reporters aren’t exactly Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer - for starters, they keep mispronouncing the company's name - but the video does a nice job of showing Post as a pretty decent guy who is very dedicated to his product line.

They also managed to get a sneak peek at two anxiously awaited FiveFingers models: the Trek for trail running, scheduled for release this fall, and the Bikila for road running, target date February 2010. So if you're interested in getting a glimpse of those, or just want to look at the (much more casual looking than I would have guessed) inside of a CEO's office, watch the interview here:

Pretty cool stuff. I have to say, though ... by the looks of those two reporters, the interview doesn't exactly inspire me to take up raw food.


August 27, 2009

Vibram FiveFingers KSO Review

(Admin note: this is the second of a two-part review of Vibram FiveFingers footwear. If for some reason you missed my very glowing, but admittedly long-winded introduction to the product line, check it out here.)

Among the four versions of FiveFingers currently offered by Vibram, the KSO has become the model of choice among runners seeking the biomechanical, musculoskeletal, and psychological (yes, really) benefits of barefoot running without fear of the various hazards that keep most of us grounded in traditional shoes.

One key to the success of the FiveFingers (often referred to as “VFFs”, or sometimes “Fives”) line – in addition to everything I mentioned in the previous post – is that Vibram does a remarkable job of welcoming customer feedback and incorporating it into updated versions of their product. When early adopters began running in the FiveFingers, they reported that the upper didn’t always feel secure; that led to the strap feature found on the Sprint. When trail runners reported that dirt sometimes slipped into the shoe, Vibram added a thin mesh layer underneath the strap which became the KSO.

(And when KSO users reported that the KSO wasn’t warm enough for extremely cold conditions, Vibram created the Flow – but that doesn’t really pertain to this review. I’ll try to stay focused on just one model from this point on, I promise.)

VFFs are also called "gorilla feet" by users ... for obvious reasons

From a spec standpoint, here’s what you get with the KSO: the upper combines a thin, abrasion-resistant stretch nylon and breathable mesh upper that wraps your forefoot to "Keep Stuff Out." A hook and loop closure sits comfortably above the mesh and helps secure the fit. Underneath, a non-marking 3.5mm performance rubber Vibram outsole is razor-siped for traction – more on that in a bit. The outsole material actually extends around the front of the foot, which is a very cool design feature for improved scuff protection to the tips of your toes. There is a 2mm EVA midsole to provide just a touch of comfort without diminishing the barefoot feel. The entire shoe weighs 5.7oz, which barely seems like anything at all when you’re on the run.

VFFs don't Keep all Stuff Out; your feet will still get dirty through the mesh

The main caveat for first-time users to beware of with FiveFingers is in the sizing. Vibram uses European sizing, but since this is a form-fitting garment, you can’t make a straight conversion from your US shoe size to pick the VFF equivalent. You actually need to measure your foot, and match your foot length with the size chart on Vibram’s website. If you purchase FiveFingers from a store, the salesperson should have a specific Vibram foot ruler to determine your proper size.

My primary aim was to wear the KSOs on trails as much as possible, for a couple of reasons:

1) Although I’m improving my pain tolerance and increasing my duration of barefoot running time on asphalt roads, I still find running trails barefoot to be quite painful. I’m not nearly up to dealing with jagged rocks and knotted roots and pesky thorns quite yet – and whenever I do venture that way, it’s at an absolute snail’s pace.

2) I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this once or twice before … but I love trail running. That’s my thing. If being a barefoot runner means I can’t enjoy the trails, I’m having no part of it. Also, given my background in ultras, I’m curious as to whether the VFFs might be a viable option for running super-long distances over the rugged terrain I’m accustomed to seeking out someday.

(And before someone points it out: yes, I’m aware that the super-guru of the barefoot running community just ran the Leadville 100 in VFFs. But he’s Barefoot Ted, and I’m Idiot Donald. There’s a difference.)

So that’s exactly what I started doing. I wore the KSOs on all of my normal trail routes: over big climbs, narrow single track, loose rocks, steep canyons, and brush-covered hillsides. With a few exceptions, the FiveFingers handled all of these conditions quite well.

High above the Salinas Valley; you can barely tell that there's anything on my feet

It only takes a few strides to realize that you have to change your running form while wearing the VFFs; without any cushioning, your heels will get sore in a hurry if you insist on using the same heel striking gait that you do while wearing shoes. Coincidentally, heel pain is one of the most common complaints from beginners wearing FiveFingers.

(For this reason, and several others, many barefoot experts recommend that you don’t try VFFs until you’ve practiced pure barefoot running for a while; having a completely naked foot forces you to use proper form immediately, while VFFs allow you to “cheat” a bit, which could lead to injury.)

Although the outsole provides protection from the trail, you’re still able to feel every bump and contour of the ground underneath your feet. You can tell the size and shape of pebbles you step on, note the relative softness of various types of mud, and feel the change in texture from dirt to leaves to wood chips or anything else you encounter. You can even feel temperature changes from shady areas to exposed sections of trail. Perhaps this new sensory input becomes diminished over a long period of time (it’s a normal accommodation mechanism of your central nervous system, like the way you don’t notice a clock ticking in the background after a while) but I kind of hope that it doesn’t: it’s a very cool awareness that makes you feel more connected to the Earth somehow.

The VFFs are blurry, but the view is great; that dark sliver of land way off in the distance is the Monterey Peninsula stretching into the bay (click to enlarge)

The altered biomechanics and lack of cushioning will definitely slow you down a bit, but not nearly to the degree that running barefoot does. Theoretically, since your feet are lighter than when you’re wearing traditional shoes, you should be able to run faster than usual, but this is definitely a long-term adaptation. After several weeks of using VFFs, I’m able to climb steep hills almost as fast as I can in shoes; on level ground, I’m probably 30-60 seconds per mile slower than normal. It’s on the downhills that I’m still quite slow, attributable to two factors.

Wearing normal footwear, it’s on the down slopes that people place the most impact through their heels – therefore, it’s these sections where the lack of cushioning is most noticeable with the FiveFingers. It requires some major adjustments (and constant reminders) to shift your weight forward and use a midfoot strike on long downhill stretches of trail. I’m normally someone who likes to go “bombs away” down steep hills, so this is an especially challenging change for me to make.

The other limiter on my downhill speed is the traction - or lack thereof - of the outsole. For 90% of my running, the grip is fine, but I’ve noticed that on steep descents - especially if there are loose rocks or gravel to contend with - I experience a lot of slipping from the VFF. Since my standard trail shoes are La Sportivas, whose sticky rubber and angled lugs set the gold standard for traction, the difference is even more noticeable when I wear FiveFingers. It’s probably equivalent to wearing a road running shoe on technical trails: most of the time you can get away with it, but in some situations, you might find yourself in trouble.

Going down this hill was pretty sketchy

(Remember how I said that Vibram applies customer feedback so effectively? The traction issue is supposedly going to be addressed with the upcoming Trek model, designed specifically for trail running with a more grooved outsole and more durable upper. Needless to say, I’ll be VERY interested to check that one out someday.)

The only other drawback worth mentioning is kind of an odd one: many people report that the VFFs stink a lot. Since you don’t wear socks with the VFFs, and since most users don’t rotate pairs like people do with traditional running shoes, the funk potential is pretty high. FiveFingers are built with an antimicrobial footbed, and they are machine washable (but not dryer safe; they need to be air-dried) - but these are people’s feet we’re talking about, so I imagine that the situation could get kind of nasty. I haven’t experienced this phenomenon with my VFF yet, but perhaps I just haven’t used them enough.

I need to work on this pose, or come up with a new one. Is it normal to be unable to raise one foot higher than the other knee?

Honestly though, if a little bit of stink is enough to deter you away from FiveFingers, I feel badly for you. This really is a wonderful product to own, with large benefits for both traditional footwear users and the dedicated barefoot (or “minimalist”) crowd. You need to start slowly, and you need to build up your use of FiveFingers gradually to let your legs and feet adapt to the different demands placed upon them – but once you get to that point, they could provide you with some of the most uniquely enjoyable experiences you’ll ever experience in running.

The Vibram FiveFingers KSO retails for $85 from TravelCountry.com. If you have any interest at all in the barefoot movement, you owe it to yourself to try a pair of Vibrams; it could potentially change everything you know and feel about running.

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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August 26, 2009

Vibram FiveFingers Review

(Admin note: I originally intended to write a brief introductory lead-in to my review of the Vibram FiveFingers I’ve been wearing, but the introduction soon took on a life of its own. I tend to ramble when I get excited, and I haven’t been this fired up about a product review in a very long time.

Consequently, I’m making this a two-episode affair: an overview of the company and the product concept today, and a specific review of the model I’m testing in the next post. It was either that, or make you sift through my amateur business lessons, history tidbits, and dime store philosophy while trying to find specific details about the product. Believe me, I did you a favor. With that, let’s get things started … )


“Let me be now, let me because -
I want to be free now, free to see, yeah well –
I want to walk away, let me feel my feet –
Let me be free … “
- Xavier Rudd, “Let Me Be” (video after post)

It’s only fitting that a song by one of the most distinctive, uniquely entertaining musicians of the decade should introduce one of the most distinctive, uniquely enjoyable products I’ve had the pleasure to review.

Every so often, a product comes along that is so innovative, it doesn’t just distinguish itself from the rest of the field – it creates an entirely new category all its own. The Vibram FiveFingers is one such product, and without a doubt the single most prominent factor in the ongoing barefoot running revolution.

Vibram didn’t exactly take the running world by storm, however; it’s been more than two full years since the FiveFingers was named on Time Magazine’s list of top inventions of 2007. Rather, it has been at the forefront of a steadily building groundswell from runners who want to experience natural running, but prefer an ounce of caution with their abundant sense of adventure.

The funny part is, Vibram didn’t set out to revolutionize the running industry. In fact, it’s a textbook example of what Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen calls the theory of disruptive innovation. He describes how an emerging product can have values that are not initially recognized by the mainstream market, because the market is accustomed to different performance attributes (for example, super-cushiony or overly supportive athletic shoes). However, when small segments of the marketplace begin utilizing the product for needs not initially recognized - neither by the manufacturer nor by mainstream consumers – those same features that were once thought substandard enable the product to overlap and eventually overtake the mainstream market.

(Sorry … can you tell I’ve been reading some business articles lately? I won’t throw any more macroeconomics at you, I promise.)

In this case, Vibram developed a product that was mainly designed as a deck shoe to improve traction for yacht sailing. The fortunate accident was when its unique functionality was hijacked by numerous other athletic communities for their own previously unconsidered purposes. Hikers, climbers, kayakers, yoga and Pilates enthusiasts, martial artists, traceurs (practitioners of parkour - see video below) – they’ve all seized the FiveFingers as an essential part of their activity.

(To their immense credit, the Vibram company welcomes and encourages this kind of user innovation; on their website and in their brochures, they invite customers to contact them with new uses for their footwear. They then go one step further and sponsor many of these offshoot activities - such as this parkour festival – further solidifying their standing as a disruptive innovator. See? Economics can be fun!)

All of which brings us to the running community.

For all the recent buzz about running barefoot, it’s not exactly breaking news; coaches, scientists, and runners of all abilities have long known about the benefits of natural running. The trouble has always been the impractical and potentially dangerous aspect of actually removing your shoes in modern society. Our ancestors might have been born to run barefoot, but they probably didn’t have to worry about broken beer bottles, stray shards of metal, rugged chip and seal asphalt, or countless other hazards that might ultimately require antibiotics and a tetanus shot.

Into that breach steps the FiveFingers, embraced by the running community as the perfect combination of freedom and security. Running in FiveFingers (or VFFs, as most users refer to them) basically provides you all of the biomechanical and musculoskeletal benefits of running barefoot, with none of the discomfort or concern about sharp objects puncturing your soles.

From a design standpoint, the FiveFingers is very minimalistic: it’s little more than a thin mesh upper attached to a rubber 3.5-mm outsole contoured to the anatomy of your foot. It’s also a great illustration of a company playing to its strength.

Although the FiveFingers is Vibram’s first venture into footwear, they have been perfecting the production of outsoles for more than 70 years – and chances are that you’ve used their products several times already. Company founder Vitale Bramani (whose first and last names, mashed together, give you “Vibram” – get it?) started making soles for mountaineering boots in the 1930s, after several of his friends perished in a mountaineering disaster blamed in part on substandard footwear. Over the following decades, his company set the standard for high-performance outsoles, and expanded to all varieties of footwear. Today, Vibram products are used by literally hundreds of shoe manufacturers; name a company, and they probably use Vibram outsoles.

(Incidentally, Vibram has an interesting racing heritage as well: the inventive process that led to Bramani’s development of vulcanized rubber was financially supported by his friend Leopoldo Pirelli – better known as the founder of Pirelli racing tires. So think of that Vibram outsole on yur foot as your own little piece of a Formula 1 racer. Thus concludes your free history lesson for the day.)

So you’ve got your outsole – but obviously, that’s not the most noticable aspect of the FiveFingers. Rather, it’s the separate toe compartments that give this footwear its distinctive look and contribute to a uniquely natural feeling while wearing them.

The net effect of the thin outsole and independent toe compartments is complete freedom of movement while wearing FiveFingers. It enables you to sense and respond to the ground underneath you in a way that no conventional footwear is capable of. There’s a holistic feeling to them, like you’re actively interacting with the world around you instead of merely passing through it. And they’re just plain fun to wear, even if you’re just walking around the block.

For runners, of course, they offer a complete paradigm shift away from traditional (and flawed, according to many) running mechanics. It takes some getting used to – just about everybody recommends that you build up your time and distance in FiveFingers gradually, alternating with shod running – but once your running form begins to adapt, and you get accustomed to the feeling of the Earth beneath your toes, it’s hard to go back to normal footwear again.

Ultimately, the FiveFingers represents an intersection of two separate categories of runners. The first group is barefoot purists who never wear conventional running shoes, but will use FiveFingers on occasion for trail ultras or other especially daunting conditions like icy roads or extremely sharp, rocky terrain. The other, much larger group is comprised of traditional shoe-wearers who want to experience the feeling of barefoot running from time to time, or who occasionally want to give their legs and feet an extra shot of dexterity and strengthening during their training regimen. For a simple product to bring two disparate groups together like that, it must be pretty remarkable.

Currently, Vibram offers four models of FiveFingers footwear …

1. Classic: the simplest version, like a ballet slipper on top. These retail for $75 on the Vibram website.

2. Sprint: adds a forefoot strap across the top of the upper for a more secure fit. Retails for $80.

3. KSO (short for “Keep Stuff Out”): adds a thin mesh covering for the top of the foot, with a strap adjustment like the Sprint. Retails for $85.

4. Flow: like the KSO, except the upper is made of neoprene for increased warmth and/or water resistance. Retails for $90.

One note about the pricing: it varies a bit from multiple online vendors, but usually not by more than about 10%. At first glance, it’s hard to understand paying a similar price as you would for a pair of regular shoes – but the life span of the FiveFingers is typically much longer than regular running shoes, and therefore is a much better value.

Think of it this way: shoe life is usually dictated by the breakdown of the midsole, and the amount of support it provides. Since there’s no midsole to the FiveFingers, standard guidelines don’t apply. A single pair will last you as long as the outsole holds up, which has been demonstrated to be 18 months or more by several high-volume users. Consider it a well-spent investment on your spirit of adventure.

Over the next several months, Vibram will release two new models targeted specifically at runners: the Trek for trail running (in Fall 2009), and the Bikila for road running (spring 2010). There will be some minor outsole and upper differences to distinguish each of these models, and they should prove to be very interesting additions to the product line. This summer, I’ve been reviewing the KSO model, which will be the topic of its own post very soon.

(*updated: the KSO review is here.)

In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy my field testing while running on the trail, feeling my feet beneath me, while Vibram’s FiveFingers let me be free.

Xavier Rudd, "Let Me Be" (click to play):

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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August 24, 2009

Barefoot Files: Training Update #2

I think the best thing I can report at this point is that I haven’t hurt myself yet.

Spend any length of time in a barefoot runners’ online forum (yes, they have such things) or talking to anyone taking up barefoot running, and you hear about a lot of injuries. In most cases, the maladies aren’t necessarily crippling - but it’s somewhat telling that a number of discussion threads have titles like “Heel pain”, “Advice for aching shins?”, “Sore spot on my foot”, or “Help! Blisters!”

It highlights a point I’ve mentioned before about barefoot running but bears emphasizing again: everybody starts as a beginner. Even if you can run 100 miles (well … mostly run) in shoes, you have to begin from square one or risk an overuse injury. It’s like being a brand new runner all over again, with bothersome aches and troubling muscle soreness straining against the irresistible urge to progress your time and mileage more quickly than you should (leading, of course, to a higher chance of injury). In fact, take any one of those discussion threads mentioned above, and they’d be equally at home in the novice runners’ forum a few cyber-doors down on the Runner’s World website.

So I count myself fortunate that I haven’t had any major physical ailments to send my training over a cliff – but that’s not to say I haven’t skirted close to the edge from time to time. With that, I’ll cut to the details. (And if you need a refresher on where we left off, my first update is here.)

Week 4: 4 barefoot runs, 2 Vibram Five Fingers (VFF) runs

  • 5 min on dirt,
  • 10 min on asphalt
  • 10 min on asphalt
  • 25 min on asphalt
Vibram Five Fingers (VFF):
  • 20 min on trail
  • 45 min on trail
With one exception, all of my barefoot runs were done at the end or middle of a longer run with shoes. The dirt running was on the top of Carmel Valley near the fire tower that I wrote about here. (Remember this picture?) The 10-minute asphalt runs were done after returning to my car from a 45-60 minute trail run.

The exception was the 25-minute asphalt run, where I got impatient and wanted to see if I could string a couple of consecutive miles together. I did it, but at the cost of a couple of small blisters on each on my big toes that kept me back in shoes the next day.

After 25-minute road run

There’s a theory among barefooters that blisters on your feet are a new runner’s early warning system against developing more severe problems like tendonitis or bone bruising; in that case, consider me warned.

You’ll notice I’m also including my runs in Vibram Five Fingers with these Barefoot Files reports – but since I’m going to do a full review on the VFF later this week, I’m purposely skipping over the details of those runs in this post. Check back in a couple of days for all things Five Fingers.

Week 5: 5 barefoot runs, 2 VFF runs


  • 10 min asphalt
  • 10 min asphalt
  • 6 min dirt
  • 20 min asphalt
  • 6 min asphalt


  • 55 min trail
  • 65 min trail

A very similar week to the one which preceded it as far as mileage or time is concerned, but I started to develop the first signs that I might be pushing things a bit during this week.

After the first 10-minute asphalt run, I had mild pain in my right heel, which resolved in time for me to run on asphalt again 2 days later and create a new pain at the base of my pinky toes (metatarsal heads, for anatomy geeks) on both sides. That pain settled down in a couple more days, so that I could punish my heels some more on the 20-minute run. The 6-minute asphalt run was supposed to be longer, but I cut it short because the pain in both these areas (pinky toes and heels) was recurring much sooner and more intensely than I wanted to deal with.

In between all this, I attempted to run in the dirt parking lot of the trailhead after a 1-hour shoe run; it was a very uncomfortable 6 minutes. Trails and dirt are clearly going to be the final frontier as far as working my way into a comfort zone is concerned – for the time being, I’ve resigned myself to sticking with the VFF when I want to hit the trails without shoes.

Additionally, along with the training numbers here, I’m trying to spend as much time barefoot as possible throughout the rest of the day – or when I can’t be barefoot, I try to use “natural” footwear as much as possible. I’m wearing Vivo Barefoot shoes to work, which I’ll review here sometime in September. It’s getting to the point where traditional footwear – anything with an elevated heel or cushioned midsole – feels awkward. Considering where I want this overall experiment to go, I think that’s a good thing. The only down side is that I now have several pair of shoes that I’m wondering what to do with.

Otherwise, this progression is about what I was anticipating: incremental increases in time - since I’m running so slowly, I’m not even bothering to measure distance yet – on my feet, in something of a “two steps forward, one step back” manner as I maneuver through the minefields in this brave new world of barefoot running.

Happy feet so far! ...


August 23, 2009

i-gotU GPS Tracker Review

Let’s say that you’d like to create some maps and review GPS data from your workouts, but don’t feel like investing in a wrist-mounted or hand-held GPS unit. Or maybe you have a wrist GPS but it seems like you need a math degree to use all the features, or you struggle with the software programs to download your trips to your computer.

If that’s the case, you’d really benefit from something simpler; if that’s the case, you’d love the i-gotU GPS tracker.

i-gotU’s GT 120 GPS tracker, manufactured by Taiwanese company Mobile Action, is an ingenious device that not only tracks your trip, but lets you add geotagged photos (more on that in a second), display your journey in 3D on Google Earth, and upload it to a webpage to share with others. And at roughly $70, it's a very affordable and user-friendly way to create maps of all your adventures. I’ve been using it for running, hiking and biking over the past several weeks, and I have to say it’s a pretty cool little gadget.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like much – just a tiny 20-gram box about the size of a 9V battery. There’s a single on/off button, and an outlet for a USB cable. That’s basically it; this is probably the most uncomplicated GPS device you’ll ever see. You press the on button, tuck the device into a pocket, and turn it off when your trip is finished.

The purchase pack also comes with a USB cable and mini CD that loads a software program called @trip onto your computer, and that’s where things get fun.

When you come home from your trip, you connect the i-gotU device to the computer, and trip information is downloaded in a matter of seconds. Speed, distance, and elevation data is plotted onto a Google Earth map, like on this screen grab of my regular Tuesday morning 12-miler:

(click to enlarge)

On the computer, a route tracer (a little car or bike icon) will then trace out your course, even speeding up to reflect increased mph, or slowing to reflect decreases.

You can also upload “geotagged” pictures to your trip, so that photos you take along the way are added to the file at the correct location and time. As the icon tracer approaches each photo spot, the photo pops up on the screen. On a recent bike ride with my son, we took a photo at the top of a long climb, which shows up on the screen like this:

(click to enlarge)

If you click the photo as the tracer is there, an enlarged version shows on the screen. The GT120 is compatible with every digital camera and camera phone on the market today – all you have to do is make sure your camera’s internal time stamp is accurate.

Finally, you can upload the whole file to a website to share with anybody you’d like. Like a Picasa album, your files can be private or public, or you can embed them into your blog. When a visitor goes to the file’s webpage, he can zoom and shift the screen like a Google Earth map, view the geotagged pictures, and adjust the data readings like the graphs in the lower right corner. As an example, I’ve created a file from the Tuesday morning run shown above:

Tuesday morning “Three Bears” run (Follow the link, click on "map view" or "3D view", and wait for the icon to start rolling.)

Pretty cool stuff, huh?

Its small size belies the technology packed into the GT120. There’s a built-in GPS patch antenna, and a SiRF Star III low power chipset which allows a super long battery life – up to sixty (that's right: 60; six-oh) hours on a single charge. The whole device is water resistant, so you don’t have to worry about getting caught in the rain or sweating on it excessively.

All of the applications I’ve tried are extremely user-friendly, and I’ve had a lot of fun using this tracker over the past several weeks. There are only a few drawbacks worth mentioning:

* There’s a moderate delay between turning the device on and when it locks onto a satellite. For example, the run map I included above started and finished at the same spot, but the GPS track didn’t pick up for a good half-mile or more. If you give yourself a 3 or 4 minute cushion, you should be fine.

* Since there’s no display, you can’t access data until you get home and plug the device into your computer. On the plus side, this prevents the dreaded “run around the parking lot a couple of times so I can round up to the next tenth-mile” syndrome when you’re staring at the numbers in real time.

* The synchronization of times between GPS device and your personal camera is tricky. For example, in this same screen grab from our bike ride, notice that the photo was taken at the top of the climb, but the tracer location on the profile map at lower right shows the geotag as about a quarter-mile down the other side.

(enlarge, then look at profile line - should be at top of hill)

The GT120 gets its time stamp from the satellites, but since there’s no display on it, you just have to estimate what time to put in your camera. You’ll probably be off by a couple of minutes on your first guess. There's an adjustment button on the @trip screen to dial in the precision of the camera with the GPS tracker, so this glitch is fairly easy to fix.

* In narrow canyons or under heavy tree cover, the signal doesn’t track real precisely, but I’d say it has the same degree of error as a wrist-mounted GPS in similar circumstances.

GPS devices don’t come any simpler than this. The i-gotU GT120 is a very convenient, easily portable, ridiculously easy to use GPS tracker, and a more affordable option than most standard GPS units. It is available from Amazon.com for $69.95, and similarly priced on other websites.

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


August 21, 2009

Christopher McDougall on The Daily Show

In case you missed it earlier: Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run, was a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart this week. Normally I'd embed the video below; however, since I've already written a review of the book, I added the video to the end of that post. You can check them both out here.


August 20, 2009

Wonderfully Made

(Admin note: this one got a little carried away. Two separate stories, without much common ground unless you’re really reaching. I reached, and mashed them both together here. You can be the judge of how it all came together.)

“The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.”
- Leonardo da Vinci

“For you created my inmost being;
You knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

- Psalm 139:13-14 (New International Version)

When I was younger, everyone wanted to fix my feet.

Shortly after I learned to walk, my parents noticed that my toes turned inward so much that I often tripped over myself. My pediatrician observed that my femur and tibia (thigh bone and shin bone, for the anatomically challenged) were excessively rotated towards each other, and that my ankles rolled inward as well. He recommended an orthopedic specialist, who prescribed a lot of bracing and splinting.

Healthy bone development became an indelible crusade of my youth. As a toddler, I slept with a rigid brace that kept my legs in a spread-eagle position, with a metal crossbar to hold them in place. Once I became more active, I wore leg braces like a young Forrest Gump. And when the braces became intolerable, I used various types of orthotics in all of my shoes.

I also had to do a nightly stretching routine that included sitting with my legs crossed – what used to be called Indian style, but now is “criss-cross applesauce” at my daughter’s kindergarten (we’re much more PC nowadays, I guess) – for as long as I could tolerate. I couldn’t tolerate very much at all; a few minutes at a time would be excruciating.


Around that same time, a man named Bill Bowerman was pouring molten rubber onto a waffle iron, experimenting with designs for what would become the first modern-day running shoe. Nike’s Waffle Trainer debuted in 1974, triggering the biggest running boom in American history, and inspiring countless other companies to turn their efforts towards grabbing a financial share of one of the most rapidly expanding consumer markets ever seen.

Over the ensuing years, most advances in running shoe technology were geared towards augmenting the apparent shortcomings of natural biomechanics. They cushioned our heelstrike with air pillows or gel chambers or elastic grids. They prevented our pronation with rollbars and medial posts. They limited our ankle motion with stability devices or rigid platforms. The underlying philosophy was that our feet were ill-equipped to sustain a habit of regular running, and that in order to make such an activity comfortable, a shoe had to compensate for the deficiencies of the human foot.

But what if they’re trying to fix something that wasn’t broken to begin with? Barefoot runners, as well as a growing number of podiatrists and orthopedic doctors, will tell you that’s precisely what’s happening.

Think of it this way: if you were engineering the perfect weight bearing structure, you’d create an arch. If you wanted to include ideal shock absorption, you’d allow that arch to flex slightly upon impact, with cords of variable tension supporting the structure on all sides. For dynamic energy transfer, you’d create it with several interlocking components capable of movement in multiple directions. For durability, you’d make the building blocks out of the hardest, strongest material you can find.

Well, guess what you’ve just designed? The human foot! 26 bones and 33 joints crafted together to form a perfect arch, held together by more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments all working in harmony. And yet, for the better part of 40 years, the prevailing philosophy within the running shoe industry is that God somehow made us imperfect or broken, and they took it upon themselves to fix us.

Even worse, when we strive to correct what doesn’t need correcting, we often end up causing more problems than we solve. Any adjustments made at the foot and ankle are compensated at some point higher up the kinetic chain – most frequently in the knees, hips, and low back area. It’s quite telling that while all of the protective and comfort features of modern footwear haven’t decreased the overall injury rate among runners in the past 30 years, our rates of lower back disorders are higher than ever. (That’s something of an oversimplification – for example, there are certainly other factors involved with back pain – but there’s no arguing about which direction the numbers of both injury groups are trending.)

Thankfully, shoe manufacturers have begun to recognize the value of doing less; that maybe the best solution to injury prevention isn’t to create the perfect corrective device, but to eliminate many of the features that had already been attempted. The result is a whole new category of “minimalist” or “natural running” footwear that allows the foot to maintain its normal biomechanics. Several shoe companies have embraced this movement, including some of the biggest names in the industry.

Vibram is far and away the leader in this regard, with its revolutionary Five Fingers, which is little more than a protective layer of rubber on the soles of your feet. Running in Five Fingers is a transformational experience; they enable you to mimic barefoot running almost precisely, without the threat of puncture wounds from broken glass or rusty nails. Danish company ECCO, famous for their luxury dress shoes, has a running shoe called the BIOM which promotes the natural motion of the foot in a high-performance trainer. The Newton company bases its whole product line on the premise of maintaining barefoot biomechanics as closely as possible.

Even Nike has gotten in on the act. The shoe giant invests heavily on research and collaborates with some of the best coaches in the sport to analyze the foot’s natural motion. The resulting product line is called Nike Free – whose initial ad tagline, ironically, was “Run Barefoot” – with the goal of combining the normal biomechanics of barefoot running with the cushioning and support of an everyday trainer. It’s almost like the process is coming full circle, back to the time when running shoes were little more than protective covering for the soles of your feet.

(Admin note: all of the shoes mentioned above will be reviewed here in the near future, starting with the Vibram Five Fingers next week.)

Of course, you can always run barefoot as well - just like people did for centuries before the sneaker was invented, and like an increasing contingent of modern runners are demonstrating every day. So perhaps our feet aren’t broken, after all – and if we let them work in the way they were originally designed, we won’t have to deal with bigger problems further down the road.


Fast-forward about 35 years from the baby thrashing in his crib against a metal contraption intended to fix what was thought to be broken. I have a son now - and when he was a toddler, his ankles rolled so far inward that the medial malleoli (the bony prominences on the inside of each ankle) nearly touched the ground. He frequently stands with one leg turned inward so far that the toes point backwards. He has a hard time sitting cross-legged.

Discussing these findings with his pediatrician and a local orthopedic surgeon, I had two separate but very similar conversations:

Me: Is this something we should be concerned about?

Doctor: Does it cause him any pain, or prevent him from doing anything?

Me: No.

Doctor: Then we should just leave it alone. Things tend to work out on their own.

It seems that conventional wisdom in the medical community is almost the exact opposite today than it was when I was a child. Instead of trying to fix things that look like they’re imperfect or broken, we let the body work the way it was designed. We resist the temptation to correct God’s creation with technology, and in most cases, we therefore avoid causing bigger problems down the road.

On some level, I inherently knew this premise even as a youngster. I ravaged against the metal brace so fiercely that my parents soon gave up on it. (To this day, my dad’s main recollection of that experiment was how the noise of me banging the hell out of my crib nearly drove him insane, and how many holes I smashed into the drywall with the metal rods. Needless to say, he wasn’t a big fan of the brace, either.) Likewise, the walking braces were quickly abandoned due to noncompliance, and when I moved out of the house as a teenager, one of my first defiant acts of freedom was to throw my orthotics in the garbage.

I still managed to play sports as a kid, and maintained an otherwise healthy active lifestyle. Later on, as I evolved into a runner and triathlete, I latched onto motion control and anti-pronation shoe models for several years, but eventually bid those particular crutches good-bye as well.

To this day, my thigh bones still turn inward, my shin bones still have an unusual curvature to them, and I still can’t sit cross-legged for more than a few seconds. Whether I would have been better off following the doctors’ instructions for all those years, I guess I’ll never know.

There’s one thing I know for certain, however: God didn’t make me broken. And of all the reasons I could give for venturing into the world of barefoot running, there’s a simple one that speaks the loudest to me: I’m doing it just the way He intended.


August 18, 2009

Awesome Summer Apparel Sale!

With the last weeks of summer winding down, the folks at Wilderness Running Company are having a blowout sale on summer apparel. All of their warm-weather gear is at least 20% off, with some items marked down even further. Best of all, you can still use my blog discount (details below).

They also provided me a couple of sale items to help promote, so you’re getting a two-for-one product review post today.

Before we proceed, though - and on the subject of WRC – their special offer on Salomon XT Wings ends today (Aug 20th); if you want shoes, socks, and shipping for $100, this is your last chance.

I was given two items to review: the Salomon Trail Runner Zip Tech Tee, and the Sugoi RSR shorts. I flipped a coin and decided to start with the shirt.

Salomon’s Trail Runner Zip Tech Tee is made of an extremely lightweight fabric called actiLITE which is also very effective for moisture transfer and rapid evaporation. This mesh fabric is so thin that you can see light through it, but (thankfully) not so thin that your nipples are showing. (I know that’s an odd spec to detail, but it seemed important to clarify.)

The fabric is treated with ClimaUV which is equivalent to SPF 35+ ultraviolet resistance, and with X-static mesh to resist odor-causing bacteria. Flatseam stitching makes the shirt feel very comfortable against your skin, and it has a droptail hem in back for those of you (like me) who prefer to go tucked instead of untucked.

This version of the shirt comes with a half-zipper, which provides a performance benefit like cycling jerseys with more effective cooling in hot weather or on long climbs. I’ve found that shirt zippers are a personal preference thing; I’ve never really liked them, because the collars, when closed, seem to sit a bit higher than on non-zipper varieties of the same shirt.

Regardless of whether or not you like the zipper feature, WRC has you covered: both versions are on sale this week.


If you’re a tall runner like me, you’re always on the lookout for a comfortable pair of high-performance running shorts with a long (7” or greater) inseam. I’m happy to recommend a great pair in the Sugoi RSR shorts.

I found these to be extremely comfortable from the moment I tried them on; the Hexlite fabric is very light and silky, yet provides great ventilation for moisture wicking. Two large mesh panels assist with air flow, and the zone construction provides an excellent anatomic fit.

Further contributing to the overall comfort, the shorts have a breathable mesh liner and very soft drawstring elastic waist. WRC’s sale page says that the RSR weighs just 5 oz, which is as light as minimalist shorts with much shorter inseams. They also include an inside key pocket and a rear zippered stash pocket to carry small items along the trail.

I’ve worn these shorts on runs of >2 hours, and I would definitely feel confident to stretch that time out for several more hours without compromising comfort. If longer-style running shorts are your thing, the Sugoi RSR is a strong choice; if you like shorter styles, WRC has those on sale as well.

Finally, for all of the WRC sale items: use coupon code R&R10 to get an extra 10% off your entire order in addition to the discounted price. That means that your minimum discount will be 30% on these or any other summer gear:

Salomon Trail Runner Zip Tech Tee

Salomon Trail Tee (no zip)

Sugoi RSR Shorts

The sale prices are in effect until September 20th or until their stock runs out, so take a look around Wilderness Running Company soon to grab some great deals on warm weather clothes. The timing is perfect to still get some use out of them this season, while stocking up in advance for next year.

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


August 17, 2009

Carmel Valley Fire Tower

"Set up high I'm strong enough -

to take these dreams and make them mine -
Can you take me higher?"

- Creed, "Higher" (video after post)

One of the most prominent structures in Carmel Valley is a fire tower at the top of the ridge line:

Click to enlarge - it's much easier to see

Its formal name is the Sid Ormsbee Lookout, although most locals just refer to it as the tower or the lookout (my 5-year-old daughter used to call it Frog Mountain, because she apparently thought the tower looked like a frog – but that’s a separate story). For most of the 20th Century, it was an inhabited post manned by the California Department of Forestry, to keep watch over the Los Padres mountains and communicate an early warning in the event of wildfires.

Modern technology such as aerial surveillance and satellite imaging eventually rendered the station obsolete, and the CDF stopped staffing the lookout more than twenty years ago. Today the tower stands boarded up and abandoned as a relic of an earlier time.

Still, the empty tower remains visible from nearly every point in Carmel Valley, stubbornly keeping its lonely sentry high atop the ridgeline. When I first moved here, it seemed to beckon me every time I looked at it, like a siren’s call that I couldn’t get out of my head. When I finally hiked up to the lookout see the sights and visit the ghosts of days gone by, it was one of my coolest first memories of living in this valley.

A decade and a half later, my 11-year-old son heard the same siren call.

For the past several months, he’d been asking if he could hike to the tower, so my wife and I took advantage of a perfect weather day on the last weekend before school started to escort him there.

The most direct route to the tower is via the trails of Garland Ranch Regional Park. Starting from the Carmel River bridge at the park’s entrance, we would eventually climb 2300’ over almost 4 miles to reach our destination. Elevation is gained pretty quickly in Garland Park, as you can tell from this shot shortly after starting the hike. The open area is known as the mesa, and sits at about 700’.

The views get better and better on the way up, but they were obscured slightly on this day by drifting haze from a forest fire in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. There has to be a little bit of irony in seeing smoke while hiking to an abandoned fire tower, right?

After about two hours of hiking, we arrived at the tower. There’s still a dignified air about this building, like its importance shouldn’t be forgotten just because time has passed it by.

The tower is also the official end of the trail, which seemed like a good spot to kick off my shoes and cruise around barefoot on top of the valley for a while.

(Incidentally … do you recognize the hydration pack? I reviewed it here.)

View from the tower looking west, towards the Monterey Peninsula. When you’re up here on a clear day, you can see the outline of the peninsula into the ocean, and even the town of Santa Cruz across the bay. Even with the hazy fog and smoke, it’s still a pretty sweet view.

There are various grassy footpaths around the tower, so I jogged around for a bit and ultimately followed one to a rocky outcropping looking over the valley to the south.

That’s where we took a brief rest.

Looking at this picture afterwards, something occurred to me: if I’m going to keep showing pictures of my bare feet, I need to pretty them up a bit. A shave and a good clipping, at the very least. I’ll work on that for next time.

Eventually it was time to put my shoes back on and begin our return trip downhill. From the lower ridgeline, we took one last look back at the tower before it dropped out of sight from the lower canyons.

I don’t know if my son was affected in the same way after his first visit to the lookout as I was after mine; afterwards, he mainly just reported that his legs were tired. I have a theory though: that every time he sees the tower from now on, he’ll remember that he was able to hike there, and be reminded that difficult tasks aren’t so hard once you make up your mind to do them. It might also give him the same appreciation of this area that his mother and I have always shared.

Of course, when I explained my theory to him, he just shrugged his shoulders - so I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Music note: There weren't many bands who rose higher and fell quicker in a short period of time than Creed; they're a cautionary tale to any band who has a few hits and starts believing they're the second coming of U2. It's almost an embarrassment today to admit you were a fan ... but in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was a big Creed fan. This song still bounces through my head sometimes in the midst of a long hill climb.

Creed, "Higher" (click to play):


August 16, 2009

Mix My Granola Review

Last month I received a generous offer from the folks at MixMyGranola.com to sample their products in exchange for a review. It’s a brand new company, started just last year by three co-founders who sought to make the perfect granola mix.

They concluded, properly, that the perfect mix varies for everyone – so that’s what they set out to provide. MixMyGranola offers a truly unique ordering process that allows you to completely customize your mixture, with an endless variety of options.

The best way to explain it is to walk you through the process. Click to enlarge any of the following screen grabs …

The first step is to select from one of four different types of base mix: organic, low-fat, French vanilla, or muesli. As we go along, keep an eye on the box on the far right; it accumulates the total charge as each new ingredient is added.

Next it’s time to add some fruit. As a point of clarification: from this point forward in the report, the screen grabs are only partial shots. In addition to the fruits shown here, there are eight additional choices further down the screen.

Of course, you know I’d put strawberries in mine; I also included some blackberries for good measure.

After selecting your fruit, you move on to nuts and seeds. There’s a huge variety of ways to customize your order here: more than 10 different varieties of nuts, and 6 different seeds, including the mega-nutritional chia seeds that I mentioned in the Monkey Shake review.

(You know what else you can get? Hemp seeds! I’m pretty certain these won’t get you high - but wouldn’t it be interesting to try? To paraphrase Jimi Hendrix, you’re not necessarily stoned ... just beautiful. [scroll to 3:50 mark] Go on - tell me you're not a little bit curious now.)

Another cool feature of the ordering process is that at any point along the way, you can click on the nutritional calculator underneath the subtotal and get the nutritional values of your customized mixture. It’s a nice tool to have, because …

… the next screen is the “extras”, where you can really rack up the calories, as well as add some pizzazz to your mixture. There are gummy bears, candy corn, jelly beans, and other assorted sweets.

You could also go in a whole different direction here and make a spicy or salty mix, with things like wasabi peas, mustard pretzels, or sesame sticks. I prefer the sweet route over the spicy one – at least when it comes to granola – but you could make a great mix of either variety.

This last page is just plain cool: a whole set of “enhancers”, which are powders and extracts to add a killer punch to your mixture. Who couldn’t use a little extra caffeine? Or quinoa or spirulina or green tea powder? These are great options to increase the nutritional value of your mix without much of a caloric cost.

Customized label

The end result is a customized mix (complete with an individualized nutritional label) that comes to your door a few days after ordering it. The containers are 16-oz each and are 100% recyclable.

As far as taste goes: it should be good - because you made it! The ingredients are 100% natural, and organic whenever possible, further ensuring a high-quality product.

I really enjoyed the mixture that I made, and I would definitely recommend using MixMyGranola from time to time. The primary drawback is the price, especially when you account for shipping. My order cost about 15 dollars, which (with my big appetite) was only about two servings worth. It's more expensive than buying the ingredients and making your own granola at home, but much more convenient and less time-consuming.

Considering that, I think it would be ideal if you like a unique combination of tastes and don’t feel like mixing and matching from store-bought products, or if you like difficult-to-find ingredients and don’t have access to a good health food store. It would also make a great gift for any athlete or health nut.

Finally, there are a couple of ways to make MixMyGranola more affordable: First, if you buy in bulk, you get 5 orders for the price of 4, and pay shipping on just a single order. Or – you must have known this was coming – I’ve arranged for a coupon code to use.

If you buy from MixMyGranola.com and enter the coupon code RAMBLING, you’ll save 10% on your entire order. It’s a good chance to try a cool product from a very unique company.

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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