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September 29, 2009

Better Than Something

Admin note: A somewhat random post for a midweek diversion, and as a placeholder before a longer post tomorrow. No shoe reviews, no bare feet, and for that matter, no real importance. Sometimes you just go with what comes easy.

But first, an update: Last week I announced Kilian Jornet's attempt to break the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail circumnavigation record held by ultrarunning legend Tim Twietmeyer. Kilian didn't just break the old mark - he shattered it by more than seven hours; the new record is 38 hours, 32 minutes. You can stay updated on Kilian through Salomon's Facebook page, and catch up on a fantastic video series at Salomon's Kilian's Quest page.

*
Last week, as I was leaving the community college pool after a swim workout, I was surprised to see a crowd of about 30 people gathered on the curb, all looking very intently into the street, every one of them holding cameras.

Now, when you’re driving through Yosemite National Park and see a bunch of people like this standing on the side of the road, you figure there must be something pretty cool to see …

… like, perhaps, a bear. In my hometown of Carmel Valley, similar crowds frequently assemble when a local golden eagle decides to sit lookout on his nest that overlooks a cow pasture.

In Salinas, it’s an entirely different story. In this wildlife-deprived, trouble-plagued city, large sidewalk crowds typically trigger one of two immediate thoughts: 1) a horrific car crash, or 2) a gang-related shooting. Not necessarily in that order. (And yes, shootings happen in broad daylight sometimes.) So I had a sudden sense of dread approaching the group with their backs to me, fearful of what might be on the other side.

Upon closer observation, however, there was nothing to see; the people were taking pictures of cars and bikes that passed on the road. I hung out for a minute or so, and overheard the project to be some sort of class assignment to observe and capture everyday street scenes.

So naturally, I did the first thing that came to mind:


I took their picture, and went on my way … thankful that there was nothing else to see - because in some cases, nothing can be much better than something.

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September 28, 2009

Newton Gravity Running Shoe Review

“Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;

God said, "Let Newton be," and all was light.”
- Alexander Pope’s epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton, 1727

**
There’s a biomechanical theory that describes the act of walking – and by extension, running – as nothing more than a controlled fall.

The physics go something like this: your body’s center of mass sits at a point near your pelvic area, and your natural base of support is like a small circle drawn around both feet. In standing, the center of mass hovers directly above the base of support, which is a position of stability. But as soon as you shift your weight forward, the center of mass leaves the base of support, and your balance is disrupted by a downward-directed force; you’re essentially tipping over forward. The act of taking a step not only initiates walking, but – more importantly, from a safety standpoint – prevents you from falling on your face.

As for the force that creates this instability and pushes you forward? That would be gravity, as first described by Isaac Newton.


It’s no accident that Boulder, Colorado-based Newton Running Company took the father of modern science as its namesake; in the same revolutionary manner that Sir Isaac changed the way we see the physical universe, the shoe company’s intention is to change all the rules you thought you knew about normal running motion.

By business standards, Newton is a completely radical company: they’re barely three years old, and were founded by a couple of guys with no manufacturing experience who decided to enter the industry with the most expensive shoes on the market. And they introduced themselves by telling all of us that we run wrong. It’s a wonder they lasted three weeks, let alone three years. For that reason alone, you figure the product must be something pretty distinctive.

The Newton Gravity

The company's co-founders aren’t complete neophytes when it comes to running, however: CEO Jerry Lee is an avid marathoner, and Chief Technological Officer Danny Abshire is an experienced ultrarunner, with repeat Leadville 100 finishes under his belt. And their passionate belief that conventional running mechanics were flawed is gaining more and more widespread acceptance with each passing day, and has captured the attention of some of the biggest names in endurance sports.

Newton’s team of professional athletes includes the best triathletes in the world: Craig Alexander (known for his blazing run splits), Michellie Jones, Heather Fuhr, Paula Newby-Fraser, and Natascha Badmann among them – that’s five Ironman World Champions, if you somehow needed a reminder. You won’t find a more impressive roster of athletes anywhere. The company also supports several young marathoners and triathletes who subscribe to the idea that the mechanics supported by Newton shoes not only increase your running efficiency, but improve your overall speed as well. (Curiously, given Abshire’s ultra background, Newton hasn’t really targeted the trail running community yet; more on that a bit later.)

Helloooo ... Newton! Sir Isaac goes along for the ride.

The Gravity is Newton's top of the line neutral performance trainer, with a price tag steep enough to do a double-take. So what makes these shoes so special? That’s where Newtonian physics come into play again. Specifically, Newton Running builds shoes specifically for midfoot running, encouraging you to "fall forward" with each step, and mimicking the mechanics of barefoot running as closely as possible.

(Admin note: the Newton website has a wealth of video content discussing everything from proper midfoot running form to shoe technology and construction and social reponsibility. I'll probably embed one or two of them in a future post, but if you want to have a look around for yourself sometime, click here.)

The underside of the Gravity makes it awkward to do a traditional heel strike while running. Rubber “actuator” lugs extend almost a half-inch from the base of the forefoot, and the bulk of the heel area is purposely minimized. The lugs are designed to act as the primary cushion on impact, and then as a lever to propel the body into the next stride. Once you’re accustomed to the different feel, you find yourself landing naturally on the actuators in the forefoot, as you would if running barefoot.

(The familiarization period is no trivial matter: if you’re used to running in traditional footwear, Newtons will require some significant adaptation. Newton clearly cautions runners to adjust to the shoes in small doses, and to expect some muscle soreness after the first few runs. In my case, having run so many barefoot miles already, I had no problem with the adjustment – perhaps another testimony to the Gravity’s effectiveness at mimicking barefoot running.)

Close-up view of the actuators

The actuators also promote increased speed with their patented Action/Reaction technology. Remember Isaac Newton’s third law of motion, where every force has an equal and opposite counterforce? That’s the principle behind this Action/Reaction idea. The technology is designed to absorb and then return your own energy back to you with each stride.

When your midfoot lands on the ground, shock absorption comes as the actuator lugs are pressed into hollow chambers in the shoe's midsole via an elastic membrane. Then as your forefoot levers inside the shoe, the lugs release their stored energy to help propel you forward. The materials involved with this process are supposedly much more effective than typical air cushions, gel, or foam models; the science page on Newton Running’s website claims that they’ve spent over 12 years researching and developing their technology, with 9 US patents. From personal experience, the net effect is a feeling like you’re rolling smoothly from one stride into the next.

Pretty good forefoot flexibility, too

It’s tough to quantify the tangible impact of Newton’s speed-enhancing features; by all accounts, Craig Alexander and Natascha Badmann were pretty darn speedy even before they started using Newtons. I can attest, however, that if you’re a comfortable midfoot striker, these shoes make it easy to run fast.

I’ve previously documented my frustration with the slowness of this whole barefoot running experiment: slow accommodations to rough surfaces, slow progression of mileage, and above all, a VERY slow average running speed. My response to that has been to really crank up the intensity for several runs in my Newtons over the last several weeks. I’ve done short interval workouts and longer tempo runs, and been very impressed with their performance.

Very airy - and very red! -mesh upper

Overall weight of the shoe is a mere 9.4 oz – a number that’s closer to racing flats than everyday trainers. The uppers are very comfortable, consisting primarily of an extremely open mesh pattern that is perfect for cooling in warm climates, but terrible for keeping debris out if you happen to mix a few trails in with your asphalt. (Newton has developed another model, the Sir Isaac, with a closed mesh upper and a bit more traction for running on dirt. It’s still classified as a road trainer, but it appears that Newton is making slow strides towards creating a true trail running shoe. If all goes according to plan, I'll review the Sir Isaac this winter.)

Finally, there’s the matter of price. The Gravity retails for $175 from the Newton website, and I found very little variation in my brief Google shopping search. That’s a significant jump above most high-end running shoes – and if you’re just looking for a comfortable high-mileage trainer without making a serious effort to adjust your running form, you’re completely wasting your money with these.

Part of the cost of admission, then, is making a commitment to practice midfoot running – and the high price tag makes you take that commitment seriously. These shoes would also be a great option for any of the following:
  • Those who’ve struggled with injuries and want to learn a more efficient running pattern, but aren’t ready to jump completely into the wild uncharted waters of barefoot running.
  • Practiced midfoot runners who want a lightweight, comfortable shoe for fast workout days or racing. (Newton does make a race-specific shoe that is one ounce lighter, but the Gravity is a better multi-purpose shoe for training and racing.)
  • Triathletes who want to run like Craig Alexander (OK, I made that one up … )
  • Barefoot runners who want some basic shoe protection for super-long runs or easy recovery days while maintaining most of their customary biomechanics.
Historically, revolutionary ideas take time to be accepted; nobody’s really certain whether today’s incontrovertible evidence will hold up to some new scientific approach much further down the road. That’s how it’s going to be for Newton Running shoes for a while: a core group of believers, a vocal group of skeptics, and a whole lot of time for the rest of us to decide what seems to make the most sense.

Count me in on the side of the believers.


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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September 24, 2009

Feelmax Video; Kilian's Quest

A couple of videos to carry you through the weekend, one of which features yet another young adventurer taking on an epic running quest – but it’s not the enigmatic Tellman (last seen somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania) mentioned a couple of weeks ago. It’s someone with far more organizational (not to mention promotional) support who seemingly has a far better chance of success at his task.

But first, one more brief and slightly bewildering mention of the Feelmax company whose products I reviewed this week.

I’ve mentioned a few times how the whole barefoot running movement has taken a few small companies by surprise, and Feelmax is a classic example. They made unique footwear, to be certain, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what target demographic they had in mind with advertisements such as this one:




It’s visually stunning, for sure ... but the purpose seems kind of vague - unless, of course, you make a habit of loading up a backpack to hike through forests and up enormous hills for the purpose of playing hacky sack at the top, in which case this one’s right in your wheelhouse. Otherwise, maybe not so much.

I find myself really cheering for Feelmax to get a foot in the door (see what I did there?) in US markets and become part of the running and fitness industry landscape, but you never know how it’s going to play out for some of these smaller businesses over the long haul. I’d absolutely love to see them on Shark Tank one of these weeks, scoring some big financing along with expert marketing and distribution folks in their corner to help make that happen – but perhaps they shouldn’t take business advice from someone who is hooked on reality television. It’s probably better if I just stay out of it.

**
The second video highlights the current exploits of a phenomenal young ultrarunner named Kilian Jornet.

I was contacted by a PR rep of Kilian’s, which almost always triggers a quick “No, thanks” reply from me, but it’s one of those cool stories that could potentially become a “I remember the first time I heard of that guy” type of thing if Kilian becomes the next Scott Jurek or something. So I’ll just provide a brief summary with some links and a video, and let you follow along if it interests you.

Kilian’s a 21-year-old Catalan who has been pretty much unbeatable over the past couple of years in several prestigious mountain races and ultras – he’s the 2-time defending champion of the Mont Blanc 100-miler, for example - and is now turning his sights to a year-long series of mind-boggling multi-day ultrarunning adventures. He is sponsored by Salomon Running, who have dedicated an entire video series to Kilian’s exploits over those 12 months.

This Monday and Tuesday, Kilian will be attempting to break the Tahoe Rim Trail speed record set in 2005 by an ultrarunner most Western States enthusiasts have heard of once or twice before – a guy named Tim Tweitmeyer. The current record for the mountainous 165-mile loop stands at 45 hours and 58 minutes; many ultrarunning insiders predict that Kilian will take that record down quite handily.

One of those insiders is Bryon Powell, who operates the outstanding iRunFar website. He’ll be covering the record attempt all weekend, so check out his blog for further updates.

Here’s the Salomon teaser for Kilian’s TRT attempt:



And since I said it for the oddball barefoot guy, I guess I should say it for the young stud ultrarunner: Run, Kilian, Run!

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September 23, 2009

The Barefoot Files: Training Update #4

"Let it flow, let yourself go -

Slow and low, that is the tempo."
- Beastie Boys, "Slow and Low" (video after post)

**
An old-school shout out seems appropriate for the current barefoot report, which features low mileage and very slow speeds. This two-week period was also a classic “one step back, two steps forward” phase for me. The steps back were partially logistical, and partly stupidical (yes, I just made that word up – but trust me, it fits), while the steps forward moved me into some uncharted waters as far as time and distance are concerned.

And I’m happy to say that after nine weeks of dedicated training, I’ve finally progressed beyond the level of a 7-year old; more on that later. For now, let’s get to the numbers. Also, if you missed them …

Update #1 is here

Update #2 is here.

Update #3 is here.

These updates probably deserve their own sidebar by now – I’ll add that to my list of things to do this month.

Week 8: 2 barefoot runs, 1 minimal footwear run

Barefoot:
  • 24 min on asphalt
  • 20 min on top of Half Dome

Minimal footwear:

  • 45 min w/ Feelmax Osma

This was the week of my planned Half Dome run, so I knew going in that most of my miles would be done in shoes, and the barefoot thing would have to take a backseat for a while – that’s the logistical part.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the barefoot bug out of my system, so on the Monday holiday, after doing some yardwork and going for a short bike ride with my son, I ditched my shoes and headed out for a late-afternoon run on my neighborhood streets.

More specifically, it was late afternoon on a hot summer day - when it was over 90 degrees outside, and the asphalt had been simmering in the sun for several hours prior to my arrival. Needless to say, this wasn’t the wisest choice I’ve ever made.

Not quite like Badwater, but far too hot for my tender soles

The strange part was, for the first few minutes, the discomfort on the bottom of my feet didn’t feel remarkably different than it normally does when I’m dealing with the rough asphalt of my neighborhood streets. After about 10 minutes, however, the situation became clear: the asphalt was giving me heat blisters on the underside of my feet, and I needed to shut the workout down. Trouble was, I had headed out in a direct beeline from my house – so there weren’t any shortcuts home aside from retracing my steps. By the time I returned, I had some decent sized blisters on my big toes and across the soles of my feet, with only days before I was scheduled to head off to Yosemite. Does my stupidical word make sense now?

(And don’t worry, I won’t post any closeup blister pictures here - but feel free to enlarge the final photo if you're in the mood for something a little bit graphic.)

The next morning, I jogged around in regular shoes (well, not exactly regular: the Newton Gravity, which I’ll review next week) for a while, and used my Feelmax shoes the day after that, and by the time we started our 18-mile adventure up and down Half Dome, I was pretty much recovered – in fact, I was able to kick my shoes off on top of the rock and jog around up there for a good 20 minutes or so.

Barefoot and happy on top of the world

Seriously – if there’s any cooler feeling than bouncing around barefoot on top of one of the most beautiful, distinctive mountains in the world, on the most perfect kind of day imaginable, I’d love to know about it. Because I’m still wondering how I’ll ever top that particular experience.


Week 9: 3 barefoot runs, 2 minimal footwear runs

Barefoot:
  • 34 minutes, 50 seconds on asphalt
  • 25 minutes on asphalt
  • 35 minutes on mixed asphalt/grass/dirt
Minimal footwear:
  • 45 min w/ Feelmax Osma
  • 90 min w/ Vibram FiveFingers

A brief note about the FiveFingers: this was my longest trail run to date in them, and at the time, I felt like I could have kept right on going … but afterwards, I was much more sore than usual after a typical 90-minute trail run. I love wearing them so much that I’m probably pushing beyond the recommended buildup period for your body to get accustomed to the changes, but I don’t really care. Call me impetuous.

As for the barefoot exploits: after a couple of days recovering from the Half Dome run, I climbed back on the horse in pretty good style. This week marked a key transition point, in that my barefoot runs have become long enough in duration to stand alone, as opposed to tagging a few extra minutes onto the end of shod workouts. It’s a good news/bad news situation: it’s great to know that my asphalt tolerance is in the 30-45 minute range, but I’m still moving at such a snail’s pace that I’m uncertain whether I’m getting any cardiovascular benefit or caloric burn from these outings. And since they’re now taking the place of my regular runs, my overall weekly mileage is trending steadily downward.

(Translation: I’m getting fat and slow. Thank goodness it’s the off-season.)

Here’s a good example of what I mean: notice that one of the entries above doesn’t say “35 minutes”, but rather “34 minutes, 50 seconds” – that’s because I decided to actually time myself on a measured course to get a realistic assessment of how quickly I could move with an honest effort.

After my first asphalt 5K: the white spots don't hurt nearly as bad as they look.

I chose a completely flat 5K course that I ran more than three years ago with my son, who was 7 at the time. When he and I did the race together, he was still in the porta-potty at the starting gun, took several walking breaks, and was trading places with a potential Biggest Loser contestant in the final mile … and he completed the course in 37 minutes. Alongside him, it barely felt like exercise to me; I think I wore a warmup jacket for the entire race.

So obviously, it was unfathomable to imagine that I would ever clock a similar time while racing on my own someday – but that’s almost precisely what happened when I tried the course barefoot. Fortunately, my clock time put me just a shade of my son’s age 7 posting … and the terrible part is, I had an actual sense of accomplishment about it afterwards.

I mentioned last time how frustrating the idea of running slowly was, but I feel like I’m finally starting to have some acceptance of that fact, at least for the time being. Slow and low's going to be my theme song for a while - and rather than drive myself crazy with frustration, I might as well just accept it. Perhaps that’s the most noticeable change this barefoot experiment has affected thus far: it’s changed my expectations so completely that I’m gloating over running faster than a 7-year-old.

Whether that represents progress is a little difficult to say.

**
This song is too old for a video, so you're just stuck with the iconic Licensed to Ill album cover while tripping down rap's memory lane. Quick question about the Beastie Boys: If someone had told you in 1986 that a group of three white Jewish boys would have a 25-year, multi-platinum career in the rap music industry, would you have believed him? Me neither - but I'm sure glad they did.

Beastie Boys, "Slow and Low" (click to play):

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September 22, 2009

Feelmax Osma Shoe Review

(Admin note: this is the second of a two-part review of Feelmax footwear. If you missed part one, click here to read about the Feelmax company and the Niesa shoe.)


**

Barefoot runners eventually get accustomed to turning some heads.

Whether it’s shocked looks of disbelief from neighbors, unsolicited comments from passersby on the road, or amused stares from nearby drivers, going without shoes triggers the freak reaction in a great deal of the general public.

For all their benefit and comfort, Vibram’s FiveFingers only slightly mitigate this knee-jerk response from people; in fact, in many cases it only makes the situation worse. After all, going barefoot is one thing – but spending 80 to 90 bucks to buy shoes that make you feel barefoot is a strange equation for a lot of folks … especially when said shoes are often referred to as gorilla feet by their owners. And while most Vibram users (myself included) adore their beloved footwear and would defend them to the mat, there are certainly some times when we’d rather not make a spectacle of ourselves.

(Yes, I’m aware that many VFF owners totally enjoy the shocked stares and questions they get while wearing them … but I would think that answering the same questions over and over again would eventually get tedious. Maybe that’s just me.)

So wouldn’t it be great if there was minimalist footwear that could actually pass for a standard running shoe? Something you could use for training in your neighborhood without attracting unwanted attention, or wear in races without standing out in the crowd? Feelmax has developed just such a shoe, called the Osma.


Ever since the company’s debut, customers have used Feelmax footwear for running, even though the styling of most of their models is not ideally suited for the activity; for example, the Panka and Niesa models sit up relatively high on the ankle, while lower-profile models like the Kuusa might not reliably stay on the foot in tricky conditions. Last winter, in response to customer demand, Feelmax set out to make a running-specific model while maintaining the overall lightness and superb ground feel that distinguished the brand.

They did a lot of prototype testing with their high-use customers, collecting feedback to see what worked and what didn’t. They brainstormed with their manufacturers to develop materials that could handle the demands of high-mileage runners. And they went back to the drawing board a few times to make sure they got everything right.

The result of all that labor is the Osma, which is a slight departure from their previous models, but with the same Feelmax characteristics that its users love. They launched it at the Outdoor Fair in Germany this past July, and it will be available for the general public in spring or summer 2010. (Updated Feb '10: they're now available at GiftsFromFinland.com.)

One of the primary differences with previous Feelmax models is in the outsole: instead of the 1.3mm thickness of the Niesa, you have 2.1mm on the Osma. (If you can feel the functional difference in 0.8mm, you’re way more tactically aware than I am.) There is also a removable – it’s glued in the forefoot, but easy to detach if desired - 2mm insole that could potentially increase the thickness to 4mm, which is still thinner overall than the Vibram KSO’s 3.5mm outsole and 2mm insole.

This outsole was the result of multiple prototype tests with Continental (the tire company), and it retains the same traction and puncture-resistance of any other Feelmax model. And despite the increased thickness, the outsole is still remarkably flexible, allowing your feet to grip the ground for improved stability.

The Osma’s upper has traditional shoe styling (it’s a very Euro look, in my opinion – not that there’s anything wrong with that) that is extremely comfortable and breathable, with ventilation that is noticeably cooler than the Niesa. The laces on this model are actually functional, which helps dial in the snugness of the shoe to your preference. When I first wore the shoes, I had one mild pressure spot where the back of the upper contacted the bottom of my ankle on the outside, but this issue resolved after a short breaking-in period.

The thicker sole and new upper materials combine to increase the weight of this shoe slightly – 120g (4.23oz) for the Osma compared to 90g (3.17oz) for the Niesa – but again, if you can tell the functional difference in 30g, you’re a far better detective than me. From a weight and performance standpoint, this shoe gave me almost the exact same feel as the Niesa, in a package that looks for all the world like a regular old running shoe.

For those times when you want a true minimalist trainer but would rather blend in with the crowd, the Feelmax Osma will be an outstanding option. Sometimes it’s better to let your feet do all the talking.


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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September 21, 2009

Feelmax Niesa Shoe Review

If you ever had a doubt that barefoot running (not to mention the Internet, but that goes without saying) could bring the world closer together, consider the story of Feelmax.

Feelmax is a small family-owned company from the middle of Finland. It was established in 1993, but found its niche with the introduction of their functional toe socks in 1999.

(Coincidentally, 1999 is the same year that Injinji started. So how come one company became so popular, while you’ve likely never heard of the other one? Actually, that’s a trick question – because identifying the “popular” company depends on what side of the Atlantic you’re on. Feelmax has a loyal following overseas, but since they have a hard time showing up at Northern California ultras, they’ve remained under the radar of most U.S. trail runners – although I suspect the balance of power will even out over the next several years.)

(And one more tangent, since I’m clearly in a parentheses mood … can you name the biggest company in Finland? There’s really only one to choose from; the country isn’t exactly an industrial giant. The answer is at the end of this post.)

The company operated on a shoestring budget for several years, conducting studies with universities and military personnel to determine the optimal materials and construction for socks that that would allow natural movement and strengthen all the small muscles of the feet. Socks remain their primary business, as they now offer eight different styles of toe socks, for everything from formal dress to active wear.

I’ve had the privilege of exchanging e-mails with Jarno Pulkka, Vice President and owner of Feelmax, who is quick to share his enthusiasm for the barefoot lifestyle and how our overall well being is best served by allowing our feet to function with as little restraint as possible. It was a natural progression for Feelmax to expand its manufacturing to footwear – and since launching their first models in 2007, the demand for Feelmax shoes has grown so rapidly as to rival their sock production.

The company has huge growth potential, and after trying their products, it’s easy to see why. Jarno was generous enough to provide two pairs of shoes for review: the Niesa, a casual shoe for today’s review, and the Osma, a running-specific model I’ll discuss in detail next time.

(*Update: the Osma review is here.)

Feelmax has about a dozen different styles of footwear; a few models are identified as male or female specific, but the majority of their catalog falls under the unisex heading. The upper of the Niesa looks like a hybrid of a breathable sneaker and a comfortable moccasin. It also bears a strong resemblance to the Panka, Feelmax’s most popular model to date – the primary difference being a Velcro closure at the top of the shoe instead of the lacing design. The styling of the Niesa would blend nicely in any setting where sneakers or casual footwear are typically worn.

Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice that the laces on the Niesa aren’t actually for tying; they’re basically a decorative touch to make the upper look more sneaker-like. The rest of the upper is a thin, soft nubuck and mesh combination that is very comfortable and extremely lightweight. The upper also provides some warmth when the temperature gets cold – and since it is shaped like a traditional shoe, you can wear socks with the Niesa to keep your toes even warmer if necessary. (I haven’t worn socks for any of my minimal shoe testing.)

It’s shocking just how light Feelmax footwear is; when you pick them up out of the box, they feel like they’re made of cardboard paper. The overall weight of the entire shoe is 90g (3.17 oz.) – making them by far the lightest footwear I’ve tried thus far. It’s even 2.5 oz lighter than Vibram’s FiveFingers KSO, the standard-bearer in minimalist footwear. It would be incredibly easy to travel with these shoes tucked into a handbag or waist pack for convenient use if necessary.


Of course, anyone can make a lightweight shoe cover – the question is how well the underside performs. Fortunately, Feelmax delivers the goods in this department as well.

Their main goal was to create an outsole that was as thin as possible but could still provide puncture protection for your foot. Feelmax collaborated with the Continental tire company (who also make outstanding bike tires) to develop a special puncture-resistant 1.3mm thick rubber outsole. While it's not 100% puncture-proof, it gives you the same degree of protection as a standard shoe outsole - all in that slim, flexible 1.3 millimeter surface.

The sole is a full 2mm thinner than Vibram’s, and has greater flexibility which provides you with an amazing ground feel. I raved about the FiveFingers ground feel previously, but the ground sensitivity of the Feelmax sole simply blows it away. You can detect every single pebble in the road and crack in the sidewalk while wearing these; in most cases, you can even feel the relative temperature and firmness of the surface you’re walking on.


The Niesas have a somewhat smooth sole, and prove to be a bit slick on hard surfaces that are wet. Aside from that particular condition, the traction of the outsole seems comparable to Vibram KSOs – which is to say, generally pretty good, but spotty on downhills with loose surfaces. It’s an interesting comparison: while the KSO’s outsole is thicker and carved out a bit to improve traction, the Feelmax outsole is so thin and flexible that it allows the natural grip of your foot to aid with stability, as it would if you were barefoot. The two designs take different means to reach a similar functional end point.

Basically, Feelmax shoes are as close as you can come to feeling naked on the soles of your feet without actually having them exposed. The primary question that remains is durability – more specifically, how long the outsole will last before getting worn out. This was one of the main complaints with the Panka model, and Feelmax have made this the primary area of focus for the Niesa. I’ve only used the Niesa as a walking shoe, so I can’t say that I’ve logged enough miles to expect some wearing yet … but this guy has put a lot of miles on his, and is reportedly very satisfied with their durability.

Overall, I really love Feelmax shoes, and the Niesa is an outstanding choice for those seeking a barefoot feel without the head-turning response (sometimes good, sometimes bad) that wearing Vibrams can trigger. I’d feel great about recommending them to anyone else who enjoys comfortable, casually stylish minimal footwear. The shoes retail for $80, which is comparable to Vibrams, and assuming their life span is similar, the Niesa makes a very plausible alternative for everyday wear.

Having said that, I found a few minor frustrations when trying to shop for these shoes:

1) The Feelmax website is really cumbersome to navigate. Some product pages have manufacturing specs, while others don’t, and it’s hard to compare product information by jumping quickly from one page to another. Worst of all, the website doesn’t sell products in US dollars at this time.

2) Amazon.com carries the Panka, which was the precursor to the Niesa - but there were significant quality upgrades made between those two models, so I can’t say that I’d recommend paying the same price for the Panka as I would for the Niesa. Amazon doesn’t carry the Niesa yet (UPDATE! Now they do.), so …

3) Another place to find the Niesa online for US distribution is from Extreme Outfitters, which looks to be a military supply store; not exactly the folks I’d expect to carry tree-hugger footwear, but that’s beside the point..

As the brand becomes more well-established, hopefully their distribution will improve to make it easier for US consumers to buy Feelmax products. Of course, if you ever happen to find yourself in Maaninka, Finland, you can just drop by corporate headquarters and pay them a visit in person. If you do, say Hi to Jarno for me; he seems like a pretty good guy.

(*update: per the comments below, Barefoot Ted now sells Feelmax from his website, or in person at his digs in Seattle - which is an awful lot closer than Finland.)

That brings me to one final thought – as well as the answer to the trivia question near the top of this post. Jarno is clearly devoted to both promoting the barefoot lifestyle and making his company succeed, and he’s an optimist on both fronts. Or, as he put while sharing his company history with me in one of his e-mails:

So the future looks really promising. In Finland, there is only one big brand and it’s Nokia. The second one will be Feelmax :)

I sincerely hope he proves to be right.


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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September 18, 2009

Fast Old Guys Rule

A couple of administrative notes – the first of which solicits some audience participation - before today's post …

1) I’m not sure what to attribute this to, but the issue of environmentally and socially responsible business practices has been on my mind a lot lately. It may have something to do with the fact that two recent product reviews were from companies – Patagonia and Terra Plana – who place those concerns front and center in their business model. Perhaps it’s because the barefoot running community I’m slowly infiltrating tends to exhibit a pretty strong tree-hugging, vegan-dieting, love-your-Mother Earth vibe that’s rubbing off on me. Or maybe my worldview is simply maturing a bit as I grow older. (On second thought … nah, that can’t be it.)

Regardless, I’ve received several thought-provoking comments and e-mails attesting to the moral complexities of the issue, and it seems like something worth exploring a little more in-depth at some point. More specifically, I’d like to find some way that average consumers (read: you and I) can learn about the environmental and human rights practices of a company whenever we’re considering purchasing its products. Does your favorite brand willingly contaminate our planet, or minimize their impact as much as possible? Does it exploit Chinese labor, or devote its resources towards effecting positive changes and improving the lives of its work force? These seem like things we should know.

Ideally, there would be some objective third parties to give companies report card-style grades in a variety of categories, which would be available online for the rest of the world to see. The trouble is, after bouncing through a handful of Google searches, I’m finding that such information is fairly difficult to come by.

I’d like to compile a post in the near future with some basic consumer guidelines and useful links that you can bookmark and refer to from time to time – and that’s where I’m seeking your assistance. If you know of a good watchdog agency out there, drop me a comment or e-mail with the name or website, and I’ll gather them up for collective consumption sometime. I know of a few decent leads, but I’m frequently surprised by information people bring to my attention that I simply had no idea about. So here’s your chance to dazzle me.

2) On an only slightly related topic … the Vivo Barefoot sale that I mentioned in my previous post continues through October 31st - and instead of writing text links into repeated reminder posts, I’ve put a block advertisement on the right-hand sidebar that takes you directly to the Vivo Barefoot site. I’ll leave it there through the end of next month to promote the sale as the other posts roll forward.

Speaking of future posts … let’s get to today’s, shall we?

*
For some reason, the Monterey Peninsula seems to be crawling with fast old dudes.

I have no idea how our local population stacks up against some other regions of the country, but my suspicion is that they’d fare pretty well. In fact, a handful of our senior athletes have their sights set on breaking a world record at some point in the next several months.


Their exploits, as well as our general awe of the running mentors in our midst, were the topic of our most recent Monterey Herald column. Of course, I can’t entirely shake the whole barefoot kick I’ve been on lately, so there’s a mention of the Tarahumara tribe thrown in, as well as a shout out to one of the most famous elderly runners of all time, with whom I had the honor of sharing a few Dipsea races during the first part of this decade.

Together, they all comprise one of the toughest groups of athletes most of us have ever seen; someday, I hope to follow in all of their footsteps.

**
Running Life 9/10/09 “Fountain of Youth”

Any runner will tell you that age is just a number. Our local running club has about two dozen members who are in their seventies, many of whom can keep up with the youngsters. The younger runners don’t see this as unusual at all; they know that age doesn’t matter if someone can keep the pace.

Legendary Bay Area runner Jack Kirk ran the fabled Dipsea race in Marin County a record 67 times, up to his most recent finish at age 95. The race starts with a climb up 700 stairs – equivalent to the height of a fifty-story building - before rambling up and down mountainous trails and treacherous terrain for over 7 miles. Kirk once famously said, “You don’t stop running because you get old. You get old because you stop running.”

The Tarahumara Indians in the desolate Copper Canyons of the Mexican Sierra Madres are folk heroes of distance running. They reside in caves and adobe huts separated by great distances, and their only means of transportation is running on narrow footpaths up and down the steep canyons. Running is part of their culture, as kids play games where they run up to 100 miles at a time. Amazingly, their civilization knows no heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, depression, or hypertension. Furthermore, many of their best runners are 50 to 60 years old.

The lesson from these stories is this: if you want to be healthy and productive in your golden years, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to get running. It’s like sipping from a fountain of youth.

Our local “older” runners are a great example of this. They make running a daily activity. Instead of talking about ailments and medications, they talk about their next race or next vacation. Many of them are among the fastest seventy plus runners in the country - In fact, four of them will be attempting to break a world record later in the year.

The world record for an age 70-and-over, 4x1500m relay (yes, they keep track of such things) is 27 minutes, 50.22 seconds. This works out to a 6:57.5 minute pace for each mile – and our local runners Rod MacKinlay, Jim Allen, Doug Shankle, and Jay Cook have a real shot at taking the record down. Rod turned 70 on September 1st and has run a 6:20 mile in a recent workout. The four of them will be setting up a certified attempt in December when Jay Cook turns seventy. We wish them luck and will follow their training progress closely.

Our outstanding local septuagenarians aren’t confined to the track, however. Phil Short, who took up distance running at age 60, does about 15 marathons per year, and plans on making his 200th marathon finish at next April’s Big Sur Marathon. Gloria Dake is 76 and has run every one of Big Sur’s 24 previous marathons. Next year will be Gloria’s 25th.

In addition to being great mentors to their younger training partners, all of these great older runners are perfect examples of how the benefits of running are available at any age. Even if you’re in your fifties, sixties, or seventies, it’s never too late to start! The fountain of youth is right before you; feel free to take a sip.

*
Postscript: if any female readers happen to feel snubbed by the title of the post, or the fact that 95% of the article talks about men, here's a token of my similar respect for you: a ladies' selection from Etta Clark's iconic portraits of senior athletes.


Age well, sisters.

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September 16, 2009

VivoBarefoot Dharma Shoe Review (and Coupon Code!)

Try as I might, it’s difficult for me to think of Vivo Barefoot as a small startup company.


That’s because the story of the brand is more accurately the story of Galahad Clark, a 7th-generation shoemaker and scion of England’s Clark Shoe Company empire. The family business was founded by brothers Cyrus and James Clark – thus the company’s formal title of C&J Clark, or the more informal moniker Clarks – in 1825, and has steadily expanded to become one of the most recognized (and profitable) brands of footwear in the world. It's one of the largest private companies in the UK, and remains predominantly under family ownership.

So Galahad wasn’t exactly an underdog when he branched out to create another line of footwear – but what distinguished his cause from the very beginning was a mission for eco-friendly manufacturing processes and socially conscious business practices. After he purchased the Terra Plana company, Galahad focused his efforts on that label to become prime innovators in design, sustainability, and responsibility.

Terra Plana has gone on to develop numerous environmentally friendly methods of production, such as chrome free leathers, vegetable tanned leathers, and using recycled materials for soles and foot beds. Another chief goal is to minimize waste and toxins from the production process, and Terra Plana has been an industry leader in this regard as well. The company’s reputation for eco-friendliness is so strong that when you Google "Galahad Clark", you quickly find a variety of articles proclaiming him one of the UK’s most beneficial environmental and social crusaders.

Galahad Clark: notice what he's wearing ... or NOT wearing?

Clark has still another passion: developing shoe designs that support the natural structure and function of the human body. He’s actually on record describing traditional footwear – such as the kind his own family created for six generations – as “little foot coffins” that prevent the foot from working the way it’s intended to. Given his background, that’s not a minor statement – but Clark believes in it to the extent that he developed a whole new line of footwear specifically intended to preserve a barefoot feel and natural biomechanics as much as possible.

And that’s where the Vivo Barefoot story really begins.

The first Vivo Barefoot line was launched as a separate collection under the Terra Plana brand in 2004, and they've steadily expanded their catalog with each passing year – fine tuning and improving the models that its customers love, and introducing new styles to attract a wider consumer base. Among minimalist shoe manufacturers, they have far and away the largest selection of both men’s and women’s footwear styles.

Another distinguishing trait of the brand is that many of their styles are formal-looking enough to pass in a business or professional setting. And while I love going barefoot (or wearing Vibrams), there are times – a lot of them, frankly – when a more traditional look is in order; that’s exactly what I was looking for in choosing the Dharma model.

The Dharma

(That, plus I’m a huge Lost fan … so I enjoyed saying, “I’m in Dharma again today!” to my wife as I headed out the door each morning. But that’s neither here nor there.)

Like most shoes in the Vivo Barefoot line, the Dharma (the shoe this time, not the cult) has an outsole measuring a mere 3mm thick; there is a thin antibacterial lining on top of a Duratex puncture-resistant layer, sitting on a TPU abrasion resistant sole that is molded with a honeycomb pattern for traction. The enitre outsole is actually thinner than that of the Vibram FiveFingers, and more flexible to allow an even better “ground feel” than the VFFs.


Honeycomb outsole

When you slip your feet into Vivo Barefoots, there’s really no noticeable difference from your barefoot height, which admittedly seems a little strange at first. More than one person at work has commented than I seem shorter than usual, because I’m no longer propped on the 1-inch platforms that my standard dress shoes provide. (On a related note: if you happen to have a Napoleonic complex, perhaps if these aren't the shoes for you.)

The other design aspect you notice right off the bat is how much space there is in the forefoot area. My Dharmas initially felt like clown shoes – so much that I wrote to the rep because I thought I mistakenly ordered the wrong size. She explained that the fit is supposed to be snug through the heel and rearfoot, but very roomy in the forefoot area, with up to a full thumb’s width of space between the big toe and the end of the shoe. Despite this feeling, when I place the Dharma alongside my customary Rockport work shoe, the length of the two models is the same.

Size 12 Dharma on top, size 11 Rockport below

(One final quirk as to the fit of most Vivo Barefoot shoes: the sizing typically runs a full number short. I usually wear size 11 shoes, but my Dharmas are size 12. And there aren’t any half-sizes available, so if you’re in between sizes you’ll have to make an estimate. There are sizing guidelines on the website; be sure to read them before you buy.)

The fit took some getting used to, as did routine walking in the shoes. Truthfully, I found this process to be more difficult than the barefoot running routine I’ve been working on. It’s one thing to devote 20 to 30 minutes of focused attention to your form while exercising; it’s an altogether different challenge to adjust your walking pattern every time you walk from the house to the car, get up from your desk for a cup of coffee, or quicken your pace a little bit because you’re late to a meeting. Like nearly everyone, my previous heel-strike gait was so ingrained as to be subconscious; during my first few weeks in the Dharmas, I had to remind myself of just how I was supposed to be walking from now on.

The upper of the shoe is extremely comfortable, with thin leather above the forefoot, soft suede cut low around the ankle and heel, and a cushioned collar on the back and sides of the foot opening. The upper provides minor water resistance, but isn’t waterproof. For a leather shoe, the Dharma seems fairly breathable, and the lightweight construction (the entire shoe weighs only 9oz) is a stark contrast to traditional dress shoes.


Can your dress shoes do this?

I’ve been wearing the Dharmas for about one month, and I absolutely love them. They’re convenient, comfortable, and a perfect extension of the barefoot running experiment I’m conducting. In fact, as part of an overall natural foot philosophy, I’d say there’s as much – if not more – to be gained by wearing Vivo Barefoots for 8 to 10 hours per day than by doing a short barefoot run before schlepping off to work in a pair of traditional dress shoes. In my case, I’ve also found them somewhat addicting; it’s become very difficult for me to put on a pair of normal shoes anymore now that I have a “barefoot” alternative.

The Vivo Barefoot Dharma is part of a just-released Fall 2009 line, and retails for $140 from the company website. The price is a bit steep, but it’s not really out of line with traditional dress shoe offerings. (And, as I mentioned in a previous post, all those responsible business decisions and manufacturing processes don’t happen on the cheap – and our individual buying habits do influence company practices. Terra Plana is another perfect case study of this lesson.) With my previous Rockports, I usually didn’t mind paying a high retail price since I knew I’d get a couple of years of dependable Monday-to-Friday use out of them. That’s the only question mark I’d suggest about the Dharmas I’m wearing: whether they’ll be as durable and comfortable one year (or more) from now as they are today. Terra Plana has a reputation for superior craftsmanship, so I like my chances.

Vivo Barefoot is also offering a great deal in conjunction with this product review: a 20% discount on any model from their men’s or women’s collection. From now through October 31st, if you enter coupon code R&R20 at checkout, the discount will automatically be deducted from your purchase price. It’s an ideal opportunity to support an innovative, forward-thinking company and test out the world of natural footwear.



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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September 13, 2009

Half Dome Run Report

“So celebrate while you still can -
‘Cause any second it may end -
And when it’s all been said and done –
Better that you had some fun … “

- Oingo Boingo, “No One Lives Forever” (video after post)

**
One morning during the spring, a group of us spent some trail miles discussing the adventure runs we’d like to do someday. I didn’t hesitate a second before declaring what was on the top of my list:

The more I think about it, the more embarrassed I am that I’ve spent nearly my entire life in California, but never set foot in Yosemite National Park until two years ago. And since I first laid eyes on its distinctive face, I knew that the Half Dome climb was something I had to try.

For some reason, the objective took on an increased sense of urgency through the spring and summer. More specifically - as one of the runners who accompanied me put it during a training run this summer – you never know when your own window of opportunity for doing something like this is going to close. I’d always had it in my head that I could go run Half Dome anytime I wanted – but if something ever happened that took away my ability to do it, I’d look back at all these healthy years I’ve enjoyed and regret never giving it a shot. (I know that sounds kind of morbid, but that’s where I was. I can’t help the way my brain works sometimes.)

Basically, I wanted to celebrate while I still could - so clearly, it was time for me to tackle Half Dome. Luckily, I was very fortunate to have several companions who weren’t just great runners, but had also climbed this mountain before. They proved extremely helpful as far as selecting the date, working out logistics, and generally contributing to an all-around awesome adventure. (On a related note, they’re also the people you’ll see in many of these photos; one of them is a very hip blogger friend, and the others are Monterey County dudes who thankfully don’t have issues with appearing on some idiot's running website.)

With that, we’ll jump into the report, with one administrative note: I sometimes resize pictures that end up here - but with many of these pictures, it’s hard to appreciate the distance and scale from a tiny image, so I’ve left them all at their original size. As we go along, feel free to click any picture to enlarge it and get a better sense of the scene.


Our group of seven runners left the Curry Village cabins at 6AM, reaching the Mist trailhead at first light – and this sign is a nice cue to mention that none of us knows exactly how far we ran. A few of us had GPS units that lost signals at times, and some of the distance markers along the way seemed unreliable. I’ll make a ballpark estimate of about 18 miles for the whole trip, but the mileage really didn’t matter – there was only one objective to this day.


Much of the elevation gain hits you right away, ascending the steps of the Mist Trail. When I’ve been here in the spring, water vapor from nearby Vernal Fall is heavy enough to drench you like it’s raining; in September, not so much.


Nevada Fall still had a decent volume of water, but there was nothing like the deafening roar that the top of this fall sometimes produces.


From the top of Nevada Fall, we were making good enough time that the sun hadn’t yet spilled into the valley. Good thing, too - because the day promised to be a hot one.


At this point, we still had (according to the sign) 4.5 miles to Half Dome - and from here on out, it was all new territory for me.


Running towards Little Yosemite Valley, you get some great glimpses of your destination. That smaller hump to the right is Quarter Dome, which you go up and over before hitting the cables on Half Dome. This vantage point is a beautiful sight – but it also makes you realize there’s still an awful lot of climbing ahead.


This picture requires a bit of an explanation …

That’s my friend and Western States pacer Brian, who spent much of the drive from Monterey to Yosemite Googling the fastest known times for various trail runs and rock climbing routes. He eventually found the fastest documented time for the summit route we were taking to be 94 minutes – so when we passed the 2.0 mile to go sign, we had the following exchange:

Me: We’ll set the record if we reach the top in five minutes.

Him: I don’t think we’re gonna make it.

Turns out that record time is pretty darn fast, I guess.


Over the final two miles, the terrain becomes increasingly rocky …


… and you start getting some killer views of the peak, such as this one in profile.


Before reaching the cables, you go up and over the Quarter Dome peak, where the trail is essentially a steep, multiple switchback staircase chiseled into the side of the rock.


It seems like an awfully long way up from the base of the hill …


… and the slope becomes noticeably sharper on all sides.


View near the top of Quarter Dome, looking down ... although beyond this point, looking down may not be recommended for some.


When you see the tip of Half Dome peeking over the ridgeline here, you know you’re getting close.


My first glimpse of the cables gave me an almost electrical charge; I couldn’t believe how excited I was to finally be there.


Here’s a question: how many people get to see the Half Dome cables with nobody on them? At 8AM on a Friday morning, that’s exactly what I was looking at. Unbelievable. Not only that …


… but the summit was practically deserted as well. There were no more than 10 other people on top when we arrived; it was like we had the whole mountain to ourselves. (In the distance, you can see some rock formations – more on those in a minute.)

With increasing frequency, whenever I’m at the top of some climb and looking to just chill out for a while, I get this overwhelming urge to kick my shoes off and play around in bare feet – so for the 30 minutes that we were on top, that’s exactly what I did.


As soon as my shoes were off, I immediately made a beeline to the point I had been dreaming about for months: the “diving board” portion of the summit that overhangs the rest of the rock formation.


This picture freaks my wife out; apparently the enormous pile of loosely stacked boulders on an unstable geologic formation notorious for its frequent rockslides gives her reason for concern. Or something like that.


Obviously, I wasn’t too stressed about it. I wore this same loopy grin on my face just about the entire time I was on top of that rock; I felt like I didn’t have a care in the world.


I decided to check out the valley below from a couple of different vantage points …


… because there’s really no better way to appreciate a 4,000’ vertical drop than when you’re staring right over the precipice of it.


After a while, I dragged myself away from the diving board and checked out the rest of the summit area. As you’d expect from a world-famous landmark, some of the rock formations on top were world-class. I’m still trying to figure out how somebody made this arch. The two structures in the background aren’t too shabby, either. It’s really a shame that all of this artwork will be buried and collapsed under snow in just a few months.


Eventually it was time to head back down … and if the cables gave you the jitters going up, on the descent they were positively dizzying. It’s a barely-controlled plunge down a 45-degree slope for 400 vertical feet. I wore my most grippy trail runners (La Sportiva Wildcats), and I was still slipping down large stretches from post to post. Just something else to keep the blood pumping, in case your adrenaline wasn’t flowing enough from being above 8000’.


Descending Quarter Dome, there’s no choice but to look down. Needless to say, it’s kind of important to watch your step here.


We took a little break at the Muir Trail bridge at the Merced River crossing, just before the river cascades over Nevada Fall. It’s a nice place to drop your hydration pack …


… and take a plunge in the cold water. The day was getting warm by this point (it would eventually get to the mid-90s), and after more than 13 miles of running, this little break felt amazingly refreshing.


We took an alternate route down from here, choosing the John Muir Trail instead of backtracking on the Mist Trail. The first part of it is an engineering marvel carved into the side of the hill.


One last glimpse of Half Dome (left) and Liberty Cap (right) before they drop out of sight on the descent. Liberty is very much in the foreground, which explains why it looks bigger than Half Dome, in case you were wondering.


Nevada Fall in the background one final time as we descend the switchbacks of the Muir Trail. This route features a pretty consistent grade all the way down to the junction with the Mist Trail, where it’s only another mile to the main trailhead.

From that point, it was one more mile to Curry Village, where we grabbed a camp shower, ate some lunch, and were on the road home by 1:00 PM. Before we left the park, though, I had one final order of business …

When I visited Yosemite in April, I stood in line at the lodge gift shop, waiting to buy a hat with the park’s famous Half Dome logo on it. I stopped myself just short of the register, filled with a sudden, overwhelming conviction that I shouldn’t buy the hat yet. I think it was my runner’s instinct bubbling to the surface – the same code of honor that says you shouldn’t wear the shirt of a race you didn’t run. Whether right or wrong, I resolved then not to buy anything with Half Dome on it until I actually climbed the thing.


So we stopped at the store again last week … and this time, I got my hat.

Given a few days to think about it, I really don’t know how this trip could have gone any better. The weather was ideal. Our timing on the trail was perfect. We essentially had the peak to ourselves when we got up there, and were well back down the hill before the larger crowds came trudging upward later in the morning. Our group stayed intact nearly the whole time, and I got to share with them a wonderful experience that I’ll remember forever. When it was all said and done, all of us had a ton of fun. It all went so well, that If I were ever to do this run again, I honestly can’t imagine how the experience can be improved.

Maybe I’ll just have to try it someday to find out.

*
Oingo Boingo, "No One Lives Forever" (click to play):



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