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November 30, 2009

Vivo Barefoot Oak Review (And Coupon Code)

I suppose I should preface this review by stating what will become obvious by the time we’re through: I’m falling hard for Vivo Barefoot shoes.


When I published my review of their Dharma shoes in September, the whole story sounded too great to be true: a prince (named Galahad, no less) who is a descendant of seven generations of footwear royalty decides to follow his heart instead of protecting his bank account, reinventing the family business in a way that celebrates the natural human form, while becoming a crusader for the most eco-friendly and socially responsible business practices imaginable. To barefoot aficionados and tree huggers - and especially to people like me, who are a little bit of each - it reads like some kind of fairy tale.

In fact, I was so impressed by the company and the product that I took advantage of my own coupon offer, and purchased another pair of shoes after posting the original review. (That’s only happened a handful of times, which I’ll describe further in an upcoming post.) The Oak shoe is a close companion to the Dharma, with some minor stylistic and structural differences to distinguish it from the rest of the Vivo Barefoot line – and in the space of a couple of months, it’s become my favorite everyday shoe.

Vivo Barefoot Oak, in brown leather
The Oak’s upper consists of an elastic sock liner (visible in the heel area) stitched beneath a suede or leather housing. The laces are purely decorative, as this is definitely a slip-on shoe. Its sock liner is soft, and the leather is nicely flexible, creating a very comfortable overall feel.

Uppers are available in three styles: gray suede, or vegetable-tanned leather in black or dark brown. “Vegetable tanned” means that it’s dyed with plant extracts instead of man-made chemicals. It’s typically left uncoated, and therefore isn’t 100% water resistant – but unless you’re walking through deep puddles all the time, this feels like a fair compromise.

Speaking of wet conditions, however – I’ve had opportunity to wear my Oaks in rainy weather a few times this fall, and experienced one of the coolest things about Vivo Barefoot shoes: namely, transitioning from a wet surface to a dry one, and seeing these kinds of footprints in my wake:


If you had any doubt that these shoes preserve barefoot function, this should put your mind at ease.


Close observers will note the tread pattern is different on the Oak than it is on the Dharma; it has deeper, more rugged grooves that make it more suitable to wet conditions. The tradeoff here is that it also adds 1.5mm of thickness to the outsole, measuring 4.5mm to Dharma’s 3.0. A little bit of ground feel is lost, which is bad news if you’re a barefoot purist – although honestly, the difference is hard to feel, and let’s face it: you’re still wearing the same thickness outsole as Vibram FiveFingers in a shoe that can pass in a business setting, which is pretty awesome.

For me, that’s the primary benefit of Vivo Barefoot footwear: the ability to maintain natural barefoot function – and to a lesser extent, barefoot feel – in a comfortable shoe that looks stylish and is versatile enough to use in a variety of situations. The fact that Terra Plana (the parent company) is an industry leader in responsible manufacturing is a very cool bonus, as well.

The Vivo Barefoot Oak retails for $150 from the company website, but for a limited time you can get it for a little bit cheaper. As with my previous review, Vivo Barefoot is extending another 20% coupon code discount in conjunction with this post: From December 1st through the 31st, enter “RunVivo20” at checkout for 20% off any Vivo Barefoot models in stock. I'll also leave an ad on my right sidebar through December as a reminder.


*Product independently purchased
**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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November 28, 2009

Sockwa Giveaway; Wilderness Gift Cards

As much as I love reviewing gear, I also enjoy giving stuff away. I love it even better when companies make it easy for me to be generous, and that’s just what’s going on this week.

Earlier this month I did a review of Sockwas, a neoprene sock with a braided outsole that can be used as a slipper, beach sock, or an insulated layer for barefoot running. I was sold on their products right away, and the Sockwa company is proving to be even cooler than I originally thought: they’ve given me a few additional pairs to give away, just to spread the love.

I have two size L (fits men’s 8-10, women’s 9-11) and one size XL (men’s 10-12, women’s 11-13) pair of Sockwas to hand out. Since they’re made of neoprene, sizing is somewhat flexible – so if the numbers appear a size big or small for you, you can probably still make them work. I’ll select winners by a drawing for each size later this week – so if you want a crack at them, just leave a comment below, along with the size you would like.

And this doesn’t really have anything to do with the giveaway, but … if you never thought neoprene socks could be sexy, I offer the following:

Photo courtesy Caesar Lima Studio

Have I mentioned how much I’m liking this company lately?

**

I also announced earlier that I have a few more winter apparel reviews on tap courtesy of Wilderness Running Company. For the next two of those – probably on each of the next two weekends – I’ll also hold a drawing to give away a $15 gift card to use for whatever you’d like from WRC. Between the gift card, and the cool sale prices available, and using my coupon code R&R10, you can make off with some amazing bargains, just in time for the holidays.


No nude models, but they're cool nonetheless. Check them out sometime!

But that’s for the end of the week; for now, if you want some free Sockwas, put your name in the hat below. Good luck!

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Tarawera Ultra; POM Wonderful Review

Before today’s post, a quick announcement as a favor to a friend:

At this spring’s Western States training camp, I finally had the pleasure of meeting Paul Charteris, a Kiwi ultrarunner whose blog I had followed for quite some time. Paul spends several months per year Stateside, and has a special love of the Sierra Nevada Mountains – and his Western States report is one of the most memorable accounts that I read after this year’s event.

Paul is also a relative newbie race director, and is promoting his 2nd annual Tarawera Ultramarathon in several forums, including the new ad on my sidebar. It looks to be a fantastic event, and I’d love to report that I’m supporting him by entering this March, except for one small detail: the race is in New Zealand.

I don’t have the frequent flier miles to pull off that kind of travel, but if a trip Down Under is on your calendar for the spring, give Paul’s race a serious look.

**

As we get into the holiday season, the reviews and discussions of cool runner products are going to be more of a two-way street, as I’ll explain more beginning tomorrow. For today, I’m catching up on a long-overdue review from the end of the summer.

All you really need to know about POM Wonderful juice is in this graph:

(Larger version is here on the POM website)

The antioxidant concentration of pomegranate juice is far higher than red wine, green tea, and nearly every other naturally occurring substance you can think of. Antioxidants neutralize harmful free radicals, which protects you from disease, and so on and so on – you’ve heard this all before.

POM Wonderful is 100% Pomegranate Juice with no added sugar, and come in a variety of flavors (either combined with other fruit juices, or solely pomegranate juice). It has a uniquely tart yet sweet taste with a very strong flavor. They’re typically sold in 16-oz bottles that retail for anywhere from 4 to 6 dollars – which is quite a bit more expensive than your run-of-the-mill fruit juices.

The flavor is too strong for some folks to take straight, but I happen to really like it. However, considering the cost, I think it’s better used as a recipe ingredient. I like adding it to fruit smoothies, and can stretch one bottle into 3 or 4 servings. They’d probably make a killer margarita as well, if that’s the kind of smoothie you prefer.

The POM website features a ton of recipes that incorporate pomegranate juice into every meal of the day, as well as appetizers and desserts. My wife used this one for a granita, then tinkered with it a bit by adding some vodka and extra lime juice to give it a little extra punch. She garnished it with some whole pomegranate seeds, and the end result was a very cool frozen dessert.

So aside from the cost, there’s really not much to dislike about POM juice: it’s super healthy, and has a sweet/tart taste and strong flavor that can be utilized in all manner of recipes. If you’re looking for a unique recipe idea, check their site and see what POM Wonderful has to offer.
*Product provided by POM Wonderful
**See other product reviews on 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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November 24, 2009

Giving Thanks

Linus: “We thank God for our homes and our food and our safety in a new land. We thank God for the opportunity to create a new world for freedom and justice."

Peppermint Patty: “Amen.”

- From A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

**
I’m not sure exactly what this says about me, but one of my favorite aspects of the holiday season is watching Charlie Brown cartoons.

More specifically, I’m the member of the family who says “Hey, it’s October 3rd already – why haven’t we watched The Great Pumpkin yet?” As soon as the calendar turns to November, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving goes into heavy rotation in the DVD player – and once we all wake from our turkey comas on Thanksgiving weekend, one of the first things we do to mark the season is watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (which is still, hands down, the best Christmas special of all time – it’s not even a discussion.)

Predictably, dialogue from the cartoons has become a part our children’s lexicon. Between October and January, the lines fly quickly and frequently: “I got a rock” while trick or treating; “Well … I … uh … “ when talking on the phone; “My grandmother lives in a condominium” when driving to Grandma and Grandpa’s house; “It’s not such a bad little tree …” when strolling through a Christmas tree farm. Add about 30 more lines to the list and you get an idea of how we’ve been passing time around the house lately.

Even more appealing – to me, at least - is how Charles Schulz never lost track of the message amidst the festivities. The cartoonist often referred to Linus as the conscience of the Peanuts strip, and that’s never more apparent than in the Christmas special, when the blanket-clutching philosopher recites Scripture from the Gospel of Luke. (This shouldn’t shock you, but I wrote a whole post about that clip once.)

A similar scene takes place in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, when Linus reminds us of the origin of the holiday:



Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. If you need us, the kids and I will be enjoying an early meal of pretzels, toast, jellybeans, and popcorn before heading over to Grandma’s house.

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November 23, 2009

Simple GUMshoe Review

If you’ve been slow to embrace the whole sustainable footwear concept, Simple Shoes will forgive you; after all, it took them nearly 13 years to come around.

The company was founded in 1991 with a somewhat amorphous vision to be a different kind of company. They wanted to stand in contrast with the over-teched, over-hyped, “It’s gotta be the shoes!” sneaker culture that was pervasive (this was the Michael Jordan era, you know), but struggled with how to distinguish themselves.

Simple had an epiphany of sorts in 2004 (and even posted it on their website - see below), and reinvented themselves as one of the most eco-friendly companies around. Written into their manifesto was this notion: HOW they make their shoes is just as important as WHY they make them. That meant finding more sustainable ways of doing business while creating products that were fashionable enough for the company to still pay the bills. Even more impressive is that they managed to do this while keeping their retail prices quite affordable.

From Simple website

Shortly thereafter, Simple introduced a methodology called Green Toe, utilizing materials and manufacturing processes that make their products as sustainable as possible. Initially the Green Toe collection included only two shoes, but the program’s ongoing innovations are now incorporated into every shoe in the Simple catalog.

Simple GUMshoe

Simple’s overall aim is for 100% sustainable footwear that’s easy and comfortable to live with. I had the opportunity to test two models; the GUMshoe is reviewed today, with the CARport to be reviewed separately in a couple of weeks.

The GUMshoe is a staple of the Green Toe collection, and is available in several different styles and materials. Corduroy versions are made of certified organic cotton, but Simple’s real innovation with this model is the use of hemp uppers in select styles.


Although hemp is illegal to grow in the United States without a DEA permit (a somewhat unfathomable regulation that I won’t delve into here), it is a very productive crop in Asia, and an almost ideal material for shoe and apparel construction. It grows rapidly and is naturally organic, as it doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides to protect. It’s one of the most durable yet soft and breathable fabrics available. (Personal anecdote: this year’s official Western States race t-shirts are made of hemp, and mine is the softest shirt I own.) Simple uses fresh-cut, unbleached, undyed hemp for its shoe uppers, making for a completely natural product; about the only thing you can’t do is smoke it.

Both the corduroy and hemp versions of the GUMshoe are 100% vegan friendly, with no animal products or byproducts utilized at any stage of construction. The construction process also features a ton of stitching, so that nearly no glue is used in assembly – and the tiny amount of glue that is required is water based instead of using petroleum.

Recycled car tire outsole

Like all Simple footwear, the Gumshoe uses a huge amount of post-consumer content in its design (as well as all its packaging). This is most obvious on the sole of the shoe, which is made from a recycled car tire. As you’d expect, this outsole material provides remarkably good traction for a loafer-style shoe. It also squeaks a bit on tile and hardwood, but it doesn’t mark either of those surfaces from my experience.

The GUMshoe’s footbed and insole are made from recycled carpet padding, which is a great eco-friendly innovation. However, the insole represents the only drawback I found with the GUMshoe, in that it’s not removable, and it has a built-in arch support that is fairly substantial. If you’re like me and trying this shoe from the standpoint of a barefoot or natural footwear enthusiast, you might be frustrated about that bulging thing pressing against your arch.

It’s especially disappointing because aside from the arch support, the GUMshoe has a very low profile, good ground feel, and a great minimalist look to it. Other Simple models have removable arches, so I’d love to see this feature offered in the GUMshoe as well.

Built-in arch support; either good news or bad, depending on your preference

Despite my objection to the arch, I have to say that this shoe is extremely comfortable both above and below the foot, and its styling has proven to be more versatile than I anticipated. I originally thought it would be just a casual wear-around-the-house shoe, but I’ve found that I can dress them up with a pair of jeans or khakis and get away with it (as is customary, my wife may disagree with any fashion-related claims I make here). They’re the kind of shoes you enjoy wearing, both because of how they feel, and because of where they came from.

Simple is clearly a company that you can feel good supporting; they’re committed to a “less is more” philosophy for both their product design and manufacturing, and they’re a plausible alternative to our grossly consumptive, flashy hyper-marketed designer-brand culture. Which is all they really wanted to be in the first place.

**
The Simple GUMshoe hemp model retails for $60 from the company website, with select colors discounted from Endless.com (who also supply Amazon.com). The corduroy model is $10 cheaper from both vendors.


*Product provided by Simple Shoes
**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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November 22, 2009

The Barefoot Files: Toro Park Trail Run

In an earlier training update, I described how my evolution as a barefoot runner was something of a “two steps forward, one step back” progression, with gradual improvements occasionally knocked for a loss by something stupid or unforeseen - or sometimes, stupidly unforeseen – to make me question why I’m doing any of this to begin with.

Last week was another one of those setback days, as I put my newfound confidence as a barefoot trail runner to the test in a new, yet very familiar setting: Toro Regional Park in Salinas, one of my favorite playgrounds in all of Monterey County.

I never really need a reason to run in Toro Park, but I was looking forward to this particular outing for a couple purposes. Primarily, I wanted to see if the good vibes I experienced on my last barefoot trail run would carry over to a different type of terrain. But also …


… I wanted to check on one of my favorite trees. It had been a few weeks since I’ve been on this particular trail, and I knew that this tree explodes in brilliant reds and browns during the winter months. Seasonal changes in Monterey County tend to run several weeks behind the normal calendar, so I’ve still got a few weeks before the colors here start to get spectacular. (And to assure you I’m not making this story up, I’ll keep posting pictures from this tree into December and January. Trust me, they’ll be cool.)


The outbound leg includes a few sections of gently groomed single track, which I’ve start to become more comfortable with. However …


… there are also some fairly treacherous sections, such as when the trail wanders through a small eucalyptus grove. The hard seeds of eucalyptus trees are super painful on bare feet, and they’re abundant enough that it’s very tricky to pick your way around them. Through stretches like this, I’m always reminded of Marlin and Dory hopping through the jellyfish forest (scroll to 3:15 mark): I can bounce from one safe spot to another pretty effectively at first, but eventually I know I’m going to get nailed.


The fire road eventually enters a clearing and climbs for a total of nearly three miles before a low ridge line that meets the connecting return trail. My feet had nearly recovered from the eucalyptus beating, so I decided to play around a bit …


… by experimenting with some action shots using my camera’s self-timer. This is the one that came out best – and I’m not going to say how many attempts came out poorly. I’m not exactly an expert at this stuff yet.


I eventually reached the connecting trail, where I normally enjoy some sweet views of the Salinas Valley on my return trip. However, although I had only traveled a few miles at this point, my feet were really beginning to hurt. It wasn’t anything muscular or joint-related; but all of a sudden the bottoms of my feet were feeling completely raw and vulnerable. The rough trails were taking their toll.

Instead of being in the moment and soaking in my surroundings, I had to keep my eyes nailed to the ground, constantly searching for the best footfall. It reminded me of the last several miles of an ultra, where most of the joy of the run has drained out several miles ago, and your focus is consumed by the simple task of safely putting one foot in front of the other. Whatever the opposite of runners high is, that’s what I was feeling by this point.


Needless to say, I was relieved to reach the picnic areas that cover the lower valley of Toro Park. My feet welcomed the soft embrace of the grass, but even then, I wasn’t completely in the clear …


… because the grass passes beneath some large oak trees. Know what lies under oak trees? Lots of acorns. Acorns that are nearly as hard as eucalyptus seeds, with shells that are pointy on one end. It was the jellyfish forest all over again – but this time, I didn’t have nearly enough energy or agility to avoid getting stung. Repeatedly.


Eventually I made it back to the park entrance – and instead of my usual sitting, grinning, “No worries!” post-run photo, I took this one: it’s more of an “I’m SOOOO glad to be done with this” picture. If I’m being honest, I have to say that the majority of this run wasn’t really enjoyable – in fact, it kind of sucked. It was painful. And painfully slow. The negatives greatly outweighed the positives, and the overall workout was quite discouraging.

So that’s my dilemma in a nutshell (or perhaps, an acorn): all the pleasure that I normally get from running barefoot, and from running on trails, somehow combine to create a less-than-pleasurable experience than either one does on its own. It also raises the question of what my overall intention with pushing in this direction might be.

I have some ideas about the answer … but that’s a bigger picture discussion that I’ll put off for another day. In the meantime, I’ll just chalk this run up as another learning experience, and continue exploring various paths of this ongoing adventure.

*See other Barefoot Files reports on sidebar at right

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November 19, 2009

Awesome GoLite Shirt Sale

Before today’s post, a couple of reminders and updates about ongoing promotions announced here previously …

Icebreaker's merino wool base layers are available at a 25% discount (with my coupon code) from Wilderness Running Company through this Sunday. On a related note, my wife wanted me to say that the shirt I reviewed has been worn and laundered through 4 laundry cycles already, and I still don’t stink. Apparently that qualifies as miraculous.

The kigo footwear I tested is available at a 20% discount with coupon code gokigo20 through November 26th. Also, remember how I wondered why the company doesn’t capitalize its name? It turns out that one of the owners did her masters study in literature, and is a huge e.e. cummings fan. So there you go; I love it when there’s a simple explanation.

As for today’s post, it’s another review with a promotional sale attached. If I get too many more of these things going, I’ll have to start putting out a weekly circular or something. In the meantime, there are sweet bargains to be had from Wilderness Running Company. They have some general cold-weather gear promotions going on, and provided me a handful of samples to test. Today’s post has shirts, with reviews of a jacket, gloves and tights coming soon.

This week’s specials come from GoLite, a company I profiled when reviewing their outstanding Rush pack, which remains my favorite backpack for hiking and general purpose use. The short version is, they started out making lightweight hiking gear, but have successfully expanded to trail running gear with the same premise: that light and comfortable is always better than heavy and cumbersome.


For fall 2009, GoLite has completely overhauled their baselayer offerings. They have form-fitting garments named BL-1, BL-2, and BL-3 (it stands for Base Layer, natch) with thickness designated by the numbers. The midweight BL-2 is probably the most versatile of this group, but all 3 models are discounted, so there’s something for everyone’s preference.

The shirts I tested are DriMove moisture-wicking long sleeve tops in crew neck (pictured, and linked) and zip neck styles. They are a more traditional (not form-fitting) cut, which I generally prefer, and they feel very soft and comfortable against my skin. With morning temps in the 30s at my house lately, I wear this top underneath a vest or jacket, and I’m good to go.

GoLite’s DriMove shirts have a pretty cool and eco-savvy fabric enhancement technology called Cocona, which utilizes activated carbon from the inside of discarded coconut shells (do you ever wonder who comes up with these ideas?). Fabrics with Cocona supposedly transfer moisture off the skin over 50% faster than other moisture-wicking materials, and help absorb and trap a wide range of odors. In practice, I’d say they’re not as effective at de-stinking as the merino wool Icebreakers, but the funk factor is certainly diminished compared to my regular running shirts.

(And is it just me, or have we been discussing my body aroma far too often around here lately? Thank goodness we won’t have this issue when we get to the headlamp reviews – at least, I’m pretty sure we won’t.)

So while these GoLite tops may not have the sex appeal of the fancy merino wool garments I recently reviewed, they are very durable, comfortable, versatile staples of a winter running wardrobe – and best of all, they’re totally affordable.

All of the GoLite shirts I’ve mentioned – the DriMoves and all three BL thicknesses, in either crew neck or zip neck, are on sale at a pretty steep discount - as in 40 to 50% off - from Wilderness Running Company. My website code still applies, so using R&R10 gets you an additional 10% off those already killer prices. If you were waiting to top off your base layer supply for the winter, the time is now.



*products provided by Wilderness Running 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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November 18, 2009

Winter Safety; Lighting Up the Sky

“I just want to be where you are tonight -
I run in the dark looking for some light –
And how will we know if we just don't try –

We won't ever know -

Let me light up the sky, light it up for you.”
- Yellowcard, “Light Up the Sky” (video after post)


In case you haven’t noticed, it’s getting darker out there. Early sunsets and late sunrises are conspiring to steal precious hours of daylight from either side of our workdays, leaving us no choice but to venture into the dark if we want to sustain our outdoor activity fix.

I never really considered myself a dedicated runner until the first year that I ran consistently through the winter. For many years I was a spring-to-fall runner, hanging up my shoes as the days got shorter and the weather turned colder, too lazy or too poor (probably both) to invest in clothing or equipment that would make winter workouts a bit easier to bear. Of course, winter running isn’t just about having the right gear - there are other factors to consider as well, some of which are the topic of this week’s Monterey Herald column which follows below.

Also, an announcement on the subject of winter gear: from time to time, readers have asked me for lighting recommendations - either the merits of flashlights vs headlamps, or specific brands and models for various situations. I’m happy to report that I’ve had some opportunities to test several lamps this fall – and beginning in December, I’ll roll out reviews of each of them here. Think of it as my way of helping you light up the sky for some dark winter workouts.

**

Running Life 11/19/09 “Be Careful Out There”

This is the time of year when many of us start doing it in the dark. (Running, that is … what else did you think we meant?)

It’s also an important time for a refresher on running safety, so we can all be careful out there. Running in the dark requires some equipment, some advance planning, and vigilance.

Clothes and equipment: Wear light colored clothing, with reflective striping or accents wherever possible. Put some on your dog as well, if you run with one. Many runners wear flashing LED lights on their backsides – they’re inexpensive and easy to find at running stores or on-line. Use a headlamp to help you see the road and to alert oncoming cars to your presence. If you wear a thick hat to keep your head warm, make sure you don’t pull it too far over your ears or eyes. You still need to hear and remain alert.

Routes: Run on roads that are familiar, and preferably well lit. Stay on the left side of the road to face oncoming traffic. Always assume that the driver doesn’t see you, or even worse, is out to get you - because some day, he actually might be. Be wary of sideview mirrors that stick out from trucks, and give them a wide berth. Above all, don’t be afraid to step off the road and stop; your time doesn’t matter as much as your life.

Most critically of all – NEVER assume that a car sees you, or that the driver will do the right thing and avoid you. Some drivers feel like they own the entire road – and all it takes is one arrogant jerk to end your running career for good.

Form: Running in the dark naturally makes you more adept at “high stepping” to avoid small bumps. If you typically shuffle with your feet low to the ground, a few stumbles will quickly teach you to raise your feet a bit higher with each stride. Doing so is actually good for your overall form as well.

Partners: Find a friend or group to run with, for added security in numbers – an issue of increased importance for women. Each person takes responsibility for his (or her) own well-being, but also looks out for those around him. For example, don’t hesitate to yell a warning when you notice a car coming or see a hole in the road.

A recent running magazine study found that more runners are hit by cars when they run abreast of each other than when single file. We call this a “Well, DUH” kind of study … but just because the point is obvious doesn’t make it less important. If you’re running with a large group, the person out farthest into the traffic lane is in the most danger. So whenever a car approaches, cut the chit chat and quickly go single file.

Headphones and iPods: In a word: NO. Don’t use them in the dark. Sure, music is cool, but being safe is even cooler. In the darkness, you rely on your sense of hearing more than anything to keep you safe. You have to be hyper-alert to noises around you – especially in the era of whisper-quiet hybrid cars that can inadvertently sneak up on you.

Above all, don’t get complacent. These rules are simple, but they should be adhered to every single day that you venture into the dark. Be careful out there, and run safely all the way to springtime.

**

Yellowcard was a band that I pretty much fell in love with on my first listen; a multicultural pop-punk band with melodic hooks, uplifting lyrics, and – most interesting of all, to me – a violin player who wasn’t used simply as a gimmick, but actually contributed to the band’s unique style. I embedded the official music video for this song on my sidebar a couple of years ago, but for today, I’m going with a live version: the quality isn’t outstanding, but it displays the band’s energy and cohesion pretty nicely, in my opinion.

One strange thing about this video, however … only about 3 people in the audience seem to even notice there’s a band playing. Canadians aren’t really that clueless about modern rock music, are they?


Yellowcard, "Light Up the Sky" (click to play):


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November 16, 2009

Sockwa Review

It’s usually the simplest ideas that make the most sense.

The problem at the heart of every “barefoot” shoe is an inherent contradiction: how does any kind of footwear, even those with the most minimal structure possible, truly replicate the feeling of not wearing shoes at all?


Sockwa's answer was the simple one: They don’t make shoes - they make socks instead.

More specifically, Sockwas are reinforced socks that are durable enough to wear outdoors, but thin and light enough to feel like there’s nothing on your feet. The company then went one step further and infused its socks with color and personality, making them a true fashion accessory - complete with a wide variety of colors and patterns - for those who love to tread naturally.

Sockwa is based in Southern California, and their products were originally designed as beach wear: something you can slip over your feet before walking across the hot sand, and that stays securely in place when you decide to go play in the waves. They were quickly embraced by beach volleyball and sand soccer players, and gradually adopted by a larger variety of folks, both for athletic endeavors or everyday wear.


Although Sockwa’s design is simple, there is great attention to detail in its construction. The body of the sock is composed of very soft 2mm neoprene, with a more breathable nylon section between the top seams of the upper. All of the seams are made with sturdy flatlock stitching, and there’s a gently compressive feel to the sock. I found them extremely comfortable – so much that I began wearing them around the house as slippers, until my wife put a stop to that (I’ll explain in a second).

The best feature of Sockwas is the braided neoprene sole, a mere 2mm thick and designed for use on a variety of surfaces. It feels like you’re walking around in a pair of socks, with just a tiny measure of protection from ground hazards. For barefoot runners, this is as close as you can come to maintaining the “naked” ground feel while having something on your feet for warmth.

Warm toes after a cold autumn run

For me, that’s the true value of using Sockwas: they will allow me to continue my barefoot running routine all the way through the winter. Mornings in my area of California have been dipping into the mid 30s recently, which is lower than I want to dare venturing out barefoot. On a couple of particularly cold mornings, I wore a pair of regular running socks under the Sockwas, and had no issues with my toes feeling chilled.

Other minimalist shoes that I use provide some warmth, but they all have thicker soles than these Sockwas, which will be my footwear of choice if I want to feel as close to barefoot as possible. I’ve worn them on all sorts of terrain, from asphalt to trails to mud, and they perform wonderfully across the board.

Soles after a 5-miler on roads and dirt; notice the barefoot wear pattern

Clearly, I love using my Sockwas; they seem like one of those “Why didn’t somebody come up with this sooner?” ideas where the numerous benefits are obvious at first glance. Having said that, I’ll mention a couple of potential drawbacks:

1) If you wear them as an everyday shoe or slipper, especially on bare feet, they’ll acquire a pretty strong funk before too long. You can throw Sockwas in the wash (but air dry them) just like any other socks – but if you’re trying to stretch a couple more days of use before laundry day rolls around, and you happen to have a spouse with a particularly gifted sense of smell … let’s just say there could be some issues.

2) Although I’ve worn them for several runs, the Sockwa sole really isn’t designed for long term use over hard, abrasive surfaces (remember, they were designed for beach wear). Durability will probably be an issue at some point; I certainly don’t expect to get hundreds of miles out of a single pair.

On the durability front, however, there are two pieces of good news. First, Sockwa is definitely aware of the minimalist footwear movement, and are developing a model with a thin rubber outsole skin (likely TPR or TPU) and a venting system specifically designed for runners and other athletes. Target date for the new version is March 2010.

Until then, it’s easy to simply stock up on several pairs of Sockwas, because they’re pretty darn cheap. They retail for $20 from the company website, as well as other online vendors like SwimOutlet.com; at that price, even if they only last you three months, you could buy a whole year’s supply for 80 bucks.

Sockwa’s stated focus is to create versatile, comfortable, minimal footwear that is “Better than Barefoot” – and while that may be an impossibility in the minds of some barefoot purists, the company does an impressive job of coming about as close to barefoot as you can get.

*Product provided by Sockwa Inc
**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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kigo Shoe Review (and Coupon Code)

It’s often mentioned in barefoot running circles how nice it would be if someone could make a “one finger” shoe – in other words, something that offers all the minimalist benefits of Vibram’s industry-standard FiveFingers, but in a package that keeps the toes together for increased warmth or improved comfort. (Or, you know ... perhaps to avoid looking like a freak.)

Kigo is one company that has taken that challenge upon themselves, and they’ve come pretty close to creating a shoe that meets this demand.
Like many other companies discussed here previously, kigo (it’s usually written in all lowercase, which annoys the grammar nerd in me … but I really need to stop worrying about this stuff) wasn’t necessarily created with the barefoot market in mind. The Colorado-based company was born - predictably for a Colorado activewear company – at the base of a mountain, with the desire to have stylish footwear for apr├Ęs ski after enduring clunky ski boots all day long.

Their vision was to create portable footwear that you can conveniently stash in a pack, and easily change into after a day on the slopes or at the office to stay “on the go” and well-equipped to face whatever fun situations life spontaneously throws your way. (The kigo gals - the three owners are all women - apparently love to have fun; it’s even spelled out right there in the logo.)

The company is still in its infancy, and the Shel is a debut product this year. There are a couple of small design elements I’m not crazy about - more on those as we go along - but kigo has created a fairly compelling and very affordable product that is certainly deserving of a closer look. And before mentioning any shortcomings of the shoe, it’s worth noting that the company is already looking at making revisions to the line for next year. But the current model still has a lot going for it – and with that, let’s look at some specifics:

kigo Shel

Kigo offers two styles of footwear: the Star, which is a female-specific sandal design, and the Shel, which is made for both men and women. The Shel’s minimalist outsole is on par with Vibrams: the toe and heel areas are 4.5mm thick, and the center region is only 1mm thick. There’s a removable insole, which I discarded for an improved ground feel and better fit. Overall weight of the shoe is 11oz, which is somewhat high for the minimalist footwear category; that number honestly surprised me, because the shoes feel very light on my feet in everyday use.


Shels are unisex shoes, with proper sizing identified on the website and on the inside of the upper. It highlights one issue I had with them, which is more apparent from the top view …



The uppers of the Shel are fairly narrow, impinging my feet slightly on either side. As a general rule, women tend to have narrower feet than men, so the width might not be a problem for females. I have pretty standard-width feet, and the slim design was noticeable to me, so if you’re a guy with wide feet, this probably isn’t an ideal shape for you. The uppers also seemed a bit shallow for my comfort – in fact, it was a bit of a struggle to get the shoes on initially – but this improved significantly after I removed the insole. Getting rid of the insole also helped a problem I noticed in the heel area, where the low profile upper would slip off my foot occasionally while running.

The upper is supposed to stretch with continued use, and I’ve found this to be true, but not to the point where I don’t notice the narrowness. The material feels very comfortable against my skin (I’ve always gone sockless in these), and is much more breathable that it appears.

A few other aspects of the upper are worth mentioning: it’s made primarily of a material called CYCLEPET, which is composed entirely of post-consumer plastic products like old milk jugs or Gatorade bottles. It has a water and stain resistant coating that somehow remains fairly well ventilated. I was quite impressed with the airiness of the shoe, even while hiking or running.

The CYCLEPET material is also the most visible display of kigo’s strong environmental consciousness throughout the entire manufacturing process. Other components of the Shel reflect this as well: the lining of the upper is post-consumer textile fabric, all adhesives are water-based, and even the stain resistant coating (Unidyne TG-521, for you lab geeks) is designated as eco-friendly and EPA approved. There’s a lot of technology packed into a seemingly simple design.


The strength of kigo footwear may be its outsole, made of molded carbon and shaped into two fingerprint-style whirls at the forefoot and heel. It’s a high-grip puncture-resistant material that worked remarkably well on all kinds of terrain. In addition to some road running, I’ve worn the Shels on trail runs and short hikes – and from a traction standpoint, they perform better than either Vibrams or Feelmax on loose dirt or other sketchy terrain.



The outsole is thin in the middle, allowing the shoe to fold upon itself. There’s a small hook on the front tip of the shoe, and a small Velcro loop on the heel, which attach to each other in the closed position and compress the shoes for easier portability. This is a patent-pending closure system, and it seems to be a main focus of kigo’s marketing … but I have to confess that it seems like a bit of a gimmick to me.

The thing is, these shoes are already sleek and lightweight; if I squeeze the left and right shoes together with the uppers in the middle and the outsoles like sandwich bread on either side, I can compress the shoes pretty darn small. I do exactly this with my Vibrams whenever I pack them along with me, and it works just as well with kigos. Considering that, the space savings that you get by folding each shoe in half seems questionable; so while the folding trick is certainly a unique feature, I don’t know exactly how functional it is.

As you might be able to tell, during the course of field testing the Shel I went back and forth several times between mild disappointment and extreme excitement over them. The design quirks I’ve described prevent this from being my every day, all the time footwear, but I really enjoy them as a general purpose, all-terrain minimalist shoe. One of kigo’s directors has told me that next year’s manufacturing run will feature wider lasts, which would be a wonderful improvement. In the meantime, the current model is still an attractive option for a large variety of users.

Considering that it wasn’t originally intended as an athletic shoe, the Shel has come remarkably close to the perfect combination of design, comfort, and durability for minimalist runners. I think it has tremendous potential to become the “one finger” alternative that many barefooters are looking for, at a price point that is extremely attractive.

The Kigo Shel typically retails for $50 from the company website, and between now and Thanksgiving (11/26), you can get them for 20% off. Enter coupon code gokigo20, and the discount is credited on the final checkout page. In the realm of eco-friendly, durable, comfortable footwear, it’s a very low cost of entry.


*Product provided by kigofootwear LLC
**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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November 15, 2009

Heed the Signs

Here’s one easy way to tell that it’s the offseason ...

When I’m in training mode, encountering a situation such as the one below on my way to work wouldn’t represent much more than a simple annoyance and delay. Nowadays, I look at events like this differently:


I figure that a giant donut truck didn’t just happen to be there blocking traffic right in front of the donut shop on a morning when I was hungry and craving a donut; it must have been a sign. Like, from God or something. Being as religious man, I interpreted the sign thusly: God really wanted me to stop and have a donut. Being a faithful man, I made sure to take this sign seriously.

And so I did: I pulled the car over, ate a big ol’ apple fritter, and continued on my way. Didn't even think twice about it. Best of all, I didn’t have one moment of remorse.

Sometimes the off season is a wonderful place to be.

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November 12, 2009

Icebreaker BodyFit Shirt Review (and Coupon Code Sale)

My wife usually doesn’t react well to conversations that begin with me saying, “Hey, come here – smell this!”, but this week she was happily surprised by what I had to show her.

I had just come home from work, and was unloading my clothes from that morning’s 12-mile trail run, including an Icebreaker BodyFit 200 base layer I recently received from Wilderness Running Company. Among other qualities, the shirts claim a “no stink” feature, even after repeated washings.

I’ve described my wife’s bloodhound-like sense of smell in the past, so I don’t need to retell that story here. One of her biggest pet peeves about my training is how I hang the clothes from my morning workout on hooks in our bedroom closet to dry during the day before I toss them in the hamper. She claims she can smell the stench of them from three rooms away, or something like that.

Needless to say, I was excited to try the Icebreaker stuff. Their clothing is made from the superfine wool of the merino, a mountain sheep from the Southern Alps of New Zealand. The merino’s wool fibers are remarkably thin but also very dense, which keeps the sheep warm and dry in harsh conditions, but allows them to stay cool during the warmer seasons.

These specialized wool fibers have the same dynamic quality when incorporated in performance clothing as they do on the sheep: they expand to lock in body heat for insulation when it’s cold, but remain highly breathable so you don’t overheat. Icebreaker garments are made from 100% pure merino, in three different thicknesses designated by number: higher numbers indicate denser material, and lower numbers are more lightweight.

I tried a BodyFit 150 T-shirt, and a warmer BodyFit 200 long sleeve crew (shown at right - on someone who's not me). All Icebreaker tops are made to be form-fitting, but not quite as tight as a compression shirt, and with a seamless underarm area to prevent chafing. The high density fabric feels very soft and comfortable against your skin – certainly much better than synthetic material or even cotton. They’re generally used as base layers, but would work alone as a fitted tech tee as well. Bodyfit shirts are available in a variety of weights and styles, so you can pick one that’s ideal for your preferences.

Merino wool has several unique qualities that make it attractive for apparel companies: it’s eco-friendly and 100% sustainable (all you need is a small flock of sheep), completely biodegradable, and the end product is comfortable and dynamic as described above. But what really sold it for me – and especially for my wife – is the way it resists odors.

Icebreaker products are marketed as “no stink” garments, and they absolutely work as advertised. Whether following a 12-mile run, or after sitting in my car for 10 hours while I’m at work, they DON’T STINK. Not even a little bit. It’s kind of amazing, really. And nobody was more shocked and delighted to learn this than my wife.

In fact, she was so impressed with the “No Stink” performance that the conversation I mentioned at the beginning of this post ended this way:

Wife: You need to buy more of those. How much are they?

Me: They’re a little pricey …

Wife: I don’t care. They’re worth it. Get more of them.


So there you have it. Icebreaker gear is on the expensive side – the long sleeve crew I tried retails for $70 – so unless you have a ton of disposable income, you can’t just rush out and revamp your whole workout wardrobe. However, for the next 10 days, Wilderness Running Company is making the opportunity to try them a lot more affordable.

Between now and November 22nd, WRC is offering a 15% off promotion on all BodyFit baselayers. This is a general sale – although it doesn’t apply to Icebreaker caps or gloves, which are made of the same merino wool - so if you use my regular discount code R&R10, you’ll get an additional 10% off, giving you a 25% total savings. (You can use my coupon code for the caps and gloves for 10% off as well). It’s a great opportunity to try one or two models, to see for yourself how they perform.

Who knows, they might even contribute to improved domestic tranquility at your house, like they have at mine.

*products provided by Wilderness Running 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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November 10, 2009

The Barefoot Files: Fort Ord Trail Run

“Take only pictures, leave only footprints.”
- Popular outdoor expression

I’ve mentioned several times how trail running is something of a final frontier for my progression as a barefoot runner. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, I turned around less than two minutes into an attempted trail run, because the terrain was too painful for my tender soles to bear. I figured it would be months or years until I could build up enough toughness to tolerate trails.

Turns out, I didn’t need to get tougher – only smarter.

When it comes to trails, there’s a wide variety of terrain available, and Monterey County happens to have several options to choose from. So I spent some time thinking about where I’d have the most success ditching the Vibrams for a purely barefoot trail run, and finally settled on one of the areas I know best: the Fort Ord open space between Salinas and Monterey.


Much of this particular section of Fort Ord is elevated above the Salinas Valley, which gives you nice views of the agricultural lands below. However, that’s not why I chose this place …


… I picked it because of the long, frequent stretches of sandy trail interspersed with the otherwise firm soil. In some places the sand is so thick, it’s like running on the beach. I figured if I can’t make it through sections like this, there’s probably no hope for me.

Typically, the trails are some hybrid of sand and stone – and unlike the probably 2,000 other times I’ve run out here, on this occasion, I actually sought out the sand instead of avoiding it.


Of course, there are some sections you just want to stay away from entirely – but luckily, there aren’t too many of them here.


The cool thing about running in shallow sand is how you can look over your shoulder at almost any point and see your own tracks. Of course, I nearly tripped over myself about 10 different times while craning my neck to look behind me while running, which isn’t exactly the safest practice in the world.


There are enough rolling hills out here to make it an honest trail run …


… for example, this is the elevation gained during the first mile and a half away from the parking area, which is visible below.


The top of the ridge is also a good spot to goof around with some self-portraits.


Along the ridgeline, the trail remains wide and relatively smooth …


… and there a lot of nice vantage points for a rest break if you’re not in a big hurry.


You know what’s almost as cool as seeing your bare footprint? Seeing your barefoot shadow. Whenever the sun hits me at the proper angle, I like to spread my toes apart a bit in the swing phase of my stride, just to catch a brief glimpse of the individual toe outlines on the ground below. I never get tired of silly games like this.


Further down the trail, here’s the trickiest part of the run: a single track featuring large gravel sprinkled among some larger pointed rocks. Luckily, this section of this particular trail is relatively short, and the rest of it is manageable – but I slowed to nearly a walk while navigating through this stuff.


It’s worth noting that these “toes in the bottom of the frame” pictures are WAY harder than they should be for me. I have to lean backwards, lift one foot up past my knee, and hold both the airborne foot and the camera steady while balancing on one leg. I know it doesn’t sound that complicated, but my flexibility is absolutely terrible; whenever I try pictures like this, I always feel like I’m auditioning for Cirque du Soleil or something.


It may not seem like it, but stretches like this are the worst for a barefoot runner: an irregular distribution of various sized rocks spread across a very firmly packed surface. The larger gravel is impossible to avoid, and the underlying earth is completely unyielding – you may as well be stabbing me with nails underneath.


Fortunately the trail soon returns to the normal sandstone paths I’m comfortable with, and I’m on my way back to the start.


One of the coolest things about retracing my steps on the return trip is literally retracing my steps. I pass these impressions in the ground and think to myself, “Hey – I left those there!”

This might sound silly – but the bare footprints are also kind of a distinctive mark to leave on the trail for others who will pass this way later on. I like to believe that in the same way that I sometimes get a charge from seeing bobcat or coyote tracks in the soil, maybe some hikers will see these later on and wonder at what kind of crazy animal left them there.


Back at the trailhead after a 5-mile run, I’m content that I’m finally making headway into that last frontier. It’s time for another rest and another snapshot – but this time, the picture isn’t of the frustrated tenderfoot I was before the run; it’s one of an evolving barefoot runner who is happily playing in the dirt again.


All that’s left is to wash my feet, and I’m merrily on my way.

*See other Barefoot Files reports on sidebar at right

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