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December 29, 2009

Screaming Winter Deals; Garmin 405 Giveaway; Salomon Fast II Jacket Review

I mentioned that this week would include shout-outs to folks who have supported me over the past year – and out of all of them, the biggest props have to go to Wilderness Running Company. And if you make it through today’s brief gear review, there might be a big reward from WRC in it for you as well. (Or you could just scroll to the instructions below. But that doesn’t seem quite as fair.)

Now that Christmas has come and gone, it’s time to get what you REALLY wanted – and if you happened to want some cold-weather running gear, be sure to check out WRC’s Screaming Deals page, where there are dozens of items for sale at 40-60% off. As always, if you use coupon code R&R10 you’ll get an extra 10% off, which makes this about the sweetest sale you’ll see all winter.

Among WRC’s discounted items is the Salomon Fast II jacket, a very tough but comfortable shell for moderate winter conditions. It features Salomon’s ActiLITE polyester that wicks moisture from the body as well as ClimaWIND fabric for wind resistance, coated with Teflon microfibers to provide water repellency. The upper back and underarm areas are made of a ventilated stretch fabric for improved range of motion and thermoregulation when you’re putting the hammer down.


Additional features are a soft mesh moisture-wicking collar, elastic cuffs with thumb loops on the sleeves, an adjustable waist cord, and a single chest zip for light storage. The entire jacket is fairly lightweight (250g, or 8.8 oz) and packs down into the chest pocket for easy transportation. I’ve worn this jacket with short sleeves underneath for temps in the mid-30s, and with long sleeves for temps down to 30.

The Salomon Fast II jacket normally retails for $76, but is currently on sale for $38 from WRC in limited sizes for both men and women. If they don’t have your size, browse through the rest of the winter sale page and see what bargains you can grab.

**

Now for the potential big reward: Wilderness Running Company will be giving away a free Garmin 405 on January 15th, and all you have to do to enter is put your name in the hat. OK, it’s not exactly a hat - there’s a blog post that you have to comment on, but you have to read a bit further for the link. (We’re getting there, I promise.)

If you’ve ever wandered around the WRC site, you’ve probably found little pearls of wisdom or insight from Stacy (the owner) tucked away here and there as part of his gear reviews or travel guides. I always find them to be great observations from the perspective of a small business owner sharing both his passion for trail running and his (sometimes quite frustrating) experiences in the outdoor gear industry.

Fortunately – for me, at least – Stacy has decided to post these observations along with other content on a Wilderness Running Company blog, which is the reason for the Garmin 405 giveaway. So here’s the deal: go to this post and leave a comment to enter the giveaway drawing. While you’re there, tell Stacy I sent you, to make me look good. Then subscribe to his blog to find out if you win a Garmin in January, and continue reading it through 2010.

And don’t forget to go shopping!

*Salomon jacket 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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December 28, 2009

New Balance MT100 Shoe Review

Earlier this fall, I declared that as much as I love running barefoot, or using minimalist footwear like Vibram’s FiveFingers, when it comes time to train for ultras again, I would probably go back to using standard trail shoes. I mentioned that some companies have embraced the minimalist concept, combining super-lightweight designs with basic protective features to allow maximal freedom of movement, natural biomechanics and ground feel, and improved overall comfort.

The primary shoes I had in mind were the New Balance MT100.


Even before its release, the MT100 was causing quite a stir in the ultra community, primarily because of its two high-profile design contributors: Anton Krupicka and Kyle Skaggs (be sure to watch the cool video on that link for your daily dose of mojo), both of whom have already become legends of the sport at a very young age. 26-year-old Krupicka holds numerous course records and is a two-time winner of the Leadville 100, while 24-year-old Skaggs did what many ultrarunners considered unthinkable: breaking the 24-hour mark at the Hardrock 100, widely considered the most challenging 100-miler in the world.

Krupicka in particular is famous for his minimalist approach to running. One of his mantras is a “return to simplicity”, and he’s generally seen running without a watch, hydration pack, shirt, or even shoes - many of his 200 training miles per week are done in bare feet, even on high mountain trails. Both he and Skaggs have been known to carve large chunks of material away from their training shoes to eliminate any excess weight or bulk that would hinder natural movement. Obviously, New Balance couldn’t have found two more ideal people to create a minimalist shoe that could hold up to the demands of rugged long-distance trail running.


For the most part, they succeeded. The MT100 weighs in at a superlight 7.8oz, with a very low profile and fantastic ground feel, as well as a handful of features to bolster its overall durability. The only component I found somewhat lacking was comfort in a couple of specific areas, as I’ll explain shortly. But first, a rundown of the shoe itself.

The MT100 isn’t offically an update of New Balance’s popular 790 lightweight trail runners - coincidentally, the same model that Skaggs wore for his Hardrock record - but given that this shoe was introduced at roughly the same time that the 790 was discontinued, many runners view it as the next generation 790. Like that shoe, the MT100 features New Balance’s RL-3 racing last which is designed to be narrow through the heel and wide through the forefoot – in other words, ideal for runners accustomed to going barefoot.

From that starting point, Krupicka and Skaggs spent countless hours and hundreds of miles in New Balance’s sports testing lab, using all sorts of biomechanic devices like force plates and motion capture sensors (the little lights they strap all over pro athletes to make computer-generated facsimiles for video games). The design team looked at contact and transition points of the midsole and outsole, and identified high-wear areas that needed extra reinforcement. They also gathered feedback from the two runners on stripping the shoe down to its bare essentials while preserving a bit of comfort for the long haul.

The most notable adaptations are on the shoe’s upper, which is little more than a thin synthetic mesh with strategically placed EVA to maintain shape. The tongue is relatively short, and is simply a thin piece of fabric, which could cause potential top of foot discomfort if you lace them up too tightly - but I never had a problem with this. New Balance’s “sausage link laces” (officially known as SureLace) are quite effective at keeping the upper snug without too much pressure. A puncture-resistant wrap in front of the toe box provides a bit of protection from sneaky roots or rocks that might take you by surprise.

In addition to slicing weight, the overall effect of this fabric-cutting on the upper is that the shoe is extremely well ventilated; in fact, this is probably the most well-ventilated shoe I’ve tested aside from the Newton Gravity, which has mesh holes so large you can almost stick your finger through them. Fortunately, the mesh of the MT100 is closed enough to prevent most debris from getting in – although I still notice some fine sand particles getting through to my toes like when I wear my FiveFinger KSOs. As with the Vibrams, this amount of dust isn’t nearly enough to bother me.

Mesh heel with EVA collar

Behind the shoe, the mesh is supported by a lightweight EVA material that extends into the shoe collar. Since there’s no fabric on this EVA collar to absorb sweat, the inner surface was made especially smooth to decrease friction and prevent blisters. However, this is the area where I’ve had the most discomfort, as the collar feels too rigid against my Achilles tendon. I broke the shoes in with several 4-6 mile runs where this wasn’t an issue, but once I started stretching my distances out to 10 or 15 miles, I developed a very sharp “biting” pain behind my ankle. Even with about 100 total miles on the shoes, this ankle bite is aggravating. Clearly, my tendons must not be as tough as Krupicka’s or Skaggs’s.

The other comfort issue I noticed was the overall size of the uppers, particularly in the length. On steep downhills, my toes contacted the front of the toe box, eventually causing some pressure points after multiple miles. This is probably a sizing issue as opposed to a structural one; normally I go up a half-size with my trail shoes compared to road trainers, which gives me ample room in the box for steep descents. If I were testing a second pair of MT100s, I’d probably go up a full size instead of just a half.

Beneath the upper, the MT100 gives you just enough padding to make the ride comfortable, but not so much to eliminate the feel of the ground underfoot. The midfoot is built very low to the ground, with heights of 18mm in the heel and 8mm in the forefoot. New Balance uses ACTEVA® midsole cushioning which resists compression and is 12% lighter than standard foam, thus helping to keep the overall weight of the shoe low.

The MT100 utilizes New Balance’s Rock Stop technology, a thin rigid plastic layer between the outsole and the midsole that disperses the force of sharp rocks or other penetrating objects across the entire plate to diminish the overall impact pressure at any particular location. For barefoot runners, the most telling feature of this shoe’s design is that Rock Stop support is provided in the midfoot area, but not the heel – thus promoting a midfoot or forefoot running stride in the same manner you do without shoes.


Barefoot running mechanics are also evident in the tread pattern of the outsole - specifically, the heel area is relatively minimal and smooth, with reversed lugs for braking. This makes sense for midfoot runners, as the only time they land on their heels is when trying to maintain some control while going downhill. Likewise, the midfoot area of the outsole is given the most reinforcement, with higher profile knobs for multi-directional grip. Keeping with the lightweight theme, even the outsole is involved, as you can see scooped-out areas underneath the arch in an effort to eliminate as much unnecessary material as possible.

Overall, aside from a couple of comfort issues that might hopefully be addressed in future versions, there’s a lot to celebrate about the MT100. It’s clearly a forerunner in the emerging category of minimalist trail shoes, and New Balance’s collaboration with two of the best ultrarunners in the world demonstrates its commitment to maintain high performance standards while striving to be as lightweight as possible. They’ve embraced the biomechanical benefits of barefoot running and provided a very solid option for minimalist (i.e. Vibram FiveFingers users like me) runners who want a bit more toughness and durability when taking on ultra distances or extremely difficult terrain. All this, and it's completely affordable as well (see pricing below). If more companies follow New Balance’s lead in these regards, that would be very good news indeed.


The New Balance MT100 retails for $75 from the company website, with several discount prices available via Google search. The best price I found is $50 from FinishLine.com (search "New Balance 100").

*Product provided by New Balance
**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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December 26, 2009

Vivo Barefoot Evo Running Shoe Preview; Lesotho Review

(Admin note: a subtle shifting of gears at R&R headquarters as December winds down. Most noticeable is that the rate of giveaways will taper off quite a bit compared to before the holidays – although I’ll make a concerted effort to include some kind of freebies with product reviews more frequently in the future. As for this week, I’m reviewing a shoe that I was eagerly anticipating throughout the fall – the New Balance MT100 – and turning the spotlight on a few other companies who’ve been good to me during 2009. The first such post is today, featuring Vivo Barefoot.)

*
Of all the people you’d expect to be experienced barefoot runners, the owner of a global shoe empire probably isn’t one of them.


Galahad Clark; photo from London Evening Standard

Fortunately, we’ve already established that Vivo Barefoot isn’t your everyday shoe company – and founder Galahad Clark isn’t your everyday shoe mogul. So it shouldn’t really have shocked anyone when he showed up to run this fall’s New York City Marathon in bare feet, or that he’s become the highest profile advocate of barefoot running among anyone in the world not named Christopher McDougall.

(On a side note - I should probably be a bit more reserved about my admiration for Galahad Clark; I’ve heaped so much praise on him in recent months that he’s starting to rival my other man-crush, Malcolm Gladwell. And I really need to stop saying these things out loud.)

Clark’s recent efforts are representative of a larger development as well: in the few years of its existence, Vivo Barefoot has firmly established itself as the premier shoe company for barefooters (yes, that’s something of an oxymoron … but you get the point). So when word got out in 2009 that the company was developing a running shoe to complement its line of casual and dress models, a whole lot of people took notice. This fall, the company released pictures of the Evo performance shoe, and the buzz became almost palpable.

Speaking of buzz ... is anyone else reminded of beehives right now?

Vivo Barefoot now has a skeleton webpage set up to introduce the Evo, as well as a registration form to receive more information about the shoe as it becomes available in spring 2010. I’m hoping to have a review posted here shortly after the shoes are released as well. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to it.

**

In the meantime, I’m continuing to enjoy Vivo Barefoot’s casual footwear – especially the most recent addition to my wardrobe, called the Lesotho. It’s the most formal-looking of the three pairs I’ve reviewed (Dharma and Oak being the others), but retains the comfort and ground feel of the more casual models.


The upper has the same sockliner described in my Oak review, but with a traditional lacing system that can be used to increase snugness as desired. I found that if I tightened the laces like normal shoes, the flexibility of the sockliner is limited - so I prefer to keep them quite loose in order to maintain the slip on/off capability.


The Lesotho’s outsole is the same one featured on the Oak: a deeply grooved honeycomb pattern that provides improved traction in wet conditions. When the sole is wet, its grip is still somewhat slick on hard, polished surfaces – but while the shoe’s overall traction isn’t as good as a sneaker, it’s certainly a lot better than most dress shoes I’ve worn.


All of the other usual Vivo Barefoot features are on display in the Lesotho as well: super ground feel, outstanding comfort, and quality construction, all from a company who is a leader in eco-friendliness and social responsibility. There are a lot of things to feel good about – and a few days left to feel good for a little bit less money.

The Vivo Barefoot Lesotho retails for $160 from Endless.com with free overnight shipping. After my last Vivo Barefoot review, the company offered a coupon code (RunVivo20) for 20% off any Vivo Barefoot model. The offer is good through December 31st, so there are a few days left for you to take advantage of it. If you’re interested, click here to get started.


*Product provided by Vivo Barefoot
*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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December 23, 2009

Yahweh

"Take this soul, stranded in some skin and bones -
Take this soul and make it sing."
-U2, "Yahweh" (video below):

It's no secret that U2 is one of the most outwardly Christian bands around - so on the most uplifting holiday of the Christian year, it seems appropriate to spotlight one of the most uplifting and beautiful songs in U2's repertoire.

"Yahweh" is, in essence, a simple prayer: a humble plea to take this broken world we occupy, and make it right. Coincidentally, that also happens to be the message of Christmas.

Here's wishing a wonderful one to all of us.

-U2, "Yahweh" (click to play):

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December 22, 2009

Frosting and Rambling (Part II)

Some admin notes to follow-up on recent giveaways: Stronger, send me your address; you've got some La Sportiva hobnails coming your way. Pinkcorker and Michael, I'm still waiting on your addresses for the GU giveaway. Write me at info@runningandrambling.com.

**
Last week featured cookie decorating night at the Running and Rambling house:

When we did this a couple of years ago, my creative instincts got a little bit carried away, and I posted a photo of one finished product that, to my wife’s dismay, has become one of my kids’ lasting memories of frosting cookies: a peed-on snowman.

So my take-home lesson from that evening was that apparently urine-related humor crosses the line of good taste when it comes to celebrating Christmas. Or something like that. And the ground rules for this year’s decorating session were clear from the outset: everything had to be in good taste.

The good news is that despite the restrictive edict, we still managed to have fun and come up with some clever stuff. We’ll start, of course, with my wife’s batch:

Completely classy all the way around. Note the attention to detail: the scarf on the snowman, the fringe on the angel’s gown, the alternating-color diagonal sprinkles on the candy cane. When it comes to decorating cookies, my wife doesn’t mess around.


On the other hand … messing around isn’t necessarily bad, as my 6-year-old’s collection demonstrates. She subscribes to the “the more toppings, the better” philosophy of decorating – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.


A small collection from my older kids, including an iPod-wearing snowman from my 11-year-old son. I liked his idea so much that I sort of ripped it off for one of my own, as you’ll see later on.


A gathering of shortbread angels made by all of us. I was pretty proud of the Tinkerbell fairy I made, except that when we were delivering a plate of cookies to friends, Tink’s wing broke off, so part of our Christmas offering became an amputee fairy. Not exactly what comes to mind when you think about Christmas.


Since our two older kids are Nintendo DS fiends, there was a distinct Mario Party theme to some of the cookies. On the bottom, that’s Luigi (my son’s), Mario (mine), and Yoshi (my 8-year-old daughter’s). Mario was part of a larger character lineup for me …


… including Charlie Brown and an angelic iPod advertisement. The angel kind of triggered my wife’s “good taste” radar for a few seconds, because before the earbuds and cords are put on, it bears a strong resemblance to the Angel of Death. Fortunately, after presenting my completed creation, the iPod angel made sense. Unfortunately, my Charlie Brown seems to have a shrunken head.

Predictably, I couldn’t let a whole evening go by without at least one item related to running – so the easiest thing to make was this:

My favorite trail running socks, of course. After all, what’s Christmas without a little bit of commercialism?

We give away about 95% of these cookies, so the bad news for me is that I don’t even get to eat most of these yummy creations. We save our favorites to give to Santa, so there’s a possibility that I can sneak in some cookie-eating before he gets here on Christmas Eve ... but I don’t know that I want to screw around with taking stuff away from Santa. I’ve learned that when it comes to these holiday cookies, it’s best to just avoid trouble altogether.

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December 21, 2009

Jinga All the Way

One thing that never ceases to impress me about having this website is how easily it shrinks the world. Readers find me (and in many cases, e-mail me) from all corners of the globe, and I’ve had the pleasure of learning about people, places, and businesses that I would have gone through life completely oblivious to in another era. The world has become not only flat, but more easily familiar than at any point in history.

Considering this, I probably shouldn’t have been as bewildered as I was to receive an envelope with “Royal Air” postmarks on it this week. Nevertheless, I wasn’t exactly expecting anything, so curiosity got the best of me.


After opening the envelope, curiosity turned to delight: it was a Christmas card from Jinga, a Brazilian company whose shoes I reviewed last month as part of my barefoot series.

In that post, I described how part of Jinga’s mission is to support one of Rio de Janeiro’s many favelas, projects that provide educational and social support to a portion of the city’s staggering population of impoverished children. The company’s Christmas cards are works of art made by children from the favela.


My card was made and signed by an 11-year-old girl named Fabiana. It was nice coincidence, as I happen to have an 11-year-old of my own.


The cards have folds and a flap that can be shaped into an ornament, so that’s exactly what I did. And now, alongside all the wonderful family memories on our tree, a young Brazilian girl has provided a welcome dose of holiday cheer:


Obrigado, Fabiana. Feliz Natal. And God’s peace and blessings to all of us.

**

Update: shortly after writing this post, I went to Jinga's Facebook page and found a link to the following video showing the favela kids making the ornaments. My girl Fabiana is shown at the :59 and 1:22 marks. Enjoy!

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December 20, 2009

The Year That Was; La Sportiva Hobnail Giveaway

Today's post is a mishmash of sorts: three giveaway winners, another giveaway opportunity, and a recent Monterey Herald article.

First, thanks to everyone who entered my GU giveaway - the response was pleasantly overwhelming. Also, thanks to my friend Richard, who pointed out that Berkeley isn't just the home of CLIF and GU; the PowerBar company originated there in the late 1980s as well. So what in the heck was going on in Berkeley 25 years ago? That town is to sports nutrition like Seattle is to grunge music. Someone really needs to break this down for us; I'm certain that Malcolm Gladwell could get at least a couple of good chapters out of such an anomaly.

As for the winners: Michael, trailmomma, and Pinkcorker, email me (info@runningandrambling.com) your addresses: you've won the GU holiday gift boxes. (Also - mweston, I'm still waiting on your e-mail from the CLIF giveaway.) And thanks again to everyone else for participating.

*

Today's giveaway is the second part of a two-step process similar to what I've done a couple of times already: go read a review on FeedTheHabit.com, then return here for a follow-up post. This time, the review involves footwear, and the giveaway will only be open to a select group of readers.

Here's the deal: go read my review of La Sportiva's Wildcat GTX, a hardcore trail running shoe built to take on the harshest winter conditions. As part of the review, I also discussed La Sportiva's hobnail kit, a set of removable metal studs that you can screw onto the outsoles of your shoes for super traction on ice and snow. Obviously, this coastal California boy doesn't have a lot of use for hobnails, so that's the prize in today's giveaway: if you'd like my hobnail kit (a $45 value), leave a comment below this post.

La Sportiva hobnail kit

When I mentioned that this giveaway is only open to a select group of readers, here's what I meant: these have to go to a cold-weather runner - so in your comment, tell me the town you live in. If it's not someplace icy or snowy, I'm disqualifying you. I'll pick a winner on Tuesday night and mail the kit out after Christmas. Good luck!

**

Finally, the substantive portion of today's post: it's my Monterey Herald article from last week, which served as a year in review for the local running scene. Much of the content may not make sense to anyone outside of Monterey County (and for those who don't know, the Mike who is mentioned is one of my fellow columnists), but there was just enough "geographically neutral" stuff that I figured I'd post it here just for kicks.


Running Life 12/17/09 "The Year That Was"

December is just as popular for year-end reviews as it is for menorahs and Christmas trees – yet somehow, running news typically goes underreported. We’re correcting that trend today, with a 2009 retrospective specifically for the running community:

January: Hundreds of runners participate in Rio Grill’s Resolution Run, and over a delicious post-race pancake breakfast, discuss the annual question: “How long do you think the race was this year?” Several hours later, thousands of slackers groggily roll out of bed and postpone their New Year’s Resolutions until 2010.

February: Pacific Grove’s Together With Love run triggers a collective awkwardness to rival a junior-high prom, as runners choose “partners” for the competition. Conversations like “I really like him, but I don’t want to give him the wrong idea,” or “Do you think she knows I even exist?” become frighteningly commonplace.

March: The Big Sur International Marathon’s JUST RUN Youth Program increases to over 6,000 participants for the school year. Appropriately, all of them get to wear bib number 1 in local races.

April: A huge month for running! At the Boston Marathon, Kara Goucher turns in the best American performance in 25 years, missing victory by a mere 9 seconds, then politely stands shivering in her singlet through an attempted interview from an incompetent camera crew and a TV reporter who calls her “Sara”. Mike finishes 1 minute slower than his son at Boston, and suddenly feels old, but proud.

Meanwhile, back in Monterey County, the Big Sur marathon enjoys its most successful year ever, and will later be ranked one of the top 3 marathons in America. Afterward, a Herald columnist makes fun of the race’s periwinkle race shirts. Columnist gets in big trouble.

May: Christopher McDougall’s landmark book Born to Run is released, inspiring thousands of runners to ditch their shoes and run barefoot like the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. In a related story, stock prices for Band-Aids and blister relief kits reach an all-time high.

June: Donald runs in the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run, finally confirming what many people long suspected: “Has he lost his mind?”

July: The Spreckels 4th of July 10K is as traditional as barbecues, parades, and fireworks. Veteran runners suspect the course is short, but nobody says anything so they can all enjoy their PRs.

August: The first-ever Carmel Valley Fiesta Run delights hundreds of trail runners in Garland Ranch, as well as dozens of yellow jackets who enjoyed a much heartier than usual breakfast feast. A few runners complain, skittish park officials panic, and the race is in jeopardy for 2010. We’re hoping this one stays on the calendar.

September: On-line entries open for next year’s Boston to Big Sur challenge; two marathons, two coasts, 6 days apart; 300 people sign up the first week. Mike’s son Bryan gets married, making Mike feel even older, but even prouder.

October: Birth and rebirth: the first ever Just Run for Peace takes place in Salinas, and the Big Sur River Run returns after a one-year hiatus due to wildfires. It’s good to see both races on the schedule.

November: Southern California-raised, UCLA-educated Meb Keflezighi becomes the first American in 27 years to win the New York Marathon – prompting a handful of idiot sportswriters nationwide to publicly ask “Wait … Is Meb really an American?” We wish we were making this up.

December: Tiger Woods hits a fire hydrant with his SUV at 2AM – and absolutely nothing else newsworthy happens anywhere in the world.

We hope that you had more good miles than bad ones in 2009. Thanks for sharing the year with us!

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December 17, 2009

GU Holiday Product Giveaway

Before today’s post and giveaway, let’s wrap up the previous drawing: Oz Runner and mweston, e-mail me (info@runningandrambling.com) your address – you’ve won the CLIF sampler boxes! And for the rest of you, there's another chance to win some holiday goodies today.

**
It’s hard to believe that GU has been around for almost 20 years.

When the Berkeley-based company’s original energy gels debuted at race expos in 1991, they were somewhat revolutionary: portable packets that provided the nutrients of an energy bar, with a texture that was almost as easily digested as fluids. They were a one-of-a-kind item, and once runners got past the initial “ick” factor of squeezing a mysterious gooey substance into their mouths, GU became a very hot commodity for all endurance athletes.

(Incidentally, isn't it an odd coincidence that GU and CLIF products are both based in Berkeley? I wonder if the rivalry is a friendly one like when two bands come out of the same city – Metallica and Green Day from the Bay Area, for example - or if they see each other as mortal enemies like Duke and UNC basketball fans. I need to get behind the scenes in Berkeley sometime – this is the kind of story I’d love to investigate.)

The products were successful for a simple reason: they work extremely well. GU’s energy gels proved to be highly effective at keeping athletes fueled during prolonged exercise, and it wasn’t very long before other companies moved to get a piece of the market. Today, most of us can probably name several different gel products out there, but the original company is still chugging along as the category’s prime mover.

Over the years, GU has improved and refined its original recipe based on ongoing nutritional research with various ingredients in its formula. They’ve also added a lot of new flavors and a few entirely new products, some of which are the primary focus of today’s post, and which will be awarded to a few people in a drawing afterward.


First up are the special holiday flavors of the original GU. This year, the company has added vanilla gingerbread to accompany its popular chocolate mint flavor that debuted a few years ago. The flavor is remarkably close to what you would guess gingerbread would taste like if it were ground into an energy gel. If you like gingerbread – I do, for sure – you’ll definitely love this flavor. The chocolate mint is the same as last year – which is to say, it’s still awesome. Think Thin Mint cookies in gel form, and you get the idea. The chocolate mint packets have caffeine, and the gingerbread are caffeine free. Another cool thing about the holiday flavors is that GU donates 10% of the proceeds from these items to the Challenged Athletes Foundation, so you’re helping a good cause when you load up on these seasonal favorites.



Last year, GU introduced its Roctane Ultra Endurance gel, which is specifically formulated for multi-hour training sessions or races (ultras, iron-distance triathlons, century rides, etc). The formula includes something called OKG (Ornithine Alpha-Ketoglutarate, for you science geeks), an amino acid complex that lessens damage to muscle tissue during races or hard training and speeds recovery afterward. It essentially slows the catabolic process (the body breaking down muscle tissue during extreme physical exertion) and therefore lessens muscle trauma. GU recently added a pineapple flavor to its Roctane lineup - but unlike the vanilla orange and blueberry pomegranate flavors, this one doesn’t include caffeine. The taste is fairly pleasant – a little bit tart, but without a real strong aftertaste.




Another new product this year is GU Chomps, which are chewy energy bites similar to CLIF Bloks or PowerBar Energy Gel blasts. Chomps contain all the benefits of regular GU gel in a chewable form. Each 90-calorie packet also contains 100% DV for Vitamins C and E, and two flavors (strawberry and cranberry apple) each have 20mg of caffeine. The other two Chomp flavors, blueberry pomegranate and orange, are caffeine free.

I really don’t need to promote GU too aggressively – they’re one of the most well-known commodities out there for endurance athletes. They work wonders during long-duration activity and most of their stuff generally tastes great. If you’d like to try some of the new items, drop a comment below this post by 5PM PST Sunday 12/20. I’ll pick three winners, each of whom will receive a 6-pack box of chocolate mint gels, a 6-pack of vanilla gingerbread gels, one pineapple Roctane, and one strawberry Chomps sample just in time for your ramped-up New Year’s workout routine. Good luck!


*Products supplied by GU Energy Labs
**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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December 16, 2009

Comparison Review: Petzl MYO RXP and Black Diamond Icon

Before today’s post, a couple of reminders about recent posts: the sweet Black Diamond Icon sale at Wilderness Running Company – free rechargeable battery pack with discounted purchase of the lamp – expires on Friday 12/18. Also, you’ve got until 7PM Thursday 12/17 to comment on this post for a CLIF goodie box drawing. Get a move on, people.

As for today’s review, it’s another Petzl-versus-Black Diamond comparison like the one I did for the Tikka XP2 and Spot headlamps – and it’s another incentive to check out FeedTheHabit.com. This time, the comparison is between two external battery pack headlamps, the Black Diamond Icon and the Petzl MYO RXP. I’ve already posted an Icon review here, and a MYO RXP review on Feed The Habit. So let’s follow the same procedure as last time:

1) Go read my Petzl MYO RXP headlamp review on FeedTheHabit.com, then…
2) Return here to read the comparison between the MYO RXP and the Icon.

See you when you get back.




**

Hello again! As was the case with the smaller headlamps, both Petzl and Black Diamond perform very well overall, and have areas of relative strength. Here’s how they measure up:

Weight (with batteries):
Icon: 187g/6.6oz
RXP: 175g/6.2oz
Advantage: RXP. Additionally, its external battery pack is more streamlined, and the whole unit just feels a bit less bulky than the Icon. I wouldn’t say the Icon is uncomfortable, just that the RXP has a better overall feel.

Bulb Type:
Icon: separate LEDs for spot and flood modes
RXP: single high-power LED
Advantage: RXP, but only if the Icon's “you have to power off when switching from spot to flood mode” issue annoys you like it does me. Petzl’s single bulb allows you to switch from flood to spot modes by flipping a diffuser lid up or down. The Black Diamond setup isn’t really a performance issue, just a pet peeve.

Brightness:
Icon: 100 lumens
RXP: 140 lumens
Advantage: RXP. Petzl clearly enjoys a huge advantage in overall candle power, and even has a boost mode that can briefly shine at 160 lumens. Overall brightness is one of the RXP’s strengths, as well as …

Brightness levels:
Icon: 6 (3 in spot mode, 3 in flood mode)
RXP: 10, plus boost mode
Advantage: RXP again, which can go both brighter and dimmer than the Icon – which really only has 3 functional degrees of brightness, despite what the specs say - or burn at several different levels in between. Throw in the fact that brightness levels are customizable, and this category isn’t much of a contest.

(And again, it seems like Petzl is kicking Black Diamond’s butt to this point. As you’d suspect, things get a bit more complicated as we continue …


Maximum beam distance (spot mode, high setting):
Icon: 100m
RXP: 77m
Advantage: Icon. I’ve joked with training partners that my Icon can double as a star pointer, because its spot beam penetrates so sharply and prominently over such a long distance. Black Diamond’s entry has lower candle power, but shoots its beam farther. However, since I typically use the flood setting for trail running, this is more of a cool trick than practical application for me.


Battery type and lifespan:
Icon: 3AA, 80 hour lifespan on high setting. Compatible with rechargeable batteries as well as the NRG rechargeable battery pack sold separately.
RXP: 3AA, 50 hour lifespan. Compatible with rechargeable batteries.
Advantage: Icon, and it’s a much bigger advantage than the numbers reflect at first glance; this is where the Icon starts making up a lot of ground in a hurry.

Remember how much brighter the Petzl burns? Well, all that candle power is a complete battery killer. The 2 highest settings are unregulated and only burn for about an hour at full strength. The highest regulated settings burn for 10 hours before shifting to a much dimmer reserve mode for the remainder of the battery life. So while the Icon can’t approach the top end brightness of the RXP, it can maintain a higher level for a much longer period of time.

While it’s great that both lamps use rechargeable batteries, Black Diamond scores a bonus point here for the NRG rechargeable battery pack, which can be recharged without removing the pack from the casing. It’s a separate cost, but the total cost of lamp plus battery pack is still less than the RXP. Speaking of which …


Price:
Icon: $65
RXP: $99
Advantage: Icon. Just as the Black Diamond’s Spot is the most affordable option for basic road and trail use, the Icon gives you the most bang for your buck in this category. Even if you shell out 30 bucks for the rechargeable pack, you’re still coming out ahead.

(This is even more reason to promote Wilderness Running Company’s extreme discount offer this week: Buy an Icon for $54 - $60 list price minus 10% with my R&R10 coupon code - and they throw in the NRG pack at no charge. Believe me, you’ll probably never see a better deal on this lamp.)

As usual, the final decision on which one is best will vary based on your preference. The Icon gives you very strong performance for a price that’s impossible to beat. If you'd like something more lightweight and versatile, with significantly more brightness and a wide range of customized settings for variable conditions, the RXP is an ideal choice.


*Petzl MYO RXP provided by Petzl America
**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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December 15, 2009

CLIF Quench Drink Review; Roks and Bloks and Bars Giveaway

California probably has more endurance athletes and entrepreneurs per capita than anyplace else in America - and among both of these prolific groups, the story of CLIF Bar is legendary.


Most of the story is told right on every CLIF Bar package: founder Gary Erickson was an outdoor bum living in a garage, and decided during a 175-mile bike ride one day that all the energy bars he was using were disgusting. He spent two years experimenting in his mother’s kitchen before selling a finished product out of his Emeryville bakery in 1992. Shortly thereafter, he developed nationwide distribution of the bars he named after his father, who was his lifelong adventure companion.

The product line expanded (including the insanely popular Luna bars targeted at women) and diversified, and CLIF became one of America’s fastest-growing private companies in the late 1990s. In 2000, Erickson famously turned down a $120 million offer to buy the company, and he continues to run the business with his wife as his co-owner.

From the outset, CLIF – it’s another one of those companies who write their brand name (as well as products) in all caps, for reasons that remain mysterious to me - has had equivalent missions of not just providing sustenance for people, but also sustaining their community and the global environment along the way. They’re a forerunner in eco-friendly initiatives, and their employees volunteer major hours to various community improvement projects. Every CLIF product is made from organic and all-natural ingredients, which their website will tell you are better for the planet, the body, and the soul.

They’re also one of the most diversified energy food companies on the market, and that’s where today’s post really begins; it’s an overview of a few new products CLIF introduced this year, along with a giveaway for a couple of sampler boxes of your own.


First up is Clif Quench drink, whose very existence sort of confused me at first. I’m accustomed to drinking CLIF SHOT drink during ultras - it’s the product of choice for several popular races - and couldn’t understand why they’d tinker with a formula that I (as well as most other runners I know) really enjoy.

Fortunately, CLIF Quench doesn’t replace the SHOT drink, but features lower sodium and carbohydrate concentrations to provide another option for athletes to select based on their activity levels. I’ve already seen them in my local grocery store alongside drinks like Snapple and SoBe, so CLIF is clearly going for some of that market as well. Quench drink doesn’t contain any of the artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners (particularly high-fructose corn syrup), or preservatives that some of those more popular drinks use, and has a healthy ratio of electrolytes to calories for more effective hydration.

CLIF Quench comes in four flavors, although all of them are clear-colored, which might make for a fun shot glass game of “guess the flavor!” at your running club’s holiday party. It’s not currently available in powder form, which is kind of a bummer, because that’s my preferred method of use. Lime-Ade is my favorite, but the flavors are all nicely mild, neither too sweet nor salty. It’s not going to replace my Diet Pepsi as a “leisure-time” drink, but I’ve enjoyed using it on 1-2 hour trail runs.


The other new product is my favorite of the samples I received: CLIF SHOT ROKS, which are chewy little protein balls in a protective candy coating. There are about 9-10 gumball-sized pieces in each packet, combining for 20g of protein. The shell is slightly crunchy, and is supposed to be temperature-resistant in both extremes: they won’t freeze in the cold, and they won’t melt if they’ve been tucked in your pocket on a hot day. They’re designed as a portable protein source during activity, or as a snack to speed muscle recovery after a hard workout. To my knowledge, there really isn’t another product on the market quite like it. (*Updated: they're similar to Power Bar ProteinPlus Bites, but the textures are different, and only the CLIF products claim temperature resistance.)

CLIF ROKS come in three flavors; I’ve tasted the chocolate and peanut butter flavors and they’re both pretty yummy. The third flavor is chocolate chip cookie dough, which sounds delicious as well. Each pack typically retails for $3, so they’re more expensive than regular energy bars, but similar to a lot of high-protein bars on the market – and trust me, ROKS taste way better than most high-protein bars.

I also received samples of CLIF SHOT BLOKS, which are a known commodity among endurance athletes. If you’ve liked the previous versions of these chewy energy cubes, there’s nothing to worry about; the only changes to this product line were to add one flavor (mountain berry) and repackage the blocks in a linear fashion. CLIF calls the new wrapper a FastPak, which can be opened with one hand – I actually tested this, and was able to do it - and the overall amount of packaging is reduced, keeping with CLIF’s eco-mindedness.

The last item in the sample shipment are seasonal flavors of the original CLIF bar. I’ve previously tried the iced gingerbread and spiced pumpkin pie flavors that were available last winter, and they both tasted awesome. This year, CLIF has added cranberry orange nut bread to its holiday catalog, and all three flavors are available through the winter wherever you normally buy regular CLIF bars. They’d be great stocking stuffers for the runner or triathlete on your list.

So have I whetted your appetite yet? If so, I’m able to share the love with a couple of lucky readers. Leave a comment below this post by 6PM PST on Thursday 12/17, and I’ll select two winners to receive a sample pack of CLIF ROKS, BLOKS, and winter CLIF bar flavors. Good luck!

*Products provided by Clif Bar & 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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December 14, 2009

Black Diamond Icon Headlamp Review and Battery Pack Giveaway

The more I learn about all these outdoor companies, the more fascinating their stories become. They’re also becoming more and more interconnected.

Case in point: remember this summer, when I profiled the Patagonia company for a review of their Release running shoe, and went on to pretty much fall in love with both their performance standards and their commitment to social responsibility? As far as I’m concerned, Patagonia is the gold standard for the outstanding positive impact a dedicated company is capable of generating in all aspects of its reach.

Well, it turns out that the whole Patagonia thing was really just a side business for founder Yvon Chouinard; his primary enterprise was manufacturing equipment for rock climbing and skiing; a company that eventually (after a roundabout process - see here for the whole story) became Black Diamond.


During its 20 years of existence, Black Diamond has stuck to its guns in terms of the outdoor activities that inspire them – or, as the company’s own website will tell you, “It’s all about climbing and skiing.” It’s a testament to their product quality that Black Diamond’s prominence among trail runners exists not because of an aggressive marketing push to rebrand itself as a running company, but because athletes have actively sought out their lighting systems for reliable performance.

While the Spot lamp I reviewed last week is the company’s most affordable (as well as most popular) option for trail runners, I mentioned that its brightness is somewhat lacking for taking on highly technical trails in the dark. For those conditions, the Icon is Black Diamond’s recommended model. Like the Spot, it’s a tremendous value on its own, and like my previous review, Wilderness Running Company is helping to make it an even more attractive buy. But first, let’s get to the details.


Like the Spot, the Icon features separate bulbs for spot or flood, modes that are alternated by scrolling through the power off position (this inability to switch from spot to flood without turning the lamp off remains my biggest pet peeve about Black Diamond lamps – but it’s becoming less of an issue the more I use it). The spot bulb is a 3-watt LED that can shoot 100 meters, and the flood mode uses 4 high-powered LEDs that give off 100 lumens of brightness.

That’s the strength of the Icon, or any of the larger (non-compact) headlamp models out there – they throw plenty of light to see all the rocks, roots, lumps and bumps on the trail. The tradeoff is that the necessary battery power requires an external pack in addition to the lamp casing. The difference from one brand to another becomes one of efficiency: how long the batteries last, how much the overall unit weighs, and how comfortable the whole contraption feels on your head after the sun comes up, because they’re generally too large to tuck into a small pocket.

From a comfort standpoint, the Icon performs pretty well. At 6.6oz (187g), it’s not the lightest headlamp of this variety out there, but it’s on the low end of a category where lamps often weigh in at 8oz or more. If you’re really hammering the pace, you’ll certainly notice the weight difference between this lamp and the much lighter (85g) Spot – but if you’re logging your miles more casually, the weight doesn’t seem overbearing. Everything stays in place fairly well with the adjustable headband strap, but there’s an additional top strap if necessary for added stability.

The Icon casing features a single on/off button on the bottom that, like the Spot, is large enough to be used with gloved fingers. Both the lamp and battery pack have IPX4 water resistance for good protection against rain from any direction. The casing ratchets to project the beam downward and holds it in place at any angle within its range.

Where the Icon shines (pardon the pun) most prominently is the area of battery efficiency. It uses 3AA batteries, which can last up to 80 hours on the highest brightness setting, and is compatible with rechargeable batteries; an integrated circuit board recognizes the type of batteries used, and automatically calibrates the battery meter to regulate the charge accordingly. An indicator light tells you when you’re below 50% (yellow) or 20% (red) battery life, so you know when it’s time to replace or recharge.


Black Diamond also makes a rechargeable NRG battery pack that fits the Icon, so you’ll never have to buy batteries for this lamp again. This is an especially attractive feature to me; with all of the eco-awareness stuff I’ve been writing about lately, the thought of wasting piles of alkaline batteries year after year grows less and less defensible. The NRG battery pack is especially cool in that you don’t have to remove it from the case to recharge it – the Icon and NRG have an integrated charger port system that plugs directly to a wall outlet. The NRG pack is sold separately and retails for $30, but it makes you totally enviro-friendly, and you’ll still get the 10% discount applied to your total purchase price. It’s not exactly a giveaway, but probably as good a deal as you’ll ever see for this lamp. Click here to check it out. (***Admin note: see also footnote below post.)


Once you have your Icon, there isn’t a trail around that darkness will prevent you from conquering.

*product 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.

***If you're debating whether to pick up the Icon this week and wondering how the upcoming lamps I'm reviewing compare, here's an EXTREMELY brief comparison:

1. Petzl MYO RXP: More brightness, regulated output levels, much shorter battery life, and much more expensive (typically $100)

2. Black Diamond Sprinter: Fully rechargeable, has rear blinking LED, lighter overall, more expensive ($80), less brightness (borderline for technical trails).

Full reviews of both are currently available on
FeedTheHabit.com.

Read more...

December 12, 2009

The Battle of Carmel Valley Road

(Admin note: Jesse, send me an e-mail: you’ve won the $15 gift card to Wilderness Running Company. For the rest of you, there will be more giveaways this week, as well as some product reviews and an increasing focus on the upcoming Christmas holiday – which is partially the topic of today’s post.)

The former Carmel Valley Airport is a 25-acre open space which is now frequented more by joggers and dog walkers than by hangars and prop planes. Its runway fell into decay over a period of decades, and the landing strip was permanently closed to air traffic in 2002. (Its importance will never be forgotten, however; this airstrip was actually the driving force in Carmel Valley’s existence - but that’s a whole separate story.)


So you figure that for anyone to get clearance to land at the old airstrip, he must be someone pretty well connected. Someone who could pull a few strings. Someone highly influential.


Someone like Santa Claus.

Santa’s Fly-In is a beloved tradition in our little town, as is the annual Christmas parade that follows immediately afterward.


In typical small-town fashion, most years see more people in the parade than actually watching it from the sidewalks. And when the event happens to fall on a wet and windy weekend, the ratio of paraders to spectators is skewed even more dramatically.

However, since all the participants bring candy to throw, those kids who do brave the conditions are rewarded with a king’s ransom of candy. Sitting in the back of a pickup truck with a huge stash of candy, my 6-year-old daughter and I were throwing whole handfuls of the stuff to everybody we saw …


… including the truckload of junior high and high school kids immediately in front of us. The exchange possibly started as a few errant pieces of candy from one group coming close to the other, but quickly escalated into an all-out candy fight between the two adjacent vehicles. I quickly saw the writing on the wall when I considered:

1) The older kids were throwing from in front of us, so our truck was moving towards their attack, while their truck was constantly pulling away from ours, and …

2) They were throwing hard candy like Jolly Ranchers and Hershey’s kisses, while we were throwing “floaty” stuff like mini-Snickers and Starburst, and ..

3) My allies in battle against the pack of teenagers were a 6-year-old and an 11-year-old.

In other words, I was at a significant strategic and material disadvantage.

Fortunately, all of our skirmishes were conducted in fun, nobody lost an eye or was otherwise wounded, and when the parade was over, we all went our separate ways in good spirits. It’s another nice feature of life here in our little town: we like to enjoy ourselves, and we appreciate sharing these collective holiday traditions together.

But next year, I’m totally bringing some stronger ammunition.

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Muppet Jingle Bells; MoodBoost Winners

A short weekend post today, to announce a drawing winner and spread a bit of Christmas cheer ...

First things first: dziendobry and 21CM, e-mail me (info@runingandrambling.com) your address - you've won a sample box of the MoodBoost drink I reviewed earlier this week. And for anybody else who'd still like to try some, Monarch Nutrition is offering a discount code for 20% off your purchase; type coupon code BLOG20 at checkout for the reduced price. Link to the MoodBoost site is here.

**
As for the Christmas cheer ... the follwing video has been my daughters' favorite new Christmas song so far this year: Andrea Bocelli's rendition of "Jingle Bells", accompanied by The Muppets. They debuted on a PBS special earlier this fall, and performed on the Jay Leno Show last week. Leno's version is on Hulu but not YouTube, so you have to suffer through a typically awkward 40-second PBS intro for the embedded video below - but that's what the scroll bar is for, right?

Additionally: The Muppets have pretty outstanding range, wouldn't you say? 2 weeks ago they were rocking out to Queen, and now they're alongside one of the most talented operatic singers in the world. It helps to prove what I've believed all along: there should be a little Muppet in all of us.

Andrea Bocelli with The Muppets, "Jingle Bells" (click to play):

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December 10, 2009

Comparison Review: Petzl Tikka XP2 and Black Diamond Spot; WRC Gift Card Giveaway

(Admin note: The Running and Rambling holiday giveaway train keeps on rolling! The MoodBoost drawing is still open for entry until 7PM Friday, and today begins another drawing for a Wilderness Running Company gift card. Oh, there’s also a product review today – but it’s a bit unorthodox compared to previous versions. Read on.)

**
I appear to be outgrowing my website.

Over the past several months I’ve been incredibly fortunate to receive an overwhelming amount of gear to review – so much that it’s gradually crowding out the other content (read: random nonsense) I like to present here. And since I’m not inclined to turn this blog into a 100% product review site (although I hope it’s a reliable resource for that purpose), another outlet to post the reviews seemed like an outstanding proposition.

Luckily, that’s exactly what happened. This fall I began contributing product reviews to FeedTheHabit.com, a large outdoor gear review site based in Utah. Given their physical location, they test a lot of skiing and winter sports equipment, as well as gear for camping, hiking, and mountain biking. The owner of FTH also does a fair amount of trail running, and I’ll be contributing content in that area along with him. So if you don’t already know about the site, be sure to check it out – and today’s post is something of an incentive to go there.


My first post for FTH was back in October, with a review of the Petzl Tikka XP2 headlamp – it’s Petzl’s equivalent model to Black Diamond’s Spot, which I reviewed here earlier this week. Instead of reprinting the XP2 review, I’m just going to link to it, and ask you to come back here for the head-to-head comparison from both reviews. And to make sure you return, I’m making this post the entry point for my next $15 WRC gift card giveaway.

Is this getting confusing yet? Let me simplify:

1) Go read my Petzl Tikka XP2 headlamp review on FeedTheHabit.com, then…
2) Return here to read the comparison between the XP2 and the Spot, and …
3) Post a comment to enter the drawing for a WRC gift card. Easy as that. Now get going.

**

Are you back? I’ll take your word for it that you read the FTH review. So which compact headlamp is better – the Petzl Tikka XP2 or the Black Diamond Spot? They’re both very solid options, and each has its advantages over the other. Here’s the tale of the tape:


Bulb Type:
Spot: separate LEDs for spot and flood modes, no red LED
XP2: single LED, 1 red LED
Advantage: If you like red LEDs, advantage XP2. Otherwise, the type of bulb doesn’t really matter as much as …


Brightness:
Spot: 47 lumens
XP2: 60 lumens
Advantage: XP2. The difference is certainly noticeable.


Beam types:
Spot: spot (well, duh …), flood, and strobe
XP2: spot, flood, and strobe
Advantage: XP2, because you can switch from flood to spot modes by flipping a diffuser lid up or down, instead of cycling through the “power off” mode with the Spot.

(Boy, it doesn’t seem like much of a contest so far, huh? Keep reading ... )


Maximum beam distance:
Spot: 70m
XP2: 60m
Advantage: Spot. Black Diamond’s entry has lower candle power, but shoots its beam farther. If you tend to use the spot mode more than the flood mode, this is the lamp for you.


Weight (with batteries):
Spot: 85g
XP2: 88g
Advantage: Spot, but just barely – because I’d be surprised if you can actually feel the 3 grams difference.


Battery type and lifespan:
Spot: 3AAA, 100 hour lifespan on high setting. Rechargeable batteries not recommended.
XP2: 3AAA, 80 hour lifespan. Compatible with rechargeable batteries.
Advantage: XP2, mainly because of my bias towards using rechargeables. We should all make an effort to be greener this way, shouldn’t we?


Price:
Spot: $40
XP2: $55
Advantage: Spot, in a big way. When I said this was the most affordable option for trail runners, I wasn’t kidding around. Wilderness Running Company offers a 10% discount (coupon code R&R10) on both of these lamps, but doesn’t currently have the XP2 in stock. It’s coming soon, I’m told.


So which one’s right for you? If you want something basic, efficient, and very affordable with adequate brightness for roads and groomed trails, go with the Spot. If you’re willing to pay 37% more for 28% more candle power and a few more features (red LED, spot/flood diffuser and rechargeable battery capability), then the XP2 is your lamp.

**

Congratulations - you made it to part 3! Either that, or you just scrolled here after reading the first paragraph. Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter to me – just leave a comment below to be entered for a $15 Wilderness Running Company gift card. Good luck!


*Tikka XP2 headlamp provided by Petzl America
**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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December 9, 2009

MoodBoost Drink Review and Giveaway

I normally steer clear of the often murky world of so-called “nutraceuticals” – nutritional products that claim pharmaceutical properties and remarkable health benefits. There are far too many players in the game and far too little regulation for everything you hear to be legitimate.

So I was fairly skeptical to try a new product by Monarch Nutrition called MoodBoost, a drink that claims to brighten your psychological outlook and provide you with sustained energy throughout the day, all without caffeine or any artificial ingredients. Having tried it for a while, I wouldn’t say I’m blown away, but I’m interested enough to describe it briefly here and offer samples for a couple of readers to test for themselves.


MoodBoost is a natural energy drink consisting of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and herbal extracts. The formula supposedly supports proper body function while raising energy levels and supporting mental wellbeing. It comes in powdered form in individual serving packets, and dissolves in water. Each serving packet contains only 20 calories.

There’s only one flavor, called “Refreshing Tropical” which tastes like an orange creamsicle. The flavor is actually quite nice, but I found it a little bit strong for the recommended 8-12oz of water. For the past several weeks I’ve been dissolving a single serving packet in a 20-oz water bottle, and it makes a tasty fluid replacement drink for my long morning runs. Since I prefer diluted drinks instead of super sweet (and sugar-dense) sports drinks, the low-calorie aspect has been the biggest selling point of MoodBoost for me.

As for the health and wellness claims, I’m going to plead ignorance. The laundry list of ingredients in MoodBoost is pretty impressive - including high-dose Vitamin B12 for energy metabolism, minerals and amino acids for healthy nervous system function, and herbal extracts such as St John’s Wort and Gingko Biloba to help decrease stress levels – but I’m not enough of an expert on any of these nutrients to verify their effectiveness. I didn’t notice a significant increase in my normal energy level – however, I might be what researchers call an “outlier”; the exorbitantly high levels of Diet Pepsi coursing through my veins at any given time throughout the day probably don’t make me the ideal candidate to test this particular variable.

I can’t honestly say that I felt more cheerful than usual while drinking MoodBoost, either. Like I said, I usually drink it while running … so of course I’m going to be in a good mood. A bad run is still generally better than my greatest day at work, or a lot of other things I could be doing. I’m also pretty sure I still get grumpy just as often as I usually do. Besides, this whole arena seems so subjective to me that I’d have an extremely hard time simply correlating a particularly “good day” to the sports drink I had that morning.

Regardless, MoodBoost does have some strong points that might be worth trying. The individual packaging makes it easily transportable to take to work or tuck into a pocket to refill your water bottles on a long run or bike ride. It tastes pretty nice, and it’s a good low-calorie alternative to traditional sports drinks.

MoodBoost is sold online for $15 per box of 20 serving packets – but as part of my December giveaway spree, Monarch Nutrition has agreed to provide sample boxes to two readers. We’ll follow the usual procedure here: leave a comment below this post by 7PM PST on Friday Dec 9th, and I’ll announce the winner over the weekend.

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

Read more...

December 8, 2009

Simple CARport Shoe Review

One of the nicest coincidences of my recent barefoot shoe series was discovering just how closely natural footwear companies and eco-friendliness go hand in hand (or, um … foot in shoe. Something like that.)

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me; as a general rule, most barefoot practitioners - either runners, or just everyday shoephobes - tend to have a dominant “love your Mother Earth” gene, which is manifest in environmental protection and social responsibility. It’s not much of a stretch to think that corporations founded by like-minded souls would translate those philosophies to product manufacturing.

Unfortunately, the shoe business is treacherous territory for companies attempting sustainable production methods or striving to minimize their global impact; chemicals, adhesives, plastics, animal products and excess waste are all part of the game. If a company can somehow navigate those stormy waters and still manage to make products that actually look great and perform well, they deserve to be recognized.

That’s why I’m glad I got to know the Simple Shoe company a lot better over the past several months. They’re not perfect, but they’re striving to do all the right things, with a stated goal of having 100% sustainable production. Or as they describe themselves on their website, Simple is a nice little shoe company getting in touch with its inner hippie.

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed the GUMshoe, a lightweight loafer/sandal made from hemp and recycled carpet padding, among other things. This week features the CARport, a casual sneaker with similar eco-friendly credentials.


The upper of the CARport is made with breathable suede from certified eco-friendly tanneries (those with an ISO 14001 certification, if you’re really interested), as well as certified organic cotton flannel linings and laces. All of the cotton used in Simple footwear is cultivated and harvested without the use of pesticides or other toxic chemicals – it also makes for a very comfortable sock-like feel on the inside of the shoe.


More recycled products are used underneath; the “pedbed” midsole is made from post-consumer polyurethane as well as recycled car tire rubber. The entire outsole is also made from recycled tires; Simple estimates that a single used car tire provides outsoles for six pairs of shoes. Given the monumental piles of tires all over the world, the company will never have to manufacture outsoles from any other material.

Aside from stylistic differences, there’s one element of the CARport that I really like compared to the other Simple shoes I tested. When I reviewed the GUMshoe, I complained that the arch support was sewn into the insole, and the insoles were not removable – so in fairness, I’m happy to say that the CARport insoles are completely removable. However, since the midsole is thicker, you don’t have the same ground feel as the lightweight GUMshoe; it’s like you’re on a flat platform that’s elevated an inch or so off the ground. If the company could someday combine these two elements – a removable insole with a minimalist midsole – I’d be in Simple heaven.

The other thing I like about these shoes is that they’re just plain nice-looking. The styling is versatile enough for office or casual wear, and the suede colors (black olive or coffee liqueur) complement a wide variety of wardrobe options. They’re also comfortable enough that you can wear them all day long, so going from work to a relaxed evening out doesn’t automatically require a change of shoes.

The Simple Carport retails for $70 from Endless.com (with free overnight shipping) as well as on the company website. It’s an easy way to look respectable while still indulging your inner hippie.


*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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