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January 31, 2010

Invisible Shoe Huarache Review

An interesting irony regarding the popularity of barefoot running and the Tarahumara Indians - who have become patron saints of sorts for the whole barefoot movement – is that very few people actually use the Tarahumara's typical footwear. We either embrace the natural aspect and go completely barefoot, or spend a lot of money on highly-engineered minimalist shoes that strive to be “better than barefoot” by offering some basic protection to complement all the biomechanical benefits of going shoeless.

But what if you really want to get in touch with your inner Tarahumara? Or what if you want wear something that mimics the native footwear of these indigenous people more authentically? That’s when you get yourself a pair of Invisible Shoes.

Invisible shoes!

Invisible Shoes are a 21st-Century spin on the traditional sandal worn by various tribes all over the world for thousands of years. They use modern materials to reproduce the look and feel of old-school huaraches, and they are so small and lightweight that it often seems like you’re not wearing anything at all.

The company was founded by Steven Sashen, a member of the very popular Boulder Barefoot Running Club (led by these guys), who started making his own huaraches with a Vibram outsole and thin rope cords. He set up shop on sidewalks near the University of Colorado (if you’ve ever been to Boulder, you know this is nothing unusual), and got a great response. Eventually most of the BBRC regulars were wearing Steven’s huaraches, and the business idea was born.

There’s a philanthropic side to the company as well: Invisible Shoes donates 10% of the profits from their custom made shoes to Norawas de Raramuri, a non-profit organization that was developed shortly after Caballo Blanco’s Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, whose origin was the centerpiece of Christopher McDougall’s best-selling Born to Run. Think of it as a way of paying tribute to the folks who inspired this whole craze, and of helping to support their culture’s long-term survivability.

Invisible Shoes are created by two methods: for $19.95, you can order a do-it-yourself kit consisting of a rectangular outsole and two 6’ laces, then follow the website instructions for assembly. You can also pay $49.95 to have Steven custom-make a pair for you. If you’re like me and are 1) way too busy, and 2) way too error-prone to try making your own huaraches, you should probably choose the custom-made option.

Initial blueprint for a custom-made huarache

Here’s how the process works: you draw an outline of your foot, then round out the contour lines and add a few hashmarks for strap placement. Fax the paper to Invisible Shoes, or scan it into your computer and send it attached to an e-mail. (There are very easy-to-follow video instructions for this step, as well as every other part of the process, on the Invisible Shoes website.) Choose the color of laces you want, and your order is complete.


A few days later, your sandals come in the mail with the outsole cut and the laces threaded through the toe and ankle holes. Next comes the trickiest step: figuring out how to lace the sandals up. The video instructional on the website makes this part easy to learn as well, and it now only takes me a few seconds to lace my sandals in a couple of different styles.


The start position for lacing

There are two primary methods of lacing: toga style that goes high around the ankle - my daughter calls this Jesus-style - or huarache style that stays low around the foot. The advantage of the huarache style is that it can be knotted and then used as a slip-on/off, so you don’t have to re-lace it every time. The disadvantage is that you don’t look like Jesus.



The outsole is a 4mm Vibram Cherry professional-grade rubber. It is smooth on the foot side, and patterned on the bottom for traction. They provide great traction on roads, concrete, and gentle trails. Running in them, I initially found that the section underneath my outer toes would sometimes drag along the ground, causing me to have an exaggerated foot-lift during my first few runs. As I’ve logged more miles in them, the outsole sticks to the bottom of my toes a bit better, so this isn’t much of an issue anymore on roads – but it’s enough of a question mark that I haven’t tried my huaraches on technical trails yet.

Each sandal weighs only about 4.5 oz, so it barely feels like there’s anything on your feet at all. The biggest comfort issue comes from the center strap between your first two toes, which takes a few lacing trials to find the ideal position and tightness. Once I figured out my ideal lacing, the center strap was noticeable for the first mile or two, but then I forgot all about it. I haven’t had any irritation between my toes, but this is a potential hazard if the shoes aren’t built properly (another reason I’d recommend the custom-made method).

Running like a Tarahumara! Well, sort of ...

Overall, running in my Invisible Shoes is really enjoyable – they maintain almost all of the fun barefoot feel, and give me enough protection to take on more challenging terrain than I might try with naked feet. I don’t think they’ll replace my Vibrams for long-distance minimalist running – especially on rugged trails – but I’ve found them a great accessory to maintain my barefoot running form on easy neighborhood runs of 4-5 miles.

Besides, anything that makes me look a little more like a Tarahumara is going to score pretty high marks in my book.



*Product provided by Invisible 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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January 30, 2010

Tahoe Dreaming; Salomon SpeedCross2 Review

This weekend’s video post features a couple of marginally-related topics that eventually point to one of the few race commitments I’ve made so far this year. There’s also a product review for your perusal, but you’ll have to click away for it.

For several weeks I’ve been testing the Salomon SpeedCross2, the lightest shoe from a company that is making great strides in the world of elite trail running. I was originally going to include it here as part of the minimalist trail shoe series I’m cobbling together, but the shoe turned out to be a bit more substantial than I thought, so I punted the review over to FeedTheHabit.com. While it may not be a true minimal shoe, it’s actually one of the most comfortable and rugged shoes I’ve worn all winter, so the review is worth a look.

Staying on the subject of Salomon, I’m long overdue in posting an update on ultrarunning phenom Kilian Jornet, who I first mentioned here before his attempt to break the Tahoe Rim Trail circumnavigation record. Jornet is a Salomon guy, and the company has put together an extremely compelling video series on his exploits leading up to the Rim Trail run. Two of them are embedded below, and you can click here to watch the entire series at the Salomon Running website.

The first video clip features beautiful vistas above and around the lake, and also emphasizes just what a team effort this “solo” record attempt entails. Despite his remarkable physical gifts, Jornet depends heavily on pacers and a support crew to help him achieve success – making him just like every other ultrarunner in that regard. Another little perk of this video is the glimpses you get of several notable trail runners who showed up to help Kilian’s run, including a very talented blogger who accompanied him for part of the way.

"Kilian and Co", from Salomon Running (click to play):




The second installment is equal parts amusing and reverential. It consists mainly of evening scenes around the lake, along with several shots of Kilian NOT running. He’s sitting in a chair to eat, he’s curling up for a nap, he’s wandering off course in search of a lake … at times he seems more like a kid at adventure camp than a world-class ultrarunner. (That is, until you see his finishing time.) The clip concludes to the tune of a classic Negro spiritual, a fitting reflection of how places like Tahoe and runners like Kilian have the ability to lift up and inspire us – which again speaks to the very essence of ultrarunning.

"Hymn to the Rim", from Salomon Running (click to play):




As I mentioned, I’m fairly delinquent in discussing these videos that were first posted last fall; I was only reminded of them after concurrently doing the Salomon review and finalizing some race plans for the summer. I recently volunteered to be a pacer for my soul sister who will be attempting her second Tahoe Rim Trail 100-mile finish this July. (I did, however, leave her the option of dumping me for someone better as race day gets closer – I’m pretty liberal in my relationships that way.)

If it happens, it will be my first time on the Rim Trail, as well as my debut as a pacer - and it’s hard to say which part of that excites me more. If I can tap into even a small part of the mojo that I feel from watching these videos or reading Gretchen’s 2008 race report, I think the evening will be one of the highlights of my summer.

It’s also a good impetus to keep me training … because believe me, that girl is fast.

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January 28, 2010

Declaration of Dependence

It appears as if I spoke a bit too soon this week.

Just as I was commenting about how the prevailing wisdom on barefoot running from shoe industry executives was becoming one of cautioned acceptance rather than condescending ridicule, the CEO of a major retailer proved me spectacularly wrong.

Mike Golfredson, CEO (and “Chief Runner”) of Road Runner Sports - no, I’m not linking to them, purely out of spite – has taken a stand against barefoot running that, by comparison, makes the Brooks CEO look positively enlightened. The Chief Road Runner recently felt compelled to send the following out to his e-mail subscriber list:


Click to enlarge

I don’t have nearly enough time to go into the remarkable levels of ignorance this declaration demonstrates – and honestly, I can’t figure out which analogy best suits him. Part of me wants to compare him to an ostrich with his head in the sand, and another keeps thinking of some flunky deputy giving us the “Nothing to see here, folks, move along” speech as the house behind him is engulfed in flames. The statement also has a hint fear to it, an “Earth is flat!” kind of desperate insistence in response to ships leaving the shore in search of a wondrous New World.

(And those are just the first few analogies that came to mind. Believe me, there are plenty more.)

I’ve decided to treat this as I would a carnival barker or town crier, and casually disregard Chief Runner Golfredson while continuing on my merry way. If you want a more in-depth breakdown, Running Quest has an interesting analysis of why this fear-mongering is bad not only from a PR standpoint, but a business one. After all, even barefoot runners buy clothes and visors and watches and water packs – but I suspect that many of them will be buying from someplace other than Road Runner Sports for a while.

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January 26, 2010

Brooks CEO Jim Weber on Barefoot Running

In the preface to a Monterey Herald article posted here last August, I wondered aloud whether barefoot running would ever be considered mainstream. While I still find it unlikely that a barefoot revolution will completely overtake the sport, one thing is becoming clear: the notion is certainly closer to mainstream acceptance now than it has ever been.

It seems that not a week goes by anymore without some newspaper or magazine discussing the great shod/unshod debate. Thankfully, most of these articles appear to be trending away from the “these people are crazy!” angle, and presenting the rationale for both points of view – usually with anecdotal support from one or more vocal proponents on either side. (See a good example here from the February 2010 issue of Runner's World.)

The most recent skirmish takes place in a particularly interesting venue: on the website of a major running shoe manufacturer, in response to an open letter written by its Chief Executive Officer. Brooks President and CEO Jim Weber has offered his company’s official position in the public dialogue on barefoot running, and invited readers to enter the discussion, which has made for a very active comments board over the past two days. (Predictably, the Runner’s World Barefoot Forum has moved into battle position on its own website, and the discussion there is an interesting read as well – link is below.)

Brooks CEO Jim Weber

As you’d expect, there’s inherent bias – some of it acknowledged, some not – from the standpoint of a shoe company CEO, but maybe not as much as you’d think. The larger message may be that the CEO of Brooks is actually willing to engage in an ongoing dialogue about the merits of barefoot running, and that the company is actively listening to what its current and potential customers have to say on the matter.

It’s an implicit validation that maybe this whole movement isn’t so crazy after all – and hopefully, it may lead to footwear developments that embrace the benefits of barefoot running rather than callously dismissing them. Ideally, Brooks and other companies would do what ECCO VP David Halter discussed with me several months ago, and just create a separate category of minimalist or "natural" footwear in its product line right alongside stability shoes or cushioned trainers.

There’s obviously no “correct” position on this issue, and I’ve already shown my cards in regards to my own involvement in the barefoot running movement – so rather than trying to preach right or wrong to anybody, I prefer to sit back and watch the feathers fly in these situations. You can do the same, or feel free to weigh in with your own opinion, in one of the discussions linked below.


Brooks Blog: Barefoot Running: An Open Letter from Brooks CEO Jim Weber

Runner’s World Barefoot Forum: response to Brooks CEO letter

**

And finally ... since the Grammys are coming up, and since I've been waiting a while for a decent reason to show this pic: Ladies and Gentlemen ...


... Taylor Swift - a barefooter!

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January 25, 2010

SmartWool Arm Warmer and Sock Review

In some ways, the athletic apparel industry is coming full circle in its approach to fabrics.

It wasn’t that long ago when conventional wisdom held that man-made materials were far superior to anything Mother Earth could provide on her own. Natural fibers were considered old-school in comparison to synthetic innovations that came down the pipeline with astonishing frequency over the past two decades.

However, a funny thing happened in our rush to improve what nature created: several companies realized that those original materials could work just as effectively – better, in many cases - as anything built in the lab. And in the era of increasing eco-awareness, using natural materials is not only a quality measure, but the responsible thing to do. (Thankfully, many lab geeks have turned their focus to utilizing post-consumer content in their clothes - which is equally great news, but not necessarily pertinent to the topic at hand.)

That’s why we’re seeing companies incorporate a remarkable variety of sustainable materials – bamboo or hemp or coconut fibers or crustacean shells, just to name a few – into their apparel, and that’s also why we’re seeing a resurgence in good old-fashioned wool. However, there’s one caveat to the modern wool phenomena: performance fabrics can’t use regular old wool; their wool has to be smarter.


That’s where the story of SmartWool begins – or rather, where it began 15 years ago, after a pair of New England ski instructors struggled for years to perfect a process of manufacturing that would preserve wool’s natural benefits - insulation, moisture-wicking, and odor-resistance chief among them – in a style that was also comfortable (wool is notorious for being itchy), durable, and easy to care for.

In the mid-1990s, this was a difficult sell, but the business grew by individual product testers and word-of-mouth recommendations (just imagine if there were bloggers back then!) until larger magazines and vendors began to take notice. Since then, they’ve won numerous awards, gained worldwide distribution, and expanded their product line to include socks and apparel for runners, skiers, cyclists, climbers, hikers and any outdoor endurance athletes.

To assure maximal comfort and performance, SmartWool committed to using only the finest wool in the world, from New Zealand’s merino sheep. I’ve reviewed other products that use this fabric, which is the softest, strongest, most dynamic and odor-resistant wool on the planet. This winter I had the opportunity to try two items from the SmartWool line, as detailed below.

*

SmartWool arm warmers

These are constructed with a blend of 63% merino wool, 32% nylon, 5% elastic, and with seamless construction so you don’t have to worry about lining up the hems along your skin. A 1”x1” rib at the top and bottom openings keeps the warmers in place.

SmartWool’s warmers provide great temperature control when you’re starting off in cool conditions, and great breathability when it gets warm later. They’re very comfortable against your skin, much more so than traditional lycra or nylon fabrics.*

(*I’d like to attest to these claims personally, but in truth they were provided by my wife, who started using the arm warmers about 3 days after I received them, and has yet to return them to me. She’s either extremely impressed, or bucking for a promotion to become an Associate Product Tester for Running and Rambling. Probably both.)

SmartWool arm warmers retail for $25 from the company website (link above) as well as other online vendors.

*

SoftWool PhD Running Micro Socks

“Micro” refers to the height of the sock - this gets a bit confusing, as they offer micro mini, micro crew, and mini crew, among others – and this sock is designed as a low-profile mild weather trail runner. It’s built with something called WOW (wool on wool) technology in high density impact zones, which makes the sock more abrasion resistant and increases its overall durability. A 4-Degree Fit System keeps the sock in place with bands across the arch, ankle, and two along the instep. Mesh ventilation zones further enhance the merino wool’s natural moisture-wicking properties for extra temperature and odor management.


For me, the sock performance bar has been set pretty high by Drymax, and while Smartwool’s offering is comfortable, I wouldn’t use them in place of my regular Drymax trail runners for a long outing. However, if you like the same comfortable feel of merino wool on your feet as well as the rest of your body, they might be worth a try. There are a lot of styles and colors to choose from on the Smartwool site.

SmartWool PhD Running Micro socks retail for $14 from the company website (link above) as well as other vendors.


*Products provided by Polartec
**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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January 23, 2010

The Mensch of Malden Mills

This weekend’s video post is only tangentially related to material that came before it - but as you should know by now, that’s never stopped me before.

I’ve been fortunate to review several products supplied by Polartec recently – such as this Cloudveil vest and this Marmot shirt, and an amazing Patagonia jacket I reviewed on FeedTheHabit. In researching the company a bit, I came across this little tidbit on the "About Us” page:

The company acquired the assets of Malden Mills Industries, Inc, providing employment to its workforce and continuing the tradition of fabric innovation for performance apparel and accessories.

It was the former company’s name that rang a particular bell in my mind: Malden Mills … Malden Mills … of course – the Mensch!

Several years ago, 60 Minutes documented the incredible generosity of Aaron Feuerstein, former President and Chairman of Malden Mills, the company that invented Polartec fabric. After a devastating fire leveled his factory in 1995, Feuerstein financially sustained his entire workforce – more than 3,000 employees – with full salary and benefits for the six months that it took to rebuild the factory.

Although it was amazingly uplifting, the story of Malden Mills didn't have a fairy tale ending: Feuerstein’s out of pocket losses, combined with the huge debt incurred to rebuild the factory and the predictable cash flow problems in the wake of essentially starting the business from scratch again, eventually resulted in bankruptcy in 2001. One of the first orders of business by the new creditors was to force Feuerstein to step down. However, this saga took place during roughly the same time frame as the Enron collapse and other shocking examples of Corporate American greed, so Feuerstein became something of a folk hero among blue collar workers for placing his workers' welfare over personal gain.

From time to time in the midst of our country’s current economic meltdown, I’ve wondered if any modern-day captains of industry would have the same kind of integrity and courage under fire (a bad choice of words, perhaps … but sort of fitting as well) that Feuerstein demonstrated. I've also wondered if the long-term prosperity of those employees was preserved by his gesture, or if he merely spent $25 million of his own money to briefly postpone the inevitable tragedy of layoffs for most of his workers.

Since all of this took place nearly 15 years ago, it’s uncertain how many former Malden Mills employees persevered to its modern reincarnation as Polartec, which has emerged as one of the most dominant players in the athletic apparel industry. For their sake - and because I like to cheer for happy endings - I hope that a lot of them made it to better days.


"The Mensch of Malden Mills", from 60 Minutes, revised by ARTzeinu (click to play):




And finally, a glimpse of the modern-day company that rose from the ashes of Malden Mills ...

"We Make It Possible" by Polartec (click to play):

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January 21, 2010

Cat Stories

The following stories are true – but unfortunately, I have much better documentation for one than the other.

*
Part 1 (the part I can prove): While my son and I were changing clothes and gearing up for our weekly mountain bike ride, we had the following exchange …

Son: Dad, why do you always bring your camera on these rides?

Me: Just because … you never know what you might see out here.


So we headed off to the trails, where I took some pictures very much like the vast majority that I take: shots of him from a distance, with a bit of landscape in the background.

Click to enlarge ... and don’t let his shirt give you the wrong idea – we’re still in California. He picked it up during this vacation last summer.

As luck would have it, later in the ride we saw this guy crossing our trail:

A pretty good-sized bobcat walking softly through the brush, quietly stalking some little snack. Almost immediately after I snapped this photo, he pounced into the nearby bush, but came up empty. He briefly glanced our way as if to shrug off the missed opportunity, then continued ahead in search of the next one.

The photo quality is pretty bad, but it’s the first bobcat I’ve ever captured on film. As for my son, it was the first one he had ever seen in person – so I’m glad I had the camera to remember the moment. Because you never know what you might see.

*
Part 2 (the part you have to take my word for): While I was doing one of my customary 6-mile loops through Carmel Valley two mornings ago, I saw this guy crossing my trail:

Photo from National Geographic

OK, so that’s not an actual photograph I took – think of it as more of a dramatization. It was dark (at about 5:30 AM) and raining heavily, so I left the camera at home … but I sure-as-shooting saw a full-grown mountain lion; he was walking across the path ahead of me when I caught a glimpse of him in my headlamp beam. He stopped in his tracks and stared at me, and we stood there face to face for about 10 seconds. And since we’re doing dramatizations, here’s a good depiction of what was going through my mind right about then:

The Scream, by Edward Munch

Fortunately, the lion wasn’t overly interested in me, and I finally remembered the conventional survival wisdom to wave my arms and make some noise to discourage any aggression. He finally decided I wasn’t worth his trouble, and shrugged me off to return into the bushes. (Maybe he chose to wait for the next runner.)

In all the years I’ve been running these roads and trails, I’ve only seen two mountain lions in person. Both times, I’ve come away with an almost electric charge at what awesome creatures they are, as well as a strange feeling of thankfulness at the opportunity to glimpse one up close. Of course, “close” is a relative term, and I certainly wouldn’t like to be any nearer than the distance of my headlamp beam for future feline encounters like this one.

However, I might rethink leaving my camera at home on these pre-dawn runs of mine – because you never know what you might see.

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January 19, 2010

Dimensions of Compatibility

If I may ask a personal question … have you found your perfect partner in life? Someone who completes you - the yin to your yang, the cheese to your macaroni – and makes you whole? Or are you still seeking that special someone to share your future with?

In either case, last week’s Monterey Herald column is for you. Maybe you’re currently involved with someone, but still holding out hope that a Prince (or Princess) Charming will come and sweep you off your feet. Maybe you think you’re happy, but you wouldn’t know any better because you’ve never tried anybody else, and you don’t really know what the criteria would be for making a long-term commitment anyway. Maybe you don’t even know what you’re looking for to begin with.

However, before you get the wrong idea about all this: yes, we’re talking about running ... because anything else would be WAY too complicated.

**

Running Life 01/14/10 “Dimensions of Compatibility”

Don’t laugh when we say this, but picking a running partner is nearly as important to your overall wellbeing as picking a spouse. (Well, maybe you can laugh a little bit.) Accordingly, we’ve developed a runner’s “eHarmony” test to rate your potential running mates.

For the sake of brevity, we’ll assume that you can handle the logistics of meeting times and locations. The rest of the profile gets more subjective, and that’s where the rating system comes into play. So get out your scorecard, and let’s get started!

Timeliness: Is your partner always a few minutes early for the meeting time? Score 10. Always on time, score 5. Always late, score 0. Unpredictable -sometimes early, sometimes late - minus 5.

Pace: The best partners help you become a better runner. If your partner’s comfortable pace is slightly faster than yours, score 10. Same pace, score 5. Slightly slower, score 0. Significantly slower, minus 5.

Versatility: Give your partner 5 points for each type of running terrain they enjoy: Roads. Trails. Track. Adjacent treadmills. 20 possible points.

Attitude: If your partner has a positive and enthusiastic demeanor, score 10. If it seems like he (or she) is just logging the mileage, score 5. If he frequently talks about his injuries, score 0. If he’s a constant whiner, complainer, and a downer, minus 5.

Reliability: Will your partner show up when the weather is nasty? For a partner who’s never intimidated by foul weather, score 10. For someone who takes on anything short of a hail storm or typhoon, score 5. For one who says he’ll show up only if it’s not raining, score 0. If he bails whenever there’s a 30% chance of rain, minus 5.

Low maintenance: If your partner knows all the roads and trails in the area, and always comes prepared with the right gear, score 10. If he knows where to show up to meet the group every morning, score 5. If he always asks for toilet paper or a sip of your Gatorade, score 0. If he calls you late every evening to ask you what’s going on tomorrow – minus 5.

Sense of Humor: If your partner brings new jokes and laughs at yours, score 10. If he tells the same funny jokes a lot, score 5. If he tells jokes that aren’t funny, score 0. If he tells the same unfunny jokes a lot, minus 5.

Worldly: Does he or she watch the news and know about current events? Score 10. If he likes to discuss other topics besides running, score 5. If ALL he talks about is running, score 0. If he’s overbearingly political, religious, or dogmatic, minus 5.

Running Life Fans: If they mention a Running Life column during a run, score 10. If they know we write a running column, score 5. If they’ve never heard of us, score 0. If they’ve written a nasty letter to the editor about us, minus 5.

OK, maybe that last category was self serving … but it’s time for the results! Check your compatibility score and place it in one of the following groups:

80 to 100: As good as it gets. Let’s grow old together.
65 to 79: I’m mostly happy, but it feels like I’m settling.
50 to 64: This is OK for now, but I’d still like to see other people.
40 to 49: We need to talk. This isn’t working out.
Under 40: Have a nice life. Maybe you should get a dog.

Best wishes to everyone in seeking the ideal running partner.


**

Postscript: the day after this article ran in the paper, I met my two primary running partners for an early morning trail run. One of them arrived 5 minutes late, the other forgot his headlamp, and my own headlamp battery died halfway through the run. I guess that means we deserve each other.

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January 18, 2010

Marmot Lightweight Long Sleeve Crew Top Review

Considering the product that is the focus of this review, it feels a little awkward to say this … but for me, the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “marmot” is the critter, not the company.

Marmots are big fat squirrels that live abundantly throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They are especially prevalent in Yosemite National Park, and have absolutely no inhibition about approaching you, whether you’re strolling through the valley floor or grabbing a snack atop some rocky outpost in the midst of a 10-mile hike. They’re so bold and persistent that they’ll practically tug on your socks if you're slow to offer a piece of sandwich crust or trail mix - and as my wife can attest, they're almost never content to get just a single bite. They inhabit one of the most beautiful places in the world, and never have to work a day in their lives for food; if ever there was a member of the rodent family who seems to have the Good Life figured out, it’s the marmot.


So I guess it makes sense that an outdoor clothing and equipment company would use as its namesake a critter who is completely at home in the mountains – because Marmot's mission is for its customers to feel exactly the same way. The company was founded by two UC Santa Cruz students who started a “Marmot Club” of members who had climbed glaciated peaks together. They also created prototypes of apparel and equipment that would eventually be sold as the initial offerings of the Marmot Company in 1974.

After the founders made an early connection with the developers of Gore-Tex material, Marmot became one of the first adopters of Gore-Tex in the outdoor equipment industry. They are also heavy proponents of Polartec performance fabrics, one of which is the primary material in the baselayer top I’ve been testing this winter.

Marmot's Lightweight Long Sleeve Crew is made from Polartec’s Power Dry fabric, a super-thin material that is highly effective at pulling moisture away from your skin. (And if the name sounds familiar, that’s because the same material is used as a secondary component in the Cloudveil vest I reviewed last week.) It’s a normal-fitting (not form-fit) top with a tag-free neckline, and the Polartec fabric has a 4-way stretch capability for improved comfort and fit. All the seams are made with flat-lock construction, but this was the source of the only drawback I experienced in field testing: the seams of the shirt felt slightly rough on the exterior when wiping sweat off my face. Comfort against my skin wasn’t an issue, so when I wore this shirt under a full jacket, the seams weren’t a problem at all – but under a vest, I had to be a bit careful.

The Power Dry material also features Cocona technology: coconut shell carbons embedded into the fabric for improved wicking ability and natural odor control. Cocona technology is becoming more prevalent lately, with a handful of manufacturers now incorporating it in their apparel construction. From personal experience, the odor control aspect may be slightly overbilled – it’s nowhere near as effective as merino wool, for example – but the “funk factor” after a hard workout is somewhat diminished compared to old-school tech shirts that I own.

Overall, this long sleeve crew provided nice insulation for its weight, and would be a good baselayer for a variety of outdoor activities. It retails for $42 from the company website, with a good selection of colors and sizes discounted to $30 at REI.com.


*Product provided by Polartec
**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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January 16, 2010

Life, Dreams ... and Mountains

"I'm heading for a land that's far away beside the crystal fountains -
So come with me we'll go and see the Big Rock Candy Mountain."
- Harry McClintock, "Big Rock Candy Mountain" (video in post)


This week’s review of the Brooks Cascadia 5 shoe led me to recall something that happened during the first year I had a website, which caused me to remember something else, which reminded me of a third thing … and you know how this stuff goes. I’ll try to keep it brief.

I’ve mentioned several times that I was a hack writer long before I had this website. Before my blog existed, my wife spent an unbelievably generous amount of time building a web page the old fashioned way: typing the code in manually, including link pages and photos, over and over again for every separate page under the domain. Needless to say, it was an enormous time drain that required the kind of patience and attention to detail that would have left me whimpering after about 10 minutes.

It went on this way for nearly two years. Even knowing how difficult the task was for her, the excitement of actually having a location on the Internet – open to the public!! – where people could read my (in hindsight, quite immature) ramblings was almost intoxicating. I had dreams of getting discovered by a major publisher who would demand that I quit my day job and accept a million-dollar advance for a collection of everything I had written to date. Or something like that.

The reality, of course, was far different. I think about 20 people purposely visited my website on a regular basis, and every now and then someone would stumble across it accidentally while looking for something else. It wasn’t going anywhere, and if it weren’t for the advent of idiot-proof Blogger websites, I’m certain that 99.9% of you would never have heard of me later.

One of the bright spots – and maybe the only one, come to think of it – was the day I got an e-mail from a Brooks rep, who said she liked my website, could tell that I had a passion for running, and would I please help her promote a video she helped produce. Someone found me! Someone in the industry! Who liked my website! Once again, the potential of my impending fame seemed limitless.

Eventually I realized that she was just a PR person doing her job – drawing as many eyeballs to her product as possible – and the dream of discovery died another death. However, I really did enjoy the video; it’s clever and funny, with a catchy little tune, and at some point in my life, I've been nearly every one of the characters involved - and it's probably only a matter of time before I become the rest of them. So I linked to it (rather, my wife did) and told all 20 of my readers to go check it out.

I had forgotten that video until doing my homework for the Brooks review this week – and thankfully, nowadays I can just embed the video here.

“Life”, by Brooks Sports (click to play):




Of course, seeing that video again reminded me of the follow-up piece that I liked even better; it was equally clever and funny, with just as catchy a tune, but captured more of the laid-back, limitless world of boundless energy and endlessly positive spirit that I was discovering in the world of trail running.

“Dream”, by Brooks Sports (click to play):




And finally, the folksy/perky tune and dream-like cartoon reminded me of one of my favorite songs of the 2000s: Harry McClintock’s timeless “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, written as a hopeful hobo's description of an imaginary faraway paradise. Originally recorded in the late 1920s, it was re-introduced to modern audiences by its inclusion on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Watching the two videos back to back this week, it’s remarkable how similar they are in concept and style.

Harry McClintock, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” - video by Boulder Media (click to play):



I'm not quite a hobo, but I'm definitely an ultrarunning bum, and my Big Rock Candy Mountain is out there as well. It’s anyplace on the trail where I feel carefree; where I feel boundless optimism, dream big dreams, and celebrate life. Best of all, it's neither imaginary or faraway; all I have to do is lace up my shoes and head out the door, and I'm halfway there. It was a nice thing to be unexpectedly reminded of this week.

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January 14, 2010

Brooks Cascadia 5 Running Shoe Review

Shoe companies are somewhat notorious for discontinuing successful models, or revamping them to the point where they’re no longer attractive to the same runners who made them successful to begin with.

On the other hand, some companies know their audience, identify what works well for them, and have enough wisdom (and restraint – designers can be impulsive folks) to leave a good thing alone. One of those companies is Brooks.


Exhibit A in this discussion is the Cascadia 5, in which Brooks took one of its most beloved and award-winning models, and decided to just tinker a bit rather than overhaul the previous model. The majority of the shoe is identical to the Cascadia 4, with a few modifications for improved comfort and performance. In fact, I could probably condense this shoe review to one sentence: If you loved the Cascadia 4, you'll love the Cascadia 5 even more.

(But if you'd like to learn more, by all means, read on ... )

Cascadia’s ultrarunning “creds” come from none other than Scott Jurek, the 7-time Western States champion who works with the Brooks footwear design team on all steps of the design process from reviewing the first sketches to wear-testing the finished product. Jurek has had such a strong influence on the development of this model that the Cascadia 4 had the Western States course profile printed on its insole, along with Jurek’s course record time. They’ve replaced the design for the Cascadia 5, but the sentiment is still there.


(And this seems like decent enough justification to show this picture of me and Scott Jurek again. It really doesn't take much.)

Considering that the Cascadia 5 is more of a refresh than a reboot, let’s start the review with things that haven’t changed. In particular, the low profile midsole and outsole remain unchanged from the previous version, so the same ride and feel that users loved in the Cascadia 4 is preserved.


Cascadia’s midsole is 22mm thick in the heel, and 10mm in the forefoot. It features Hydroflow viscous fluid units in the heel and forefoot for cushioning and shock absorption, and a Ballistic Rock Shield of thermoplastic EVA that spreads out the impact distribution from sharp objects. A pivot posting system uses independent medial and lateral pivot points which enable the foot to stay in a neutral position on uneven surfaces.

The most attractive feature of the midsole is Brooks’s patented BioMoGo, the first-ever biodegradable running shoe midsole material. Introduced in 2008, BioMoGo is currently used in nearly all of Brooks’s performance running shoes, with the intent for 100% of their footwear to use this material in the near future.

I’ve turned the spotlight on eco-responsibility quite a bit over the past year, so it’s worth noting that Brooks was winning awards for environmentally sustainable innovations as far back as 2006. That commitment was the impetus for BioMoGo, a truly remarkable material that decomposes 50 times faster than traditional EVA. Biochemistry geeks will love the way this works: BioMoGo incorporates a non-toxic additive within the compound that encourages anaerobic microbes to feast upon the sole once it hits the landfill, causing degradation into reusable byproducts within 20 years.


Click to enlarge; medial and lateral pivot posts are also visible

The Cascadia’s environmental friendliness extends to the outsole, made of a compound called HPR (High Performance Rubber) Green that is derived from sand instead of petroleum. It’s also a very durable material that provides great wet-dry traction for skid resistance. It’s not as knobby as some other trail dogs, but I’ve worn these on some fairly muddy romps over the past several weeks, with very little noticeable slippage through sloppy patches.

To this point, I haven’t described anything new about the Cascadia 5 – so it’s time to look at the upper, where almost all of the updates from version 4 are apparent. Most noticeably, the midfoot wrap has been improved with a more snug overall feel, and a better connection between your foot and the midsole. This modification makes for greater stability on downhills and technical trail sections. Like the previous model, stability is also enhanced by an asymmetrical lacing system which allows the tightness of the forefoot to be relaxed for wider feet, or increased for narrower feet.


Cascadia’s mesh uppers are comfortably breathable and drain easily after puddle stomping or stream crossings. They feature Element hydrophobic microfibers for weather protection that also help pull moisture away from the foot for rapid drying time. In other words, there really aren’t any conditions this shoe can’t handle.

Apart from its technical highlights, I found the Cascadia to have a very soft, comfortable overall ride. At 12oz, it’s not the most lightweight shoe out there, and it doesn’t have the ground feel of the more minimalist shoes I’ve been trending towards recently, but there’s nothing about it that feels clumsy or cumbersome either. It would make a great all-conditions trail shoe regardless of your skill level – whether you’re a newbie or a Western States champion.

The Brooks Cascadia 5 retails for $100 from the Brooks website (link above) as well as from Amazon.com (with free shipping) and other online vendors.


*product provided by Brooks Sports, 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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January 12, 2010

Hope and a Future

(Before today’s post, a reminder: if you haven’t done so already, point your clicker to this webpage to register for Wilderness Running Company’s Garmin 405 giveaway drawing, which will be awarded on Friday. Go ahead and do it now … I’ll be here when you get back.)

**

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
- Jeremiah 29:11 (New International Version)


I’m glad that someone has plans for me … because I’m sure having a hard time making them for myself.

For each of the past two years, my training and racing revolved around a solitary goal: finishing the Western States Endurance Run. Working backwards from the race date, the pieces fell into place fairly easily: build high mileage through February and March, do a killer ultra in April, another one in May, and show up at the start line in June.

This year, everything’s different. There’s no big goal race. No compulsion to build mileage at any particular time of year. No pressure to cross a specific task off my bucket list. And consequently … not much direction to making a schedule.

Most of this predicament was voluntary; I owed my family some time and attention that were long diverted while chasing the Western States dragon, and that compensation started during the last half of 2009. And as it turns out, I kind of like sleeping in on weekends or seeing my kids before they go to school in the morning – so I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to jump back into Crazytown right away. Lottery signups (most notably Western States and Miwok) came and went, and I felt no compulsion to take part. Races with rapid-fire signup lists opened and filled to capacity without a pang of regret.

Combine the above factors with an all-around busier schedule from career and church obligations (all of them good, but still), and it makes sense that even when I had the inkling to commit to a race several months down the road, the reality hit me that I’m not in a great position to do so. The longer all of this went on, the possibility of spending an entire season on the sideline grew, and I even started to have some peace with the idea.

And yet …

This is what I do. These events are what I love. This training reveals the person I am. So I’m not getting rid of it all so easily.

Where does that leave me in regards the race calendar? Nowhere specific, but I’ve got a few guidelines for my decision-making:

Short notice: I can barely tell you what my situation will be one week from now, let alone 5 or 6 months. I need to wait a bit longer than usual to sign up for races, to see if I can actually pull them off. However, I’ll definitely need to factor in some buildup time, because I also like to …

Go big: Apologies if this sounds smug, but here’s the thing: I’m perfectly happy to do 30-milers at home. I block out some time, load up my hydration pack, get myself lost somewhere in the hills of Monterey County, then grab a quick shower before getting on with the rest of the day. So if I’m going to pay entry fees and travel to a race, it needs to be something bigger than what I can do on my own. My goal isn’t to run every trail race in California; in fact, I’m making a concerted effort to …

Stay close to home: If I can’t drive there in a half-day or so, I’m not going. Fortunately, that still leaves me a lot of options in the Western Mecca of ultrarunning better known as Northern California.

And with that, we’ll see what happens. Of course, some of these conditions may change over the course of a year, but that’s where I’m at now. As far as specific races go, the only one on my radar right now is the Diablo 50M - which seems to be affected by the same uncertainty bug I’ve contracted, in that the April race date is still tentative. It’s truly an epic race; beautiful and fearsome, empowering and intimidating, exciting and terrifying all at once. For the past two years I’ve done it as a tune-up to gauge my Western States preparations; this year I’d like to appreciate it as a destination in itself.

So far, that’s the list. I’ll announce updates as warranted, with the hopes of grabbing myself a few more wonderful race experiences before the year is out. But if it doesn’t happen that way, that’s OK as well. At most other times in my life, it would have bugged the heck out of me to enter a year with no plans, but I recognize there are larger forces at play here. There’s always hope and a future out there for me, even when they’re not entirely visible.

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January 11, 2010

Cloudveil Run Don't Walk Vest Review

When you can’t decide whether to use an item of apparel as workout clothing or casual dress wear, I guess that’s not such a terrible problem to have.

That’s exactly the dilemma I’ve found myself considering with Cloudveil’s Run Don’t Walk vest – a top that’s built for high-performance activity, but is stylish and comfortable enough to use every day.


Cloudveil is a Jackson, Wyoming-based company who debuted in 1997 with apparel targeted specifically at the year-round mountain athlete. Founded by a pair of skiing aficionados, Cloudveil’s product line began with their signature soft shell jacket, and over the past decade has grown and diversified to accommodate a wide variety of activities, including warm-weather apparel and specialized garments for cold-weather endurance athletes.

The company now offers an entire product line called Run Don’t Walk, designed to combine high comfort with high performance. The vest is an ideal option for those workouts that aren’t quite cold enough for a full jacket, but too chilly for a single layer. Contributing heavily to both comfort and performance are two specialized fabrics: Polartec Power Stretch® on the front and back panels, and Polartec Power Dry on the sides.

Polartec’s Power Stretch material is probably one of the most versatile fabrics around. It’s a highly breathable 4-way stretch material with “touch points” on the inner surface to draw sweat away from the skin, then spreads moisture across the outer surface area for rapid evaporation. The Power Dry side panels are super-thin, but also highly effective at pulling moisture away from the skin.

Side view: Polartec Power Dry in triangle pattern, Polartec Power Stretch everywhere else.

These fabrics combine to provide an extra layer of insulation that feels extremely light and comfortable on top of a baselayer. The entire vest weighs just seven ounces, so you’re unlikely to get overheated if the temperature gets warmer during your run. The only unforeseen circumstance that would spoil your run is a heavy rainstorm, as the fleece material doesn’t have the water resistance of a soft shell fabric.

Truthfully, the vest is so comfortable that I’ve taken to wearing it around the house, or as a casual outerwear piece - it’s the kind of vest that you can wear all day long, and its design goes very easily with a pair of jeans or hiking pants. So that’s my decision point after taking it out of the wash each time: do I want to run in this right away, or wear it around the house for a few days first? The answer varies on different weeks, which I suppose is as good a compromise as I can hope for. Or maybe I’ll have to buy a second vest, so that I have one of each.

Cloudveil’s Run Don’t Walk vest retails for $75 from the company website, and select styles from the Run Don’t Walk collection are also available at Amazon.com (men's pullover jacket is linked).

*Product provided by Polartec
** 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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January 7, 2010

Indulgence

Wow, the New Year sure seems busy already. Between heading back to work (me) and school (my kids), looking at the race calendar (separate post coming soon), and attempting to ramp up my training while gradually recovering from my traditional holiday cookies-and-wine bender, the past 8 days or so are kind of a blur. So today’s post is short and sweet, and brings together a couple of ideas from separate items published earlier in the week.

On New Year’s Day, I embedded a video made by Matt Hart, featuring ultrarunners in all sorts of epic races, on majestic trails and spectacular mountain terrain. The point was to express some of the joy I get from trail running, as well as to give you a motivational nudge to start 2010 off right.

In 2007, a similar video was made featuring Anton Krupicka, one of ultrarunning’s top young guns, right in the midst of his rapid rise to the top of the sport. The 3-minute video below is actually a trailer for a full-length movie called Indulgence: 1000 Miles Under the Colorado Sky, which documents Krupicka’s training and philosophical approach to life in the same laid-back style of the classic surf or ski films of the 1970s and 80s.

I haven’t purchased the movie, so if anyone out there has watched it, please let us know in the comment box what you thought of it, and if it’s worth the purchase price. For example - and on a somewhat bizarre note - the soundtrack appears to be some sort of French rap music, which I didn’t even realize existed. It’s, um … interesting. After listening to the preview, I’m seriously wondering if I could sit through 90 minutes of it. I guess Eddie Vedder was out of the production crew’s price range.

Anyway, for those of us who haven’t seen the film, just enjoy this preview as another small dose of trail mojo to begin the year.

Also, I said this video brings together two previous posts … and the other one is my review of New Balance’s MT100 shoe. In that review, I described Krupicka’s reputation for carving normal running shoes apart to eliminate as much bulk and weight as possible – and if you didn’t quite believe me, pay attention to the first 40 seconds of the clip. I also mentioned that he runs as simplistically as possible: no water pack, often barefoot, usually no shirt, and for darn sure no GPS. You'll find that quality on prominent display in the video below.

Here's to running simply and joyously. And to keeping it rolling all throughout the year.

"Indulgence" trailer (click to play):

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January 5, 2010

CSI: Carmel Valley

(Admin note: a few weeks ago I showed a picture of animal bones on this page, and some folks commented that it made them squeamish. If you’re one of those, you might want to mark this one as read and check back next time. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

**

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
- From Chinatown (1974)

One of my favorite things to do during the holiday season is take a midweek day off work, allowing me a rare opportunity to enjoy a winter’s run without needing a headlamp to light my path. So on the morning of New Year’s Eve, a few of us headed towards my favorite hills in Carmel Valley, looking for a memorable way to conclude another year.


Unfortunately, the benefit of sunlight never seems to make the day’s first climb any easier, as it gains close to 2000 feet of elevation over about 3 miles. However, instead of the usual darkness and fog on the horizon, there are clouds and hillside vistas and, off in the distance, the outline of the Monterey Bay curving around towards Santa Cruz.


Near the top of the hill sits this junction with the aptly-named Cougar Ridge, a long connecting trail that traverses the back country of Carmel Valley into the most remote regions of Garland Park. And why is it aptly-named, you ask?


These tracks were less than 10 feet from the signpost above. One week prior, on the morning after a heavy rain, two friends and I followed these tracks for a good two miles in the midst of a long run. Actually, I should clarify that to say that my friends were following the tracks, with me following a few steps behind them. I mean … if you can’t use your training partners to run interference on deadly predators, what good are they?


Eventually the climb crests into a hilltop mesa that’s relatively indistinguishable from countless others in Carmel Valley. It was kind of hard to completely savor the view, however …


… given that we had passed a recent kill zone on the way up. Luckily for us, this had the looks of an older crime scene, as opposed to one that happened closer to our arrival. There’s really no way to know for sure …


… since the only witnesses were the trees. And they weren’t talking.

One thing that seemed obvious, however, was the identity of the guilty party …


… who left evidence all over the place. Mountain lions aren’t exactly the type to worry about covering up their work.

More difficult to confirm was the identity of the deceased. At first glance, the body looks to be the size and shape of a coyote, but that’s primarily because the remains are fairly spread out over a wide distribution. And with closer inspection of the bones …


Those look more like Bambi hooves than Wile E. paws, don’t they? I think we’ve got our Jane Doe. (Or Deer Doe? That’s kind of redundant, isn’t it? How about just Doe? Unless it’s a buck. This is getting complicated.)


Since there was no clear and present danger at the scene, and since I had not one ounce of interest to track down this specific perpetrator, there wasn’t much further work required to close the book on this particular case. The only thing left to do was head back down the hill, look out over the peaceful village below, and finish the remaining miles of the run.

You don’t want to dwell on death scenes like that for too long, so it’s best to just forget them. It’s Carmel Valley.


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January 4, 2010

Comparison Review: Black Diamond Sprinter, Spot, and Icon Headlamps

When I introduced my series of headlamp reviews in December, I mentioned that one lamp was something of a category changer. Since then, that particular outlier has also become one the favorite products I’ve tested this winter: the Black Diamond Sprinter.


Why is it a category changer? It doesn’t easily fit within the standard size/weight classifications, is versatile enough to replace two distinct varieties of headlamps, and has features that are unique among all of its peers.

Obviously, a full review is in order … so that’s just what I’ve written over at FeedTheHabit.com. After you read the review, check back here for a comparison of the Sprinter with other Black Diamond offerings, and well as a link to a discounted purchase offer for the Sprinter. See you later.

**

Did you read the review? It’s a pretty impressive little lamp, huh? You could make a strong case for the Sprinter to replace any other headlamp you’re currently using – but there are definitely some situations where you might prefer one of Black Diamond’s other offerings. To refresh your memory, the Spot is a compact lamp that gives you great bang for your buck, and the Icon is a very affordable external battery pack lamp that provides all the brightness you’ll need for technical trails.

With that as our starting point, let’s compare all three. However, instead of giving one lamp and “advantage” over another as in my other comparison posts, I’ll just include a general comment, and try to indicate the conditions where one would be preferable to another. Away we go!


Weight (with batteries):
Spot: 85g/3.0oz
Sprinter: 100g/3.5oz
Icon: 187g/6.6oz

Recommendation: Although the Sprinter is an external battery pack unit, its weight is remarkably low, and it sits on your head comfortably enough to hammer out some fast road miles. Compared to the Spot, you get a huge brightness boost for a very slight weight increase. How much more brightness, you ask? …


Brightness (high setting):
Spot: 47 lumens
Sprinter: 68 lumens
Icon: 100 lumens

Recommendation: If you’re a road runner, or stick to groomed trails, the Spot is perfectly adequate to light your way. The Sprinter is bright enough to give you some confidence over tricky footing – but if you’re taking on consistently technical terrain, I’d stick with the Icon for as much candle power as possible.


Beam Type:
Spot: spot and flood modes
Sprinter: flood, with rear LED
Icon: spot and flood modes

Recommendation: Here’s one of the Sprinter’s unique features that gives it a huge advantage: the rear blinking LED that alerts passing cars to your presence. Better still, the rear LED can be turned off manually, so if there’s a group of runners behind you, you won’t blind them after several miles. If safety on the roads is an issue for you (and it should be), the Sprinter is ideal.


Maximum beam distance (high setting):
Spot: 70m
Sprinter: 50m
Icon: 100m

Recommendation: The Sprinter comes up short here, primarily because it doesn’t have a spot mode like the other two lamps. If you shift from flood to spot mode a lot, pick one of the others.


Battery type and lifespan:
Spot: 3 AAA, 100 hours. Not compatible with rechargeable batteries per Black Diamond specs.
Sprinter: built-in lithium rechargeable battery, 5 hour burn time.
Icon: 3AA, 80 hour lifespan on high setting. Compatible with rechargeable batteries as well as the NRG rechargeable battery pack sold separately.

Recommendation: The Sprinter is the first - and to this point, the only - runner’s headlamp powered exclusively by a rechargeable battery pack. It’s the greenest headlamp available, although its battery life at full power is quite short, so you have to remember to dock it after each run. Almost equally impressive is the Icon with the rechargeable NRG battery pack, which gives you a much longer lifespan between charges.


Price:
Spot: $40 from Wilderness Running Company (currently out of stock, but available shortly).
Sprinter: $80 from WRC
Icon: $60 from WRC, with $30 NRG rechargeable battery pack sold separately.
(*all of the above items are available at a 10% discount with coupon code R&R10 – but you knew that already.)

Recommended: if you grabbed the Icon when WRC gave away the NRG pack for free, congratulations - you made off with the best possible bargain. At this point, the Sprinter is the most expensive of the trio, but if you shell out for the Icon’s NRG pack (typically $30), the Sprinter is a relative bargain. However, the Icon is still priced quite competitively, and the extra money you spend for rechargeable batteries with either model will quickly be made up in saved batteries.

*
So which one is best for you? If you’re on a budget and need something basic and dependable, the Spot can’t be beat. If you need something with extra safety features for the road that is bright enough for basic trails, lightweight enough for fast running, and eco-friendly enough to make your inner tree hugger smile, the Sprinter excels in all of these aspects. If you need maximal brightness for technical trails and don’t mind lugging a bit more weight around, the Icon is an outstanding choice.

Regardless of your selection, these are all very solid offerings from Black Diamond. If there’s any comparison info you’d like explained further, leave a comment below and I’ll follow up in reply.


*Sprinter headlamp provided by Black Diamond
**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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January 2, 2010

Sugoi Running Pants Review and Sale

Attention! Huge Sugoi Flash Sale - Save Up To 55% On Running & Cycling Performance Apparel At TheClymb.com. Expires 9/19/2011 At 9AM PDT.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Sugoi has made an incredible impact on the fitness apparel industry.

In fact, the company - whose name is the Japanese word for incredible – has made exactly that kind of progress in its two decades of existence. It was founded as a cycling apparel company out of Vancouver in 1987, and gradually made inroads into the specialized worlds of triathlon and running. The company quickly established a reputation for innovation and excellence across all of its product lines, and developed something of a cult following among both elite and recreational endurance athletes.

This winter I’ve had the opportunity to test three different running pants from Sugoi’s Fall 2009 collection, which are classified according to Sugoi Comfort System ratings from S1 to S3+ based on varying degrees of moisture management and protection from the elements. Two of these products are available as part of the Screaming Deals sale from Wilderness Running Company, so if something looks good to you, follow the links below for some great bargains to get you through the winter.

Sugoi’s S1 category is primarily designed for breathability and optimal moisture transfer away from the skin. Their Piston 200 compression tights have increased pressure against the large muscle groups to improve circulation and enhance muscle efficiency during strenuous activity. Like all of Sugoi’s pants, these are built with zone construction which breaks the pants into 10 distinct panels, allowing variation of compression and/or protection in the areas that need it the most. All of the seams are flat, so comfort isn’t an issue even with all the different areas of articulation.

The Piston 200 tights are built for high-performance; they would be an outstanding choice for cold-weather racing or recovery from hard workouts, or everyday training in temperatures below 40 degrees. They have a super-snug feel that is noticeably tighter than other compressive pants I’ve worn, and they stay in place and remain comfortable even during multi-hour runs. The only drawback I found to these is that there’s no zipper on the ankles - so if you like that feature, these aren’t your best option.

Further along the Comfort System Scale are Sugoi’s MidZero tights. They have the same zone construction and flat lock seams, but provide a higher level of warmth and protection than the Piston tights. The MidZero fabric is extremely effective at wicking moisture while maintaining body heat – I’ve worn these for long runs in sub-freezing temperatures without any noticeable effect from the cold. It combines a tight, smooth surface on the outside with a softly brushed fabric against your skin. These pants also have 7” ankle zips and silicone leg grips for easy on/off and good stability during activity. They're probably the most versatile pants of this group being reviewed, and are included as part of the WRC sale – see link below.

If you live in extremely harsh conditions and need the utmost protection from the elements, Sugoi has you covered with its Firewall 220 material. I did a review of their Firewall gloves recently, and was very impressed by how much insulation they maintained in a relatively thin (compared to other gloves) fabric. The exterior surface is a soft-shell material that provides outstanding water and wind protection, and the inside is the same soft-brushed finish found on the MidZero tight. The tri-layered Firewall material is classified as S3+ on Sugoi’s Comfort Scale, providing the highest degree of protection and thermal regulation among the entire product line.

Sugoi offers Firewall 220 bottoms in two styles: traditional tights, and looser-fitting pants. Both styles have 10” ankle zips, silicone leg grips, elastic waistband and back zip pocket. The tights have a bit less stretch than the MidZero material, and the pants wear slightly snug through the thighs and looser on the calves. I’ve worn the pants quite comfortably in mid-20s temperatures; hopefully I won’t have a lot of opportunity to test them much colder (I think I’ve made my position on winter weather fairly clear), but I’m confident that they’d be totally up to the task with temps into the teens and lower.

You pay a price for that kind of protection, and the Firewall stuff will typically set you back a few dollars - upwards of $150 from various retailers. The tights are on sale at a considerable discount as part of WRC’s sale: while supplies and sizes last, they’re available for $84 bucks. Use my R&R10 discount for another 10% off, and the deal looks even better. If you need a hardcore, top-of-the-line pant to dependably get you through a long, harsh winter, that’s probably an investment worth making.

Sugoi’s Piston 200 tights retail for $90 from the Sugoi website.

Sugoi’s MidZero tights retail for $70 from Sugoi, and are currently on sale for $42 from Wilderness Running Company, plus an additional 10% with coupon code R&R10.

Sugoi’s Firewall 220 pants retail for $160 from Sugoi, but are currently on sale for $112. Firewall 220 tights retail for $150 from Sugoi, and are currently on sale for $84 from Wilderness Running Company, plus an additional 10% with coupon code R&R10.


*MidZero tights provided by Wilderness Running Company
*Piston 200 tights and Firewall 220 pants provided by Sugoi

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

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