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February 27, 2010

Where's Vivo?

Normally I prefer to wait for one global sporting extravaganza to end before talking about the next one – but today I’m making a minor exception to that rule. Although the sun hasn’t entirely set on the Winter Olympics, I already have one eye cast ahead to 2010’s other quadrennial event that will inspire international passions: the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Even stranger, my early attention to the soccer tournament was triggered by a company I’ve been promoting quite a bit lately, one who has just entered the running industry with a splash.

A short blurb on Vivo Barefoot’s Twitter feed recently announced “We’re in the latest World Cup ad from VISA. Did you see us?”, along with a link to the commercial that follows below. Turns out, it’s something of a Where's Waldo? proposition; while there are a lot of running scenes – including a few seconds of barefoot running, which is always worthy of a cheer – I can’t for the life of me make out a pair of Vivo Barefoot shoes anywhere in this piece.

Nevertheless, it’s a cool clip, and I’m always a sucker for an imaginative, clever advertisement (case in point: this is one of my favorites from the current Olympic Games). Combine that with my childhood love affair with the “beautiful game”, and that was reason enough for me to post the video below. But if you should happen to spot the Vivos somewhere in here, be sure to point them out to me in the comments below.

“Evolution of Football”, from VISA (click to play):



Finally, one other Vivo Barefoot-related announcement of note: my Evos are on their way. Give me about 100 miles on them, and I’ll have a review posted here very shortly thereafter.

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February 25, 2010

The Kids Aren't Alright

Before today's post, a reminder: You've got three more days (through February 28) to save $20 on all La Sportiva shoes from Wilderness Running Company. Type lasportiva in the coupon code box at checkout for your discount, and keep in mind that shipping is free as well. Click the link above to get shopping; I'll still be here when you get back.

**

“Chances thrown, nothing's free –
Longing for, used to be –
Still it's hard, hard to see –
Fragile lives, shattered dreams”

- The Offspring, “The Kids Aren’t Alright” (video after post)

*
It’s great to see that the war on childhood obesity has a new high-profile ally.

When Michelle Obama recently introduced her Let’s Move campaign, it was good cause to discuss the epidemic once again in this week’s Monterey Herald column, which follows below. Part of the article speaks to our experience with Monterey County’s youth running program, and part is general recommendations that might help such a program succeed.

I admit to being a bit skeptical about the success of a comprehensive national youth fitness initiative, if only because I’ve seen so many well-intentioned projects fail in the past. There are too many special interests to allow truly sweeping reform, and too much financial incentive for numerous companies to keep Americans greedy and lazy. I keep hoping there will come a tipping point of sorts, where we all take some personal responsibility in the epidemic, and collectively work towards turning the problem around – but I’m afraid that day is still a very long time off.

And since I’m mentioning Mrs Obama specifically, it would be inconsiderate of me to not show the 2-minute introductory video for her campaign, which I’ll do as a precursor to the column that follows (admin note: you may need to click into this post for the Obama video - for some reason it's not showing up in Google Reader):



**
Running Life 2/25/10 “Dear Mrs. Obama”

Dear Mrs. Obama,

Thank you for making the fight against youth obesity your primary concern as First Lady. As runners, parents, and community activists, we share your passion in this challenge.

We completely agree with the goals you have established: access to healthy, affordable food for all kids; increased physical activity in schools and in the community; healthier school meal programs; parents empowered with the information and tools to make good choices.

Since we have some experience in this area, we thought perhaps we could share some of our ideas and observations with you.

Make Physical Education and active recess mandatory from kindergarten to 12th grade: Include activities and lessons to emphasize how running or other aerobic exercise should become a lifetime habit. This is a low-cost initiative, needing no equipment and no new teachers: for example, Monterey County’s Just Run program is free, can be led by any teacher or parent, and has positively impacted more than 7,500 kids.

Health education should be an important part of school rather than an afterthought. Having “No child left inside” is just as important as “No child left behind.”

Make BMI measurements and fitness goals part of school programs: This might be a controversial step – but any executive will tell you that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Kids should know their fitness levels – and these assessments are a great way to open a dialogue with parents as well.

Keep it Simple: Please avoid the typical bureaucratic solution of just throwing more money and researchers at the problem. We all know that poor nutrition + sedentary lifestyle = obesity. Most health agencies already have programs in place – the problem is that they have NOT been working. Find the few good programs out there (see Just Run above) to direct resources toward, and make them more accessible nationwide.

Use “Foot Soldiers”: Any battle needs lots of foot soldiers. In this case, use established community organizers and advocates, and recruit new ones as well. Newly proposed programs should have advocates in every school, workplace, and health organization. Encourage people to get involved at school or in the community.

Lose the anti-running bias: Maybe we’re paranoid, but we’ll put this one out there ... but we’re a bit offended that the Surgeon’s General’s “Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation 2010” says children should have 60 minutes a day of vigorous exercise but doesn’t mention running. Included in the activity examples are softball, racquetball, kayaking (Really? In inner cities?), skating, mall walking, and washing the car, but somehow running didn’t make the list.

The President’s Active Lifestyle award is based on kids being active 5 days a week for 6 weeks. 100 activities are mentioned and running is (thankfully) one of them, but so are archery, billiards, croquet, darts, gardening, horseshoe pitching, ski-mobiling, skeet shooting, and even shuffleboard.

See, here’s the thing: running is the simplest, cheapest, most accessible and most effective means of exercise there is. Although we risk offending the kayaking or shuffleboard lobbies by saying so, we feel our sport deserves a much higher profile in fitness programs.

Make it permanent: Kids need more than 6 total weeks of exercise; it has to be daily, it has to be a life-long habit, and it has to be fun and rewarding in order to be successful. If your legacy is a generation of healthy, happy kids, that’s something to be enormously proud of.

Good luck with your initiative, and feel free to contact us if you need some free consulting!


**

This song occupies a special place in my heart, as well as my subconscious: during the bike stage of my very first triathlon, as I was absolutely flying down the wide, smooth roadway, the introductory sequence of this tune was stuck on repeat mode in my head. My legs were hammering the pedals in exact rhythm with the song, my adrenaline was surging like crazy, and I felt almost superhuman. It was one the most enjoyable feelings I’ve ever had in a race, and whenever I hear this song, I immediately recall the sheer exhilaration of that moment. It’s obviously a nice memory – but having said all that, I have to admit that I find the video for the song just a tad bit creepy.

The Offspring, “The Kids Aren’t Alright” (click to play):

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February 23, 2010

Inov-8 X-Talon 212 Shoe Review

For all the buzz that some recent additions to the lightweight trail running shoe category – in particular, New Balance’s MT100 and Vibram’s KSO Trek - have generated, it’s worth noting that one very minimal super-lightweight shoe has been on the market for nearly two years now, quietly amassing a loyal following among trail racers and ultrarunners alike. So I knew it was only a matter of time before I tried the Inov-8 X-Talon 212.

Inov-8 hails from England’s North Pennines, a geographic area known for its high moors, lush valleys, and frequently harsh climate. Northern Britain also happens to be the birthplace of fell running - off-road footraces over steep hills and all manner of challenging terrain – and it’s this type of activity that inspires the entire Inov-8 line of footwear and trail gear.

Inov-8 X-Talon 212

Billed as the “World’s Lightest XC/Fell Racer”, the 212 is also the lightest in Inov-8’s entire line of off-road shoes. Very conveniently, the numbers of Inov-8’s models correspond to the shoe’s weight in grams – so 212g gives you 7.48oz, which is remarkably light by trail standards. (For points of comparison, Vibram’s KSO Trek is 5.7oz, and New Balance’s MT100 is 7.8oz.) The shoe fits and feels like a cross-country racing flat, but is aggressive and durable enough to conquer any off-road conditions you encounter.

Like a racing flat, the upper of the 212 is low-profile and consists almost entirely of very thin lightweight mesh, with light padding around the ankle for comfort. I’ve found the ankle and Achilles areas to be completely problem-free - a nice improvement from my recent tendon-biting experience with the MT100. The tongue is only slightly thicker than the rest of the upper - part of the overall design strategy of decreasing bulk and weight – but the top region of the shoe stays comfortable with a TPU-supported lacing system that keeps everything snug with even tension throughout.

Breathable mesh upper; black lines are TPU lacing support

Inov-8’s performance uppers use quick-drying mesh with high breathability, as well as a Met-Cradle webbing support that cradles the forefoot in its natural position behind the metatarsal heads (balls of your feet) for neutral alignment. This webbing, combined with Inov-8’s narrower performance last, contribute to a somewhat slender fit through the forefoot. This design is good from a performance standpoint, as it prevents excess internal movement when ascending and descending steep, curvy or irregular trails – but it might be problematic for people with wide feet or those who like a lot of space in the toe box.

Further contributing to the race shoe feel is a very flat midsole platform, with only 6mm height difference between heel and toe. Cushioning is minimal by Inov-8’s standards – the specs page indicates “two arrow” cushioning out of a possible four arrows – with a low profile midsole for better ground feel (However, don’t ask me about midsole heights; I hounded the company for this spec, but apparently it’s guarded like a secret recipe. Those Brits can be awfully James Bond-ish sometimes.) The midsole also utilizes Meta-Shank construction, which is slightly contoured around each individual metatarsal for greater flexibility and natural foot motion.

For such a lightweight shoe, the X-Talon has an amazingly aggressive outsole, and this is where Inov-8’s high-performance design technologies truly shine. Obviously, what stands out most prominently are the cleat-like lugs, large and deep enough to power you through any mud pit or keep you stable on the slickest grassy slopes. Underlying the lugs is a longitudinal fascia band that mimics the foot’s natural plantar fascia ligament for increased propulsion efficiency and reduced muscle fatigue.

Super-aggressive outsole with fascia band

The entire outsole compound is an exclusive (I didn’t even bother asking for the composition) sticky rubber that was inspired by rock climbing outsoles. Walking on asphalt with these shoes, you appreciate the stickiness – you almost have to think about lifting your foot up to break ground contact with each step. I imagine this is sort of how Spiderman feels when scaling the outside of a building or something. One thing is clear, though: you’d have to try awfully hard to lose your traction in these shoes. In practice, I haven’t had one instance of slippage with them, even on the muddiest, steepest hills that I’ve covered over the past two months.

Great view of the prominent cleating

Sticky rubber clearly optimizes grip in all conditions - especially wet ones – but per Inov-8’s technology page, it tends to wear down quicker than traditional outsole rubber. I have over 100 miles on my 212s so far, and I haven’t noticed any appreciable height difference in the lugs. However, the point does highlight another consideration for these shoes: they are pure trail runners. If you use them as a hybrid and run a lot of miles on asphalt before reaching the trailhead, you’ll probably wear the lugs down much more rapidly.

Given its light weight and relatively minimal cushioning, the official company line on the X-Talon 212 is that it should be used as an off-road racing shoe or for low-mileage training days. However, if you’re coming from a barefoot and/or minimalist background, this would be a perfect shoe to use when you need increased protection and traction over ultra distances or on especially rugged terrain. Its overall construction is durable enough to handle whatever challenges lie ahead, and it’s light and comfortable enough to wear all day - and perhaps even all night, if necessary.

The Inov-8 X-Talon 212 retails for $100 at Endless.com as well as other online vendors.


*Product provided by Inov-8.
**See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you'd like reviewed, contact me at mailto:myaddress@example.com.

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February 22, 2010

The Evo Has Landed

(Admin note: a quick post today as a follow-up to an item from last week, and as a place holder for another review later this week.)

Last week I included a Terra Plana promotional video describing Vivo Barefoot’s new Evo running shoe. There’s obviously a good deal of interest and anticipation about this shoe; earlier this winter, Vivo Barefoot set up a bare-bones registration webpage for e-mail updates – and they currently have more than 1700 people on a wait list to purchase them.

Even more impressive is that most of these registrants were onboard before there was so much as a picture unveiled – a point that speaks both to Vivo Barefoot’s customer loyalty and their reputation for quality. Since that early teaser, the questions that have been asked most frequently are, 1) What do they look like?, 2) What will they cost?, and 3) When can I get mine?

This week Vivo Barefoot sent out a mailer that answers all those questions, which is embedded below (it’s tall and skinny, so you’ll have to click to enlarge). The shoes are now officially available from the company website, although they’ll probably be in short supply until the initial wait list orders are satisfied.

(click to enlarge, obviously)

I have some initial thoughts on the mailing, which I’ll probably save for a later post, or for a formal review later this spring or summer – but if you have any first impressions on the Evo, feel free to discuss in the comments below.

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February 19, 2010

Ventana Wilderness: Pine Valley Trail Run

“The topography of the Ventana Wilderness is characterized by steep-sided, sharp-crested ridges separating V-shaped youthful valleys … Much of the area is very rugged and trails within the Wilderness are frequently overgrown and challenging to follow. Off-trail travel can be extremely difficult due to the steep, unstable terrain, and dense vegetation.”
- Wikipedia entry for the Ventana Wilderness Area

**
There’s nothing to snap you out of a training funk better than spending more than a half-day in the wilderness … especially if you were only planning on spending a few hours there. But that’s getting ahead of myself a bit – so I’ll start with the basics.

The Ventana Wilderness Area occupies approximately 240,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest between California’s coastal Highway 1 and my home region of Carmel Valley. The northern end of the wilderness area is about a 30-minute drive from my house, so while it’s not the most convenient area to train on a regular basis, it’s a very compelling area for an adventurous day trip.

Realizing how fortunate we are to be so close to such a place, some of my training partners have made a concerted effort to get to know this wilderness area better. Unfortunately, it’s hard to predict what you’re in for on such outings, as trail conditions and river levels can change dramatically over the course of just a week or two. I guess that’s why they call it the wilderness.


On the recent three-day weekend, a handful of us took a white-knuckle 4WD ride up the access road to the Pine Ridge trailhead for an exploratory run into the wild. We didn’t really know what to expect along the way … which in hindsight may have been a good thing.

Our trail started at just under 4000’ of elevation and began with a short climb to the top of the nearby ridge. Apparently the “wild” aspect of this area doesn’t just apply to the terrain …


… as these shell casings on the ground would attest. These could be from hunters, but Carmel Valley also has a pretty solid Good ‘Ol Boy population, so you’re never quite sure what might have been on the business end of this rifle. The shells were also a nice reminder that much of what happens in the wilderness probably stays in the wilderness.

Moving past the casings further up the ridge …


… we ran into some snow! I’ve made my position on winter conditions quite clear on this page over the years, but there's something pretty cool about patches of snow on the ground to reinforce that this isn’t my regular training run.


Fortunately, most of the snow patches were small and easily navigable as we made it to the top of the first ridge …


… where we were greeted with a killer view looking back through the Carmel Valley, with the Monterey Peninsula barely visible in the far distance.


Most of the next five miles were a gradual descent, which is normally a great feeling, except for the fact that we knew we’d have to come UP this hill on our way back out.


The trail descends through an area called Pine Valley, distinguished by its tall namesake trees on the floor …


… and very prominent rock formations above. If you’re into rock climbing and don’t mind a rugged 5-mile hike in and out, this would be a sweet place to polish your skills.


Smack in the middle of Pine Valley, at least 10 miles removed from the nearest paved road and probably 20 miles from the nearest house is something of a local legend: the cabin dwelling of Jack English, 91 years old, who outbid the State Park system for this lone parcel of land decades ago, and now makes his home in the middle of the wilderness.

Jack has a reputation of kindness and generosity towards all who pass this way; he greets hikers, invites complete strangers into his home to share food and shelter, and tells scout troops about the history of the land and the importance of keeping it wild. However, seeing as how the windows were closed and it wasn’t yet 9AM, we left the cabin in peace …


… although I did have this strong urge to creep closer and check for a ring of ash on the ground, look for a ghostly rocking chair inside, listen for whispering voices, or ask Jack if his first name might be short for Jacob. (Which reminds me - have I mentioned yet how excited I am that Lost has started again?)

(Also, if you want another glimpse of Jack, here’s a great audio/video slide show done by the San Jose Mercury News after the wildfires of two summers ago. He’s truly an amazing guy.)


The floor of Pine Valley is beautiful and tranquil, and the flat terrain makes it a popular wildlife corridor. While I was fumbling with my camera, a group of deer were trotting across this field … but of course, by the time I took a picture it was too late.


Leaving the valley behind at this water crossing, it occurred to me that I should give my friend Jeff a few pairs of Drymax socks someday. In the time it took him to tiptoe across this log, I waded back and forth across the stream about three times.


Leaving Pine Valley begins a long, steep climb up the opposite ridge from the one we descended to get here – and this is where the adventure got truly interesting.


The trail quickly became overgrown and difficult to follow; it was clear that this area hadn’t been maintained in quite a while.


Can you see a trail through here? Me neither. But the last traces of groomed trail vanished into thick brush just like this; for the better part of an uphill mile, we relied on maps and trail sense (and hopefully a dose of good fortune) to navigate our way.


At one point it crossed our mind to turn back and simply retrace our steps – but by the time any of us voiced this idea, we were so far into the mess that trying to find our way backwards would have been just as challenging.


The good news was that we had nice views to enjoy while we were hopelessly lost. The open meadow of Pine Valley is visible in the distance below; if you click to enlarge the picture, you can see the roof of Jack English’s place in the lower middle portion. I’ll bet Jack wouldn’t have gotten himself into this kind of mess.


Sometime during this long uphill scramble, I thought it would be a good idea to keep taking pictures – not so much for the website, but in case someone found us out here 6 months from now, they’d be able to piece together our last journey Jon Krakauer-style. If we never made it out, maybe we’d at least be famous; it seemed like the least I could do for the good of the group.


Thankfully, I didn’t have to ponder our mortality for too long, because we eventually caught sight of the main trail, speckled with snowfall off in the distance. Once we saw it, we had our bearings and knew which way to head.


Since we were gaining elevation again, the snow became more prevalent … but since we were back on the main trail, nobody minded the snow one bit.


Less than a half-mile from the snow-covered trail, we crested the climb and caught sight of the Pacific Ocean just beyond the next ridgeline. Snow, scenic trails, and ocean vistas: I love California.


Leaving the ridgeline was a long gradual downhill terraced into a low canyon, where the only thing that stopped our momentum was a steady series of treefalls across the narrow trail. Unfortunately, the enjoyment was rather short lived …


… because once we bottomed out in the canyon, we had a long 4-mile uphill stretch to return to our starting point.


By this time, the day had become pretty warm, and these were four of the toughest miles I’ve run in quite a while. Also four of the most satisfying, if that makes any sense.


My friend Whit is an amazing ultrarunner, and the reason he looks so much fresher than me is that he spent about 10 minutes resting here at the top of the hill while waiting for me to catch up.


Finally, almost six hours after departing, we made it back to our starting point. Despite the tough miles, the whole experience was fairly energizing for us, in the way that having a small taste of something delicious makes you yearn for more.

We collectively decided that with such an enormously beautiful area like this so close to our front doors, it would be a shame for us to leave it unexplored. Individually, this run helped me set aside my winter ambivalence and begin to focus on more serious training as spring and summer approach. Although there aren’t any races on my calendar yet for 2010, I’ll definitely be making some appointments to return to this wilderness area throughout the year.

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February 18, 2010

New Balance Barefoot Statement; Vivo Barefoot Evo Video

When my 6-year-old daughter is short on sleep, she tends to get a bit whiny, and begins reporting a progressive inventory of physical maladies: My legs ache. My stomach’s upset. I have a little headache. That sort of thing.

99% of the time, the answer she gets from her parents is, “You’re just tired … Go to sleep, and you’ll feel better in the morning.” So I was initially dismissive one evening last summer when she told us she had a neck ache. We had all done a long hike in the park that day, and I figured this was just another end-of-day bonk from a tired 6-year-old who merely needed a good night’s rest to stop bothering me with her problems.

She continued to complain of neck pain the next day, and I figured that she hadn’t quite caught up on the rest she needed to stop being so cranky. It wasn’t until I was drying her hair after a shower that night that I discovered the actual source of her discomfort: a big fat tick had buried itself waist-deep in her hairline, engorged with a full day and a half-long meal at my little girl’s expense.

Thankfully, everything worked out fine; I plucked the tick out of her scalp, we monitored her for a few days looking for any ominous signs, and the neck pain quickly resolved. The larger lesson I learned was this: sometimes, complaining isn’t just complaining – it’s a sign that something is legitimately wrong. And part of being a (supposedly) mature, responsible adult is knowing how to distinguish serious feedback from just so much whining.

*
I bring all of this up because of two noteworthy developments in the world of barefoot running – one of which involves a major shoe company who is actually listening in a somewhat discerning manner to the criticism coming from barefoot runners. The other development is a teaser announcement of sorts for a shoe I’m planning to review later this spring.

Earlier this month, New Balance posted an official position statement on barefoot running to its company website, and it’s refreshingly thoughtful in its overall tone (especially in the comments section, with direct company responses to individual reactions). Whereas some shoe companies and vendors have reflexively taken the “You’re just cranky – go to bed!” stance on barefoot running, NB is demonstrating some nice maturity and responsibility in recognizing that maybe all this clamoring from barefoot runners is something that should be looked at more closely.

They balance their interest as a shoe company and their recognition of the barefoot movement quite deftly with this excerpt:

At New Balance, we’re committed to developing shoes with various levels of cushioning and support—from very little to plenty. And we’re continually exploring the human foot and the best way to accommodate it. We do this by working with renowned bio-mechanical engineers, podiatrists, and top-ranked ultra-marathoners—even barefoot ones. In this way, we’re able to offer footwear options for all kinds of needs—from the most minimal support on upwards. Unless of course you’re going barefoot. Then we’ll just cheer you on and offer another kind of support—the emotional kind.

The overall website statement isn’t completely infallible – there’s still a hint of wariness about pure barefoot running in a paragraph prior to the one above – but they’ve definitely expressed their willingness to consider minimalist runners seriously from this point forward. New Balance has already made one of the most minimal trail runners on the market – the MT100 – and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they became the first major running company to make a purely minimalist shoe.


*
When that time comes, however, they’ll have some pretty impressive company. Terra Plana has approached the barefoot running movement from the opposite direction: they spent several years perfecting the design and construction of their Vivo Barefoot line, then transferred that knowledge base to the creation of a running-specific model. The Evo is scheduled for release this March, and the video that follows offers an advance glimpse of what it will look like.

A couple more things worth pointing out about the video: first, there’s no sound to it for some reason, so don’t bother reaching for the volume dial on your computer. Second, when I posted a preview picture of the Evo in a post earlier this winter, the yellow color and honeycomb pattern made me (and many others) immediately think of a beehive, which, um … isn’t the first image I want in my mind when sticking my foot into something. But the video that follows shows two other color schemes with a much more subtle black/white/red combination that I anticipate will be more highly sought.

Unlike most traditional running shoe companies, Vivo Barefoot has always taken the concerns of barefoot runners very seriously, and they pride themselves on making high quality footwear that supports natural motion. Based on my experience with three of their other models, I’m confident that the Evo is going to be quite impressive, and I’m looking forward to getting my feet in a pair to try at some point later in the year. In the meantime, the video below will give you a sense of what you’ll be seeing and hearing more of down the road.

“The Evo”, by TerraPlana TV (click to play):

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February 15, 2010

La Sportiva Fireblade Review; La Sportiva Coupon Code Sale

La Sportiva has steadily become one of my favorite companies, as much for their contributions to the ultrarunning community as for their high-performance footwear. I’ve been happy with three different models I’ve tested - see reviews of the Wildcat here, Crosslite here, or Wildcat GTX here on FeedTheHabit.com – with the Crosslite being my “If you had a 50-mile race coming up and only one pair of shoes, what would you pick?” model of choice.

So when Wilderness Running Company wanted to do a promotional sale with La Sportiva footwear, it didn’t take much convincing for me to play along – especially since there was a concurrent opportunity to review a prominent La Sportiva model I hadn’t yet tested. Information on the coupon code sale is at the end of the post, and a review of the La Sportiva Fireblade follows below.


Truthfully, a lot of my homework for this review was already done by Stacy at WRC, who posted this excellent comparison (complete with groovy pop culture reference point - he's good people) between the Fireblade and La Sportiva’s more popular Wildcat model in terms of build and performance. The Fireblade’s construction is such that it gives a firmer overall feel and promotes a slightly different running style than the Wildcat, with an outsole that is a bit more versatile for the everyday trail runner – all of which will be explained shortly. As usual, we’ll start from the top …


The Fireblade’s upper is pretty standard La Sportiva design: AirMesh material that keeps dust out but provides good ventilation, synthetic leather overlays, and a scree guard on top that also helps anchor the foot to the midsole of the shoe. There’s a rubber cap in front for toe protection, which I’ve personally tested (unwillingly) a few times – it works quite well. Another item of note is that one color option for this model is a very bright orange and black … in case you’re worried about getting shot by hunters, I guess.

Where the Fireblade distinguishes itself from the other models is the midsole, which features a triple-density EVA in comparison to single-density EVA in the Wildcat and most other trainers. Thickness is 26mm in the heel, and 16mm in the forefoot; the “delta” (height difference) of 10mm makes it relatively flatter than most trail shoes on the market as well (12mm delta is typical, although La Sportiva’s Crosslite also has a delta of 10).

These two structural differences – firmer and flatter – are what gives the Fireblade a unique feel, and influences the way you run in them. Although the high-density EVA is exceedingly durable – theoretically, it should last three times as long as single-density EVA before wearing out – it’s not super-cushiony to begin with. Instead, you feel a solid platform underneath you on all kinds of terrain. This diminished cushioning, combined with a relatively flat delta, have another fringe benefit: it discourages heavy heel strike in favor of a more forward impact area. In other words, if you happen to be a minimalist or barefoot runner and want to maintain a midfoot strike when wearing traditional trainers, the Fireblades accommodate this very nicely. (Hooray!)


The underside of the Fireblade features La Sportiva’s FriXion AT/Racing outsole, which is noticeably less knobby than either the Wildcat or Crosslite. The lugs are somewhat shallow, giving you strong traction on hard surfaces like sandstone or granite, and pretty decent grip on other types of terrain. I found them to be a bit slippery on a recent wilderness run that turned into a long bushwhacking session on steep slopes (separate post coming soon), but for your standard-fare fire roads and single track, they are more than adequate.

Shallow lugs also allow the shoe to function as something of a hybrid that you could use for a 3 or 4-mile run to the trailhead before heading into the dirt. In that regard, they could meet a similar need as Salomon’s XT Wings, but in a style that’s slightly lighter and noticeably lower to the ground, and quite a bit more affordable. Overall weight of the Fireblade is 366g (12.9 oz), which is on the heavy side compared to La Sportiva’s 350g Wildcat and 336g Crosslite – so while this is officially categorized as a racing shoe, it would be equally useful as a durable high mileage trainer for everyday use.

I can’t say that the Fireblade is my new #1 shoe – the lighter weight and more aggressive tread of the Crosslite still win me over – but that’s the nice thing about the promotion currently offered by Wilderness Running Company. From now through the end of February, they’re offering a $20 discount on ANY La Sportiva shoe in their inventory. Try the Fireblade for yourself, or grab a good deal on the Wildcat or Crosslite or any other model. Since your purchase price will still be over $50, it qualifies for free shipping, so you save a few bucks there as well.

But here’s where things get tricky, so pay attention: the coupon code for this one is different than my regular one. This time, type in lasportiva to apply the $20 discount at checkout, and enjoy getting to know your La Sportivas.


(Of course, if you like, you can do more shopping and use my R&R10 code for a 10% discount on a separate order. Just a suggestion.)


*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.

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February 14, 2010

Swifter, Higher, Stronger ... Prettier?

You never know when something you write will come back to haunt you - and sometimes, the lines that you regret the most are seemingly incidental when you first put them on paper. Such was the case with the Monterey Herald column I submitted last week, on the eve of the Winter Olympics.

It has been a running (so to speak) joke among my training group whenever the Olympics roll around about how poorly we identify with sports that are determined to any extent by presentation and style points rather than defeating an opponent face to face in competition. The Winter Games are chock full of such events, and we decided to have some fun with applying the style point philosophy to the world of road racing.


The last paragraph was intended to be a bit of comic relief, suggesting some absurd ways that events could be tinkered with to make them more to our liking. One event we mentioned was the luge – and then tragically, less than 24 hours later, a young Olympian was killed on the Vancouver luge run on the day of the Opening Ceremonies.

It was a horrible coincidence, and it obviously reinforces how inherently dangerous many of these winter sports are, and how seriously every Olympic event should be respected. In hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have made the same comments at the end of this one - but honestly, I don’t think there's any way something like this could have ever been anticipated ... so I’m letting the article stand here as originally written.

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Running Life 2/11/10 “Swifter, Higher, Stronger … Prettier?”


Just for kicks, imagine the following: you’re charging through the final mile of a 10K, on pace to set a personal record or win an age group award, and giving it every ounce of effort you have.

The situation grows more difficult with every step - legs screaming, lungs burning, heart pounding like a jackhammer – but you somehow muster the courage and determination to stay on pace all the way to the finish. Finally you cross the line and almost keel over from sheer exhaustion, filled with satisfaction and pride from a maximal effort and a long-awaited goal.

Shortly thereafter, you’re approached by a race official, where the following exchange begins …

Official: Nice job – it looks like you might win an age group award. Of course, your official result is pending final review.

You: Review? What kind of review?

Official: By the judges, obviously. They deduct or add seconds to your time based on style. Like the way you were really grunting during that last mile – that might cost you about 15 seconds.

You: Seriously?

Official: Uh-huh. Also, your arm swing looked kind of funny throughout the race – that’s probably another 10-second penalty. And you had this strange grimace on your face towards the end – maybe another 5 or 10 seconds for that. Honestly, you weren’t as graceful as the other runners, and some of them really impressed the judges out there.

You: But this was my fastest time ever - I set a PR!

Official: Yeah … about that. By my calculations, your clock time was 39:35, and factoring in style points, your official time will probably be about 40:10 or so. Congrats on almost breaking 40 minutes! Unfortunately, two guys behind you earned time deductions, so they passed you in the age group standings. Something to work on for next time, maybe.

You: This is insane.

And you’d be justified in thinking so. Nevertheless, every four years we embrace and celebrate a whole collection of sports that rely on just such a premise to separate winners from losers. Tomorrow evening, the craziness begins all over again; that’s right … we’re talking about the Olympics.

Before you get the wrong idea, we’ll say very clearly that we absolutely LOVE watching the Olympics. We love the ideals they embody: pursuit of the highest levels of human performance, uniting people from all corners of the globe, who set political and religious and cultural differences aside in the name of brotherhood through competition.

It’s just that last part – the “competition” thing – that rubs us the wrong way sometimes. In our book, sporting competition consists of either 1) defeating someone face to face, or 2) outperforming everybody on the same field at the same time. It doesn’t include who looks the prettiest, who puts the most flair into their routine, or who benefitted from better course conditions earlier in the day.

The Summer Olympics, particularly gymnastics, feature an element of this capriciousness, but the Winter Games are the stage when such absurdity truly shines. However, we realize that most of the events don’t lend themselves to side-by-side competition, and that won’t stop us from watching and appreciating the grand spectacle that every Olympiad offers.

But deep inside, part of us will be wishing for an eight-lane luge track, full-contact figure skating (have them all do their routines at the same time; last one standing wins), or a simultaneous downhill ski event - anything where we don’t need judges to tell us who the winners are.

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February 12, 2010

Her and Me

“You and me together - we could do anything, baby -
You and me together - yes, yes.”

- Dave Matthews Band, “You and Me” (video after post)

*
It’s one thing to own a website where you feel comfortable revealing your hopes and aspirations, regrets and disappointments, predilections and other assorted personality quirks for all the world to see; it’s probably another thing entirely to watch when someone you love does the same.

My wife generally approaches this blog of mine with a certain amount of trepidation for what she might read from day to day. After all, even if you know you’re married to a stubbornly compulsive idiosyncratic idiot, the fact that everybody knows such things might grow to be a little discomforting after a while. So I can’t exactly blame her for clicking here with one hand on the mouse, and the other one nervously shielding her eyes, wondering what new creative or bizarre method I’ll come up with to embarrass myself next.

It’s a shame that it has to be this way – because there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s the most important factor in making this whole blissful existence I enjoy come to pass. It’s only thanks to her support and patience that I’m able to climb mountains, dance barefoot in the forest, or chase whatever particular windmill captures my imagination from year to year. She’s been an ideal life partner for me in more ways than I can count, and I owe more of my happiness to her than I sometimes admit.

So the least I could do on Valentine’s Day weekend is to give her a post that might hopefully put a smile on her face. I'm dedicating to her a song that captivated me from the first time I heard it – partly because the rhythm and melody are somewhat infectious, but mostly because it expresses the kind of hope, love and devotion that I’ve felt toward her for almost longer than I can remember. And it reinforces the notion that together, she and I can do anything.


Dave Matthews Band, "You and Me" (click to play):

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February 10, 2010

Airplane Trail, Toro Park

One of the first things they teach you in elementary school English classes is that every good story needs a beginning, middle, and end … but this post goes against convention in some regards, in that I really don’t know how the story begins. I’d love to find out someday, though.

This much I know: the story involves a small airplane - one that met with an unfortunate fate. The ending is clear, but the beginning and middle of the story are something of a mystery. Every now and then I visit the airplane and try to piece together the rest of the story, either factually or in my imagination. And by “visit”, what I really mean is “take a pretty cool trail run and make up crash theories to mentally preoccupy some of the long miles”, but you probably already guessed that.

The location of our story is Toro Regional Park (click to enlarge any of these pictures), home to rugged hills, steep canyons, beautiful vistas …

... and cows. Lots and lots of cows.


Most of the outbound trail is a gradual uphill climb that takes you past remnants of the old rancho days of Monterey County, such as this corral where early settlers kept livestock and lived off the land, but now is little more than a vacant echo of a time gone by.

The trail continues up to a high meadow where, after a rainy day …

… these kind of tracks are pretty common. A few weeks ago, several people pointed out my lack of expertise in confusing cougar prints with coyote paws – but there’s no mistaking these kind of tracks …


… especially when the owners are relaxing just around the next bend in the trail. These are the pastures of heaven that Steinbeck described so eloquently, and the fact that I can find myself here with a relatively short trail run is a continual source of amazement for me.


And whatever the ranchers were serving for breakfast that morning must have been pretty good, since no one seemed particularly bothered by my presence.


I bid goodbye to the cows on the high meadow, and started a long descent down the opposite side of the ridge …


All the way to the base of Harper Canyon, where the open vistas are replaced by thick tree cover, and the trail narrows to a meandering single track climbing into the steep valley …


… and back and forth across a seasonal stream. I did this run just a couple of weeks into our rainy season, so the ground wasn’t quite saturated enough to run off into the stream bed – but in another month or two, several sections of this trail will be submerged in a few inches of water.


Despite its shoddy appearance, this bridge is actually fairly safe. I know this because the first time I ran on this trail, I had my training partner go over it first. Partners are great, aren’t they?


The trail eventually splits between a saddle that leads to the top of the ridge, and the generally unmaintained Airplane Trail. Maybe this is just me ... but if you were in the middle of a steep, narrow trail, miles removed from any roads and saw a sign labeled “Airplane Trail”, you'd pretty much have to see where that leads, right? I thought so.


Shortly after the trail juncture, the first sign that something is out of place: instead of a standard wooden footbridge, you cross the stream on what looks to be a metal floorboard from a single-engine aircraft. A little further up the trail you notice something that is definitely out of place:


Part of the airplane fuselage that came to rest in this little clearing. What’s especially interesting about this fragment is how far removed it is from the rest of the aircraft …


… which lies another tenth of a mile or so up the trail.


There are conflicting local theories about what exactly this plane might be. Some think it was a piloted single-engine aircraft that ran into trouble shortly before approach or after takeoff from Carmel Valley’s rural airstrip a few ridgelines away from here. Others think it was an unmanned military-type drone from the nearby Fort Ord Army base that crashed and was conveniently forgotten.


I honestly don’t know which way I’m leaning; it seems awfully small for a person to have fit inside, but canary yellow isn’t a color I normally associate with military aircraft. One thing I’m certain of, though: regardless of how the story might have begun, it darn sure didn’t end well.


After gawking at the wreckage for a while, you have to retrace your steps to return to the trail junction and climb out of the canyon, leaving the mystery of the airplane shrouded under the canopy of oak trees behind.


A few random notes about this picture at the top of the canyon …

1) Yes, I’m fully aware that in the last couple of self-photos I’ve published, I appear to be carrying a few extra pounds than in my crazy ultra-racing days of last spring and summer. All I can say in my defense is, it was January, and I’m working on it now. (Um … sort of.)
2) I’m wearing one of the first-ever logo shirts from Wilderness Running Company, which I’ll review here as we get closer to spring. You’re probably not going to believe this, but at one point I thought the shirt might literally kill me. And now I love it; I’ll explain it all later.
3) Vibrams, baby. Vibrams.


By this point of the run, you’ve earned your mileage, and the only thing left is to enjoy a long gradual descent back towards the Salinas Valley, with one half of your mind absorbing all the killer views, and the other kicking around crazy airplane crash scenarios. Or maybe that’s just me.

Although the story of the airplane isn’t properly told without a real beginning, I find it fairly compelling anyway - it’s one that I find myself returning to from time to time, perhaps hoping to glean some piece of information or cobble together some theory that I didn’t have before. Either way, it keeps me interested, which should always be the goal of good storytelling – whether my former English teachers agree or not.


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