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March 30, 2010

Soft Star Run-A-Moc Running Shoe Preview

By now, I’ve grown accustomed to sharing unsolicited opinions on all manner of running-related products; it’s when someone actively seeks my advice that I’m occasionally caught off guard. So I was honestly surprised when the folks at Soft Star asked me if I’d like to be involved in the development of their forthcoming minimal running moccasin.

My assignment was relatively simple: Go running. A lot. Use the mocs they sent me as much as possible – as many miles as I could manage, on all kinds of terrain – then provide some feedback about how they perform. Wait for the next shipment of mocs to arrive, and do it all over again. In other words, pretty much the exact thing I do all the time anyway. Needless to say, this wasn’t exactly reaching out of my comfort zone, so there was really no reason for me to pass up the opportunity. Combine that with the fact that I’ve really come to admire the Soft Star company – a true Mom and Pop business that has cultivated a loyal following over the past two decades – and it was a no-brainer from my standpoint.

Soft Star’s hand-made moccasins are ultra-comfortable and promote natural foot movement (see my Roo review), so it wasn’t too surprising to learn that they had embraced the whole barefoot running movement. However, the idea that they’d actually request my help was something of a shocker. (And perhaps even a bit risky – as my wife can attest, my fashion tastes aren’t really what you’d call mainstream. Obviously, I didn’t tell them that part.)

Nevertheless, we struck a deal - and with that, the Moccasin Project was underway. As the following photos will demonstrate, it’s been a long journey from initial prototype to something that you can actually charge money for – but I think they’re getting awfully close.


The first pair I received was basically a modified version of Soft Star’s standard Rambler moccasin, with 3-panel suede upper construction, elastic ankle closure, and Vibram outsole. Mesh ventilation holes were added to the upper, sheepskin was removed from the insole, and the outsole was changed to a more durable 2mm Vibram Sheet.

The main drawback to this one was that the elastic ankle closure, while perfect for lounging around the house or walking in the neighborhood, wasn’t nearly snug enough to keep the uppers on my heels during a hilly 6-mile road run. I ended up only putting about 20 total miles on these, mainly because they kept falling off my feet.


My first shipment also included this variation with a more trail-friendly Vibram Cherry outsole, and lace closures to tie the ankle opening snug. I put about 60 dirt miles on this pair, and was really pleased with the ground feel through the 4mm Cherry. Unfortunately, the cotton laces were nearly impossible to unfasten when they were wet, which caused something of a problem whenever I exited a stream crossing with a handful of pebbles that snuck into the upper.


Another feature of this version was the outer seam construction, which looks cool, but gave me two problems: 1) their sharp edges scraped against the insides of my legs far too often, and 2) whenever I stepped in shallow mud, the rim outside the seam caused the moc to stick behind as my heel pulled out of the muck.

Additionally, both of these models were cut excessively big, both lengthwise and in width through the heel. We discovered that the same size sole results in a much different overall fit in sheepskin mocs and running shoes – something to do with how the soft sheepskin causes the ends of regular mocs to roll up a bit after construction. So the next pairs I received were cut smaller …


… but not necessarily correctly. The sizing of this was something of an overcorrection, with the heel area being way too narrow. However, this model used Vibram’s golf outsole, 6mm thick with lots of small nubs for gripping in dirt and mud. Right off the bat, I knew this was my favorite outsole thus far. This moc also sports new laces that aren’t as stubborn as the original cotton ones, but still fairly challenging to undo easily.


This model was an encouraging sign that tangible changes were taking place: the cut was perfect through the toebox (nice and wide) and heel, the outer seam was replaced with an inner one, and a lace-lock device allowed for easy tightening and loosening, like the speed laces used by triathletes. Now the issue was how to keep the laces from flapping around after tightening them; as far as I know, this wasn’t fully resolved.

Also, the sheet outsole returned on this model, providing outstanding ground feel, but reduced traction on wet or rough surfaces. I still use this model for road running, but generally not on trails. For the dirt, I use …


… what is far and away my favorite current model, which now has the working name of Run-A-Moc (I’ve mentioned how much I love the name, right?). It has the thicker Golf outsole, and laces that stay secure when tied and unfasten easily when wet. It also has an upper that is radically different than the previous prototypes.


Throughout the testing process, one of my biggest complaints about the suede uppers was that once they got wet, they stayed that way. Like, for 2 or 3 days afterward. And it wasn’t just after stream crossings: with a bit of light rain, or when running along a trail of tall grass in the early morning fog, the mocs held onto water like crazy. So in response, Soft Star made the whole upper out of the mesh material, to allow for quicker air drying. This is still an experiment in progress …


… for example, my pair is asymmetric: one has the mesh material all the way around, and the other uses suede in the rearfoot. My preference is for all-mesh, but I’m not sure how the final version will look.


To be sure, I’ve given this particular pair a beating. I’ve put close to 100 miles on them, including the most challenging trail conditions you can think of: waist-deep water, ankle-deep mud, slippery roots, unstable rocks, and so on. I wore them for last week’s 21-miler in Berkeley (full report coming soon), and they performed as well as I could hope from both a traction and comfort standpoint. Honestly, I’m so happy with how they worked, I feel like I could do at least a 50K in them right now, with no further revision. In fact, I've finally put a few 50-mile races on the calendar for this year (more on that later, too); don’t be surprised if I show up on the start line of at least one of them wearing a pair of moccasins.

There will most likely be a few more tweaks and changes before the Run-A-Moc – that’s what I’ll be calling it, regardless of what the official name ends up being – is officially released to the public later this spring or summer, and I’ll be sure to keep you updated on revisions and target release dates. In the meantime, if you have any questions, suggestions, or comments about the development of this product, let me know after the post, and I’ll pass them along to Soft Star.

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March 28, 2010

CamelBak Octane XCT Hydration Pack Review

Nobody comes to dominate an industry by resting on its laurels – so when I found out that CamelBak had redesigned its popular Octane XC trail running pack (which I reviewed here) this spring, it came as no surprise.


Considering that they essentially invented the product line and continue to enjoy a huge market share advantage among hikers, endurance athletes and other outdoor enthusiasts – if you don’t believe me, just take a look around your local REI or mountain sport shop someday – you couldn’t really fault CamelBak for taking the easy path, or for saying, “We know what we’re doing, and we’re not going to knock ourselves out trying to do things differently.” Fortunately, that’s not the way they operate: CamelBak continues to advance their technology across all areas of product development, from water bottles to cleaning accessories (more on that in a second) to portable hydration packs for maximal performance.

Smartly, CamelBak approached the Octane XC upgrade in exactly the right way: they kept all the strengths of the previous model in place, and focused on areas where the pack had room for improvement. The result is the CamelBak Octane XCT, which has twice the cargo capacity but only half the weight of its predecessor, and maintains the comfortable fit and durability that are necessary for long days on the trail.

CamelBak Octane XCT

CamelBak is well-established as having the best fluid reservoirs around; in fact, during the course of my reviews last spring, I was surprised by the number of people who commented something along the lines of “I prefer X pack, but I use it with a CamelBak bladder.” In that regard, nothing has changed with the Octane XCT: the 2-liter (70-oz) HydroTanium reservoir is built with burst-resistant polyurethane and is backed with a lifetime warranty. The wide-mouth Omega screw-top allows easy opening and leak-proof closure. The entire surfaces of both reservoir and tube have HydroGuard technology to inhibit bacterial growth (you should still wash it after each use, but the coating buys you a bit of slacker time before doing so). The ergonomic Big Bite valve provides a strong flow with each sip, and there’s a HydroLock clasp to securely prevent fluid escape.

(Additionally, CamelBak remains the only manfacturer to offer dedicated products for cleaning and drying your reservoir and tube. They're available here, and compatible with the XCT.)

Although the basic body shape of the Octane XC is preserved, the XCT is made with ultralight material throughout, drastically cutting its overall weight. The XCT weighs 10.7 oz, compared to nearly 21 oz with the XC - a very impressive accomplishment considering that the overall dimensions are pretty much the same. The body and base are also made from super wind-resistant ripstop taffeta and nylon; this material, combined with the durable water repellent coating on the base, ensures that your pack will be able to handle the harshest weather conditions.

Ventilated back panels

Like its predecessor, the XCT rides very comfortably on your back, thanks to an Air Channel ventilated back panel and air-mesh harness system to allow airflow between your body and the fabric. I wore this pack on all of the Ventana adventures I’ve documented here lately, as well as a handful of multi-hour training runs with no comfort-related concerns at all. The design is also quite versatile: I’ve worn the XCT for mountain biking, and it would do well with a variety of outdoor endurance activities.

The biggest drawbacks I noted with last year’s XC were a lack of overall storage space, and somewhat inconvenient positioning of the side pockets that made you reach pretty far back to open them. CamelBak has addressed one of these concerns quite effectively, and is making decent strides towards the other as well.

Vertical zip pocket

All of the pocket areas – 2 side pockets and one midline vertical zip storage – are larger on the XCT than on the previous version, providing 200 cubic inches of cargo space; this more than doubles the 90 cubic inches on the XC. Additionally, even though it’s not part of the “official” storage capacity calculation, it’s very easy to stash clothing in the fluid reservoir compartment. The external bungee tie-down is another resource to carry larger items, with a very secure x-configuration to make sure they stay in place.

Side pockets and bungee strap

Which leaves us with the side pockets. The good news is that they are noticeably bigger – on a couple of my runs I stashed a camera, trail maps, small GPS gadget, cell phone, car keys and a handful of gel packets all in these two pockets. And they stretch a little more forward around the trunk, making it a bit easier to reach back for quick access. However, it’s still hard to actually see into the pockets while you’re on the go, and it’s still a relative inconvenience to do multiple stash/remove repetitions (like I do with my camera) compared to true front-storage units on some rival models out there. So while CamelBak hasn’t completely solved this issue, they’ve certainly managed a step in the right direction with the XCT.

Overall, the CamelBak Octane XCT is a nice revision with some significant improvements that have a direct impact on comfort and performance, while maintaining the durability and versatility that made the XC an attractive option to begin with. It retails for $79 from TravelCountry.com.


*Product provided by CamelBak
**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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March 26, 2010

Weekend Ramblings

"Then very slowly, with a slow and marvelous grin spreading all over his face, Grandpa Joe lifted his head and looked straight at Charlie ... He threw up his arms and yelled "Yippeeeeeeeee!' ... he jumped on to the floor and started doing a victory dance in his pajamas."
- Roald Dahl, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

**
All right then … I suppose it’s time to bring everyone up to speed on some of the things I’ve been talking about tangentially for the past few days, as well as some things I haven’t even mentioned yet. This post will happen in somewhat scattershot fashion - and since none of the topics are particularly related to one another, I’m taking the easy way out and working from bullet points.

* I mentioned that I’ve been busy with product reviews, although you won’t be seeing some of them on this website. For example, I spent several weeks testing the Brunton L3 headlamp for a review on FeedTheHabit.com. It’s an external battery-pack lamp in the same category as Black Diamond’s Icon or Petzl’s MYO RXP (see my comparison review of those two), with a few distinctive features of its own. It’s a solid lamp, but I don’t see it replacing either of those others as my first “running through the night” option later this year.

* Likewise, I published a review of the Nathan Elite 1 Plus waist pack, which combines a 22-oz fluid bottle cradle with a gel holster on a very comfortable pack. This one was - as Randy Jackson might say – just a’ight with me; I typically carry gels in individual packs instead of in a dedicated holster, but perhaps that’s just a personal preference thing.

* Remember last spring, when there was a bit of feather-ruffling between me and a member of the Big Sur Marathon Board of Directors in regards to a Monterey Herald item I wrote after last year's race? Unfortunately, if you don’t remember, you’re out of luck, since I later purged those particular posts from my archives.

Anyway, I guess I’m not one to hold a grudge for too long, because in this week’s paper, my friend Mike and I are pretty blatantly slurping up to the marathon again. Despite my personal issues with the Board, Big Sur is a fantastic race that celebrates its 25th anniversary this April. Our Monterey Herald article is here.

Now for the most exciting stuff …

* The shoes I’ve been wearing for most of my trail running lately – including last weekend’s Carmel River run – are indeed made by Soft Star, whose moccasins are about the most comfortable footwear you’ll ever own (see my review). They recently announced on their blog that they’ve been developing a minimalist running shoe to launch later this spring; I’m fortunate enough to be one of the wear testers they asked to help with the development process.


Soft Star Run-A-Moc (possible name)

It’s really been a fascinating experience to see how prototype footwear is designed, then constantly tweaked and adjusted and redesigned in response to feedback from me and other testers. And I’m excited to know that they’re very close to having something market-ready. (Plus, the working name of the new model is “Run-A-Moc”, which is about the coolest and most perfect name I could imagine for a running moccasin.)

I’ll have a more in-depth description of the development process in a separate post next week; in the meantime, check out their announcement, and feel free to weigh in on the name - they’re apparently taking other suggestions, although I can’t fathom why – and anything else you’d like them to consider while venturing into the world of minimal running footwear.

* As for what I was doing yesterday: a couple of months ago I received an invitation from CLIF Bar and Company to visit their headquarters in Berkeley, to find out more about the company and the people who work there. I’ve heard a lot of great things about CLIF, and my past experience with the company had been nothing but positive – so I obviously jumped at the chance to peek inside the factory.


Even better, they let me bring a couple of friends along. Remember in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when Charlie finds the golden ticket to visit Willy Wonka’s factory, and his whole family starts cheering and dancing around the bedroom? That was pretty much what my friends and I were doing when I told them we could visit the CLIF shop. To say we were looking forward to it is an understatement – and the company not only lived up to our expectations, but exceeded them in ways we almost couldn’t believe.

Of course, since my friends both happen to be ultrarunners, we couldn’t think of making a trip to Berkeley without scoping out some local trails and going for a little adventure beforehand. So we woke up three hours before sunrise and reached the east Bay in time to hammer out a pretty awesome 21-miler before heading over to redeem our golden tickets. I’ll have full reports on both the run and the tour in separate posts coming soon.

So there you have it - you’re up to date on what’s been happening in Running and Rambling Land lately. I’ve given you a fair bit of reading to do, and I’ve got an awful lot of writing ahead of me, so let’s call it a wrap here and touch base again next week.

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March 25, 2010

Running and Touring

A killer trail run ...



And a killer field trip ...


... make for an absolutely incredible day. A day such as the one I enjoyed on Thursday.

They also make for one tired blogger - so I'm holding off on the details until this weekend. I'll also answer the shoe question from the previous post; yes, someone guessed correctly. Obviously, I've got a lot of things to talk about ... just not at the moment. I need to get some sleep for another early run tomorrow.

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March 23, 2010

Name That Shoe!

On account of some mid-week craziness around R&R headquarters, you’ll excuse the brevity and/or borderline incoherence of the next few posts; life as a trail runner and blogger has taken a noticeable turn for the busier lately. Details to follow – but for now, here’s a hint of where things are headed.

It took several weeks of fits and starts, but my training mileage is finally becoming respectable again. As soon as my waistline follows suit, I’ll be feeling a lot better about things. In the meantime, I’ve got some pretty cool adventures planned (including one taking place on Thursday, possibly as you’re reading this), and I’m finally starting the mental framework of building a race schedule for the year. As of now, the only thing I’m officially entered in is the 5K I’m running with my daughter. That doesn’t really count as a race … but it counts for something. Probably something better, honestly.

Meanwhile, I’m testing products like crazy. I hinted at such during my Carmel River Run report – and since I don’t have time to go into specifics just yet, here’s a photo preview of some of the gear I’ll be talking about in the weeks to come:


The vest above is Mountain Hardware’s Geist: incredibly light, amazingly warm.

On my wrist is the Suunto X10, which I was slow to embrace, but I’m gradually warming up to. It might help to have a math or engineering degree to understand everything this device does. Unfortunately, I have neither.

On my back is CamelBak’s Octane XCT. I’m playing the hydration pack review game again this spring, although not (as of yet) as extensively as last year. This one is a nice improvement over the previous model; I hope to have a full review next week.

The fourth product pictured is the one that I’m far and away the most excited about: it’s the things I’m wearing on my feet. They’re not officially on the market yet, but they represent my first small foray into the consultation and product development side of the outdoor business. I’ve been working with the company for a couple of months, abusing the heck out of whatever they send me, at which point they make a few tweaks here and there before sending me another pair for me to start abusing all over again. I like to think it’s a job for which I’m ideally suited.

They’re hard to see in the picture above, so here’s a better image to look at:


And since I’m not ready to tell the whole story just yet, let’s turn this into a guessing game: what do you think is on my feet? Aside from the black Drymax socks, that is. Do they look familiar? Like something I’ve talked about before? Or something completely new? Feel free to take a stab at it in the comments below.

In case you’re stumped, here’s a zoomed-in shot from the previous photo that might help:


That’s all the intel I'm giving away for now – but stay tuned for the rest of the story soon.

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March 21, 2010

Into the (Almost) Wilderness: Carmel River Run

Shortly after our occasionally misguided adventure into the Ventana Wilderness last month, several of my training partners made a commitment of sorts to start exploring this area more frequently, taking advantage of the tremendous trail-running opportunities that lay just beyond our backyard.



So it was that five of us checked out the Carmel River trail last weekend. Traditionally, the trail is only seldom maintained, and nearly impossible to navigate during the rainy season, which is just winding down now. So this was more of a “let’s get a feel for the area and the trail conditions” outing rather than an epic adventure – which, fortunately, doesn’t make things any less fun.


This is the nearest entrance to Ventana from Carmel Valley, making it the most convenient access point for trail runners – and apparently hunters as well. As the sign indicates, this trail also connects with Pine Valley, the site of our earlier excursion (and where 90-year-old Jack English resides in this cabin), but in early spring, it would have to be an amphibious assault from this direction – more on that later.


Before hitting the trail, we run past the spillway of Los Padres Dam, which holds the main water supply for Carmel Valley. The Carmel has shown up on lists of America’s most endangered rivers in recent years – but standing here watching the water blast down the spillway, you’d never know it.


At water’s edge, I captured one of those cool mirror reflection photos that never seem to come out right for me. I considered it a good start to the day.


The trail soon climbed high above the reservoir, beginning a roller-coaster course of ups and downs traversing the multiple steep canyons that Carmel Valley is famous for.


However, by Ventana standards, none of the vertical changes on this run were especially brutal, as the trail maintains a fairly close proximity to the river whenever possible. And aside from the occasional downed tree, we were pleasantly surprised with how clear the trail was.


This seemed like a real stream crossing to me, although my friend Brian reported that this isn’t usually considered one of the official river crossings that are documented on trail maps and hiking forums. Depending on which reference you use, and what time of year it is, there are anywhere between 25 to 30 river crossings in the 13 miles between the trailhead and Pine Valley; since this one got my legs just as wet as an “official” one, I’m counting it.


The next crossing was nearly waist-deep, and since I was holding my camera up to make sure it stayed dry, I figured I might as well take a picture. There may have been some discussion as to whether this was an official crossing as well. Whatever.


From the top of another steep climb, a typical Ventana view. While it lacks the elevation of mountain wilderness, the steepness and rugged terrain of this area is on par with anywhere else I’ve ever run. In case you wondered why I love exploring it so much.


The confluence of two rivers served as our turnaround point, partly because the trail was starting to fade out on us, and partly because this is where the “official” river crossings – which are reportedly deeper and wider than the others – began in earnest.


This picture doesn’t do the scene much justice unless you enlarge it – but at the top of the first return climb, there’s a glimpse of the river cutting through the valley below. I was trying to capture the steepness of these canyons, but it doesn’t translate nearly as well in a still image, I guess.


Speaking of camera issues: have you ever had someone look through your camera for several seconds, then ask which button to push or some other question about how the thing works, only to have the flash go off right when you’re in the middle of explaining it to him? Um … I have.


So when someone else in the group asked if I wanted my picture taken coming around this curve, I was a little bit skeptical that it would come out well. But I have to admit, I like this picture a lot – and I’m really glad I listened to her.

(And just FYI, the reason I wanted a couple of pictures isn’t so much vanity – well, OK, maybe just a little - but more because I’m currently reviewing at least four different items I’m wearing in these shots. Details TBA.)


Shortly before returning to the reservoir, we took a side trip consisting of a one-mile climb to a ridge with this wonderful view. By this time, we had been running for nearly three hours, done several (official or otherwise) river crossings, and traversed all manner of technical trails – but then …

Remember that map I showed earlier? Just as I was feeling like a rugged outdoorsman, I pulled it out of my pack to see just how far into the great wild wilderness we had traveled, and I realized that we were here:

Click to enlarge - I added the red arrow and red X

We had spent most of our morning in the white section – which led to the following exchange at the top of the ridge:

Me: Wait … so we’re not even IN the wilderness yet?

Friend 1: Um … no. There’s a sign about another mile down this trail marking where the wilderness area starts.

Me: But we’ve been running all morning!

Friend 2: It’s a big wilderness.


Given that our entire route had only touched on the very outskirts of the green map areas, as we climbed above the reservoir on our return to the trailhead, I was somewhat befuddled by all the unofficial river crossings I had done in a mostly unofficial wilderness area. Thankfully, those minor drawbacks were the only things lacking in an otherwise fantastic run.

The miles were real (except for one that went missing on my GPS somehow). The hills and the trails and sights and sounds were all real. Most importantly of all, my joy was real - as is my desire to return here many more times to come.


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March 17, 2010

One Day Without Shoes

(Admin note: for some reason, I've been getting bombed with spam comments recently. Consequently, I'm going to flip the switch and require comment moderation or word verification for a little while. Sorry for the inconvenience - hopefully it's just temporary.)

*
Normally, public awareness campaigns that strive to improve conditions for impoverished kids have my unconditional support. And when part of the campaign requires people to ditch their shoes and go barefoot for a while, it would seem a no-brainer for me to endorse. However, with one upcoming event that combines both of those elements, I have somewhat mixed feelings.

The event is One Day Without Shoes (video follows below), a movement started by the TOMS shoes company, taking place all over the country on April 8. The premise is simple: spend some time that day barefoot – all day if possible, but just a few minutes if that’s all you can manage – as a reminder of young people all over the world who can’t afford a simple pair of shoes.

TOMS has to be one of the most charitable and goodwill-oriented companies in the world. Their One for One program donates a pair of shoes for every pair the company sells; the giveaways are typically delivered to needy children in developing countries who otherwise don’t have access to any footwear. Although the company is barely four years old, they’ve given away more than 400,000 pairs of shoes thus far, effectively turning every one of their customers into a benefactor for an impoverished child.

In that light, One Day Without Shoes is a truly admirable idea to increase awareness of the global need for shoes. So I guess the question I have about the campaign isn’t one of intent, but the underlying premise behind encouraging people to go barefoot.

As a barefoot proponent, I should completely support any movement that promotes leaving your shoes behind – especially since I do that very thing quite often on this website. However, in this case, the incentive seems to be that your barefoot experience will be so unbearable that you can’t imagine anyone having to tolerate those conditions on a daily basis.

Undoubtedly, health and hygiene are crucial issues for people in developing countries - particularly for children who are more susceptible to disease and have limited access to modern health care – and protective footwear is a factor in that complex equation. But it’s also true that many cultures have thrived for centuries without any sort of traditional footwear, and there are large (and growing) factions of modern society who believe that the need for shoes is grossly overstated.

The idea that being barefoot is a surefire mechanism of injury and disease would certainly come as a surprise to these folks as well as these athletes. Ironically, groups like those could be the most dedicated and vocal supporters of a national Day Without Shoes – as long as it’s not solely focused on the potential pitfalls of going barefoot.

(Another ironic footnote to this whole dilemma is that TOMS shoes appear to be generally quite minimalist and lightweight – in other words, an ideal footwear choice for a barefoot practitioner. I’ve never tried their shoes, so I can’t recommend them … but perhaps a future product review is in order here.)

Hopefully TOMS will find some way to walk the tightrope between emphasizing the importance of basic necessities – including shoes – for those who can’t afford them, while recognizing and respecting those who habitually to go barefoot for cultural reasons or simply by personal preference. One Day Without Shoes is a very noble cause, from a company who is an established leader in aiding the underprivileged - and I truly hope it’s a great success.

For that reason, you can count me among those who will participate by going barefoot on April 8th.


"One Day Without Shoes", from TOMS shoes (click to play):

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March 16, 2010

Sanuk Boardroom Sandal Review

Without question, the shoe company that I have the most fun researching is Sanuk.


When I reviewed their Donny sandal last fall, I described how this fun-loving company with the mellow SoCal beach vibe created one of the most visually appealing ad campaigns in recent memory, and how they’ve embraced a team of surfers (including one very famous surfer/musician) and rock climbers whose style and charisma is matched only by their remarkable talents. It also gave me cause to use an appealing photo of a certain Team Sanuk member, but that’s neither here nor there.

And since I may not get another chance: Sanuk athlete and professional surfer Alana Blanchard

Sanuk’s beach attitude comes naturally - or as CEO Jeff Kelley explains it (in this interview), “Surfing defines, more than anything, who Sanuk is as a brand. 90% of the people that work for me surf or skate. We really embrace the lifestyle.” However, occasionally lost amidst all this surfer chill and rock-climber cool is the fact that Sanuk makes killer footwear.

The philosophy of Sanuk’s sandal construction is an appreciation of natural foot motion, with the goal to let your feet function as if they’re bare. Thin, flexible footbeds enable the foot to bend naturally when you walk, and stimulate activity of all the small muscles in your feet. It’s an ideal balance between minimal midsoles for ground feel, with just enough soft molded cushioning for outstanding comfort.

In fact, the Donny was far and away the most comfortable shoe I tested last fall, and I still wear them anywhere and everywhere – except, that is, for my straight-laced work environment. So when Sanuk introduced the Boardroom sandal this spring, designed to bring that walk-on-the-beach feel to the formal office setting, it was like a gift from the surfer gods.

Sanuk Boardroom, in brown

The Boardroom basically duplicates Sanuk’s classic “lightweight upper on a flip-flop bottom” construction, except in this case, the upper is a very soft, thin handmade leather in rich black or brown. It also features jean stitching and a more sophisticated metal Happy U logo rather than Sanuk’s typical fabric brand tag. It is very stylish and understated, and passes very easily for dress footwear in all but the most formal settings.

Soft leather uppers

The difference, obviously, is that this isn’t formalwear: the super soft EVA footbed is the same as on Sanuk’s sidewalk surfers, so your feet are classy on top, but happy underneath. Midsole thickness is 15mm at the heel, and 10mm at the toes, preserving a bit of ground feel as well. It also features an AEGIS antimicrobial additive so you won’t offend your coworkers with any stank. (Many Sanuks frequently acquire a funk after a while – especially when worn sockless.)

Happy U outsole

Overall weight of the shoe is 7.1 oz, so it’s a great lightweight alternative to standard office wear as well. The gum rubber outsole is similar to other Sanuk models, and still sports the Happy U logos all over the place.

Vamp pocket (black); metal Happy U logo

Another cool feature worth noting is the vamp stash pocket above the upper – it’s big enough for an ID card or some folded up dollar bills, but way too small for a Blackberry, pager, or any other trapping of corporate life. I like to think this pocket serves as a survival kit in case you get the urge to leave the rat race behind: just unplug the computer, drop the phone, and take a stroll down to the ocean to forget about the world for awhile. If such a day ever comes, your Boardroom sandals will be ready to take you away.


The Sanuk Boardroom retails for $85 from Amazon.com.


*product provided by Sanuk
**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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March 14, 2010

Take 5 to Run

Before today’s post, an administrative note: Thanks for the great response to last Friday's VivoBarefoot coupon code giveaway. For those of you who didn’t receive the coupon code from me over the weekend, it’s because I couldn’t find an e-mail address in your comment or your profile. Feel free to contact me directly at info@runningandrambling.com so I can send you the code. Anyone else is welcome to jump in between now and the end of March as well.

That's all for now; on with the post ...

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Evangelism has never been one of my gifts.

My philosophy in promoting running to others is remarkably similar to my approach to religion. I abide by certain customs and rules and values, not because of how they make me look to others, but because I truly believe in them. If someone happens to take notice or inquire as to why I do the things I do, or believe the things I believe, I’m happy to have that discussion – but I’ll never beat someone over the head with unsolicited advice or opinions about how to live his or her life.

My friend Mike, on the other hand, is the runner’s equivalent of Billy Graham. He truly believes that anybody, anywhere, of any age can become a runner – and it’s become a personal mission of sorts for him to preach the benefits of running to as many people as will listen, and convert as many runners to the faith as possible. Best of all, it’s not just lip service; he walks the walk (or maybe runs the run?) as well, happily mentoring any new runner he encounters, teaching clinics whenever he gets an opportunity, and taking a leadership role in Monterey County’s very successful Just Run youth running initiative.

Last week’s Monterey Herald column was his brainchild, and it’s a call to arms in America’s battle against sedentary lifestyles and childhood obesity. It’s one of those “pay it forward” ideas that seems hopelessly, naively optimistic at first – but after you think it over for a while, you find yourself asking, “Well … why wouldn’t that work?”

And if you’re really inspired, Mike even set up a Facebook page, for which I’m apparently an administrator. Given the frequency that I’m actually on Facebook (i.e. never), the page will probably be needing some TLC in the near future – so if you’d like to get involved, feel free to contact Mike on that page. I’ll include the link after the post.

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Running Life 3/11/10 “Take 5 to Run”

Our previous column was delivered from atop a soapbox, lamenting the obesity problem that plagues the health and well-being of American children. Unfortunately, the last 30 years of public service announcements, nutritional education, and instruction on physical activity has done little to curb the epidemic, as kids (not to mention adults) are still getting fatter.

So this week’s column is a call to action, and we’re encouraging all of our running friends to get involved. It’s time to stop talking about the issue, and start DOING something about it.

If you’re like us, you know how great running makes you feel, both physically and mentally. You know how beneficial it is for your cardiovascular health and emotional well being. You also know how rewarding it feels to share these experiences with others.

So here’s what we want you to do: participate in an effort called Take 5 to Run. It’s not an official program; in fact, we just made it up. But the premise is pretty simple, and has the potential to be highly effective.

Look at the numbers. There are currently 30 million adults who claim they run at least a few times a month. 10 million of them run “regularly” and entered organized races last year. These are the people who we’re asking to Take 5 to Run.

Over the course of one year, invite 5 of your non-running friends for a run. Encourage them to get started, help them select shoes if needed, and take them on an easy jog. Help them through the initial uncertainty, and celebrate their every accomplishment on their way to starting a running program.

Later, ask them to pay it forward; once they are established runners, recommend that they take another 5 people out for a run. And so on and so on. Do the math: if 10 million runners recruit 50 million non-runners, and that group grows to 250 million in a couple of years … before you know it we have a nation of runners and the obesity trend is reversed.

Obviously, we aren’t naive enough to think that everyone will successfully convert 5 others, but we optimistically believe that many of you are capable of drawing new runners in. As long as the numbers trend in the right direction, we’ll still end the epidemic. So how do you instruct someone to start? Remember the name of the game.

Take 5 to Run is a phrase that can also be used as a blueprint to get friends or kids started. The first run or walk should only be 5 minutes. Aim for a habit of 5 minutes per day, 5 days a week. Tell 5 people about it, for moral support and to hold yourself accountable. Select one day to increase your distance by 5 more minutes, and then another day, and then another and another as you continue to improve.

We’d also love to see the running industry step up and help people Take 5 to Run. Shoe companies or specialty running stores could give discounts to those who are buying their first pair of shoes and mention Take 5 to Run. Races should give discounts to those who are entering their first race after they’ve Taken 5 to Run. Get some national running organizations on board, and who knows where this might end up.

But for the time being, it can all begin with you. Take the pledge, and Take 5 to Run.

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Addendum: see the Facebook page for Take 5 to Run, and let us know if you’d like to help maintain it.

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March 11, 2010

First Look at Vivo Barefoot Evo; Terra Plana Coupon Code Giveaway

My VivoBarefoot (did you know it’s officially all one word? Me neither, until recently) Evos arrived a couple of weeks ago, and along with them was a generous coupon offer that I’ve been authorized to pass along to anyone who is interested. Details will follow below – but I figured since I’m sitting here typing, I may as well plunk out some initial impressions about the Evo and make this a regular post for the day.

VivoBarefoot Evo

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve only put 25 miles on these shoes over the course of three runs (5-, 13-, and 7-miles, in that order), which is only a fraction of the mileage I typically log before a full-fledged shoe review. I never rush to publish a review; I find that it takes some settling into a shoe to get a good sense of its overall comfort, performance and durability. In other words, I reserve the right to change my mind about any or all of this information by the time I post a full review in a few weeks.

And in the spirit of brevity, we’ll keep the observations to bullet points:

* The shoes aren’t nearly as bad looking as I feared – in fact, I’ve seen a lot worse on modern running shoes nowadays.
* The toe boxes are somewhat narrower than other VivoBarefoot models (see below), and noticeably more elongated. The fit runs true to size (Euro sizing), but since VB only offers whole sizes, someone who is truly an in-betweener might find the next whole number (say, a 10.5 US converting to a 11 US/44 UK) overly long in the front.

L to R: VivoBarefoot Dharma, Lesotho, and Evo

* Somewhat related to the toebox length, the flexion crease of the upper created a pressure point across the top of my second toe on each foot. It wasn’t uncomfortable, just noticeable.
* Some early reviews have noted a similar impingement at the base of the tongue area, but I haven’t experienced this. It’s worth noting here that I’ve used socks for all of my runs thus far, but I’m planning some sockless Evo miles very soon.
* Aside from the points I’ve mentioned, the entire sockliner and upper are quite comfortable. The 13-mile run I did was at a fairly fast pace, with zero chafing or hot spots anywhere around the heel or ankle.
* Overall weight of one shoe is 8.2 oz – which is on the high side for a minimalist shoe, but lighter than most road trainers.
* Speaking of minimalist footwear – if you’re coming to these from Vibrams, the arch area on the Evo will feel looser, as the outsole doesn’t wrap this area nearly as snugly as the FiveFingers.
* Outsole grip is quite solid for roads, and should be fine for groomed trails as well. I’ll put more trail miles on them soon to test some technical footing.
* Ground feel is similar to Vibram KSO Treks, and noticably thicker than the Feelmax Osma.
* Ventilation of the shoes feels pretty effective, but I haven’t worn them in temps over 50 degrees yet.

They're still very flexible, too.

Otherwise, I guess the best thing I can say about the Evo is that I really enjoy wearing them, and I’m looking forward to putting a lot more mileage on them. Of course, the elephant in the room with any conversation about the Evo will be its price point - $160 US – and whether a “barefoot” shoe is worth more than most people spend on top of the line high-tech trainers. To me, the shoe’s durability will be the primary justifier of its cost, which is all the more reason to withhold a full review for a few more weeks. Give me another 100 miles or so, and I’ll have a much better sense of how things are holding together.

I’m rather optimistic about the construction quality of the Evo, mainly because it’s what I’ve come to expect from the three other VivoBarefoot models I own. If you already own these shoes, you know what I’m talking about; if you never have, now is a good opportunity to try.

In conjunction with this post, VivoBarefoot has provided a coupon code for a $50 discount on one full-price purchase from the VivoBarefoot collection between now and March 31st 2010. The code (sadly) doesn’t apply to the Evo shoe, but it’s valid for the entire Fall/Winter 09 line as well as the full Spring/Summer 2010 collection that will be available beginning March 22nd. Best of all, this isn’t a single-winner drawing, it’s an “anybody who wants it can get it” giveaway – so if you’re planning on purchasing any Terra Plana VivoBarefoot models this month, leave a comment below this post (make sure there’s a contact e-mail in the comment or attached to your profile) and I’ll send you the discount code. Easy as that.

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