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May 30, 2010

New Drymax Max Pro Trail Socks!

It was roughly one year ago when I was testing the (at that time) new Drymax Lite Trail socks at the Western States training camp. In my case, “testing” meant “immersing myself in as many river crossings as possible in the midst of a hot, hilly 31-mile trail run” – and as I reported back then, the socks performed beautifully.

I certainly wasn’t surprised that they performed so well; I’ve been on the Drymax bandwagon for about two years now, and there’s absolutely no other sock I’d choose for a race or any other long, challenging run. In my book, they’re clearly the best in the category – not only that, but the gap between first and second place is enormous.

This spring, I’ve had the privilege of testing another new offering from Drymax, as the company has recently released their Maximum Protection Trail sock, which raises the performance bar even further. They are similar to Drymax’s standard trail running socks, but have a Teflon material embedded throughout the entire inside of the socks along with the regular Drymax fiber – a combination that greatly reduces the coeffient of friction, and moves moisture away from the foot extremely effectively.


However, this model also raises the price bar somewhat significantly, so it’s not something I’m going to tell you to race out and buy until I have a better sense of how well they hold up in extreme circumstances. I’m planning to wear them for my 100K race this weekend, and I’ll present an updated review at some point afterward. Truthfully, though, these socks have already been put to the test by a lot of athletes who are way more accomplished than me; Drymax’s team includes some of the best ultrarunners in the world, who have been wear-testing various versions of the sock for a few months now. I’m tempted to say that if they’re tough enough for Jamie Donaldson and the Wasatch Speed Goats, they’re tough enough for me – but I’ll feel a lot better about recommending them after putting them through the paces myself.

In the meantime, if you’re so inclined, you can read up on some of the science that’s gone into these socks, either from this Drymax page, or from this ZombieRunner page, where the socks are currently in stock for $28 per pair. That's right ... two-eight. It’s truly remarkable how much technology goes into a pair of socks nowadays; whether the resulting performance benefit is worth the price is a conversation we’ll save for another day. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to getting to know the Max Pros better over 62 miles this Saturday.

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May 29, 2010

Summer Buckets

As this weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, it's natural to start thinking of all the warm-weather adventures that await us in the months ahead. It's so natural, in fact, that even little kids do it:

Things I want to do in the summer: Swim. Hike. Geocache.

The note above was posted on the fridge by my 6-year-old daughter last week, and I have to say, it's very nearly the exact same list I would have created for her if she had asked me to. I'd also have included "have lots of fun", but with this particular daughter that's pretty much implied.

(By the way, is there anything more endearing as a parent than deciphering a 6-year-old's phonetic scribblings into words and phrases that make actual sense? This is one of those little things where if you've never had kids, it seems completely ridiculous - but if you're a parent, I'm guessing you're just nodding your head right now.)

So in the spirit of my 6-year-old's summer bucket list, here's a three-word summer goal list of my own:

1) enjoy

2) appreciate

3) share

Of course, there's more information I could have added to each of those, but in the end they'd just boil down to the main ideas anyway. I also could have included "do as much running, swimming, and bike riding as possible", but I figured that would be pretty much implied.

So ... can you make a summer bucket list of three words? If so, feel free to share yours below. If not, you'd better get moving ... summer will be here before you know it!

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May 27, 2010

Ultimate Direction Solitaire Review; Ultimate Direction Uno Review

Prior to my 50-mile race last month, when Stacy at Wilderness Running Company offered up an Ultimate Direction waist pack for me to test out, my immediate thought was, “It’s not going to be as good as my Uno pack.”

The truth was, I already had an Ultimate Direction waist pack that worked pretty well for me. I wear it for pretty much every run that’s in the 1 to 2.5-hour range - three hours or more, and I switch to hydration packs – which means that my Uno pack has seen a LOT of miles on the trail over the years. In fact, on a strict miles-per-dollar scale, the Uno is probably the most worthwhile investment I’ve ever made, second only to the $40 Timex that I use every single day.

Needless to say, I was a bit skeptical that something new would win me over – so in the spirit of compromise, I decided to review both packs: the one I received from WRC, and the one I already had.


Ultimate Direction Solitaire

The new pack I tested is the Ultimate Direction Solitaire, which combines a low horizontal bottle holder with 100 cubic inches of storage space on top. It’s a good option if you need a little extra cargo capacity for long trail runs.

Positioning of the bottle is somewhat unique in that it’s completely horizontal, laying across your backside instead of being angled upward. The pack comes with a 26-oz bottle featuring Ultimate Direction’s famous kicker valve, which seems to be a “love it or hate it” innovation (I’m not personally crazy about it). The holster is wide enough to hold standard 20- or 24-oz Specialized bottles as well as the factory UD bottle.

Above the bottle holster is a horizontal cargo compartment that is large enough to stash a jacket, a few gadgets, or even another full 20-oz bottle. There’s also a small mesh pocket on the outside of the pack for energy gel (or gel wrappers) or other small items. The whole pack weighs 9.5 oz, so you get a decent amount of storage without sacrificing too much weight – especially when you consider that it’s only 1 ounce heavier than the Uno, but provides about 40% more capacity.

The Solitaire has closed-cell foam padding on the backside, and moisture-wicking padding that stretches around to the front buckles of the stability belt for improved comfort on the run. I have to say that I found a fully-loaded pack to be a little bouncier than I like, and the horizontal positioning of the bottle does take a bit of getting used to. On the other hand, maybe I’m just too accustomed to using the Uno pack for so many years.


Ultimate Direction Uno

And why do I like the Uno so much? For a lot of reasons. At 8.5 oz, it’s fairly lightweight but durable enough to take a beating. I like the upright bottle position that’s equally accessible with both hands; I’ve never been a big fan of angled holsters, and the Uno is one of the few models on the market that isn’t angled. The holster is also compatible with any standard 20- or 24-oz bottle, although the taller size is a bit more noticeable against your low back at times.

I also like having two separate pockets – so I can keep my gels and wrappers separate from my tech gadgets - that are each big enough to hold one or two key essentials. The storage capacity is only about 65 cubic inches, but the contoured zipper pockets allow enough space for the basics. I can fit either a cell phone, or a compact headlamp (most frequently my Petzl Tikka XP2), or four gel packs, or even my compact camera into a single pocket. While the Solitaire would probably be able to carry all that stuff together, I generally don’t need all of those things at once – or if I do, I’m in the “over three hour” category where I’d probably step up to using a hydration pack anyway.

Most of all, I love how the Uno just settles comfortably into the small of my back, almost to the point where I forget it’s there sometimes. It has the same ultra-wicking, foam padded back panel as the Solitaire (although the waist straps aren’t padded), but for me the comfort comes more from having a smaller-profile pack in a natural resting position that remains close to my center of gravity for more efficient running.

In case you haven’t guessed by now, I ended up sticking with my Uno pack during this month’s 50-miler. I carried my camera in one pocket, and energy gels in the other. Between the Uno and my QuickDraw Elite, I had up to 42 oz of fluids with me at all times, and access to everything was a breeze. My goal coming into the race was to carry lighter gear without skimping on fluids or storage, and I felt like those two items accomplished the task wonderfully.

However, my ongoing affection for the Uno isn’t meant to take anything away from the Solitaire, which would be a better choice under different circumstances. From my experience, the Solitaire is a nice option if you need a high volume of fluid but don’t want to add a hand-held pack or upgrade to a hydration pack, or if you’re looking to carry additional water or gear than you can fit into a standard waist-mounted pack, and if you’re comfortable having a somewhat bulkier pack across your backside. The Uno is an almost unbeatable option if you’re looking to travel light and/or fast and only need one or two bare essentials along for the ride.

As I’ve said a few times already, Wilderness Running Company was instrumental in providing these products for me to compare and review – so if you’re in the market for new hydration gear, you can do me a favor by doing some business with WRC. You’re doing yourself a favor as well, since you can save 10% on anything by using coupon code R&R10 at checkout. And to make it even easier, I’ll save you the trouble of scrolling back through the post:

The Ultimate Direction Solitaire retails for $42.

The Ultimate Direction Uno retails for $30.

Previously: the Nathan QuickDraw Elite retails for $25.


*Solitaire and QuickDraw Elite 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@runingandrambling.com.

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May 24, 2010

Robles Del Rio Fire

“We built our getaway up in a tree we found –
We felt so far away though we were still in town –
Now I remember watching that old tree burn down –
I took a picture that I don't like to look at.”

- Jack Johnson, “Do You Remember” (video after post)


This is what the Robles Del Rio Lodge in Carmel Valley looked like in the 1990s:

(photo from this website)


And this is what it looks like today:

When my wife returned from her usual Sunday morning run last weekend, the first thing she said to me was Robles Del Rio burned down last night. We walked around to the side of our deck, which looks across the valley directly towards the lodge, and watched the smoke rising from the remains of one of Carmel Valley’s most distinctive landmarks.

Although the 21st century had been cruel to the lodge even before the events of last weekend, “Robles” (as it’s called by locals) occupied a special place in the hearts of longtime residents. It was built in 1928, and grew into an exclusive resort setting – complete with golf course, heated pool, and restaurant with liquor license – that attracted celebrities and locals alike. For decades, it was the primary social hub in the otherwise remote outpost known as Carmel Valley. In the 1980s and 90s, ownership changed hands a few times, and the most recent owners drew up an expansion plan that caused the lodge to shut its doors in early 2000 for a proposed three-year, multimillion-dollar makeover.

Given the time frame, you can probably guess what happened: financing fell apart, the owners became entangled in county regulations and lawsuits about building permits and water use issues, and the project was ultimately abandoned. As prospects of anything profitable or manageable faded into oblivion, the lodge buildings spent the entire decade standing vacant, in various states of construction and disrepair.


So maybe it’s not so surprising that the place burned down. However, the shock value of such an icon going up in smoke overnight was compelling enough that I wanted to take one more look around – so on Monday morning, I packed my camera with me for a routine jog through the neighborhood.


The course was one I could do in my sleep; the road that passes in front of the lodge is part of the morning route I’ve done more frequently any other in all the time I’ve lived here. And if that didn’t work, I could have just followed the smell of smoke, which was still prominent in the air more than 24 hours after the blaze.


The destruction was pretty extensive: all that was left of the main building were a pair of stone fireplaces and piles of charred rubble - as well as a fire hose still sprawled on the ground from the day before.


After learning of the fire, some people expressed concern about any historic artifacts that might have remained on the premises over the past decade. If there were any such things here, it would certainly be hard to tell.


This is the view across the valley that restaurant patrons would enjoy while dining at Robles. Before I lived in Carmel Valley, I tagged along to a dinner party my future wife’s family held at the lodge; I remember it being one of the first glimpses I got of the subtle charm of this area (as well as the less-subtle appeal of my future relatives – but that’s another story).


If I’m remembering right, this was the main entrance to the restaurant, now overgrown with brush and grass. Knowing the surrounding vegetation, it’s borderline miraculous that this fire didn’t spread to consume the whole hillside.


In addition to the normal commendations and gratitude we send their way after events like this, our fire fighters deserve bonus points for protecting this amazing oak tree. I don’t know enough about trees to guess if this one will succumb to its injuries or proudly survive with extensive battle scars … but I’m clearly hoping for the latter.


As soon as word spread about the fire, everyone who knew the history of the building and its failed development plans believed that the blaze was no accident. Which is why it seemed especially curious to find a gasoline can sitting off in one corner of the ruins.


Leaving the scene to finish my run, it was evident that all of the surrounding structures escaped the fire that consumed the main building; however, what their fates have in store at this point is anyone’s guess. Undoubtedly, one chapter of Robles Del Rio’s long history has been emphatically closed; whether another chapter will ever be written remains to be seen.

Otherwise, I'm left with a set of pictures I don't really like to look at - and when my wife and I stare across the valley anymore, instead of looking at a piece of history, all we’ll see is a blank hole between the trees.


*
Jack Johnson, "Do You Remember" (click to play):

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Nathan QuickDraw Elite Review

Before today’s review, let’s take care of some business … fgump and msimpson, email your address to me at info@runningandrambling.com – you’ve won the GU sampler pack! To everyone who didn’t win … better luck next time, I guess. I’ll try to keep these sorts of giveaways going periodically.

Today’s post actually ties into the story I told as part of the GU giveaway, in that my nutritional strategy for ultras this year has changed compared to 2009. Last year, I felt like hydration packs were a necessity for me; I didn’t want to face long, hot stretches of trail without a lot of fluid on board at all times, as well as adequate cargo space for any layers or random accessories I might want along for the ride. The timing also worked out rather nicely in that I happened to receive a lot of packs to review last spring, so I figured it was just a matter of finding my favorite one, and I’d be ready for anything on the trail.

For the most part, the approach worked fairly well, with a few exceptions that I noticed in races:

1) Hydration packs add a bit of extra weight (over a pound, in some cases) that takes some accommodation to wear comfortably.

2) No matter what kind of fluid reservoir you have, the amount of time required to remove your pack, hand it to an aid station volunteer, explain how the opening works, pack everything back up while double-checking to make sure there’s no leaks, and get on your way is significantly more than with standard water bottles. And …

3) You often end up carrying more fluid weight than you need between each aid station.

Item #3 I experienced quite vividly during Western States last year, when I couldn’t stomach any fluid whatsoever, but kept a half-filled pack on throughout the night so I could keep attempting sips whenever I got brave enough to try again. There’s a good chance I carried the same 40 ounces of fluid more than 30 miles that evening. As if I needed to make the race any more challenging.

So this year, I wanted to travel lighter, a philosophy that tied in rather well with the whole minimalist thing I’ve been doing. Less shoe, less gear, less weight, less complication … and hopefully, more enjoyment. At Quicksilver last month, I also knew that my moccasin-wearing stunt would handicap me somewhat from a time standpoint, as I wouldn’t be able to fly down the descents like I do with standard shoes. So part of my “less is more” strategy was to spend less time at the aid stations than I did the year before, to make up for the time I was giving away on the course.

Enter Wilderness Running Company. I told Stacy (the owner) about my plans, and he set me up with two key pieces of equipment: the Nathan QuickDraw Elite handheld, and an Ultimate Direction waist pack that I’ll review later this week. These two items together provided all the fluid and cargo capacity I needed, and helped me move lighter and quicker through the 50 miles.


Nathan QuickDraw Elite


The QuickDraw Elite looks pretty basic, although it’s officially an upgrade to the QuickDraw Plus, which is Nathan’s bare-basics hand-held model. The Elite costs $8 more ($25 compared to $17), but the advantages in comfort and performance are well worth the extra dollars.

(Plus, as with all items from WRC, you can save 10% by entering coupon code R&R10 at checkout. And you get free shipping on orders over $50. Every dollar counts, right?)

Nathan’s primary intent with the QuickDraw Elite was to eliminate the need to actually “hold” the bottle in your hand, which is accomplished with a technical hand strap that keeps the bottle secured to your palm even with your fingers relaxed or extended. Security of the strap is adjustable with a Velcro attachment on the bottom, and the fabric is a ventilated, moisture-wicking Wall Mesh material that feels comfortable even with multiple hours of use.

On the “body” side of the pack is a zippered pocket with key clasp, as well as a mesh trash pocket to stash your gel wrappers between aid stations. The zipper pocket is an ideal size for gels, or in my case, my “pharm bag” of Tylenol and electrolyte pills that I was reaching for once per hour. Between the pocket and the hand strap is an elastic collar that holds your bottle securely; the Elite comes with one of Nathan’s patented BPA-free 22-oz bottles, but it can be used with any standard-width 20 to 24-oz cycling bottle.

The whole pack weighs just 6.4 oz, and the convenience of having a bottle at hand during a race is impossible to beat. Access to fluids on the run is easy, and refills at aid stations are a breeze. Running with a hand-held takes a bit of getting used to – and I did have a mild knot in my left shoulder the day after the race - but the learning curve is pretty steep, and the performance benefit of having the Elite was definitely worth making the adjustment.

As I mentioned, the Elite was only one half of the fluid equation; the second part (my waist pack) will be discussed later this week. In the meantime, the QuickDraw Elite is available at Wilderness Running Company, with a 10% discount for using coupon code R&R10.


*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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May 22, 2010

Top Secret GU Giveaway!

That’s right … it’s time for another GU contest! I’m starting to feel like the Johnny Appleseed of energy gels, but that’s neither here nor there – the main point is that I’ve got more swag to give away.

Even better, some of what I’m giving away is new stuff – as in, not even available to the public yet stuff. Top secret, high security clearance, “you can taste it but then GU agents might have to kill you” kind of stuff. (Only one of those sentences was an exaggeration; I’ll let you guess which one.)

Of course, as per my modus operandi, you have to listen to (or scroll past – your pick. Just remember: honor system!) a story or two to reach the reward. I promise I’ll try to keep them brief. The first story takes place at this month’s Quicksilver 50M race.

In my lead-in to the race, I hinted that I was trying a few different tricks at this year’s event; the most obvious was the ultra debut of my Soft Star moccasins, which held up beautifully over the course of 50 miles. The other twists I employed had to do with my fluid and nutritional intake. I’ll explain the fluid situation in a couple of product reviews on deck for next week – and as far as the nutritional aspect is concerned, I decided to rely almost 100% on GU.

It didn’t really register with me until I started reviewing their products that GU uses small doses of ginger in all of its energy gels. Ginger is known to have anti-nausea properties, and if you’ve read my past ultra reports, you know that I’ve struggled to keep my stomach settled in more than a few major events. When that happens, I have a hard time taking new calories in consistently throughout the race, which of course is something of a problem when you’re running for 50, 62, or 100 miles.


So at Quicksilver, I completely changed and simplified my nutritional strategy, and decided to take nothing but GU during the race. I had a few Roctanes stashed in my waist pack, which I supplemented with packets I picked up at each aid station.

(Incidentally, the nice thing about ultras is that there’s no internal questioning about “Is this activity long enough to justify Roctane?” I fully believe in the added performance benefit of Roctane, but since it costs twice as much as regular GU, I’m often reluctant to use them in training – but at mile 40 of an ultra, it’s a no-brainer.)

To my delight, the plan worked beautifully: starting 45 minutes into the race, I had a GU pack every 40-50 minutes for the rest of the day. With only one exception – I had some muscle cramping near mile 35 and took one piece of banana to combat it – it was the only non-liquid nutrition I consumed during the whole race. I emptied at least a dozen GUs over the course of 50 miles, and my energy levels felt nice and even all day long; there were a couple of mild peaks and valleys later in the race, but nothing like what I’ve felt in some past events. Best of all, I didn’t have any nausea at all, which for obvious reasons made my overall race experience a lot more pleasant.

Was it coincidence? Maybe, but I think not. The experiment went well enough that I’m going to stick with it for my next 100K in early June. In the meantime, I’m spreading the GU love with a couple more readers who leave comments below this post.

As for the spy stuff: part of the prize will be these unlabeled packs from the final test batch of a new flavor that hits the market this July - Mandarin Orange, which will replace the current Orange Burst flavor. I’ll include some of these packs in the prize drawing along with my favorite Jet Blackberry flavor, and throw in a GU Brew packet sampler just to (pardon the pun) sweeten the offer a bit more. And if you’re curious about the taste of Mandarin Orange flavor, I’ve got one more brief story for you …

My two daughters are crazy about Mandarin oranges, as well as those tart little Clementines. Sometimes we eat them with salads, but other times the girls just open a grocery store can of Mandarin slices and empty them into a bowl before devouring them in a matter of seconds. So when my shipment of Mandarin Orange GU arrived, I broke my usual “these kids definitely don’t need energy gels” rule to let them each taste a pack. And they loved it.

Granted, they’re little kids who like pretty much anything remotely sweet, who were eating something previously forbidden. But at least they didn’t dislike them. So Mandarin Orange GU officially gets the Running and Rambling Kids Seal of Approval.

If you win the pack, you can let me know if you agree with them. Leave a comment below, and I’ll announce two winners on Monday night.


*Products provided by GU Energy

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May 20, 2010

3.6 Miles Barefoot: Heart & Sole Race Report

“Never knowing - shocking but we're nothing –
We're just moments - we're clever but we're clueless –
We're just human - amusing but confusing -
Helping, we’re rebuilding and we’re growing –
We never know.”

- Jack Johnson, “Never Know” (video after post)

*
Although it happened nearly 20 years ago, I distinctly remember my thought process after finishing my first marathon. There was an overwhelming sense of satisfaction with the accomplishment, and a slight inkling of a new identity being forged - although it was still tempered somewhat by internal skepticism about whether I’d be able to do such a thing again. The only reasonable thing to do, of course, was to look for another marathon right away, so I wouldn’t have to re-build the fitness base I had spent months acquiring.

Four weeks later, I did another marathon. Six weeks after that, I did my third. And when all that was said and done, I was hooked. I decided that my fitness might wax and wane in the years to come, but I was certain that many more races lay ahead of me. I just knew it.

So maybe it shouldn’t have shocked me too much when my 8-year-old daughter asked if we could do another 5K race just three weeks after her first-ever 5K at Big Sur. She figured that since she had done all that training, she might as well do another race or two while she’s still in shape to do it. And I couldn't fault her one bit.


That’s how we found ourselves on the start line of the Heart & Sole 5K in Salinas, which turned into something of a family affair last weekend. My wife made a last-minute decision to jump into the 5K, and my 6-year-old was chomping at the bit for the children’s half-mile race after the “grown up” events were finished. That left my 8-year-old and me to hang out at the back of the pack …


… with only one of us wearing shoes. I’m very familiar with the roads of this particular course, and I’ve run several barefoot miles on them throughout the year, so this seemed like a pretty safe environment to make my barefoot race debut. To just about everybody else in the crowd, it was an irresistible reason to gawk and make crazy comments – but I pretty much expected that.


The race takes place entirely in a South Salinas neighborhood that’s everything you think an average middle-class neighborhood should look like: tree-lined streets, cars parked on the sides of the roads, neighbors standing in the grass to gawk at the crazy runners going by.

Incidentally, the scene above cracks me up every year: during the first half-mile, when 700 people are trying to work their way around each other to settle into their particular pace, there are about three curb signs that read “Single File Please”. You can see for yourself how effective they are.


The black shirts these four ladies are wearing are from this morning’s event; obviously, not nearly enough mid-pack 5K runners are familiar with my long-standing precautions against bad juju. If only I had a public platform where I could voice my opinions for anyone to see … oh, wait.


The course doesn’t have any hills, but it has lots of turns and a couple of short out-over-back segments that make it difficult for the front runners to maintain a steady pace – but further back in the pack, nobody seems to mind.


Throughout the race, I heard more than a few “That dude’s crazy!” and “Oh my God – look at that guy!” comments from runners as well as spectators, as well as a few wise-guy remarks to inform me that I forgot my shoes. And watch out for glass. And doesn’t that hurt? And what if you have to use the bathroom? You know … all the predictable things. I didn’t really care, though, as all the commotion seemed to distract my daughter from the miles she was covering …


… and before we knew it, she was at the finish line with her second 5K under her belt. We wandered over to the post-race refreshment area (more on that in a second) to grab some water and snacks before Act II of the festivities …


… starring her 6-year-old sister in the half-mile kids’ race. I took a picture of the group at the starting line, just before my daughter bust to the front like Usain Bolt. It took me about 200 meters of barefoot sprinting to catch up – and nearly halfway through the race, she had gone off the front, running all alone with the pace bike. However, with absolutely no sense of distance or pace, she began to sputter and wheeze during the second half of the race.


To her credit, though, she didn’t let anyone pass her without a fight. Whenever any kid passed her, she sped up to keep pace as much as possible, and the boy in this picture must have tried to pass her about five different times, but never did. My daughter finished 4th in the race, and all three kids who beat her were girls. Girl power!


Since the Salinas Valley is the Salad Bowl of the World, and the agricultural industry is so prominent, the Heart & Sole always features a lot of fun, goofy gimmicks to get kids excited about eating healthy. For example, medals for the kids race were handed out by a corn cob and a carrot …


…and the registration table was manned by grapes, peapods, and a strawberry. That wasn’t even the only strawberry in attendance …


… and the other one was extremely energetic, running alongside kids in all of the day’s races. It’s really not the Heart & Sole unless you see giant fruits and vegetables running around.


Here’s one healthy eating stunt that didn’t quite pan out, though: this tent was barbecuing hot dogs, but they purposely didn’t have any buns; instead, the hot dogs were wrapped in a big lettuce leaf. Maybe it was the wrong time of day or something … but I don’t think I ever saw more than about two people standing by that tent.


On the other hand, the normal bagels and fruit tent had lines out the door all morning long. On the plus side, the tables also included stacks of those pre-washed salad bags you get from the grocery store, and by the end of the morning, those had pretty much vanished.


Apparently I keep some fast company at home, as both my wife and my 8-year-old won age group awards - so we had to chill out in the grass for a while to let them collect their hardware. If there’s a better feeling in the world than sitting barefoot in the grass after a memorable race, I must not be aware of it.


If you’re wondering, my feet were feeling just fine as well. I’ve reached the point where asphalt running doesn’t pose any major discomfort anymore, especially if I’m cruising along at a mellow pace. I don’t have any ambition to do “bigger” races (like trail races or road marathons) barefoot, because in my mind, there’s really no logical counterargument for wearing minimalist footwear in situations when you’re trying to give your best effort. But it’s nice to know that on any given day I can kick my shoes off and go for a casual run around the neighborhood. I’ll definitely continue running barefoot whenever it’s convenient, or whenever I feel like it – and lately, running with my daughter has given me the perfect scenario to go shoeless.

As for my daughter, I’m not exactly sure where her running habit goes from here. Maybe – as I experienced after my first big races - there is an identity forming inside her, and perhaps there’s still a healthy dose of self-doubt about whether she’ll do races like this on a regular basis. Her older brother did a couple of 5Ks one year before deciding it wasn’t really his thing – so it’s far too early to predict whether this girl is hooked on racing like I was all those years ago.

Days like this are just moments, and we never really know for sure where they’ll lead. But the next day, my daughter asked me if there were any more 5Ks coming up this summer – so I’m taking that as a positive sign.

*
Jack Johnson, "Never Know" (click to play):

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May 18, 2010

Yosemite Mist Trail Hike (in Vibrams!)

No (and sadly), I haven’t made a return trip to Yosemite since the snow-covered adventure I documented in April; I just got so far behind with other posts I wanted to do that this report kept getting pushed aside. Until now, that is.

The Mist Trail is Yosemite’s signature hike, with more scenic bang for your buck than any other trail I’ve seen. It’s steep and challenging, but its overall mileage is fairly low compared to other “top of waterfall” hikes out of Yosemite Valley – and if you’re in decent shape, you can knock the whole thing out in a matter of hours.

So when my wife and I got snowed out of reaching our primary destination the previous day, only to wake up the next morning to sunshine and forecast temperatures in the 70s, we decided to squeeze one more hike in between checking out of the lodge and starting our return trip home. It was like Yosemite was making a peace offering to us for screwing up our plans the day before – and we thought it might be bad form to decline. You don’t disrespect Mother Nature.

With only a half day to play with and a desire to take in as many cool sights as possible, the Mist Trail was an easy choice. And since I was familiar with the trail from previous trips, I decided to hike in my Vibram KSOs. I knew it might pose some unique difficulties, but I was also confident that the Vibrams and I were up to the task.


The official start of the trail is just past the Happy Isles bridge at the western end of Yosemite Valley. The bus drops you off at the bridge, but many people –like my wife and me – start from Curry Village and hike the relatively flat 1.5 miles to reach this trailhead.


Footwear isn’t really an issue during the first mile from the trailhead, as the “trail” is a smoothly groomed asphalt path. Leg strength might be an issue, though, as parts of this mile have the highest percent grade on the entire hike.


Once you reach the footbridge that ends the paved trail, you get your first glimpse of the Merced River spilling over Vernal Fall in the distance, and sense its power crashing through its boulder-strewn downstream riverbed. Remember that morbid Death in Yosemite book I was fascinated with? It determined that more people have died in the Merced than anywhere else in the park. I thought it prudent to not remind my wife of that fact as we hiked alongside it.


Beyond the footbridge, you get your first “real” trail exposure as the pavement gives way to a nicely groomed stretch of dirt; still no problem for the Vibrams. The dirt doesn’t last long, however, and the first challenge is just ahead …


The steep, irregular, typically wet rock stairs that are the defining feature of the Mist Trail. Why are they so wet? For the same reason this trail gets its name …


… as this entire section is completely shrouded in heavy mist from Vernal Fall, which begins amassing strength in early March, growing in both size and decibel level as snowmelt from the mountains swells the Merced River throughout the spring. It’s probably about halfway full in the photo above – and pretty much anytime from April to August or September, you can expect to get soaked going through this portion of the trail.


Since significant stretches of the rock stairs skirt the edge of a precipice into the Merced …


… and since the views of Vernal Fall get more mesmerizing as you climb closer …


… this seemed like a great spot for a nifty “Vibrams hanging over the edge” picture. At least, so I thought. This sort of stuff practically gives my wife a heart attack; apparently she feels that I’m a big enough risk to my own safety in everyday life without intentionally seeking more danger to flirt with. (And come to think of it, there’s definitely some truth to that.) It’s a type of panic that comes from love and concern - either that, or I’m just worth more to her alive than dead. Whatever the case, I tend to get chewed out when I try little stunts like this.


As you get closer to Vernal Fall, the rock stairs get steeper and more irregular …


… until you reach the final climb that is chiseled below the overhanging granite. Two notes on this part:

1) In late April, the water seeping and dripping out of this rock face was like stepping into in a shower, and

2) The railing wobbles a little bit. It’s secure, but there’s just enough play to make you realize how hopeless it would be if the whole thing gave way. Just something to ponder.


At the top of Vernal Fall, you can take a little rest break on the wide open granite, walk up to the guardrail that looks almost straight down the fall (my wife said no thanks to this one), or just take in the view across the valley before continuing on.


Above Vernal Fall and the Silver Apron, the trail levels off briefly - and now that you’re above 5000’, snow becomes more prevalent. It’s also not long before …


… you start seeing some killer views of Nevada Fall as you make your approach. Like Vernal before it, Nevada Fall is in view for large segments of the trail, with the sights growing more awesome the closer you get.


The trail also gets a bit more rugged from this point, varying between long stretches of irregular granite like this, and rock staircases like the one below Vernal Fall carved straight into the hill.


Closer to the top, the staircases were tough to distinguish from the snow and slush that was packed on all sides. This was the section where I had to pay the most attention to footing …


… even with the distraction of a majestic waterfall just off my shoulder.


The trail finally flattens out a bit at the top, which is where my wife took this photo to accompany a FeedTheHabit review of the pants I was wearing. It also turned into a nice shot of the Vibrams, which had given me absolutely no problems to that point.


On both sides of this footbridge over the Merced at the top of Nevada Fall, there is tons of space to kick back on top of the rocks and chill out for a while. You’ve reached the top of this particular tour, so it’s a great place to have a little snack, gaze out from your lofty vantage point above the valley …


… or contemplate your existence perched on the crest of a 600 foot waterfall. Not pictured: my wife’s heart rate hitting about 200 beats per minute at this exact moment.

Normally when hiking to Nevada Fall, I prefer descending via the John Muir Trail, which continues from the bridge and loops around to rejoin the Mist Trail below Vernal Fall. Unfortunately, on this day the Muir Trail was still buried in snow, so the hike became an out and back affair for us.


Once the alternate route was decided, I was more than a little concerned about going down all the steep, rocky, wet and/or slushy stairs we had climbed on our way up, but my footing always felt very secure with the Vibrams, even on the most treacherous sections of trail. I had to be slightly more aware of foot placement than with standard hiking shoes, but that’s probably a nice adaptation for any hiker to develop.


Eventually we made it all the way down to the river crossing at Happy Isles and our starting point at Curry Village for a 8-to-9 mile hike (I didn’t GPS this one, sorry) with a refreshed appreciation for the trail we just finished, and the beautiful day we were given to enjoy it. As we discovered the day before, things don’t always work out the way you want them to at Yosemite; on this morning, we were more than happy with the outcome.

So how did the Vibrams perform? Certainly well enough that I would repeat this hike in them without any apprehension. My biggest issue was that my toes got wet going up the stairs below Vernal Fall, which also happen to be shaded from the sun in long stretches – and since the day hadn’t quite warmed up by that point, I had to deal with mildly frosty toes for about 15-20 minutes until we came into the sunshine again. I didn’t feel like my overall speed or agility were compromised, and I was pleasantly surprised by the traction of the KSO soles on those granite steps in both directions.

Last September, I briefly considered doing our Half Dome run in Vibrams, but thought better of it; I had only been using them for a couple of months at that time, and my legs hadn’t fully adapted to long-duration activity in minimalist footwear on rugged terrain. At the time, it was the right decision – but if I were to do the same run again sometime, I’d feel perfectly comfortable wearing them (or more likely my Treks, with even better traction) instead of traditional hiking or trail running shoes.

That’s another adventure for another day, I guess; it’s getting to the point where I can’t even keep track of all the things I want to do anymore. I’m choosing to view that as a good thing.

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