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June 28, 2010

GoLite BareTech Trail Running Shoe Preview

In conversations with several friends and fellow runners over the past year, I’ve declared that my best hope for the whole barefoot running craze would be a paradigm shift away from the over-built, over-engineered, over-corrective mentality which has been conventional wisdom in the shoe industry over the past few decades.

We don’t all have to be minimalists – but if we can collectively diminish our mindset that shoes need to fix our feet rather than just let them work naturally, that would be an enormous improvement. That’s why I’m always excited to see companies embrace the “less is more” philosophy, especially when they specifically target trail runners.

It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that GoLite has moved into this category, unless of course you’re currently saying, “Wait – GoLite makes shoes?” The company hasn’t traditionally had a huge impact on the running shoe market, but they’ve always been famous for lightweight, minimalist outdoor gear and apparel – so it seems like a natural extension for them to overhaul their footwear lineup with the same premise in mind.

Two products in particular look very interesting, which I’ll have the opportunity to test later this summer and winter. I’ll keep the descriptions brief for now, and save the detailed analysis for full reviews later.
The Amp Lite Trail Runner is intended as a long-distance trail runner. It uses something called BareTech technology, which is intended to complement your natural foot motion instead of trying to correct it.

I really appreciated that the GoLite rep intentionally pointed out to me that they are not true minimalist shoes, but they give the runner a neutral heel and allow the biomechanics of natural running. She said they’re ideally “designed for the barefoot runner who enjoys trail running.” And with that, I was hooked. The Amp Lite will be released this fall, and I’ll hopefully be testing them by the end of the summer.

But that’s really just the warmup for GoLite’s minimalist push, because next Spring, they’ll release this:
It’s called the Tara (as in Tarahumara, of course) Lite, which aims to take the best aspects of the classic huarache sandal and add some protection and traction while allowing the foot to function naturally. It reminds me a bit of Nike’s old-school Air Huarache, but about 10 times more advanced.

The Tara Lite is a “true trail race shoe for the elite outdoor athlete”. Despite that elite thing, they’re going to let me test a pair anyway sometime around the first of the year, in advance of the shoe’s release in Spring 2011.

GoLite is also applying their BareTech design to a whole line of running, hiking, trekking, and casual shoes for both men and women. If you want more information on these other styles, check out this great overview by Runblogger, and stay tuned here for reviews of the trail models as they become available.

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June 26, 2010

Soft Star RunAmoc Update; Soft Star Video Contest

Having recently eclipsed 500 miles on my Soft Star RunAmocs, I figured it was time for an update post soon. The timing also worked out well to talk about another pair of Soft Stars that has been my most heavily used shoe so far this summer. And just as I putting both of those ideas together, I received an e-mail from the company announcing a contest opportunity to win free mocs for life* (*well … most of it, anyway). All of which meant it was time to get going on the post.

This is also a good time to mention that I don’t just review complimentary pairs of Soft Stars that are given to me – I also spend my own actual money (shocking, I know) on shoes and slippers that have become my absolute favorites over the past year.

Soft Star RunAmoc, chocolate suede with road outsole

A good case in point is my chocolate suede RunAmocs, which I purchased with no intention of using as a running shoe. Rather, they’ve been my general all-purpose shoes just about every day over the spring and summer so far. I’ve worn them to restaurants and museums and amusement parks and college campuses, for shopping and hiking and even shooting baskets on the playground.


I consider them a perfect combination of minimalism (with just a 2mm outsole), durability, and comfort, and I also have to admit that I simply love the style of them. I know that the moccasin look isn’t for everyone – insert your elf or hobbit joke here – but there’s just something very native and "back to basics" about it that I find simply charming. And if that sounds like a little too much fondness for a pair of shoes, so be it.

Truth be told, I have an almost equal amount of love for my ventilated leather RunAmoc Lites that I use for – get this! – running. It’s no secret that I’ve tested a lot of minimalist running shoes around these parts, but time and again I find myself reaching for my RunAmocs before the longest or most ambitious runs. (The Evo is also very high on my list; those two have been duking it out quite a bit as my favorites lately.)


Soft Star RunAmoc trail soles after 500 miles

Sadly, after more than 500 miles, they’re starting to show signs of age. On the outsole, the heel areas have worn down to the point where I am definitely sacrificing some traction on really challenging terrain like steep hills with loose dirt, so I now have to be a little bit selective about where I wear them. I’ve also discovered a minor weakness in one particular portion of the upper, which I’ll describe in more detail in an upcoming post.

I have to say though, 500 miles is a very reasonable lifespan in my opinion; it certainly is comparable to the longevity of a standard pair of running shoes. It’s not quite on par with the durability of Vibram’s FiveFinger outsole, but both Vibram and VivoBarefoot have some structural integrity concerns that I’ll write about in the near future as well (Don’t worry - I’ll be sure to copy you).


For now, instead of replacing them, I’m just going to keep running in the pair I have – partly because I still prefer them to most other running shoes, and partly out of curiosity to see how much more I can beat them up before I finally feel like they’re unusable.

*
And now for the contest: Soft Star is marking its 25th anniversary this year, and they’re celebrating by conducting a sweepstakes that doubles as a community video project.

Here’s the deal: create and submit a short (20 seconds to 3 minutes) video portrait that meets two criteria:

1) Includes a single written word that describes how it feels to wear Soft Star shoes, and

2) Answers the question, “Where have your Soft Star shoes taken you?”

The winner will receive one $60 gift certificate per year for 20 years. While it’s not exactly a trip to Mont-Blanc, it’s certainly enough to keep you supplied with my favorite moccasins for a very, very long time. And you’ll make your feet extremely happy.

Better yet, your chances of winning this contest are pretty good. How good? Consider this line from an e-mail the company sent out earlier this month:

You have an EXCELLENT chance of winning the grand prize: No one has sent anything in yet despite the contest being out since April! We are looking forward to seeing the faces of many of our customers from around the world.

Obviously, the contest favors people who are already Soft Star owners. There’s still a lot of time left, though, so you could potentially go shopping for a pair now and enter the contest before the August 15th deadline. Or maybe you could borrow a pair from a friend and try your luck. Whatever you decide, click here for full contest details.

I have a video idea in mind that I might enter; the only question is whether I’ll ever have time to actually go out and film it. If not, I’ll keep racking up the miles on the Soft Stars I already have, running and walking and slipper-ing to my heart’s content.

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June 24, 2010

Buona Notte

Long day. Crazy week. Oh, wait - there's one more day to go; make that a long, crazy week.

If that weren't bad enough, my beloved Azzurri were unceremoniously bounced from the World Cup today.

He looks the way I feel; photo courtesy bild.com

I sat down to start a post tonight ... but I'd rather just go to bed, and hope tomorrow will be better.

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June 22, 2010

Nathan HPL 020 Hydration Vest Review Update

“Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great.”
- Jim Collins, Good to Great

It’s unclear to me whether the folks at Nathan purposely had the tenets of Jim Collins in the backs of their minds this spring, or whether they just happened to prove his point accidentally. Good to Great (subtitled Why Some Companies Make the Leap, and Others Don't) describes how truly outstanding companies don’t settle for performance that’s “good enough”; they are constantly looking for ways – either through personnel, operational efficiency, innovation, technology, creativity, and various other means – to make their situations better.

And this might sound like an unusual way to begin a product review, until you consider that the product in question is Nathan’s HPL 020.


Nathan HPL 020

When I first reviewed the pack last spring, I showered it with praise in everything from its feather-light overall weight to its comfortable vest-style design to the highly convenient front pockets and generous rear storage space. (And rather than re-hashing all of that here, I’ll just refer you to last year’s post if you’d like to review the whole thing.) It was one of my two favorite packs last year, and it pretty much came down to a coin flip between the 020 and Ultimate Direction’s Wasp in deciding which one to wear at the Western States 100 last summer.


HPL 020; front view with multiple pockets

Clearly, it was a very good pack, but there were a couple of small issues that prevented it from being a truly great one. The main difficulty I had was dealing with the fluid reservoir, which had a somewhat small twist-top opening, and an occasionally tricky bite valve mechanism. So when I heard that the pack was being updated this year with an improved reservoir, I knew that was a game-changing factor that could potentially eliminate any doubt about which hydration pack would be my top choice for ultrarunners.

Nathan turned to its partner Hydrapak, a company that’s made very impressive strides of its own in the last few years, to update the fluid reservoir of the HPL 020. Hydrapak responded with a top of the line 70-oz reservoir that’s not only super durable, but incredibly easy to use. Basically, it’s a fluid container that’s as tough as the rest of the vest.


Old HPL 020 reservoir on L, new reservoir on R

How’s this for durability? The new reservoir is made from thermoplastic polyurethane, the same stuff they use to make whitewater rafts. It’s puncture and abrasion resistant, and can expand to eight times its original length without bursting. The entire delivery mechanism – reservoir to tube to bite valve – has a lifetime guarantee against leakage.

From a convenience standpoint, Hydrapak’s reservoir features a fold and slide closure, with a molded clip clamping the top of the bladder shut to prevent leaks. It’s a very simple two-step process to open and close, and the opening is much wider and easier to access than the old screw-top mechanism of the previous model.

The best thing about Hydrapak’s reservoir is that its rectangular shape and full-width opening make it completely reversible. No more stuffing towels into a narrow opening or hanging your pack beside the sink for two days; with the new bladder, you just wash it, flip it inside out, and wipe the whole thing dry. This feature alone is enough to tip the scales for me in favor of the 020 over any other challengers.


Reservoir turned completely inside out, with tube detached

In my field testing over the past couple of months, Hydrapak seems to have improved the bite valve mechanism a bit as well. It’s easier to pull out and push in than I recall from last year’s pack, and I haven’t experienced the annoyance of the rubber cap sliding off the valve entirely, as I did occasionally last year. Maybe I’m just more alert for that possibility this time around – but if I had to guess, I’d say there was a spot of re-engineering here as well.

[*Update: Hydrapak's reversible reservoir now comes equipped with a surge valve, which is angled differently and provides a higher flow volume than the previous design. Some commenters below indicated quirks with the old valve (which I haven't experienced myself); the Surge valve was designed to fix those problems, and is now included with all new HPL 020 vests.]

Aside from the fluid reservoir, the HPL 020 is exactly the same for 2010 as it was last year – which is to say, it’s still pretty flippin’ awesome. If you’re a dedicated ultrarunner looking for the perfect pack to power you through those long training runs and races, you really can’t do better than this. With this upgrade, Nathan’s HPL 020 has successfully made the leap from good to great.

The updated Nathan HPL 020 is available at an incredibly sweet discount price of $56 from Amazon.com.


*Product provided by Nathan Sports
*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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June 21, 2010

Merrell Goes Barefoot!

If you’re a minimalist trail runner, the following might represent some kind of dream scenario:

1) An established, well-respected gear company known for its comfortable, durable footwear fully commits itself to not just a single minimalist style, but a whole series of options for a variety of outdoor activities, and …

2) That company has a partnership with the preeminent manufacturer of high-performance outsoles in the world.

If that’s the case, last week’s announcement from Merrell and Vibram was certainly a dream come true.

Several websites (such as FeedTheHabit.com, which has the whole press release) have reported on the new Merrell Barefoot line, billed as “minimalist, lightweight, versatile and efficient footwear,” and scheduled for release in February 2011. Merrell has a longstanding relationship with Vibram, whose CEO Tony Post is “excited to extend the benefits of barefoot alternatives in the outdoors.”

Post’s endorsement is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First is that Merrell Barefoot doesn’t necessarily represent a threat to Vibram’s market share or stature in the minimalist community; rather, it's a sign that the community is growing and diversifying to such an extent that there's room enough for everyone. To minimalist fans, this is great news – because the more options we have, the more likely we are to find that “perfect” design that works best for us.

The second thing Post’s remark indicates is that this isn’t simply a company calling something minimal just because it’s the trendy thing to do. Vibram knows what true minimalist shoes are, and they wouldn’t be promoting Merrell’s new offerings as barefoot alternatives if they weren’t the real deal.

From this point, I’ll let pictures tell the rest of the story. Merrell provided me with some images of the new models, which I’ve combined with brief descriptions from the press release below:


Men’s Trail Glove: an athletic trail runner for a close-to-terrain ride. Mesh and synthetic leather upper.



Men’s True Glove: a streamlined, all-terrain multi-sport shoe for scrambling across creeks and crags with natural ease. Mesh and synthetic leather upper.


Men’s Tough Glove: Tough to see details due to the color, but this is a foot-conforming soft leather model, with versatility for wearing around town or into a spontaneous game of Ultimate Frisbee (seriously, it says that).


Women’s Pace Glove: a low-profile trail runner with breathable mesh upper.


Women’s Power Glove: ankle-high design with Velcro closures for multi-purpose on- or off-trail activity.


Women’s Pure Glove: a super low-profile Lycra mesh Mary Jane for multi-purpose activity.

At first glance, the lineup looks pretty impressive – and having two companies with such an established track record involved is quite reassuring from a quality and performance standpoint. Until they’re released, however, we’ll all just have to speculate about how they'll measure up. In the meantime, check out Merrell’s blog for more information, and hopefully you can check back here in 2011 for first looks and reviews of these very promising new models.




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June 19, 2010

Born to Golf?

Regardless of how many other industries thrive here, there’s no debating that on the Monterey Peninsula, golf is king.

People make pilgrimages here from all corners of the globe to play at our numerous world-class resorts, and hotel rooms all over town sell out months in advance of the annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Whenever there’s a big tournament in town, the traffic snarls and tourist swarms are enough to make locals avoid venturing out of the house until the frenzy dies down – unless, of course, they’re part of the frenzy themselves.

And whenever the U.S. Open comes to town, all the insanity gets ratcheted up exponentially.
Such is the case this weekend, as Pebble Beach hosts the 2010 championship. And for our local newspaper, the tournament isn’t simply a weekend event – it’s a cause for week-long coverage of every conceivable story line you can imagine.

It also eclipses any other sporting news that might take place during the days leading up to the big show. This week, Giants and A’s reports were confined to the back pages of the sports section. The NBA Finals received cursory coverage. World Cup results were buried in the box scores.

So if you’re the author of a measly running column, you definitely shouldn’t expect much in the way of promotion.

Our regularly scheduled column slot was on Thursday, which also happened to be the first round of the Open. I figured there was a pretty good chance that the column wouldn’t run at all – but my friend Mike and I gave it a shot anyway.

To improve our chances of getting published, we came up with an angle that was golf-related, but still allowed us to tell a story that had running as its primary focus. Honestly, I think it was a pretty clever stretch on our part; you can see if you agree after reading the article that follows below.

Nevertheless, our column was indeed bumped this week in favor of golf coverage, so this one hasn’t yet seen the light of newsprint. It might appear at a later date – but since the tournament is going on this weekend, I figured the timing was right to post it here anyway.

**

Running Life 6/17/10 “Born to Golf?”


Think you know who invented golf? If you’re like most observers, you believe that the sport as we know it was invented in Scotland in the late 1400s.

Some historians also note that the ancient Romans played games with sticks hitting stones on the ground, but this pastime had no link to modern day golf. Others attribute some influence to activities called kolven in Holland and chole in Belgium that involved sticks and rudimentary balls or stones - but for the majority of golf purists, the pursuit of hitting round objects into slightly larger holes in the ground is strictly attributed to the Scots.

However, with all due respect to those historians, we have another theory: maybe golf was created by a band of runners.

Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run describes the reclusive Raramuri, indigenous people of the treacherous Copper Canyon region of northern Mexico. Raramuri are the world’s greatest distance runners, whose “superhuman talent is matched by uncanny health and serenity.” These natives were so reclusive that they were not discovered by the outside world until the 1500s by the Conquistadors, who mispronounced the name to call them Tarahumara. (They are still commonly called Tarahumara by outsiders today.)

The name Raramuri means “runners on foot” or “those who run fast”, and the entire culture of the tribe involves running for joy. McDougall set out to chronicle the Tarahumara to understand how they could run for hundreds of miles without getting injured. Among other observations, his documentation of huarache-clad ultrarunners has greatly influenced the recent barefoot running boom in the United States.

And what does any of this have to do with golf? McDougall also observed that the favorite pastime among the Tarahumara is a game called rarjiparo. These contests are typically held between village teams and involve running continuously for 36 or 48 hours over hilly and dangerous terrain. The object is for each team to move a small wooden ball called the rarajipari, made of hard wood from tree roots.

Men kick the rarajipari to advance it, but women are allowed to use an implement called the ariweta – “a ring of strong plant fibres or twigs which are hooked with a curved wooden end which allows the ball to be hit”. They hit the ball, then chase after it – up and down hills, around curves, into the dirt or bushes, and occasionally dropping into holes in the ground. Sounds like a group of amateurs on the back nine, doesn’t it?

Furthermore, Tarahumara villagers gather from miles around to watch these events - a primitive gallery, if you will - and bets are often made involving pelts, livestock, blankets, jewelry, and other items. After a rarjiparo, it is traditional that “winners do not demonstrate arrogance, and the losers show no anger” – as rivals often gather together and spend the next 48 hours drinking tesquino, a corn-based beer, until they pass out. Since the Tarahumara have no refrigeration devices, all of the tesquino had to be finished within the 48-hour party.

So let’s recap: a game that involves using sticks to knock little balls around, which claims specific rules of decorum, features large spectator galleries, and encourages betting, beer drinking, and camaraderie. What game does that sound like to you?

The Tarahumara have been doing this for more than 2000 years. Perhaps they weren’t just Born to Run, but Born to Golf as well - and maybe all the passionate golf fans at this weekend’s US Open owe a tip of the hat to these natural born runners.

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June 17, 2010

Ryders Eyewear Vigor Review

Prior to this spring, I classified high-performance sunglasses in the category of “this is why I can’t have nice stuff”.

Although I’ve worn sunglasses on virtually every ultra, long training run, or bike ride I’ve ever done, I’ve never been willing to shell out top dollar for anything from Oakley, Bolle, Rudy Project, or any of the other high-priced shades that market specifically to endurance athletes.


Me, with discount glasses. And ladybugs.


The reason, as you can perhaps guess, is that I’m an idiot. A clumsy idiot, to be more precise. I can’t go more than a few months without scraping my glasses through overgrown bushes on the trail, dropping them onto the ground while trying to adjust my visor, accidentally sitting on them once I get to the car, or causing a dozen other calamities to needlessly shorten their lifespan. And whenever such damage occurs, it’s much nicer knowing that you’ve only wrecked a $20 pair of shades instead of a $200 pair.

The problem, of course, is that most $20 shades don’t offer the same overall quality that’s present in higher-priced models. So wouldn’t it be awesome if there was some sort of middle ground: glasses that provide the most important performance features of high-end brands, with a price tag that’s closer to the bargain bins I usually shop in?

It would be, and it is. It’s Ryders Eyewear.


Truthfully, I had never even heard of this British Columbia-based company until recently, even though they’ve been around for more than 25 years. Part of my ignorance may be attributed to the fact that Ryders specializes in motorsport and winter sports eyewear as well as cycling and running … but part of it might be that idiot thing again.

The current catalog is divided into a performance collection for athletics, and a chill collection for, well ... chilling. The performance sunglass category is further broken down into essentials, polarized, interchangeable, photochromic, and photo-polar, which at $90 are the highest priced items in the entire performance collection. The other categories step down in price to $70 (the polarized and photochromic groups) and $60 (the interchangeables), with the essential category the most affordably priced of all.

Ryders Vigor, with orange lenses

I tested the Vigor, which is part of the essential collection and retails for a very wallet-friendly $45. While the price tag is refreshingly low, there are several high-tech features built into these shades that make them a tremendous value.

Like all of Ryder’s glasses in the essential collection, the Vigor features low-profile, high-strength Duraflex frames, in this case available in black or white. It has an anti-slip coating on the temple and nose tips, which become slightly sticky as you sweat, helping the glasses stay in place. Both the nose and temple tips are adjustable with embedded memory wires, giving you some fit customization not typically seen on glasses in this price range.

The lenses are shatterproof, optically correct, scratch-resistant (Hooray!) and provide 100% UV protection. Tint styles for the vigor include orange (on black frames only) or gray. The gray tint allows 15% visible light transmission (VLT), while the orange tint allows 47%. On this particular style, there are small, narrow cutouts on the top and bottom of the lenses, which allow air to pass through and prevent fogging.

I received a pair with orange lenses, which were pretty much perfect for mountain biking, especially when skies are overcast but you still want some eye protection from bugs or dirt. The tint of the lenses actually enhances visual contrast, so I can see every detail in the trail while having the confidence of being protected from anything accidentally lodging in my eyes. On bright sunny days, the VLT is somewhat high for my liking, but if you’re concerned that traditional shades limit your overall visibility, these would be an ideal choice. The air channels in the frames are very effective at limiting fog buildup, which is a super nice feature when you’re biking down a bumpy single track at 20mph.

I’ve found this particular style a little bit bulky for running, but that might be a personal preference issue for me, as I’m accustomed to running in sunglasses with no lower frame. Ryders has other models in their collections – the Stealth and Treviso in particular – that appear ideal for running, and I’ll most likely be reviewing one of those in the near future. If you happen to like full-framed running glasses, the Vigors are a comfortable option, although I'd recommend the darker gray lenses for bright conditions typically found on open trails.

Vigor with black lenses

Whichever style, frame color, and lens color you choose, you'll be impressed by the quality and overall value of Ryders eyewear. The Vigors are available for $45 at Amazon.com (gray lenses linked) in addition to the company website (link above) and other online vendors. Amazon also carries most other styles in the Ryders performance collection, in some cases at discounted prices.


*Product provided by Ryders Eyewear
**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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June 16, 2010

Not Yet ...

I’ve described before how my 11-year-old son’s competitive makeup is basically the antithesis of my own when I was his age – or for that matter, even now in my middle age. He primarily rides simply for the joy of it, for the health benefit, and to explore and better understand his natural surroundings. And yet, every now and then, he’ll surprise me, as was the case on this week’s bike ride in Fort Ord.


While descending into a canyon in our typically reserved fashion, I looked over my shoulder to see another rider approaching, and called ahead to my son to pull over. As the other rider passed, we noted that it was a young teenager – 15 or 16, tops – and briefly said hi as he continued to bomb past us.


A few minutes later, after bottoming out of the canyon and climbing again, we saw the same kid pulled over at the side of the trail, alternately looking over his bike and aimlessly staring across the valley. Thinking he might have flatted or suffered some mechanical problem, I asked if everything was OK when we finally caught up to him at the top of the hill.

His reply was, “Yeah, I’m fine … I’m just waiting for my Dad to catch up.”

My son and I said goodbye again, and rode down into the next canyon in silence for about 30 seconds, before the following exchange took place:

Me: I guess you don’t have that problem.

Son: Yeah … not yet.

And with that, he accelerated away from me further down the hill.


I gave him a few seconds to enjoy the moment while I took a picture, knowing I’d easily catch up to him again as usual. But I also figured I should enjoy that feeling while it lasts – because I think my sweet, compassionate, noncompetitive little boy just trash-talked me. Even worse is that I know he’s right.

I used to struggle with the fact that this kid wasn’t like me in a lot of ways … but now I’m beginning to think that in some cases, I liked it much better that way.

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June 15, 2010

Counterfeit Vibram Warning; Vibram Mont-Blanc Sweepstakes

Neither topic in today’s post is original on my part; in fact, chances are you’ve already heard about each of these items from another website somewhere. However, I’m treating them both as public service announcements, with messages worthy of repetition and reinforcement in hopes of reaching as many people as possible.

However, they do have contrasting themes: one’s a “bad news” story, and the other is potentially very good news. We’ll start with the bad news.

I first started hearing reports of counterfeit Vibram FiveFingers early this year, but apparently the problem has reached frightening proportions as the popularity of the footwear continues to soar. Last month, Vibram released an official notice and recommendation list for its customers, which was bolstered by some tremendous detective work that Justin from BirthdayShoes.com did one month earlier.

Click to enlarge; photo courtesy BirthdayShoes.com


Predictably, most of the black market trade takes place over the Internet, either through auction sites like eBay or the numerous counterfeit websites that seem to be popping up almost weekly. Vibram reports that they’re “working diligently on prosecuting the companies and people behind these forgeries,” but in the meantime, here are a few of their tips to avoid being a victim of a Five Fingered scam.

You know that FiveFingers products are fake if:

* The URL utilizes a spin-off of Vibram or FiveFingers. Hyphens, underscores, misspellings, and the number 5 instead of the word Five are dead giveaways.
* There are colors and styles offered that you’ve never seen on the Vibram website.
* Brands not named Vibram are offering their own “FiveFingers” products.
* There are confusing or poorly written product descriptions and low-quality or low-resolution product images.
* Discounts of more than 20% (and sometimes as much as 50%) are offered; they're almost always counterfeit.
* Fabrics and materials appear different than on the Vibram website.
* The retailer offers no contact phone number or the contact number immediately directs you to voicemail.
* The retailer can’t be found on Vibram’s store locator. Vibram requires their retailers to have a brick and mortar location to be an official vendor.

Both of the links above (to Vibram's official response and the BirthdayShoes page) should also be recommended reading if you want to verify the authenticity of any Vibrams prior to purchasing.

*

Now for the good news: Vibram is currently conducting a sweepstakes in conjunction with their new outdoor website called Grip Your World, and the big giveaway is pretty darn cool: one grand prize winner will receive a trip for two to Chamonix, France and tickets to the prestigious North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc ultramarathon in August. Twenty second place winners will win an (authentic!) pair of Vibram FiveFingers.


Apparently the sweepstakes has been going on for a while, but word is spreading more rapidly this week because the deadline for entry is this Friday, June 18th. To enter, go to Grip Your World and upload a photo, along with a story if you’d like, and you’re entered to win. Pretty simple, huh?

If you win, be sure to send me a postcard from France; it’s the least you could do to say thanks. If I win, I promise to do the same.

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June 14, 2010

How Young? Revisited

I had a different post in mind for today, primarily about Vibrams - but a couple of news events have been bouncing around in my head far too prominently lately, especially in light of an article I recently wrote about the question of how young is too young for extreme athletic endeavors. So today’s offering is the cognitive equivalent of the squeaky wheel getting the grease, and I’ll come back to revisit my original idea tomorrow.

Jordan Romero

As you’ve undoubtedly heard, 13-year-old Jordan Romero made it to the summit of Everest. He’s now a media darling, making the standard rounds on all the major networks, including a seat on Jay Leno’s couch last week. He’s also got a book in the works called The Boy Who Conquered Everest. And truthfully, I couldn’t be happier for the kid. He was highly motivated, worked his butt off, and used a great support system in order to – borrowing Hillary’s famous expression here - knock the bastard off.

However, the side of this whole “youngest ever” frenzy that makes me a little bit squeamish is exemplified in the story of 16-year-old Abby Sunderland and her nearly-disastrous attempted solo circumnavigation of the globe. She got trapped in a storm, and was briefly feared to be lost at sea prior to her rescue by French and Australian crews some 2000 miles off the coast of Australia.

Abby Sunderland

The unsettling aspect isn’t that Abby might not have been qualified to make such an attempt – because by nearly all accounts, she was. It wasn’t even that the plan failed; after all, storms can take out even the most qualified veteran sailors (and as I’ve recently discovered firsthand, sometimes there’s no shame in a DNF). I’m even inclined, just a tiny bit, to cut her family some slack for expressing no willingness to pay for the costs of the rescue, even though it seems like an ideal Balloon Boy-style reprimand on many levels.

What bothers me most is this: prior to the journey, her parents had signed a contract for a film documentary (second item) of the voyage, as well as an agreement to have the whole family’s adventures made into a reality TV show (first item). [*Updated: both of the above links to Magnetic Entertainment, the company in question, have been disabled since this post was published.] And while there’s nothing inherently wrong about soliciting yourselves to various producers in hopes of making a little side income, there’s no question that this wrinkle moves Abby’s endeavor slightly further away from “young kid has a dream and works hard to make it happen” and slightly closer to “family willing to place kids at great risk in exchange for fame and/or fortune,” which for obvious reasons is far more troubling.

I have no idea exactly where on that spectrum this particular family lies – just as I’m uncertain whether the fact that Abby’s brother was a previous “world’s youngest” record holder is a point in her favor or not. But the thought that - no matter what happens to the Sunderlands - there’s undoubtedly another family out there willing to push the line a little further towards the risk side, and another family after them to push it even further, and so on, gives me a bit of a chill wondering if a tragic outcome isn’t hopelessly inevitable someday.

For today, I'm thankful neither of those stories featured Jordan or Abby.


P.S. If you're interested in Abby's perspective, check out her blog here.

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June 13, 2010

No Fussing

"We should really love each other, in peace and harmony -
Instead we're fussing and fighting, like we ain't supposed to be, tell me why -
Why this fussing and a-fighting? I wanna know, Lord, I wanna know."
- Bob Marley, "Fussing and Fighting" (song after post)

*
Well, that sure was interesting.

It honestly wasn't my intention to stir up a hornet's nest with my race report last week, and in hindsight I probably let things go a few exchanges too far before shutting down the comments section on that particular post altogether (as you'll find it now). I was traveling all weekend, and could only drop in on the website a few times to see what was going down ... and every time I did, my spirits diminished a little bit further.

And so as far as this blog is concerned, I'm closing that chapter for good. Before I do, however, there are two points that probably should be made from the aftermath of this situation:

1) I've exchanged several e-mails with Robert, the Blue Canyon race director, and I truly have no animosity or hard feelings towards him in regards to my experience on race day. He has been completely sincere in his regret over the situation - both on race day and on my report - and I believe that his heart is absolutely in the right place when it comes to striving to serve the ultrarunning community he loves. He screwed up, eventually recognized and acknowledged it, and will hopefully learn some lessons from this one if and when he decides to host another race.

2) Likewise, I had personal contact with Brooks from the comment section, who is actually a pretty amazing dude who's overcome some remarkable difficulties on his way to becoming a stud ultrarunner. After corresponding with him directly, things are completely cool between he and I as well. And we'd both like to put this little episode behind us.

Also, one more thing ...

3) I still love the ultra community more than any other group I've ever been associated with. In case anyone was wondering.

So aside from that update, today's post is a brief one. I mentioned I was traveling, but didn't say where:


My wife and I took the family back to our alma mater in Los Angeles for graduation weekend, as one of our relatives was taking part in commencement. We spent a few days cruising the old neighborhood again, and dragging the kids to some touristy places we didn't normally visit when we lived there.


For example, the Getty Museum, whose 7-year construction eclipsed the entire period of time we were in college. The wait was worth it, however: the place is simply amazing. If you're ever in Los Angeles, be absolutely certain that you make time to see it. You can thank me later.

Another outing took us to the La Brea Tar Pits, where among the remains of mammoths and sloths and sabertooth cats, we saw this interesting vehicle:


Which immediately reminded me of a corny joke ...

*
This snail buys a car one day, but before he takes the keys from the dealer he asks for one special modification: he wants a giant "S" painted on both sides and on the back window.

The dealer says, No problem ... does your name start with an S?

Snail: Nope.

Dealer: Is the S for snail, so everyone knows who's driving?

Snail: Nope.

Dealer: So what's the S for?

Snail: It's so when I go cruising past people, they'll all say, "Look at that S Car go!"

*
Like I said, it's corny ... but it seemed like we needed a laugh today. It's certainly better than all that fussing and fighting.


Bob Marley, "Fussing and Fighting" (click to play):

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June 9, 2010

Long Road to Ruin: Blue Canyon 100K* Report

*Technically it was only about 49 miles, but that’s part of the longer story …

"Maybe the season - the colors change in the valley skies -
Dear God I’ve sealed my fate - running through hell, heaven can wait -
Long road to ruin there in your eyes ... "
- Foo Fighters, “Long Road to Ruin” (video after post)

**
Obviously, there’s not much suspense to the way this one ends: I've already announced that I didn’t finish the 100K race last weekend. Consequently, I’ve been predictably undermotivated to post a detailed account of one of the most disappointing events of my life, and pondered not presenting a report at all.

Two considerations ultimately changed my mind …

1) I’m still wondering how much of last weekend’s result was my own fault, and to what degree I was just an unfortunate victim of circumstance – and hopefully, writing an official report and getting some objective feedback (that means you, kind readers) may help sort some of that out. Also …

2) I took a ton of pictures and covered every trail on the course, so a full report might still be instructive (not to mention cautionary) to anyone thinking about doing this race in the future.

And with that, we’ll jump into the recap. I’ll try to keep things moving through the early stages, and spend some extra time on the more pivotal parts as we get there. Away we go!


The race started at 4:30AM, with about 20-25 people gathered in the darkness. Most of the first six miles are an uphill climb on a rocky, narrow single track …


… which poses some unique trail hazards not typically encountered in your average ultra.


One reason the race starts so early is to get some mileage under our belts before the fierce heat of the day takes a stranglehold on the course. Forecast temps were in the upper 90s for Santa Ynez (the nearest town), but we all knew the heat of the remote canyons would be far higher than that. The sun was coming hard – and the more shaded miles we could get in beforehand, the better.


Just past the Arroyo Burro aid station at mile 7, you spend a few miles on rolling single-track …


Before taking on a 2,000-ft climb towards Angustora Pass. Total elevation gain for the 100K course is more than 16,000’ - so while stretches of trail like this would be the biggest climb on many courses, at Blue Canyon it’s just a practice hill for later in the race.


From the aid station at Angostura, you’re awarded with a great view of Gibraltar Dam and Reservoir, and more than 3 miles of downhill fire roads ahead.


As you get closer to the reservoir, small rock features you first saw from a distance become larger and more impressive with every step.


This aid station marks the turnaround point of the 50K race held later in the morning, as well as miles 18 and 49 of the 100K. On my first time through, the morning was definitely heating up, and by the end of the day, one of the volunteers here (more about him later) told me the temperature reached 103. And this was a relatively cool spot: ultimately the course would take us 22 miles further into the hills, where the heat was noticeably greater. For the time being, however, I had no worries at all.


The next several miles skirt up and down the hills and around the inlets of Gibraltar Reservoir. This was one of the most scenic sections of the race – but later on, it would be the place where everything fell apart.


I’ve done two ultras this spring, and run past two quicksilver mines. I just thought that was an interesting coincidence.


The single-track portions of this race are best described as overgrown. Anyplace you could actually see the trail was a luxury; more frequently, you were stepping on top of tall grasses or through brush and brambles of various sizes (anywhere from shin- to waist-high), or bending over at the waist to avoid scratching the heck out of your face and neck. By the end of the day, the burrs and weeds nearly destroyed both my shoes and socks.

Even crazier is that these trails had actually been cleared prior to race weekend - so I’d hate to see what they looked like beforehand.


This is the Forbush aid station at mile 31. From the pre-race e-mails sent to us, here's what was supposed to be there: water, ice, soda, S-caps, Succeed, amino drink mix, GU gels, GU Brew, cooked potatoes, salt, crackers, jellybeans, chips, and various other snacks.

And here's what was actually there: water.

It might not have been so bad, except for one thing: the previous aid station was in precisely the same situation. The mile 25 station was billed as having the exact same list as above, but all it had was a single Gatorade container-sized stash of water and one bag of ice in an igloo cooler. And even THAT might not have been so bad, except for the fact that we had to pass each of these stations on the way back as well. And did I mention that the day was a little bit warm?

Nevertheless, I was still feeling pretty good here, and while I had my bottles filled, the volunteer assured me they’d keep replenishing the water supply throughout the day. File that one under “famous last words.”


Beyond the Forbush station begins a long descent towards Blue Canyon, which actually doesn’t look blue from here – but it sure looked challenging.


There’s really not much to the creek at the bottom of Blue Canyon, but a little later on, I’d get to know this particular area fairly well.


Leaving Blue Canyon is one of the steepest, longest, most difficult climbs I’ve ever done in an ultra. Throw in the fact that the trail was almost completely overgrown in parts and that the heat was becoming insufferable, and this was one of the most dreadful climbs I’ve ever experienced.


At the top, you’re rewarded by two things: this killer vista, and the knowledge that you’re only about three miles from the turnaround point.


I haven’t mentioned one other little unpleasantry yet: the whole course was simply CRAZY with flies. They were so widespread, so numerous, and so bothersome that I was compelled to pitch a tent over my head at times, like on this fire road that leads to the turnaround point. There’s really no way to accurately describe how irritating this was … but I’ll be darned if I’m going to let my race be ruined by a bunch of bugs.


Have you ever seen the turnaround point of a race in the distance, figured out that there’s nobody within miles of you, and realized you could just turn around early without being noticed? More importantly, if you were in that situation, would you spin around early?


Me neither.


There’s something about making the turn for home that feels great – and when it’s combined with the sight of a long downhill stretch in front of me, it’s not surprising that I was feeling really great through this section of the course …


… although the steep descent into Blue Canyon was almost as difficult on the descent as it was going up. The loose rocks, tricky footing, and steep grade were quite a challenge to my Evo shoes, which are super comfortable but a little bit lacking in the traction department. Worse, though, was that the heat was definitely becoming a major player in the event. Shady spots had long since disappeared, and there was really no escape from the conditions …


…except perhaps during a brief dip in the creek at the bottom of the canyon. In hindsight, this was probably my happiest point of the day: I was in the thick of the battle, but there was no doubt in my mind that I’d be able to survive.

Which is why I need to stop jumping to conclusions so much.


Even the bugs seemed friendlier around here: instead of the biting flies and gnats that swarmed everywhere else, this area of the wilderness was overrun by ladybugs (if you click to enlarge, you can see them). I like ladybugs: they don’t bite, they don’t try to burrow into your eyes or ears, and they’ve got that whole cute vibe going for them.


So I certainly didn’t mind giving several of them a ride for a while – even if it was on my head.

To this point, I was managing salt and calorie and fluid intake fairly well, typically draining my bottles 10 or 15 minutes before rolling into an aid station. However, I for the past several miles I also knew that I was dancing right on the edge of “managing” and “dealing with chaos”, and I could tell that my margin for error was razor-thin.


That’s why I was so glad to make it to back to the Forbush aid station, where the following exchange took place …

Me: Boy, am I glad to see you!

Volunteer: Hi there. Unfortunately I’ve got some bad news for you: we don’t have any water.

Me: Um … what?

Volunteer: We’re out of water, and we think the next aid station is out of water, too. I’m trying to get some more water in here, but in the meantime you should probably just sit in the shade and wait until it gets here.

Me: Crap. OK.



So I sat down next to a group of 50-mile runners who were also waiting for water, all of whom had already decided to drop from the race. It’s also worth mentioning here that I don’t have any ill will toward the volunteer, who was making the best of a horrible situation. All of this was happening at about 2 in the afternoon, at mile 41 on the course, after I had been running for more than 10 hours on a day when the temperature was well over 100 degrees. His main concern was keeping us safe, and I’m not sure what he could have done differently.


He eventually scoped out this little creek about 200 yards off-trail, where I spent the next 30 minutes soaking in the water, trying to lower my core temperature while simultaneously not letting my blood pressure boil because I was stressed out about getting back to the race.

I also contemplated just how sick I might get if I started sipping straight from the stream, but I flunked out of Boy Scouts too early to remember if I would get “life-threatening sick”, or just “bacterial infection or intestinal parasite leading to hospitalization” sick. Ultimately, I decided against taking the risk …


… and just stared at the happy ladybugs instead.

My own outlook was taking a significant downturn, however. After sitting for almost 40 minutes, my muscles were starting to cramp throughout my legs and feet, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to continue the race if I sat much longer. So I shuffled back towards the volunteer, where we had the following exchange:

Me: Any update on the water situation?

Him: Not really … I’m still trying to find out if anyone’s able to get some out to us.


In other words, the status report went from “We’ll replenish the water for sure,” to “We’re waiting on water to arrive,” to “We’re not sure if we’ll get any more,” in the time since I passed through here on my way out. For the first time all day, I wasn’t certain that my race would end well – but I became convinced that the way to finish wasn’t by sitting around here anymore.


And so I walked. Hobbled, more accurately. The next aid station was more than 4 miles away – a distance that seemed almost hopelessly far.


Along the way, I tried to hydrate through the skin as much as possible by lowering myself into whatever ponds or streams I came across, which was temporarily effective for cooling, but did nothing for my cravings for a drink.


Even though the terrain was only moderately rolling through here, I couldn’t run more than a few steps at a time because 1) my legs were still in cramp mode from the long rest, and 2) the more effort I exerted, the thirstier I felt. So I ended up walking most of the miles to the next aid station …

Which was out of water as well.

The Gatorade container I described earlier was completely empty, and all that was left in the igloo was an empty ice bag and a bit of standing water with lots of dirt floating in it (from ice being grabbed by messy hands). I tipped the cooler on edge enough to fill one bottle halfway, and eagerly drank the water almost all in one gulp …


… only to have it come right back up a few minutes later. By this time, I caught sight of the reservoir again. It’s hard to explain the feeling of seeing a huge body of water when you haven’t had anything to drink for several hours, and just thrown up while walking into the sun after covering more than 45 miles of hills … so let’s just say it’s unpleasant.

I was basically a dead man walking – my legs were cramped, I was completely lightheaded, and I had absolutely no energy to make it up even the gentle hills. And the day was running out on me: with a 9PM course closure, I was looking at a little over 3 hours left to cover 15 miles. That wouldn’t be happening.


So when I reached the 50K turnaround aid station at mile 49, I was cooked. I sat in the chair for a few minutes to see if I’d recover, but my leg pains just got worse, and my head wasn’t getting any better. So for the first time in my life, I officially dropped out of a race. Needless to say, it's not a moment I’ll remember fondly.


The only bright spot in the whole ordeal was this guy: Scott, a volunteer at the aid station who reads my blog. He recognized me on my first pass through the station as soon as I took my camera out for photos, and then he thanked me. When I looked puzzled, he explained that he was one of the winners of the Sockwa giveaway I did last fall. He was also the one who eventually gave me a ride off the course in his truck.

It turns out that Scott’s a super nice guy who’s fallen in love with trail running, and has two daughters who like Jack Johnson music. So obviously we hit it off pretty quickly. (He didn’t even complain when I made him pull over so I could puke again.) And I wouldn’t have known any of that if I hadn’t dropped out. The lesson here? Practice kindness – sooner or later it will come back around to you. And you never know who you might need to get yourself rescued.


Despite the pleasant surprise of finding a blog fan (really, what are the odds?) in the middle of the Santa Ynez Mountains, , I felt almost unbearable remorse as my final impression of the landscape was from the inside of Scott’s truck rather than standing upright on my own two feet. In the days since, I’ve spent an unhealthy majority of my waking hours vacillating between being disappointed in myself for not trying to finish the race - especially my decision to sit for 40 minutes instead of just trying to power through the Forbush aid station - and upset at the organizers who created a situation that invited so much failure and potential disaster.

Only 5 people finished the 100K race. Only 4 others finished the 50-mile race. From my standpoint, I’m absolutely certain that I could have finished if I had the support that was advertised, or even if I had an accurate sense of what to expect going in. I could have worn a hydration vest instead of carrying bottles, or I could have stashed fluids for myself at the drop stations. Other races have long stretches (10 miles or more) without aid, but that’s spelled out in advance so the runners can plan for it.

But to tell runners that aid stations will be fully stocked, and then have two consecutive stations turn up completely empty on the hottest day of the year on one of the toughest courses in California just seems irresponsible, potentially dangerous, and – in my case at least – a perfect way to ruin someone’s ultra.

I’ve decided to leave my ranting at that, but a friend of mine pointed out some interesting discussion that’s taken place since the race last weekend. I don’t really hold any bad feelings towards the event, although it’s unlikely I’d ever be inclined to race there again. In the meantime, I’ll just chalk this one up to a bad day and a learning experience, and move forward towards finding the next adventure to start building my mojo back.

**
Foo Fighters, "Long Road to Ruin" (click to play):



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