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August 31, 2010

The Best Running Books Ever!*

*Or, more modestly, A Runner’s Fall Semester Reading Curriculum

In my school days, one of the highlights of starting a new academic year was receiving the required reading list for the semester. A good list usually featured a combination of classics that lend themselves well to multiple readings, well-known titles that I’d always heard of but never dove into, and some less-established selections that turned out to be pleasant surprises.

In my running years, fall has always been an ideal time to stoke my running mojo. Refreshingly cool temperatures, leaves on the trail, and a crowded race calendar make it easy to find motivation to get out the door and log some high mileage before drifting into a winter hibernation.

So in the spirit of both those ideas, I’ve compiled a recommended reading list for runners to tackle over the next few months; some you’ve probably already read, others you’ve heard of, and some others you might not have. Obviously, the selection process is biased, and although the books listed here happen to be my personal favorites, they may or may not appeal to you; that’s what Amazon.com reviews are for, which I’ve linked for each one. Pick one that looks interesting - or if you’re really ambitious (not to mention really bored), dive into the whole list.

Since the inspiration for this post was a Monterey Herald article I published here in July, I figured I’d make this an audience participation exercise, and include links to all of the reader recommendations that I received following that post. If for some reason I’ve still missed something, feel free to let me know in the comments below.

And since someone’s bound to ask: no, Once a Runner isn’t on this list. Here’s my brief take on Parker’s book: it’s a fair novel which happens to focus exclusively on running – and because it was released in a time when running-themed books were a rare commodity, it somehow developed this fantastical cult following that I’ve never fully understood. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t belabor the point any further here.

That seems like enough of an intro … so let’s get to it, shall we?

Top 5 Running Books of All Time (in my humble opinion, and in no particular order):

The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb: I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that breaking the 4-minute mile was the greatest athletic accomplishment of all time. I mean, more than a few people – respected scientists among them – believed that such an extreme effort would cause an athlete’s heart to burst, resulting in sudden death. In the aftermath, Bannister’s milestone run was the ultimate representation of breaking through the wall, forever changing the way distance runners – and athletes of any persuasion, for that matter – pursue accomplishments that others think impossible.

The fact that the race to 4 minutes also became a three-way intercontinental drama involving two of the most popular athletes in the world, as well as one who never truly got his due, just adds to the compelling nature of this tale – and Neal Bascomb’s account of this golden age of running is the most comprehensive I’ve ever read. It also manages to be a good page-turner, even though you pretty much already know the outcome of Bannister’s quest.

The Four-Minute Mile by Roger Bannister: Hey, have I mentioned before that I’m a big Roger Bannister fan? My father gave me a copy of this book when I was a kid, and back then I thought Bannister’s properness and humility were way too old-school. Thankfully, I re-read the book about 10 years ago – and this time, I found everything about Bannister to be nothing short of admirable. To think that he broke a world record (a death-defying one, at that) while enrolled in medical school, and that he walked away from a competitive running career to focus on his more noble professional calling is simply unfathomable nowadays. For my money, you’ll never find a better role model than Bannister, and his memoir is one of the most impressive reads I’ve ever enjoyed.

Running with the Buffaloes by Chris Lear: Lear caught lightning in a bottle during the season he embedded himself with the University of Colorado cross country teams, featuring superstar runner Adam Goucher and soon-to-be-superstar coach Mark Wetmore. My lasting impression from this book is the work ethic that is required to succeed in intercollegiate XC. Here’s one example: Lear describes a typical exchange between Wetmore and any students who express an interest in trying out for the XC team. Wetmore’s response was basically, “Run 100 miles per week, every week for a year, and then come talk to me.” Even more astonishingly, one kid actually did it.

Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes: Sure, Karnazes is a polarizing guy now, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that his personal story is quite inspirational, and this book helped launch the fringe sport of ultrarunning into the national conscious. Karnazes encouraged legions of new ultrarunners (including me) to give the sport a try, and he’s probably more responsible for the modern day perks (plenty of ultras all over the country, with new ones every year) and drawbacks (lotteries, early registration periods, and hints of “celebrity” culture) of modern day ultrarunning than any single person.

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall: A modern day classic. Launched the current barefoot renaissance. And I’ve already written a full review of this one, so we’ll stop there.

So there you have my top 5: are you inspired yet? If not, perhaps a secondary category would help? …

Best Non-Running Books that Runners Will Enjoy (at least, I did, and I’m a runner … so maybe you will too):

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer: One of the most gripping tales of adventure, danger, hubris, and athletic extremism you'll ever read. This book ushered in a whole new genre of non-fiction: the high-mountain drama, which has since been imitated by countless authors, very few of whom combine their climbing chops and gift for storytelling quite like Krakauer. The original remains one of the best and most memorable in the category.

Lance Armstrong's War by Daniel Coyle: Sure, Lance’s autobiography got all the attention, but this account was more memorable to me for two primary reasons …

1) Without reading this book, it’s almost impossible to fully appreciate the single-minded focus and determination that Armstrong (along with his coach, Johan Buuyneel) devoted to the Tour de France every year, and how ferociously he devoured every perceived obstacle in his way – even, in some cases, those from within his own team. Also …

2) There’s a classic description of how the cyclists and coaches can all tell who’s in shape and who isn’t by looking at each other’s backsides. More specifically, there’s this explanation:

“The ass check is an unobtrusive art. It is practiced from a distance, and requires not only a keen eye but also experience. An ass, properly examined, is one of the best available calibrations of potential … ‘First you have to know the guy. Then you have to know the ass.’ Bruyneel says. ‘After you know it, it tells as much as powermeter numbers.'”

For some reason that passage stuck with me – but maybe I shouldn’t say that out loud.

The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz: No physical discomfort you ever encounter in life will seem significant after reading this book, but there’s another reason I mention it here: Gretchen gave it to me as a thank-you after I paced her at Tahoe. In other words, the story of a Siberian prison camp escapee who endured the most horrific pain and mental anguish imaginable on an endlessly laborious journey through extreme depths of despair naturally brought to mind the long night she spent with me. I’m not exactly sure if that’s a compliment.

And we’re into the homestretch with our final category …

Reader Recommendations from July (and whatever random comments I can come up with, since I haven’t read most of these):

A Step Beyond by Don Allison: I’ve never read it, and don’t know anything about it, except that apparently Amazon doesn’t carry it – but according to the lone reviewer, Ultrarunning magazine does.

Run Like a Mother by Dimitry McDowell and Sarah Bowen Shea and The Barefoot Running Book by Jason Robillard: Two things are notable about these:

1) They’re both self-published, which means they don’t have as much street cred as anything from established publishing houses – but some independent authors are just as qualified to see their work in print as a lot of authors out there, and even have a good shot of being financially successful. I honestly believe that. Firmly, fervently, passionately believe it. And yes … that’s also a bit of foreshadowing.

2) I received a copy of Robillard’s book in the mail this week, and I’ll have a review posted here in the near future. Stay tuned.

Lore of Running by Tim Noakes: I looked at this in a bookstore once; it seemed awfully thick. Based solely on probability, there must be some good stuff tucked away in there.

Daniels' Running Formula by Jack Daniels: I actually have a fantastic story to share about an interaction between coach Jack Daniels and my friend Mike, but I can’t tell it, because all of the funny parts are rife with F-bombs. Here’s a hint: they didn’t come from Mike.

The Complete Book of Running by James Fixx: My dad had this book as well; I think he purchased it during the two weeks he tried to become a runner. It pretty much sat on the shelf and gathered dust after that, but it’s still kind of a nice memory.

Fixing Your Feet by John Vonhoff: Never heard of it, although my first impression is that it runs contrary to the barefoot philosophy that there’s nothing wrong with our feet just the way they are, thank you very much.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami: This is the book that’s most intriguing to me, only because no fewer than three people mentioned to me that they thought I’d love it, as Murakami’s writing style is similar to mine (although since he’s the one with the mainstream publishing contract, I guess that means my writing is similar to his). From the Amazon review, it’s apparently about diary entries, reminiscences, life advice, pop culture references, all revolving around a lifelong habit of running. So … yeah. I think I should probably read that one someday.

As for you, you’re all set to get reading anything on these lists during the new school year – and best of all, there’s no test at the end of the semester. Feel free to share your thoughts on these or any other books in the comments below, and maybe we can start our own little discussion group.


August 29, 2010

Simple Satire Kids' Shoe Review

*Admin note before today’s post: given the time of year, I’ll be bringing at least a couple of back to school-themed posts in the near future. I’ve also mentioned previously that books will be getting increased attention around here; in some cases those topics (books and school) might overlap, but in most cases they won’t. This is one of the “won’ts”.

“I can change the world with my own two hands –
Make a better place with my own two hands …

I’m gonna make it a brighter place –
I’m gonna make it a safer place –
I’m gonna help the human race –
With my own, with my own two hands.”

- Ben Harper, “With My Own Two Hands” (video after post)

A few years ago, my son’s 4th grade class sang the above song at an assembly, which was part of the school’s overall emphasis on developing children of character: kids who practice kindness towards others, conduct themselves responsibly, and take care of the local community and global environments around them.

The idea of teaching eco-responsibility is relatively modern - at least, I certainly don’t remember it from my own elementary school days – but it’s not always an easy thing to do with our kids in practice. Organic, free range, or hormone-free food is expensive. Finding toys without plastics or that are assembled without toxins is next to impossible. And environmentally responsible apparel and footwear is often a combination of the two: both rare and expensive.

So when a company makes responsible role modeling simple and easily accessible, it’s a pleasant thing to see. Or, flipped around, perhaps I could say that when the Simple company makes pleasant footwear models for kids, it’s our responsibility to pay attention.

I’ve profiled Simple shoes in previous product reviews, but here’s their story in a nutshell: the company’s mission is to be the most eco-friendly shoe manufacturer on the planet. They use materials and processes that minimize their environmental impact as much as possible, with a stated goal of becoming 100% sustainable. They’re also committed to keeping their retail prices affordable enough to be accessible to everyone.

They also make a full line of fashionable children’s shoes, and my 9-year-old daughter (coincidentally, now a 4th grader herself) went back to school this fall in the Simple Satire, a very cute little sneaker with all of the eco-friendly features of the company’s grown-up shoes.

The Satire is a completely vegan shoe, with no animal products or byproducts used in its construction. It has a moderate midsole height but no drop from heel to toe, making it a nice option for fans of natural walking, albeit with much less ground feel than a minimalist-style shoe.

The footbed contains some EVA but also uses a material called BIO-D that is biodegradable. Certified organic cotton is used for the interior lining, and like all Simple shoes, the bottom of the Satire utilizes rubber from recycled car tires.

Best of all, they just look like a cute schoolgirl shoe, and they’re fairly affordable, especially if you can find them on sale. The pair pictured here is an older model that we picked up at REI.com, where they’re presently being closed out for $20. Current pairs retail for $42 from the Simple website, but many sizes and styles (including boy colors, too) are discounted to $32 at Endless.com. It’s a relatively affordable way to make a statement to your kids about supporting good companies, and to bring them one step closer to changing the world with their own two feet.


Although it was Jack Johnson who made this song famous among the 10-and-under crowd by reworking it for the Curious George soundtrack, in my opinion the original reggae version remains vastly superior from a musical standpoint. Coming from a devoted Jack Johnson fan, that’s really saying something.

Ben Harper, “With My Own Two Hands” (click to play)

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


August 26, 2010

Barefoot FAQ

I don’t think there’s much shame in calling myself a fair-weather barefoot runner.

On the Monterey Peninsula, conditions are pretty hospitable for kicking off your shoes almost year-round, with the exception of a few months of freezing temperatures on cold winter mornings. Without a doubt, though, summer is absolutely ideal for being a barefooter - and accordingly, I’ve been logging more barefoot miles than usual over the past several weeks.

Since summer is also a peak time for folks to spend lazy hours hanging around tourist spots or congregating in neighborhood parks, this is also the time of year when a barefoot runner can potentially draw a lot of attention. Such has been the case for me, which led to this week’s Monterey Herald column, which follows below.


Running Life 8/26/10 “Barefoot FAQ”

Last August we wrote about the barefoot revolution taking place in the running community, with a growing number of practitioners embracing the idea of running as our prehistoric ancestors did long before gel cushioning and pronation posts were ever conceived. I’ve been practicing barefoot running for about a year and a half now, and increasing my shoeless mileage significantly during the warm summer months.

However, while the barefoot movement may be expanding, it’s by no means mainstream. In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to finish a run without somebody expressing their surprise or bewilderment at the freak running around with naked feet. Occasionally those folks ask questions, which we’re summarizing here for the benefit of others who might be curious.

Hey - did someone steal your shoes? Of course not … but if it’s any consolation, you’re not the first person to ask. Actually, you’re not even the 100th. This question seems to be the universal calling card for smart-alecks trying to be hilarious. Next question.

So why do you do it? The short reason is, it’s pretty fun. There’s something inherently joyful about running around shoeless; it’s like pushing a magic “boost” button to amplify the childlike pleasure of running by a magnitude of 100. Some people do it after a history of injuries with shoes, and others try it to give the muscles of their feet and lower legs a unique workout – but for most of us, it’s all about the joy.

But doesn’t it hurt? Yes … and no. Barefoot running takes a LOT of getting used to, and you have to start in very small doses. When you first begin, you’ll feel every little crack and pebble in the road, and 99% of them will be uncomfortable. Even after a year, there are definitely some surfaces I try to avoid at all costs - gravel fire roads and chip and seal asphalt come to mind – because they just hurt too much. After a while, your feet grow resilient to a variety of surfaces, from asphalt to concrete to grass and groomed trails, but there’s always an additional caution factor that barefoot runners exercise.

Aren’t you afraid of broken glass? This is far and away the most common “You’re gonna shoot your eye out!” warning barefoot runners hear. Certainly we’re concerned about broken glass, as well as rusty nails or pieces of scrap metal – but those hazards aren’t nearly as common as some people imagine, and you’d be amazed at how effective your eyes are at spotting trouble spots on the road before you get there.

Do you get blisters? Yes … and no. New barefoot runners will certainly develop a few blisters when they get started; they’re your body’s built-in warning system to ensure that you progress gradually to prevent long-term injury. Experienced barefoot runners eventually become more resistant to blisters – the soles of your feet become a bit leathery – but even so, we’ll often get blisters if we run a lot farther or faster than usual.

Don’t your feet get cold? In some conditions, sure. It’s much harder to be a barefoot runner in the winter than in the summer. A handful of hardcore folks run barefoot in snow or freezing temperatures, but the vast majority of us spend the cold seasons in various types of minimalist footwear – no heel, no cushion - like Vibram FiveFingers, Soft Star moccasins, or other styles from other manufacturers. Thankfully, minimalist options are growing like crazy, and it’s not very hard to find some basic foot coverings to get you through the winter.

But when you’re fortunate enough to live on the Monterey Peninsula, the climate is amenable to barefoot running almost year-round, so you’ve got plenty of opportunities to give it a try!


August 24, 2010

Wavin' Flag

“When I get older, I will be stronger –
They’ll call me Freedom, just like a wavin’ flag.”

- K’Naan, “Wavin’ Flag” (video after post)

Determination is generally a well-respected quality in grown-ups – which is why it seems odd that the same trait in children can often become infuriating.

As usual, it took one of my kids to teach me a lesson I should have known anyway; in this case the instructor was my 6-year-old daughter, and the occasion was her dogged determination to go fly a kite.

She had been bugging me about it for practically the whole summer, but usually at the worst possible moments, like at the end of a long day, or prior to a weekend when we already had several other things scheduled. One such day I finally said to her, “You know what? Go put it on the calendar. Then we’ll be sure to save some time for it.”

Last Saturday, her day finally arrived. (And yes … the writing is adorable.)

It took us a lot longer than I expected to get the first flight off the ground, as the normally reliable winds at Carmel River beach were only intermittently gusty. Eventually I got some decent height under the wings and handed my daughter the reins to keep things under control. So far, no problem.

The point of contention came when she wanted to launch the kite on her own. Since I initially had so much trouble, I figured there was no way my 6-year-old could get the kite to fly – and despite several attempts on her part, she wasn’t able to do it. I finally asked if she wanted my help again, to which she begrudgingly agreed.

We carried on like this for a few more flights: me tossing the kite up and quickly letting out some string, and her running like crazy down the beach to get as much wind resistance as possible. And just as I thought we had the perfect system worked out, my little angel wanted to fire me again.

By this time, we had been out there for a couple of hours, I could tell she was getting tired, and I had absolutely zero expectation that she’d get the kite in the air. So I told her as much, which led to an argument and moping and eventually tears of frustration from my daughter at not being allowed to struggle through something all by herself. The discussion ended with me saying something along the lines of “Fine … go ahead. But don’t ask me for any more help,” or something similarly brilliant.

So she took the kite in her hands, trying over and over to get the thing airborne … and it never happened. Thankfully, she was humble enough to ask for my help again – and even more thankfully, I wasn’t enough of an idiot to decline. We resumed our regular routine that had worked before, and I got to watch her race across the sand with a high flying kite in her wake.

And if I wanted a happy ending, I’d finish the story right there.

As if the first failed experiment never happened, she soon decided she wanted to try it alone again, and the results were similarly disastrous. It was also time for us to leave, news that my daughter greeted with a mini-meltdown. She wasn’t ready to go home, and she darn sure wasn’t ready to give up – but that’s exactly what I was telling her to do. I stood my ground, and chauffeured one upset, cross-armed little girl back home.

So back to that determination thing: clearly this girl has it in spades, and just as clearly, it sometimes drives me simply bonkers. What I realized later that evening - and about 6 hours later than I should have - is that her brand of determination probably shouldn’t be discouraged as much as I tried to ... because before I know it, my girl’s going to fly that blasted kite.

Considering all that I just wrote, it’s probably no coincidence that this song happens to be one of my daughter’s current favorites. And since it was also the official song of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, chances are pretty good that you might be fairly sick of it by now, but I don’t care; it’s still catchy as hell, and I’m still enjoying it with every listen.

K’Naan, “Wavin’ Flag,” (click to play):


August 22, 2010

Hydrapak Flume Hydration Pack Review

If you’re already familiar with Hydrapak, it’s probably for one of two reasons:

1) You’ve seen their reservoirs on the inside of other manufacturer’s hydration packs, including the Nathan HPL 020, which is rapidly becoming the gold standard for ultrarunners, or

2) You know them as a manufacturer of outstanding cycling and mountain bike packs such as the Big Sur, which is one of the most popular MTB packs on the market, and which I reviewed in the spring for FeedTheHabit.com (the brief version: there’s a reason why it’s so popular.)

Hydrapak Flume

The company’s roots lie primarily in cycling gear, but a couple of their products have some crossover appeal for runners as well; among these is the Flume, which is one of Hydrapak’s most lightweight and low profile products, but still provides the standard 2-liter fluid capacity of most long distance running packs.

Mesh storage overlay; aside from the zip pocket, that's pretty much all you get.

Styling on the Flume is quite basic: the main body consists of a reservoir compartment and a foldover flap with a zippered pocket. A mesh pocket overlays the reservoir sleeve for an all-purpose stash area. As far as storage goes, that’s it. There are no inner or hidden pockets on the main body, and no side or front pockets on the straps; in other words, if you’re someone who likes to keep a camera at hand during your runs (ahem!), you’ll find the cargo capacity a little bit lacking.

Air Flow back paneling

Otherwise, the pack sits and rides very comfortably, weighing in at 16oz, with an air flow back panel to provide ventilation, and an adjustable chest strap to customize the fit in front. There’s minimal bounce or lateral movement on the trail, and the minimalist design makes it fairly easy to take the pack off and replace it again. A somewhat unique feature (for running packs, anyway) is the option to route the hydration tube from the bottom of the pack instead of over the shoulder, which ended up being my preferred method of use for the Flume.

Bottom routing option for hydration tube

Another benefit of the Flume's low profile is one I discovered while mountain biking: it’s very easy to wear this pack on top of a cycling jersey and maintain access to the jersey pockets. With other “crossover” packs I’ve reviewed such as the GoLite Rush or CamelBak Octane XCT, wearing the pack greatly limits access to your shirt pockets.

Without a doubt, though, the portion of this pack that shines most brightly is Hydrapak’s reversible Reservoir II, which I also described in my HPL 020 review. It’s completely reversible and super durable, with a nice wide opening for easy filling and cleaning. The slide seal takes a little getting used to, but it’s ultimately very convenient and completely leakproof.

Slide seal closure

A few years ago there was one clearly superior player – CamelBak – when it came to durable and dependable reservoirs, but from my experience, I’d put Hydrapak’s Reservoir II in that same category. (And if you need more convincing, Hydrapak has a somewhat amusing demonstration video here.) Considering that a good fluid reservoir can retail for $30 or more, the $48 ticket price of the Flume pack seems like a fairly good deal.

So while the Flume isn’t quite ready to become my preferred ultrarunning pack, there are a lot of things to like about it. If Hydrapak could incorporate some front storage on this pack, that would be a huge step in the right direction. In the meantime, the Flume is a nicely affordable option for medium distance running and MTB activities that comes with one of the best fluid reservoirs you’ll find on the market.

The Hydrapak Flume retails for $47.99 from the company website, with some colors discounted at Amazon.com.

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


August 19, 2010

Another Gladwell Success (and Donald Disappointment)

One of the cardinal rules you teach children is that everybody is blessed differently.

Each of us has unique gifts and talents, and just because some other kid does something better than you, it doesn’t mean that kid is a better person. Everybody excels in different areas: the kids who make the honor roll aren’t always the most socially well-adjusted; the best athletes aren’t always the sharpest students; and the most popular kids aren’t always the ones who go on to achieve the greatest professional success.

It’s nice reassurance to carry into adulthood as well – the only problem is, I’m not convinced that it’s true.

One case in point was revealed to me in a recent post by the categorically brilliant, immensely talented writer Malcolm Gladwell, who I’ve swooned over more than once in this space. Most recently, I described how reading his work has the unfortunate effect of emphasizing my own limitations as a writer. Although it was a discouraging feeling, I can honestly say I didn’t dwell on it too long … after all, there’s probably something I can do better than Gladwell, right?

Then I found out that he could probably kick my butt in a race, too - at least, he could have at one time.

In this short post, Gladwell tells the story of how he once defeated a future "greatest Canadian miler of his generation" in a 1500m race, in a time that most of us would die to run. He also unleashed this awesome picture upon the Internet:

Malcolm Gladwell at age 14, running a 4:05 1500m

In case you didn’t recognize the coif, that’s him on the right. His 1500m time was roughly 4:05, which is even more impressive when you consider the enormous drag coefficient coming from the top of his head. Given that Gladwell’s such an "outside the box" intellect, I’m somewhat surprised he didn’t think to wear a swim cap when he ran; you could make a pretty compelling argument that with a more streamlined profile, he might have dipped under four minutes.

But that’s mainly just me being petty, and even more discouraged that Gladwell has accomplishments in both writing AND running that I can’t even hope to emulate. And he’s intelligent and financially secure and is probably the life of every party he attends. He’s like a prom king who also turns out to be a straight A student and a completely nice person to boot – an outlier, if you will. Knowing all of this doesn’t cause me to admire him any less - but occasionally it makes me look even harder for something to stake my pride on.

I suppose I’ve got more manageable hair – and for now, I guess that will have to do.


August 17, 2010

Book Review: Going Long

A couple of administrative notes before today’s post …

First, I’m looking for a stray monkey. Mike who entered the Monkey Shake contest, e-mail your address to me at info@runningandrambling.com to claim your prize. You’ve got until midnight Thursday before I pick another winner, so get moving.

Second, you’ll notice the website veering in a somewhat bookish direction over the next few weeks; a review today, then a discussion in the near future that originated from comments on another recent post, and later … something I’m not officially talking about yet, but which could be very exciting, while simultaneously making my stomach churn. But that’s an explanation for another time; for now, let’s jump into the review.


In hindsight it seems foolish, but several years ago I had an identity crisis of sorts in regards to a certain national running magazine.

I had been a runner for more than a decade, and many of those years were spent in adulation of Runner's World, whose monthly arrival in my mailbox I awaited like a grade-schooler eager for his mail-order Magic X-Ray Specs (wait … come to think of it, that kid was me as well). Each month brought a fresh delivery of training advice and inspiration, and was always reliable for a healthy dose of mojo to help fuel my training. My affinity for the magazine steadily seeped into my identity: I’m a runner – I subscribe to Runner’s World.

Over the years, however, the magazine’s luster faded, as the pearls of advice I awaited gradually looked like others I had already seen, and the unique training articles seemingly blended into one another from month to month. Lose 5 pounds now! Finish your first 10K! Build washboard abs in time for summer! Stay fit after 40! Those once-fresh offerings began to grow stale, and I realized I wasn’t gaining tangible benefits from my subscription any longer.

I ultimately cancelled, but it took me a lot longer than it should have. Part of it was that identity thing: maybe if I still considered myself a real runner, I was obligated to subscribe to RW. Maybe I risked eroding my dedication to the sport if I lacked my once-regular pipeline of motivation and inspiration. (These are the kinds of things that seem important before you have kids.) Or maybe I just liked having the magazines on my coffee table for visitors to see.

Needless to say, I kept a soft spot in my heart for the magazine, and I was especially intrigued with an executive decision by editor David Willey in 2003 to support and promote long-form journalism: pieces that gave depth and feeling to a particular story, ones that the reader could absorb and carry with them long after reading the usual cookie-cutter training tips. The magazine already had a very talented stable of writers, and it gave them free reign to find compelling stories and tell them in an extended narrative manner that connected to the larger themes in life we all experience.

Such pieces are typically included in the magazine once per month, and they’ve helped raise the quality bar of each issue considerably. It’s not quite enough to make me a subscriber again, but it was sufficient to make me interested in a collection that was recently published by RW’s parent company, Rodale Press.

Going Long: Legends, Oddballs, Comebacks & Adventures is a selection of the best long-form pieces from Runner's World, almost all of them penned under Willey’s tenure as Editor in Chief. As the subtitle implies, they encompass a wide variety of topics, including legends of the sport and unsung heroes, exotic racers and crazy adventurers. Above all, they describe exploits that anyone can relate to - in some ways uplifting, in other ways heartbreaking, but in almost every way interesting.

One of my favorite pieces is a an update by Steve Friedman on the remarkable life of Zola Budd, who at various times in her career was identified as a barefoot oddity, an elite distance runner, a symbol of social injustice, a world record holder, and a scapegoat of an entire Olympic host nation. Her mesmerizing tale didn’t end at the 1984 Los Angeles Games; it merely faded from public consciousness over a period of many years. Friedman’s portrait reveals how the same resiliency and determination that propelled Zola to great athletic heights also carried her through some of the most daunting life challenges any of us might ever face.

And that’s just one essay; the remainder are equally well-developed, providing the kind of insights and stirring the types of feelings that are becoming harder and harder to find in traditional journalism anymore. You’re certain to find one or two pieces here that speak to your soul; more likely, you’ll find several of them. Going Long should give you the same inspiration and mojo that the magazine itself used to give me so many years ago.


August 15, 2010

First Impressions: Vibram FiveFingers Bikila Review

Last week’s half-marathon race report contained a smaller story within the larger one: the maiden voyage of my Vibram FiveFingers Bikilas. That smaller story will become a much larger story – a full-length product review – in the near future, but in the meantime I figured some first impressions might be of interest.

(So this is a short story from a long story that will soon become a long story of its own. Make sense? OK then.)

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila

The first thought that came to mind when taking the Bikilas out of the box was that these are about as close as Vibram will ever come to looking like a traditional running shoe. The uppers are white enough to draw attention, with reflective panels and color accents that are customary on most road trainers (and which I've heard others describe as somewhat flashy). From my experience, the “head turning” factor of this model is about 10 times what it is for my plain black KSOs and my brown KSO Treks – whether that’s good news or bad is up to you.

The fit of the upper feels like a running shoe as well, featuring a cushioned heel collar and soft fabric throughout the sockliner and footbed. The opening of the upper seems somewhat smaller than on the KSO or KSO Trek models – a design perhaps attributable to the lack of a heel strap, which is a major structural difference from KSOs. I tend to be in between sizes with Vibrams (a 42 is slightly tight, and a 43 is a little roomy), and since I had heard reports that the Bikilas were snug, I went with the larger size, which was definitely the right call. There’s a small amount of space at the ends of my toes, but not so much that the fit feels sloppy.

Happy feet after 28 sockless miles!

I gave the Bikila’s out-of-the-box comfort a pretty serious test with my 28-miler last weekend, and I can honestly say that I had no problems whatsoever with how they felt for the whole morning. I wore them sockless, as I do for nearly all my FiveFIngers running except on super-high mileage trail days. As with any new footwear, I was concerned about potential hotspots, especially once I made the decision to gradually push the pace over the last 10 miles of the race. By the end of the morning I was giving a 5K effort, and felt absolutely no limitation from the fit or feel of the Bikilas – and when I took them off, I was thrilled to realize that my feet didn’t hurt one bit.

Mild red spots at top of arches, likely from internal strap seams

The next day I noted a couple of small abrasions where an internal seam of the Velcro strap lies against the foot, and a similar sized one on the back of one Achilles tendon where the top of the collar rests. Considering that I didn’t feel those spots at all while running, and that they didn’t hurt me when I strapped on the Bikilas for another run a few days after the race, I’d say that’s a pretty impressive test they passed right off the bat.

Needless to say, the Bikilas and I are definitely off to a great start together. I’ll continue to rack up the miles in them and report back here with more photos and a full-length review in the next month or two.


August 12, 2010

28 Miles in Vibrams: Salinas Valley Half Marathon Report

Framed by the Santa Lucia mountains to the west and the Gabilan range to the east, the Salinas Valley is known primarily for its flat terrain, fertile fields, and cool morning fog. It’s an ideal environment for crop development – not to mention a sweet area to host a road race.

That was the intent of the race committee for this year’s first annual Salinas Valley Half Marathon, which attracted almost 1300 runners from all over the country to experience a taste – literally and figuratively - of what Monterey County has to offer. This race wasn’t officially on my calendar, but when the opportunity arose to jump in at the last minute, I thought it would be foolish to turn it down.

Since I wasn’t really in race shape – and with very little asphalt running this summer, barely in road shape at all – I took advantage of the morning to enjoy a high mileage day against a scenic backdrop, with a little bit of aid station support thrown in for good measure. I was also anxious to test my new Vibram FiveFingers Bikilas, which had arrived in the mail two days prior, and which were custom made for cranking out high road mileage. I’ll post a formal review here later on, of course, but you’ll probably get a sense by the end of this post whether or not I was satisfied with the Bikilas.

In other words, a lot of pieces had fallen into place for a very sweet run – one that was worth waking up a little bit early for. I headed out into the pre-dawn darkness, under a heavy blanket of cool morning fog which would cover the valley for the majority of the day.

About 1.5 miles down the road, I passed the entry to Pessagno winery, which would serve as the finish area later in the day. From this point, I was on the half marathon course, and my plan was to cover the 13.1 miles in reverse before arriving at the start line.

Over the next hour or so, the sky gradually turned from black to gray to … well, to lighter gray. The sun never entirely burned through the fog - perfect race conditions for runners - but it gave plenty of light to start enjoying the sights of the valley while traveling down the road.

This isn’t some random jogger I found; it’s my friend Andrew, who accompanied me on my little pre-race down-and-back stunt. Here’s how you know you have a cool training partner: If he sends you an e-mail asking about your plans for the morning, and you tell him that you’re heading out at 4AM to run 14 miles before the start, and he replies with “That sounds cool – mind if I join you?” That’s Andrew.

Reaching this stretch of road about 2 miles from the start, I checked my watch and realized that I was ahead of schedule to reach the start line. I didn’t want to arrive too early and stand around getting stiff-legged, so I decided to kill some time by running an extra mile or so …

… and taking some goofy pictures by the side of the road. I like this one, but you can’t see my Bikilas as well in this picture …

… as you can in this one. Yes, I was sitting in the road to take this shot; like I said, I had a bit of time to kill.

One thing you can count on whenever running through the Salinas Valley is a stark reality check when passing laborers in the fields. At any hour of the day, in virtually any weather conditions, the amount of manual labor utilized up and down this valley is simply staggering. Seeing these folks preparing for their day well before 7AM, and knowing they’d still be working long after I’d gone home and showered was a nice reminder of how relatively frivolous all this running stuff really is.

Eventually I continued down the road and reached the Soledad Mission, whom Franciscan friars christened for Our Lady of Solitude, which now hosted 1300 runners eager to begin the race. I timed my arrival perfectly, and picked up my bib number with just a few minutes left over …

… to sneak away by myself for a moment and snap a couple pictures of Nuestra Senora de la Soledad in private.

Once the race was underway, I settled into a nice comfortable rhythm for a while, chatted for a bit with a few friends, and fielded a lot of questions from strangers about the Bikilas I was wearing. I also had a nice discussion with …

… this dude on the right, who was wearing a pair of Vibrams (the Sprint model) as well. Other Vibram Guy and I compared notes on our minimalist running experiences for a few minutes, before I picked up my pace a bit and left him behind for the day. Or so I thought.

Up to this point I really hadn’t been paying attention to the clock, but when I rolled into the mile 3 aid station, I glanced at my watch and noticed my race time was somewhere around 22 minutes. I was not only making decent time, but I felt pretty darn comfortable while doing it.

I decided to see if I could maintain a nice cruising speed, and spent the next several miles enjoying the gently rolling terrain, keeping a steady 7:10-7:20 pace while pulling aside every so often to take pictures. I was feeling great, and didn’t feel the need to push the pace any further …

… until I was framing this picture at the 8-mile mark, and guess who should pass me? Other Vibram Guy! I knew that there were only about 40 other runners ahead of me, and I was reasonably certain that none of them were wearing Vibrams - which meant that I had a challenger for the title of First Vibram Guy. Sure, it's not quite as prestigious as an age group award, but it seemed like a pretty cool thing to brag about afterwards. All of a sudden, I had a race on my hands.

(Note: I also couldn’t claim to be the First Down and Back Guy for the day: that honor went to my friend Andrew, who smoked a 1:21 half marathon after running early with me. Have I mentioned that he’s a great training partner to have?)

I picked up my pace a bit and surged past Other Vibram Guy, but I couldn’t ever build a good cushion in front of him …

… partially because I kept stopping every so often to take pictures, like at this strawberry aid station. We all know where I stand on strawberries, right? Needless to say, this was one of the highlights of the course.

Somehow, even with the picture taking, I maintained a narrow advantage in the First Vibram Guy category … and nearing mile 11, I closed in on my friend Mike, the co-author of my Monterey Herald column. Soon I was in First Herald Columnist position as well; the day was looking up!

Mile 13: pretty fields, tired legs, pounding chest. I was working hard, and this part didn’t feel so great … but I knew it was a temporary inconvenience …

… because the finish line was right around the bend in the road. There were a lot more people here than the first time through, and I was way more than twice as happy to be here.

I crossed the line with a race time of 1:35 and change, and headed straight for the post-race area at Pessagno winery, which was loaded with everything a tired runner could ask for. Bagels, fruit, drinks, beer, music, massages …

… and a Jamba Juice booth! Complete with a guitar-playing banana, and free smoothies for all runners. I was in Jamba heaven.

Incidentally, this wasn’t the first time I had seen the banana guy; sometimes during the week he stands outside a Jamba Juice store on Main Street in Salinas and spends a couple of hours hollering, jumping around, and acting like a complete maniac.

So of course I had to get my picture with him. You’ve got to admire that kind of enthusiasm.

Given that we were at a winery, it made perfect sense to hand out wine glasses to each finisher along with their race shirt and goody bag. The only disappointing part was when the volunteer asked me what size I wanted and it took me a second to realize she was talking about shirts, not wine glasses. Because an XL of each would have been sweeeet.

Truthfully, there wasn’t anything about the morning that could have gone better for me; by the time I returned to the car I had knocked out a nice long run in the beautiful Salinas Valley, discovered a competitive spark that I wasn’t really expecting, and felt quite comfortable while logging more than 28 miles on my new Vibrams.

(As for how the Bikilas performed, stay tuned - I’ll have a brief update in my next post.)

It was the kind of day that makes you love being a runner – especially one in the beautiful Salinas Valley.


August 8, 2010

Tahoe Rim Trail Pacer Report*

*Or, How to Not Screw Up Someone's Perfectly Good Ultra

Before summer completely slips away from me (if you think I’m kidding, don’t laugh – my kids start school this week), I figured I should take a final look back at one of the highlights of the season: serving as crew and pacer for Gretchen at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100. Since that night, a few people have asked whether I would write a report, but I was sort of reluctant at first, figuring the race wasn’t really my story to tell; it was Gretchen’s story, and she did a great job of telling it.

What I decided to do instead was provide a little bit of perspective on my role as a pacer, and highlight a few points that other pacers might keep in mind for future reference. However, it should be noted as a disclaimer that I’m not really an expert at pacing; I just came across the right situation with the right person, and things fell into place very nicely for us on our way to the finish line. With that in mind, we'll begin with one of the most important instructions for being a good pacer:

1. Pick the right runner

You know the old joke about how the secret to being a good runner is to pick the right parents? Well, the secret to being a good pacer is to pick the right runner – except in this case, you actually DO have some say about who you’re pairing yourself with for a challenging, unpredictable, potentially problematic trek into the wild. While there are obvious personality issues to consider, you should also think about the likelihood that your runner would do well anyway - even if you’re not there. In other words, the best runners to pace are the ones who probably don’t even need pacers in the first place.

In my case, I knew that Gretchen was a talented ultrarunner who not only had a previous 100-mile finish under her belt, but had finished this exact course before. She had trained like a maniac prior to race day, and had all the confidence in the world that she was going to succeed. Take look at the picture above: does she look like a basket case or a bundle of nerves? She’s having fun, and absolutely ready to knock out an epic task. As long as I could avoid screwing things up, I knew we’d be just fine.

That’s not to say your job will be a cakewalk, though; you’ll still be on the hook for some decision making, even before the race begins. Such as …

2. Tell your runner to get her ass to bed

This is Gretchen at 2:30 AM on race morning:

Which sounds (by ultrarunning standards, at least) only moderately crazy until I also tell you that she was already awake and showered by the time I woke up at 2:15. And she was still awake when I had gone to sleep at the previous midnight – as in two hours prior.

This was probably my biggest mistake as a pacer; the night before the race, I joined several people at Gretchen’s house for dinner, and as the night wore on, a few of us made observations like, “Hey, shouldn’t you be getting to bed?” Gretchen protested and said she wouldn’t have been able to sleep anyway – but if I had it to do over again, I would have dragged her to the bedroom, and instructed her husband to force her to lay down and shut her eyes. Functioning on one night’s lack of sleep is generally doable, but as we would eventually find out, working your way through a second consecutive sleepless night can make things a little bit sketchy.

3. Bring extra clothes to the start

This is our friend Olga, who was also doing the 100-mile event, and who complained of being cold at the start line. Since I would be the one walking back to a warm sleeping bag about 2 minutes after the start gun went off, I figured the gentlemanly thing to do was to let her use my sweatshirt. I have to say, it was kind of cold out there wearing just a t-shirt – although I knew better than to complain to two women who would soon be running 100 miles.

4. Get everywhere early

This is Gretchen rolling into the mile 30 aid station:

Before the race, she told me she’d be at this point sometime around noon, and I figured that getting there an hour ahead would leave me plenty of time to set her stuff up. So I arrived the parking lot shortly before 11AM, headed over to the aid station … and about 3 minutes later, Gretchen shows up.

The point is, average paces at ultramarathons are very tricky to predict – especially early in the day, when runners are feeling good and occasionally get sucked into keeping pace with faster runners they have no business hanging with (yes, Gretchen did this). So if you’re given an approximate arrival time, allow for 90 minutes to 2 hours on the front end, and at least 2 or 3 hours on the back end for your 3-4 minute window of service. The U.S. military might have invented the phrase “Hurry up and wait,” but ultrarunners take the notion to a whole different extreme.

5. Bring a camera – and know the ground rules

Gretchen and I have had a few discussions about shots like this:

She dismisses them as “pictures of my butt”, while I think they’re pretty cool images that capture the overall beauty of ultrarunning. Ultimately we settled on a sort of compromise where I let her get a short distance ahead of me before taking pictures that included her backside.

Another reason to have a camera at the ready is this: a couple of days after the race, you might get a pleading e-mail from your runner saying, “Hey – do you have some pictures I can use for my race report?” If your runner happens to be a blogger, understand that your pacer role isn’t fully completed until her race report is posted.

6. Be a decider – but be selective

For the most part, I let Gretchen determine the pace, when to walk and when to jog, what to eat, and so on. However, she had a few periods of indecision – especially when it came to an important decision early in the evening:

Basically, she had spent the previous 5 miles or so telling me about blisters developing on her toes, as well as her apprehension to get them taken care of for fear of losing too much time at the aid station, getting her socks dirty, or some other concern that might somehow make the situation worse. It took me saying “You need to get those taken care of” about 10 times before she finally capitulated – and even then it took a friend of hers at the aid station to back me up before Gretchen was fully convinced.

It ended up being the best decision she made – and for the rest of the night, I pretty much let her call the rest of the shots.

7. Have fun!

There’s really no other way to explain it - but running 100 miles is a pretty crazy thing to do. We all have ways of rationalizing it, of making it represent something greater or more significant – but in the final analysis, there’s only so much a rational person can do to make the task seem remotely sensible.

So be irrational. Be nonsensical. Laugh at yourselves. Tell jokes. And if your runner asks you to take one last picture of yourselves acting like complete dorks before the sun goes down, don’t hesitate to say yes. 100 miles is far too long to be serious all the time.

The flip side of this is to know when to be focused again, such as …

8. Beware the night – and especially the early morning

Without a doubt, the toughest stretch of the race for both of us was between about 3AM and 6AM. Gretchen had about 75 miles on her legs, was at the tail end of 8 consecutive hours of darkness, and well into her second straight sleepless night. We were on rocky single track trails going up and down steep mountain slopes, and she was misstepping and weaving off trail with increasing frequency.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a whole lot better shape – and my periodic efforts to keep her talking by offering up pop quizzes or soliciting her family history weren’t nearly adequate to keep us as alert as we should have been. This is one of those “things fell into place” items I mentioned at the outset – the fact that neither of us tripped or fell or otherwise injured ourselves through this stretch wasn’t due to anything either of us did; we mainly just got lucky. However, we also learned to …

9. Bend the rules a little bit

This is Gretchen at approximately 5:30AM:

The fact that she suddenly dropped to the trail and pleaded for a 60-second nap might have surprised me, except for the fact that she had already dozed off momentarily in the previous two aid stations, and as I just described, she was obviously very far beyond fatigued.

Conventional wisdom for ultrarunners is to “beware the chair”, and to move through aid stations as quickly as possible, because the longer you stop moving, the harder it is to start again. However, under the circumstances, taking a few brief catnaps seemed like a great idea to allow our mental batteries to recharge just enough to carry us to the finish line. In fact, I was so understanding of Gretchen’s plight that I gave her a whole extra minute before waking her up again.

Truth be told, I never had any doubts that she would finish – because as I described before, I was sure to ..

10. Pick the right runner (Part 2)

I don’t really have anything new to add to this point, so I’ll just recap a conversation that took place here at the mile 93 aid station, after Gretchen had been on the trail more than 25 hours. A few of these volunteers had also seen her come around on the first lap in the early afternoon yesterday, and while Gretchen was resting in a chair (staying awake this time), one of them started the following exchange with me:

Volunteer (gesturing toward Gretchen): She’s Batman.

Me: I was thinking more along the lines of Wonder Woman … but yeah. Same idea.

From different vantage points, each of us reached the same conclusion: there was no stopping Gretchen at this race. And THAT’s the kind of runner you want to hook yourself up with.

Finally, we reached the finish, where I still had to …

11. Capture the moment

Having been there a couple of times, I can attest that once you’ve completed a 100-miler, you really only want a couple of things: 1) a chair to rest in, and 2) to get the heck out of there so you can shower and go to bed. You’re not exactly in the mood to pose for pictures, and anything besides those two simple needs seems superfluous - and yet, there will come a time when you want to look back on that moment and recall how wonderful it all felt.

So be sure to take a picture. Because you never know when you’ll want to remember it all over again.

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