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September 30, 2010

New GU Island Nectars Roctane

Here’s one of those studies that probably didn’t require much brilliance to reach a conclusion: When the GU Energy company began researching a new flavor for its popular Roctane endurance gel, an exhaustive process of taste testing revealed that athletes really enjoy the taste of booze.

More specifically, testers went crazy for the taste of a sweet island concoction that somewhat resembles a Mai Tai. But since the newest Roctane formulation doesn’t have actual alcohol in it – and since they presumably didn’t want a flavor with “virgin” in the name - they settled on “Island Nectars”. And according to the official press release - I swear, I’m not making this up - "it's frickin' delicious.”

(And before progressing any further, I should say for the record that I have a very sweet spot for Mai Tais myself; they helped nurse me through a wonderful, awful vacation when I briefly thought I had suffered a spinal cord injury. Assuming this new flavor doesn’t trigger any sort of flashback to the physical pain I was in two years ago, I’m really looking forward to tasting it.)

Fittingly, considering the flavor, GU decided to launch the new Roctane product at October’s Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. They’ve also had an ongoing promotion where Kona qualifiers receive a free swag bag from GU which includes a healthy supply of Island Nectars Roctane. Thankfully however, GU, unlike the Ironman World Championships, decided to lax their qualifying standards quite dramatically, and they’re opening up the offer to everybody, with one small twist.

Here’s the deal: follow this link and buy one item from the GU website – you already know which flavor I’d recommend - and they’ll throw in a 6-pack of Island Nectar Roctane for free. You’re getting virtually the same treatment as the Ironmen, without any of the training – pretty cool, huh?

And before you ask: yes, I’ll be getting samples of these for myself at some point, and yes, I’ll probably conduct a giveaway in conjunction with my review.  If they're truly frickin' delicious, I'll be the first to let you know.  But if you don’t like your giveaway odds or you’d rather not wait that long, just go here and take advantage of the offer from GU while it lasts. It’s good from now until October 31st.


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September 28, 2010

GoLite Amp Lite Running Shoe Review

For all the hype surrounding minimalist and natural footwear lately, there’s a noticeable lack of options for runners wanting to transition gradually from traditional footwear towards minimalist shoes.

Interestingly, it took my wife of all people to point this out to me: she’s watched my progression towards minimalist running for long enough to be intrigued by the idea – and considering that she thought I was insane at this point last year, that’s significant progress - but she’s smart enough to be wary of just strapping on a pair of Vibrams or moccasins and resuming her normal running routine. So a few months ago she sought my advice (yes, occasionally it happens) and asked whether there were any running shoes out there with a flat platform for midfoot strike, but a traditional midsole and upper for cushioning and comfort.

My answer was something along the lines of, Um … hmm … I … you know … I’m not really sure. So much for looking like an expert.

In my defense, the reason I couldn’t think of anything is that there really haven’t been any shoes on the market with those specifications – at least, not until just recently, with the arrival of the BareTech series from GoLite Footwear. The Amp Lite is designed as a trail running model, and the Micro Lite is a women’s-specific version that also debuted this fall. Both of them will be reviewed here – I’ve mentioned before that my wife’s on the R&R payroll, right? – beginning with the Amp Lite today.

GoLite Amp Lite

Before we jump into the review, a point of clarification: the GoLite Footwear company based in New England is a distinct entity from the GoLite company that makes camping and athletic gear in Boulder, CO. It’s the same brand, complete with the same logos and everything, but two separate business operations. If that makes any sense.

The shoe company has dabbled in hiking and outdoor athletic footwear for some time now, but the BareTech line represents a full paradigm shift away from built-up, overly constructed designs and towards endurance sports models that are more lightweight and promote natural foot motion. The Amp Lite a transitional step in the company’s progression toward a true minimalist shoe: the Tara Lite (see this post for a preview), scheduled for release next spring. It’s fitting, then, that the Amp is also a great option for runners looking to transition gradually toward true minimalist running.

Ventilated mesh upper, protective toe cap
From the outside, the Amp Lite looks like any other trainer, and at 11.8 oz, it will never be mistaken for a anything remotely minimalist – but that isn’t really the point with this shoe. The structural differences aren’t apparent until you actually put the shoes on your feet.

Complicated (but effective) laces
About that “putting them on your feet” part: the Amp has a unique internal lacing system that I found somewhat challenging and cumbersome to operate. The laces twist around each other directly over the top of the foot, and are incorporated into something called a TPE cage system that adjusts the tension across the arch as you pull on them. The resulting fit is comfortable and quite secure, and is designed to hold your heel in place better and prevent your foot from sliding forward on descents. Eventually I got used to the system, but it definitely takes a few practice laces to remember which way to pull at each eyelet.

Assuming you get them on your feet properly, you’ll immediately feel the Amp Lite’s distinguishing feature, in that there’s no drop from heel to toe through the midsole – it’s 20mm thick in both regions. The official term for this is a “zero-drop” midsole, and the Amp is currently the only traditional-styled trainer that offers this (even Newtons have a slight heel to toe drop that’s offset by large forefoot lugs on the outsole).

Three insole options
GoLite offers three insole options with each shoe: you can use the insole as is for a normal fit, or the thicker or thinner options which make the toebox area more or less roomy. True minimalist runners prefer a nice wide toe box that allows the toes to spread out, but someone transitioning from standard footwear may be more comfortable with the standard insoles. The insoles also have a bit of an arch support built into them – which is a drawback for pure natural runners, but a comfort for transitional runners.

The zero-drop structure allows you to run with a midfoot or forefoot strike, but habitual heel strikers can also use this shoe while tinkering with their form. While there’s essentially no ground feel through 20mm of midsole, GoLite’s Soft Against the Ground (SATG) technology makes it feel like there’s a firm surface underfoot at all times, instead of having the cushioned feel of traditional trainers. SATG basically turns traditional footwear construction upside down: the soft part of the midsole is closest to the ground to absorb shock, and the firm platform helps rearfoot stability while providing the feel of hard terrain that minimalist runners crave. The overall effect isn’t nearly as good as actually feeling the ground, but it’s a nice compromise considering there’s so much midsole beneath you.

Crossover outsole
Under the midsole, the Amp features a Crossover outsole that is designed as for all-purpose road and trail running. It has GripStick rubber for traction on slick surfaces, and is formed with wedge shapes that help with shock absorption and stability on hard terrain. GoLite markets this shoe as a trail runner, but the tread isn’t so knobby that it’s out of place on the roads, so jogging through the neighborhood to get to the trailhead isn’t a big deal.

Considering that this is their first foray into the natural running arena, GoLite has put together a very compelling shoe with the Amp Lite. It offers some nice innovations that are new to the market, and achieves its goal of being an intermediate step between traditional and minimalist shoes. From that standpoint, the shoe is a success. My biggest question is whether this particular niche is big enough for the shoe to be a long-term stalwart in the running shoe industry.

After all, at some point most “transitional” runners (or as I like to call them, the bare-curious) will gravitate fully towards minimalist footwear, or revert back to traditional trainers. The Amp is too much shoe for the first group, and not enough for the second. Throw in the fact that it's designed primarily for men - as mentioned, the women’s equivalent will be reviewed here this fall – and you can see how this shoe won’t be threatening Nike for market share anytime soon.

Personally, I hope it sticks around for a while, because I think it serves an important purpose in a way that no other shoe on the market currently does. Hopefully, that will be enough for the Amp Lite to succeed.

GoLite’s Amp Lite retails for $109 with free overnight shipping from Endless.com as well as other online vendors.

*Product provided by GoLite Footwear
**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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September 26, 2010

Random Shots of Beauty

It’s not exactly going to shock anyone to hear this, but I frequently run with a camera.

Many of the pictures show up on race reports or photo tours or product reviews (see right sidebar), but others just sit on my memory chip or hard drive for far longer than I expect. In some cases I never get around to writing a story idea, or the photo doesn’t go along with the rest of the narrative – or sometimes I have a post where 50 pictures seems just fine, but 51 would just be way too excessive. Honestly, I don’t spend much time trying to quantify these things.

The end result is that I have a lot of pictures that I think are cool for one reason or another, but never see the light of day on this website. Until now, that is.

Rather than just deleting everything, I figured I’d just post one or two of them here each weekend, for no other reason than because it’s easy. It could be something like those Wordless Wednesday posts that a lot of people do, except that 1) It won’t be on a Wednesday, and 2) I'll probably include at least a few words. Other than that, it will be exactly the same.

I suppose there's a larger meaning of sorts, too, which kind of relates to what I described in my previous post; With increasing frequency, it's the small moments, the little snapshots in time - like a colorful sunrise, a scenic landscape, or simply an interesting tree alongside the trail - are the primary reasons I enjoy running, even moreso than competing in races or striving for PRs or pushing my limits of performance.  (And yes, if you had told me five years ago that I'd be saying this, I would have called you insane.)  Consequently, these are the moments I feel compelled to share more frequently than just explaining how far I ran in my last workout.

So let’s just name this little experiment Random Shots of Beauty, and see where things go. To kick things off, here’s a scene from my early-morning run on Friday:

Full moon at sunrise, as seen from an area called Couch Canyon in the Fort Ord open space.  I had been fixated on the moon for quite a while at this point; on Friday morning, it shone so brightly that I switched my headlamp off five minutes into the run, and navigated by moonlight for the better part of 15 miles.

In the opposite direction, sunlight was spilling over the hillside ...

... illuminating the many miles of trail that still awaited me. The beauty of the dark was behind me, with plenty of beauty in the light still to come; it gives me the kind of feeling that makes getting up at 4AM worth it.

So there you go: your first Random Shot of Beauty. To be continued next weekend.

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September 23, 2010

Feeling the Path: Anton Krupicka and New Balance Minimus

“Feel the path of every day - which road you taking?
Breathing hard, making hay - yeah, this is living …

Feel the sky blanket you with gems and rhinestones –
See the path cut by the moon for you to walk on.”

- Pearl Jam, “Unthought Known” (video after post)

There’s a very cool video making the rounds in the trail running community lately, featuring two very compelling subjects: Anton Krupicka and the forthcoming New Balance Minimus.

The 3-minute clip is noteworthy for a couple of reasons: first (and, from a product marketing standpoint, foremost) is that it features several close-ups of the eagerly anticipated shoe that’s scheduled for release in March of 2011. You’ll recall that a couple of months ago, NB was intentionally secretive about what the shoe actually looked like; in this video, you can see for yourself, from a few different angles.

Without question, the new Minimus looks like a pretty sweet ride, and I’ll be eager to give it a spin (and a review, of course) in the springtime. However, what stands out more to me from the video are Krupicka’s musings on minimalist footwear and natural running. He explains how the current evolution - or if you prefer, revolution - of shoe industry leaders like New Balance towards a “less is more” mindset is an extension of a larger movement towards a minimalist lifestyle, simplifying our existence as a means of giving it greater meaning.

He also describes the inherent satisfaction in feeling your foot interact with the ground with every step you take: the way it connects us more closely to our surroundings, and the way it strips away all the other distractions we sometimes bring to our training. The constant feedback of the Earth underfoot helps us stay focused in the moment and at one with the natural world around us.

Sure, that kind of talk has hints of New Age gobbledy-gook to it … but the thing is, I feel exactly the same way. In fact, I discussed this very topic about two weeks ago with a writer who is researching the barefoot running phenomenon.

He was interviewing me as a reference (I know … I was shocked, too) for his book, and thought that I was somewhat unique in comparison to other barefoot or minimalist runners he’d spoken with, mainly because my affinity for this approach has been completely voluntary. I didn’t have difficulty running in regular shoes. I didn’t suffer injuries from conventional footwear. And I don’t harbor any counter-cultural animosity towards traditional shoe companies.

So he asked the obvious questions: Why did I do it? And why do I stay with it? The answers I gave him were almost identical to what Krupicka talks about in the New Balance video.

I was drawn to barefoot running – and by extension, minimalist footwear – somewhat by intellectual curiosity, but more by this primal joy of letting my body function naturally in the endlessly fascinating world around me. I love to feel the ground below me, the rhythm of my legs and lungs and body working in harmony, the sky blanketing me with cool air and fresh breezes, and to see my path illuminated in the moonlight before me. Those moments, more than anything else, are what running is all about to me – and the less my gear interferes with those experiences, the better.

But I’m digressing too much, because this post is primarily about Krupicka and the Minimus. Watch the video below, then if you’re so inclined, you can follow the link to an interview with Krupicka and senior New Balance designer Chris Wawrousek for further insights into the development of the Minimus. Or you could just stick around and listen to Pearl Jam.

“Tony Krupicka and the New Balance Minimus” (click to play):

See the interview with Anton Krupicka and Chris Wawrousek here.

Considering what a huge Pearl Jam fan I was in college, I’m ashamed to admit that it took me a couple of years to warm to the idea of a comeback from them – but this song from the Backspacer album was the one that closed the deal for me. It’s got classic Pearl Jam style, and instantly became one of my favorites.

Pearl Jam, “Unthought Known” (click to play):


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September 21, 2010

Yosemite: Bridalveil Fall (in "RockAmocs")

At the end of our drive to Yosemite National Park on the eve of our planned Sentinel Dome adventure, my son and I pulled over to fulfill what has become a family tradition of sorts upon entering Yosemite Valley. No matter what area of the park we’re staying in, the first stop we make is always right here:

The Tunnel View is world-famous, and always a perfect photo op. However, aside from the stunning vista, there’s really not a whole lot to it: we get out of the car, take in the sights for a few minutes, and shortly thereafter we’re on our way. We drive back down to the valley, and take a quick turn towards the spot that’s the first place that we really interact with the park:

Bridalveil Fall, more than 600 feet high, whose white water and cascading mists in the springtime give it the distinctive appearance of … well, a bridal veil. During its peak runoff months, you can’t stand anywhere near the designated viewing area without wearing a poncho, unless you want your clothes to get drenched in a matter of seconds.

In late summer, however, the fall slows to a very thin semblance of its former self, and if you’re eager to do a bit of bouldering, you can do a nifty little approach to the very base of the fall.

Of course, at certain times of year it’s not exactly the safest thing to do, as more than a couple of signs will advise you. Even during the dry months, there’s a very thin slimy layer on most of the rocks that makes footing a bit treacherous in spots – but generally, it’s not as dangerous as the signs make it sound …

… although I thought it might be fun to take this picture. In the unlikely event that I fell and broke my neck, I figured this would make me a shoe-in for next year’s Darwin Awards.

Truthfully, the leader of this little expedition was my 12-year-old son, who took off up the rocks with hardly a moment’s hesitation. A responsible parent might have warned him away from it … but fortunately for the kid, his responsible parent was still at home with his sisters.

We climbed to the base of the fall without much difficulty – and as you can see, I was wearing my chocolate RunAmocs. I’ve already described how they’ve become my “everywhere but work and church” footwear over the spring and summer, and they didn’t have any problem with the smooth granite surfaces below Bridalveil. Who knows? Maybe at this time next year I’ll be raving about the new Soft Star RockAmoc.

Like any serious mountain expedition, the trip back down was nearly as difficult as the climb, but my moccasins (with street outsoles on this pair) held up just fine to provide a controlled descent on the intermittently slick rock faces. We made our way to the viewing area with all limbs firmly attached, and headed further into the valley to grab some dinner and check into our tent cabin for some rest in preparation for the following day’s long hike.

It was a great way to start the trip, and depending on the time of year, just might become a regular addition to our routine upon entering Yosemite in the future.



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September 19, 2010

Riverside Theology

You don’t have to journey very far outside your door to find yourself wandering through some challenging territory – especially if your companion is an inquisitive 9-year-old girl.

Ever since her first two 5K races this spring, my daughter and I have made time to jog around the neighborhood together on a somewhat regular basis. Last week, we weren’t one minute into the run before the following exchange happened right out of the blue:

Daughter: Are (her grandma and grandpa) Catholic?

Me: Yeah, they are.

Daughter: But we aren’t, right? What are we again?

Me: We’re Presbyterian.

Daughter: What’s the difference? Why don’t we have the same churches?

Me: Um … it’s complicated. They’re both Christian religions, and they believe the same important things, and at one time they used to be the same group …

Daughter: So what are the ways that they’re different?

And for the next half-hour, while jogging alongside the river and through our little village we engaged in one of the most in-depth conversations of theology and comparative religion that I’ve ever had. We discussed the primitive church and Acts of the Apostles. The growth of the church throughout the modern world. Papal infallibility. Indulgences for sins. Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Individual relationships to God and direct communication with Him through prayer and scripture. And so on and so on.

Eventually, the conversation took another unexpected turn, as my daughter went and made things more personal …

Daughter: So when you were a kid, did you go to Catholic church?

Me: Yeah … for a while. I did while I was growing up, but pretty much stopped going for several years when I was older.

Her: Why did you start going to the other one?

Me: I met this really cute girl in college who went to church a lot, and she invited me to go with her one day.

Her (smiling): Mom, right?

Me: Yup. I thought if I went to church with her, she’d think I was a nice guy.

Her: It worked! Good thing you went.

Me: Yeah ... it was definitely a good call.

About 30 seconds later, we were back at our starting point, with a mere two and a half miles under our belts, but a wealth of information downloaded onto her cognitive hard drive. I thought we might continue the conversation while returning to the house, only to have this final exchange:

Me: Is there anything else you’re wondering about this whole church thing? We can keep talking about it if you want.

Her: No thanks … I’m going to go inside and read a book.

Just like that, our enlightened discourse had come to an end; it was like as soon as her legs stopped moving, the deep thoughts faded away as well.

I’ve always been aware that running taps into some remote recesses of my brain, enabling me to contemplate theories and discover revelations that I’d otherwise be oblivious to, and it’s comforting to think that my daughter might be programmed the same way. I’m also reasonably certain that there are more questions and complexities bouncing around that head of hers – but I guess I’ll have to wait until our next run together to find out.


September 17, 2010

Salomon XT Wings 2 Sale

Hopefully it goes without saying that big, rugged trail shoes aren't especially my thing anymore, but since it's a slow weekend, I thought I'd pass along an offer that some folks might want to jump on while it's available.

Salomon's XT Wings have a very large, very loyal following - and before I went all minimalist, I gave them a spin myself (see my full review here). They're the kind of shoe that users buy over and over again - and from now until Sept 23rd, Wilderness Running Company is making it easy to stock up. They're offering a steep discount on the XT Wings 2, plus a handful of other shoe deals described on this e-mail flyer:

click to enlarge

As with all other purchases from WRC, the deal is even better if you use my coupon code: enter R&R10 to get an extra 10% off the sale price listed above. So, Salomon fans ... grab 'em while you can get 'em.

Regular programming resumes tomorrow night.


September 16, 2010

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila Running Shoe Review

Considering how long Vibram has been the foremost brand among minimalist runners, and knowing how countless barefoot aficionados have used them for everything from road 10Ks to mountain ultramarathons, it’s almost unbelievable that the company has never intentionally designed a model of its FiveFingers specifically for running until this year.

In fact, runners have embraced other Vibram FiveFingers models – in particular the KSO and KSO Trek - so passionately and been so pleased with them that Vibram was arguably taking a risk in marketing a completely different model to this demographic. After all, if the new shoe wasn’t clearly better than the current ones, it would be seen as a disappointment. Thankfully, Vibram was more than up to the task, and has designed a product that truly stands out as the footwear of choice for distance runners, particularly those who favor roads over trails.

Even the name is a home run: when I first saw the 2010 product catalog more than a year ago, my immediate response when I saw the word Bikila was, that’s absolutely perfect. You can’t pick a better way to identify a game-changing barefoot running shoe than to name it after the most famous barefoot runner of all time - one who almost single-handedly changed everything the world thought about the way running should be. It’s no secret around here that I’ve been a fan of Abebe Bikila for years – so to say that I was excited to try a product from one of my favorite companies that was named after one of my all-time favorite runners would be a bit of an understatement.

By now you’ve probably gathered that my bar of expectation was set pretty high with this model, and thankfully, the Bikila didn’t disappoint – which is a good jumping off point for us to get to the review.

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila

As I mentioned in my first impressions post, the Bikila’s overall appearance is probably as close to a traditional running shoe as Vibram will ever get. It’s got classic racing shoe styling that makes you want to take them right out of the box and run a marathon (in fact, that’s exactly what I did).

Polyamide fabric with TPU coating on toes

The upper of the Bikila is made of a very thin, breathable, and abrasion-resistant stretch polyamide fabric with minimal seams in comparison to the KSO. This construction was most likely born from user feedback, as one of the more common complaints about running in KSOs is that some of upper’s multiple seams can become abrasive over long distances. The only forefoot seams on the Bikila are on the toes, and I haven’t noticed any discomfort at these areas after over 100 sockless miles.

Achilles notch; padded ankle collar, Dri-Lex sockliner

Vibram’s running-specific design of the upper is evident in the Achilles notch at the back of the shoe, which provides the same feel around the tendon as a traditional trainer, but without restricting any range of motion. They’ve also included reflective accents on all sides for enhanced safety on the road in low light, and demonstrated nice attention to detail with TPU reinforcement around the toe caps (beyond the normal upward curvature of the outsole around the toe ends) to prevent puncture or tearing.

Top-only strap; reflective accents

The interior surface of the upper is without question the most comfortable FiveFingers model I’ve ever worn. The ankle collar has thin padding, and the entire sockliner and insole are covered with a very soft material called Dri-Lex that feels like smooth cotton but wicks moisture like an advanced tech fabric. The padding goes down the top of the foot as far as the first seam line, with the single layer polyamide fabric covering the rest of the foot and toes. It’s both airy and extremely comfortable, and the combined feel of these two materials is just as pleasant at mile 26 (or beyond) as it is at mile 1.

It’s a good thing that the upper is so comfortable on bare feet, because the overall fit seems slightly more snug than either the KSO or KSO Trek. This might be partially due to the fact that the fastening strap on the Bikilas doesn’t wrap around the heel as those other two models do. I was initially concerned about some heel slippage without that wraparound component, but I haven’t experienced any difficulty this way at all, even during my speed workouts at the track. However, because of the slightly different fit of this upper, if you’re accustomed to wearing toe socks with your Vibrams, or if you’re an “in-betweener” when it comes to sizing, I’d recommend sizing up for the best fit with the Bikilas.

Although the top of the shoe looks dramatically different than any other FiveFingers, it’s the underside that demonstrates the biggest departure from “classic” Vibrams. The Bikila is built on an entirely new platform than previous models, with plating protection to distribute impact forces, and a podded outsole giving ideal traction where you need it, while allowing greater flexibility for the remainder of the foot. The pod areas are 4mm thick, which combines with the 3mm (non-removable) insole to create a total thickness of 7mm; for some hardcore barefooters, this dimension is cause for concern, but from my experience I’d say the ground feel is exactly the same or better than my KSOs, and definitely better than KSO Treks. I suspect it’s the gaps in the outsole podding along with its much improved overall flexibility that result in such enhanced ground feedback.

Weight of the Bikilas is 6.0 oz, which is 0.3 oz heavier than both the KSO and Trek, but the difference is so marginal that I honestly don’t notice it. From an overall performance standpoint, the fit and comfort improvements on the Bikila far outweigh (so to speak) the concern of carrying an additional fraction of an ounce on your feet. Without question, these are the most comfortable FiveFingers I’ve worn to date; using both the KSOs and Treks, I typically have some chafing issues (particularly around the toes) on multi-hour runs, but the Bikila is a model I can wear for a 30-miler, then keep on my feet to walk around in afterward. I’ve never had the feeling of “I need to get these off my feet” at the end of a long run, which is probably my most reliable indicator of exceptionally well-built footwear.

All smiles after a full morning of racing

All things considered, Vibram took a considerable risk with the Bikila; there was ostensibly no reason to say, “Here’s a new model you should use for running, even though we realize that everybody loves running in our existing models anyway.” It was a bold step for them to do a top to bottom overhaul of its basic design and construction, adding a list of novel features and stylistic changes that could have potentially been rejected as unnecessary or insignificant in comparison to the original. The fact that they went ahead and did it speaks to their confidence that the new product would be something worth getting excited about.

From my standpoint, they were absolutely successful, and the FiveFingers Bikila is a shoe that’s worthy of its ambitious name. It’s an absolute state of the art minimalist running shoe that’s loaded with innovations which make it worth the slight price increase - $100 compared to $85 – over the KSO. It performs well on both road and trail (although I’d still give the edge to the KSO Trek for a pure trail runner), and – most pleasingly of all - takes everything you love about running in Vibrams and makes it even better.

The Vibram FiveFingers Bikila retails for $100 from TravelCountry.com as well as other online retailers.

RELATED: Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS review

*Product provided by Vibram USA
**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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CLIF Builder's Bar Giveaway Winners

I'm making this quick so I can pull the trigger on another post later tonight, so: Turi, Jenny Davidson, and John F, send me your address - you've won the CLIF Builder's Bar giveaway!

Thanks very much to everyone who entered. For those who didn't win, a couple of consolation notes ...

1) My wife says that Builder's Bars are also sold at some Target stores (chocolate and peanut butter flavors only), and the best price she's found is 18 bars for 21 bucks at Amazon.com - although that's only a chocolate and peanut butter pack as well. Amazon also sells individual flavors from various vendors, and sometimes the prices are pretty decent, but they tend to vary based on availability (hint: lemon are usually the most expensive).

2) You'll have a chance to try your hand at winning with another upcoming contest and more CLIF goodies to give away - details to be announced soon.


September 14, 2010

Yosemite: Four-Mile Trail and Sentinel Dome Hike

From the floor of Yosemite Valley, four primary routes take you up to the north or south ridgelines, and three of them are named after waterfalls: Yosemite Falls Trail and Snow Creek Falls Trail on the north side, and the Mist Trail that includes both Vernal and Nevada Falls on the south side. They're the trails that get the most publicity, and they're the ones that tend to be most heavily trafficked during the park's long summer hiking season.

That leaves Four-Mile Trail as the relative oddball of the Yosemite Valley group. It isn't as famous as its more popular neighbors, and - considering that the actual distance of the trail is generally acknowledged as 4.7 or 4.8 miles - it isn't even as accurately named. And if you're really lazy, you can get all the benefit of the hike without even getting your shoes dirty, as the upper terminus of the trail is the scenic overlook at Glacier Point, which also happens to be accessible by - you guessed it - Glacier Point Road.

And yet, by just about any standard, Four-Mile is an absolute gem of a trail, with fantastic views around nearly every corner. It provides you a complete "best of Yosemite" package, as every famous landmark of the Valley is visible at some point or another. It's also a significant challenge, rising 3200' from start to finish - which made it a perfect adventure for my 12-year-old son and me last weekend.

He's got it in his head that he wants to climb Half Dome someday, so this climb seemed like a good introduction to Yosemite's high country that would lay the groundwork for more ambitious outings in the future. There was also a compelling either/or proposition at the top, as Glacier Point also hosts a trailhead that leads to 8100' Sentinel Dome, another 1.5 miles and 900 vertical feet beyond what we were facing on Four-Mile Trail.

So while Glacier Point was the official "must reach" destination, we agreed that if the day was going well we should keep pushing on to Sentinel Dome, which would give us nearly as much vertical climb as a Half Dome attempt in just a couple less miles. Sort of a Half Dome starter kit, if you will.

One of the biggest challenges for my son came right off the bat: the 5:15 AM wake-up at Curry Village, which preceded a short drive to the trailhead to put us on the trail just as darkness was starting to lift.

This photo is also a good point to mention one of my only pet peeves about Yosemite: the posted mileage on various trail signs makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. There are large discrepancies with various maps (including Yosemite's own trail maps), and inconsistencies from one sign to another on the same trail (as I'll demonstrate later). And since much of this hike was under heavy tree cover, my Garmin was wildly inaccurate as well. The lesson I passed on to my son from all this was basically to saddle up for a long day, and not worry about the specific numbers. To his credit, he seemed OK with that - or maybe he was just too sleepy to complain.

The majority of Four-Mile is what hikers refer to as "wilderness highway": nicely groomed, wide enough for two-way traffic, and pretty much free of any debris or major obstacles. The only obstacle to overcome was the hill itself, as you gain elevation right off the bat, and the climbing is pretty much constant for the next 4.7 (or 4.6 or 4.8 - your pick) miles.

Once the sun finally peeked over the horizon, we were greeted with this cool sight: the dome-shaped shadow projected on the north wall of the valley was provided by none other than Sentinel Dome, awaiting our arrival some 3000' overhead.

Long stretches of Four-Mile skirt around and beneath Sentinel Rock, whose sheer 1500' face stands guard over the south side of the valley. It's one very cool-looking rock, especially when you get to see it from the multiple vantage points the trail leads you to.

Another cool view you get within the first 1.5 miles (or so) is what's called a reverse tunnel view: it's a mirror image of the popular tunnel view tourist spot, in this case looking west with El Capitan on the right and Cathedral Rocks on the left.

If you're a fan of switchbacks like I am, there's a lot to like about this trail. Actually, this is a feature of most floor-to-rim trails in Yosemite, but I'm always amazed at how paths like this were constructed more than 100 years ago; I doubt that a team modern-day engineers with state of the art equipment could have done much better.

The switchbacks also take you in a constant direction of "up", where the views get better and better ...

… especially across the valley, where a dried-up Yosemite Falls begins to fall lower and lower on your visual horizon.

About 2 miles along the trail, a few more switchbacks bring you around a corner where the first beams of sunlight begin to spill onto the trail ...

… and you get your first glimpse of this guy. Apparently it's some kind of landmark or something.

Your first views of Half Dome are short-lived, however, as the trail returns to tree cover and continues its uphill push ...

… and before you know it, you're looking down on the Sentinel Rock that was towering overhead just a little while ago.

As the trail climbed higher and the views got more impressive, I was pretty sure my son had shaken off his early morning doldrums, until we had the following discussion …

Me: So what are you normally doing at 7:30 on a Saturday morning?

Him: Sleeping.

Me: And which would you rather be doing right now?

Him: (long pause) I'm not sure.

Apparently we needed a few more "Wow!" moments to tip the scales in my favor.

Luckily, the big rock to the east was more than able to oblige us.

(We interrupt this report for a word from our sponsors … )

In case anyone’s interested, here’s the gear I used for the hike: I wore my Vibram KSO Treks, which have become my favorite hiking shoes in addition to being very impressive trail runners. I wore a fully loaded GoLite Rush pack, which is far and away my best day hiking pack. The shirt is the GoLite Manitou I reviewed here, and the shorts are REI’s Sahara brand which I’ve used reliably for more than two years. As expected, all of them were totally comfortable and performed just about perfectly.

(Now returning to regularly scheduled programming … )

You know you're getting close to the top of Four-Mile when the trail unexpectedly levels off through the forest and continues on a very gentle grade to the upper terminus.

Reaching Glacier Point, this was decision time: continue to Sentinel Dome, or head back down. The two of us had made pretty good progress, and my son was holding up quite well, so we just munched on some trail mix while enjoying the view for a few minutes ...

… before walking over to the trailhead for the final 1.5-mile push to Sentinel Dome. I might have been mistaken about my son's earlier doldrums, because continuing to the top was a much easier sell than I anticipated.

Most of the Sentinel Dome trail meanders between the feet of tall trees, climbing all the way …

… and about a half-mile from the top, the trail builders seemingly said, "You know what? That's enough switchbacks. Let's just run this baby straight uphill now." By this point, you've come far enough that you're not going to turn back ...

… especially when you finally see the bald granite top of Sentinel Dome ahead in the distance.

Above the treeline, the trail dies out and you're left with an open scramble up the face of the rocks …

… until you finally reach this landmark at the top of Sentinel Dome. It's a very cool 360-degree etching of all the surrounding peaks and rock formations that are visible from that spot - which, considering that it's the second-highest point in the Valley, is quite a few. El Cap, Yosemite Point, North Dome, Basket Dome, Mt Clark, Mt Starr King, Clouds Rest …

… and of course Half Dome, which, thanks to a cool optical illusion, looks like it's far below you, even though it's actually 700' higher.

These rocks were naturally an ideal spot to open our backpacks and have some snacks …

… which, just as naturally, immediately brought out the resident critters who live for hikers to come along with bags full of trail mix. This little guy wasn't nearly as plump as some marmots I've seen in these parts before …

… so we decided he could use a few nuts to bulk up a bit before winter comes.

After about 30 minutes on the summit, we finally made our way back down the long trail we had just climbed. Here's another dose of mileage confusion for you: this sign is probably accurate in marking Glacier Point one mile away, but it then has Yosemite Valley at 4.8 - which would make the Four-Mile Trail we climbed a 3.8-mile trail instead of a 4.7-mile trail. Like I said, don't look at the numbers - just keep walking.

By the time we returned to Glacier Point, the parking lot was quickly filling with tourists - or as my son started to refer to them, "people who took the slacker route to the top." We dealt with the crowds for a few minutes and took in some views from the overlook ...

... including this top view of the Curry Village campground we had slept in the night before. It's down there in the trees somewhere.

Numerous times on the remainder of our descent, there are places where you get a glimpse of the trail plummeting into the distance, and it's almost hard to believe that you climbed UP that same trail earlier in the day. My son and I had been on the trail for more than seven hours, the last hour of which became pretty difficult for him: his feet were sore, his legs were achy, and there was a general sense of "I just want this to be over with".

Of course, the reality of the situation might not have been so prominent in his mind if I hadn't announced "Hey, guess what? If I hadn't dragged you up Sentinel Dome, we would be done by now!" In hindsight, that might not have been the shrewdest comment under the circumstances.

So about two miles from the bottom, I shifted into pacer mode - providing constant encouragement and reassurance, telling goofy stories and corny jokes just to keep him distracted, even reminding him to drink water every so often. And eventually, we reached the Four-Mile trailhead …

… which would have been great news if I hadn't parked at the Swinging Bridge parking lot a little bit farther down the road. I sort of neglected to tell him that I purposely parked away from the trailhead in the early morning darkness to get a little extra distance in - and by that point, he wasn't exactly thrilled with the concept of "bonus mileage."

Fortunately, the remaining trail was flat and short, so there was no problem making it to the lot. We crashed on a picnic table for a while, cooled our heels in the Merced River, and finally climbed into the car to start the long drive home.

On the way, the kid was pretty quiet, but seemed altogether satisfied with his effort, and with how the day turned out. From my standpoint, everything went about as perfectly as I could have asked for: a beautiful day, a wonderful park, and a memorable shared experience with my son.

Best of all, both of us think we’re ready for the next big challenge on the horizon – and I’m already looking forward to it.

See other photo tours under tab at top of page.


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