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January 30, 2011

Natural Running Book Review and Giveaway

Shortly after reviewing the Newton Terra Momentus shoe last fall, I received an advance copy of the book Natural Running by Newton cofounder Danny Abshire. That book is now available to the public, and I have an additional copy to give away at the end of this post - but first, the review.

I have to admit that I was intrigued to hear what Abshire had to say about the whole barefoot and minimalist running phenomenon, because his business and professional background sometimes seems at odds with the underlying philosophy of barefoot activity. Before starting Newton Running, he spent many years making custom orthotics for athletes in a variety of sports, ostensibly to ensure a level position and proper balance of the lower extremities regardless of what type of footwear was used. And Newton has made its mark in the endurance sports community by straddling the two often-disparate worlds of natural foot motion and high-tech shoe construction.

So what exactly is natural running? Is it the science of correcting and augmenting the position and motion of our feet towards a certain set of objective parameters (weight distribution, center of balance location, lower leg geometry, and so on)? Or is it the willingness to let go of all the science and conventional wisdom of the modern shoe era and let your feet function as if they were completely unencumbered? And was this simply going to be a 170-page advertisement for Newton shoes? Those were some of the questions I had before starting the book.

With those thoughts in mind, Natural Running is a very interesting read. Abshire – along with contributor Brian Metzler, who has written extensively about barefoot running for Running Times and Outside magazines – explains the basic biomechanics of midfoot and forefoot running, and how the modern running shoe has progressively prohibited runners from practicing this technique. He presents a nice synopsis of how the conventional wisdom of running shoe design has evolved over the past four decades, and how recent biomechanics studies are causing the entire industry to rethink everything they thought they understood about how their products contribute to performance and injury prevention.

More than anything, though, this is an instruction manual for how to give up your heel-striking habit and learning to run more forward on your feet. If you think of Chris McDougall’s Born to Run (see my review of that book) as the battle cry for running naturally, consider Abshire’s book the field manual. He emphasizes proper posture, forward weight shifting, and the correct positioning your center of gravity, which in turn leads to a shorter stride length and correct foot strike. In addition to detailed explanations, the book is filled with multiple photos and diagrams that make the concepts of natural running form very easy to understand.

Abshire’s approach is fairly conservative, which is generally a good thing, with several reminders to adjust your running pattern gradually and to progress from traditional to minimalist footwear in small doses. From my standpoint he’s a little overcautious when it comes to true barefoot running – for example, recommending that you get your feet screened by a doctor to determine whether they’re they right “type” to run barefoot – but I wholeheartedly agree with his assertion that you get virtually all of the biomechanical benefits from a good pair of minimalist footwear as you do going barefoot.

Speaking of footwear, let’s return to one of those questions I had to start with: whether Natural Running was mainly an extended promotional brochure for Newton shoes. To his credit, Abshire keeps his bias towards Newton fairly well-contained, with his emphasis strictly on natural running form, without much regard to the kind of shoes you’re wearing. Of course, most people (myself included) will tell you it’s a heck of a lot easier to do this with minimalist footwear, but Abshire essentially leaves this decision up to you.

As an instruction guide, I was fairly impressed with how extensively and effectively Natural Running makes the case for changing your running form away from heel striking and toward midfoot or forefoot striking. I’ve already sent my copy of the book into circulation among my fellow training partners, and I’m happy to be able to offer an additional copy to one reader as well. Leave a comment below this post, and I’ll pick one random winner to receive a free copy of Natural Running, with the winner announced this weekend.

Otherwise, the book is now available in bookstores, and for $13 from Amazon.com as well as other online booksellers.

*Book provided by Backbone Media
**See other book reviews on sidebar at right.

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January 28, 2011

CamelBak Groove Winner; La Sportiva Hobnail Giveaway; Random Shots of Beauty

Have you ever reached into the pocket of a jacket you haven't worn for a while and discovered a little bit of money there? Well, that's sort of what happened to me this week - except instead of money, I found something leftover to give away. I'll explain more in a second.

But first, let's get the CamelBak Groove bottle winner announcement out of the way: Toshi Moshi, e-mail me your contact info - you've won! Thanks as always to everyone who played, and special thanks to CamelBak for sponsoring the giveaway.

Now for the surprise giveaway: you know how there's that little pile of stuff in the corner of your bedroom that you're meaning to do something with someday, but never seem to get around to it? (Because everyone has a pile like that, right? Um ... right?) Well, this week I finally got around to going through my stuff, which tends to contain a lot of gear that I'm preparing to test and review. That's when I found a leftover La Sportiva Hobnail kit that came with my Crossover GTX shoes, which went unused since we don't see a whole lot of ice or snow here in coastal California.

Since there's still a decent amount of winter left in most parts of the country, I figure I should give them away to someone who can put them to good use. If you're interested, leave a comment below and I'll pick a winner at random. I want to make sure they go to a good home, though, so include the city you live in with your comments - and if you live in a place like San Diego or South Florida, go ahead and sit this one out. I'll announce the winner in a separate post on Tuesday night, and drop the hobnails in the mail by the end of next week.

On to this weekend's Random Shot of Beauty: I took it last weekend, on our family's second consecutive beach weekend in this wonderfully pleasant January. Obviously, the ocean has an incomparable majesty to it, but in my mind it's only the second most beautiful thing in this photo - right behind my 9-year-old daughter:

You all can have your winter weather. I'll take the beach and a beautiful girl any day.

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January 27, 2011

Patagonia Advocate Moccasin Review

In his wonderful autobiography Let My People Go Surfing, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard explains how the design of his company’s gear and apparel will never be dictated simply by fashion trends. Instead, it is created to serve the performance needs of a specifically targeted group of outdoor enthusiasts – rock climbers, skiers, hikers, windsurfers, etc – and if the general population coincidentally latches onto a particular product because of its styling, so much the better.

Patagonia Advocate

With that in mind, it should be pointed out that the company introduced their Advocate moccasin last year as “the ultimate travel shoe”: a lightweight accessory that is easily stowed in a backpack or camp bag, to be used as a comfy post-activity slipper after removing your feet from ski boots or hiking shoes. However, the “coincidental” group that should be latching onto it is the minimalist footwear crowd, because Patagonia has quietly captured what many of us are looking for: comfort, durability, and outstanding ground feel in a style that’s perfectly capable of all-purpose everyday use. All in a shoe that weighs less than 5 ounces. Sounds pretty great, right?

Ultra lightweight and super flexible

As you should expect from Patagonia, the benefit of these shoes extends beyond the consumer: the Advocate moccasin is part of the company’s 1% For the Planet program, which directs a percentage of certain product sales to various environmental protection programs. So buying a pair is good for you, and good for the planet - but for now we’ll focus on you, or rather, what Patagonia’s Advocate provides you.

Like any good moccasins, the Advocate is a model of simplicity: a synthetic leather upper with stretch bands for easy on/off without the need for lacing, on top of a flat, flexible outsole for natural foot movement. There’s no midsole, no heel, and no unnecessary features. Overall weight is 130g (4.6 oz), and it’s even lighter if you remove the insole (which I did - see below).

Brushed synthetic leather uppers

The Advocate’s upper is made of 100% synthetic leather, which is smooth on the interior surface to make it comfortable against bare feet. The outer surface has a brushed face to give it a bit of resistance from scuff marks. The leather is extremely thin, yet holds its shape quite well even after being rolled up or folded or otherwise mashed and mangled. There’s a rear pull loop to help get your heel into the shoe if the elastic on either side of the tongue area isn’t stretchy enough.

Removable insoles; heel loops at top; elastic on either side of tongue

Patagonia describes the moc as having a full toe box, but I found the box to be slightly snug, both on top and on the sides. Thankfully, the 2-mm thick insole is removable, which provided all the room I needed in the toe box, and also improves the outstanding ground feel of these moccasins even further.

Armadillo outsole

Below the upper is a moderately rugged “armadillo” outsole that’s more than adequate for basic hiking or street wear, but might be a little sketchy on uncertain terrain. Thickness of the outsole is only 3mm, so if you wear these without the insole, the Advocate offers what might be the best ground feel of any minimalist shoes on the market.

The only suggestions I’d have are to offer half sizes of the shoe, which currently is only offered in full sizes. If you’re in between whole sizes, it’s probably best to size up rather than down on account of the toe box situation, unless you’re planning on wearing these with the insole in place while wearing thick socks.

Another notable point if you’re considering purchase is that since the time I received my sample pair in the late fall, the Patagonia website has been updated to exclude the color combination you see in this review. I’ve provided links below to both the company website, which has current color schemes, and to Endless.com and Amazon.com, which have last season’s colors discounted in limited sizes.

Although Patagonia didn’t specifically set out to make the ideal minimalist shoe, they made a pretty darn compelling option with the Advocate. Whether you use it for its original intention as a travel shoe, or adopt it for your own multi-purpose minimalist use is up to you – and despite what he said in his book, I’m guessing that Yvon Chouinard won’t mind either way.

Best of all – and somewhat unexpectedly when it comes to Patagonia – is that the Advocate is very affordably priced in comparison to most everyday footwear on the market. The Patagonia Advocate moccasin retails for $55 from the company website.

*Product provided by Patagonia
**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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January 25, 2011

Small Victories

"I strip away the old debris that hides a shining car -
A brilliant red Barchetta from a better vanished time -
Fire up the willing engine responding with a roar -
Tires spitting gravel, I commit my weekly crime ...

Wind, in my hair, shifting and drifting -
Mechanical music, adrenaline surge..."

- Rush, "Red Barchetta" (video after post)

A couple of months ago I indicated that I was undertaking a minimalist speed project to try and reconcile my love of running in minimalist footwear with my latent desire to regain some of the speed I’ve lost over the past several years. During my most recent track session I had a breakthrough of sorts – but before I explain it, I thought I’d tell you a little bit about my car. (Stick with me, though; it always gets back to running around here. Well, almost always.)

The car I drive is nearly 18 years old – which in auto years makes it a senior citizen. It’s covered almost 220,000 miles, and I’d love to get another 80,000 more if there’s any way I can – but sadly, I’m not certain that we’ll ever reach that ambitious milestone, because the car is clearly showing signs of age.

My car, with approximately 220,000 lifetime miles

In fact, taking care of my car is a lot like living with a very elderly relative. Over a certain period of time, one system after another that worked perfectly for many years begin to simply wear out. The car goes into the mechanic’s hospital with increasing frequency, and each time there’s a discussion of whether the cost or risk of attempting a full repair is worth the benefit, or if it’s better to just leave well enough alone and learn to live with whatever the limitation might be.

For the most critical liabilities, the decision-making is easy – but for the dozens of smaller difficulties that inevitably come along, it’s usually best to just adapt to the changes. When enough of these accumulate, your car acquires the idiosyncrasies and problematic behavior that are the hallmark of old age.

My car’s radio antenna is broken. Oil leaks from the engine, and blue smoke rises from the hood whenever I go over a big hill. The power windows occasionally need a breather before returning to the closed position. The sunroof sometimes opens spontaneously (thankfully, never in a rainstorm yet). The remote keyless entry first lost it’s “beep” capacity, and then stopped working altogether. And I could go on and on. As long as the car keeps rolling and taking me where I need to go, I can put up with all the inconveniences.

Once in a while, however, you get glimpses of the old car that was so impressive to you in its youth, and they become reasons to celebrate. For example, I still try to lock my car with the remote every time I exit, and every now and then - perhaps 1 or 2 times out of 10 - it actually works. Whenever that happens, I give a little fist pump in appreciation.

In other words, you learn to savor the small victories.

Back to my track workout now: as I checked the halfway split of my first 1600m repeat, it read 2:56. I felt like I was cruising comfortably, so I maintained the same cadence and effort level, ultimately crossing the line in 5:58. And then I gave a little fist pump in appreciation.

It was the first sub-6 mile I’ve run in a workout for at least a year.

For as long as I’ve been doing track workouts, the six-minute threshold for my mile (or 1600m, depending on the venue) repeats has been my own personal Mendoza Line to determine whether I had any tangible speed in my legs at all. In my marathon racing days, I could rattle off a string of 5 to 6 repeats in the 5:30s to 5:40s, or 8 to 10 near 6:00 even – but ever since my two-fold conversion to ultrarunning and minimalist footwear, the fastest intervals I could muster in a workout have been in the 6:05-6:15 range.

Between completely revamping my form and practically eliminating speed work from my weekly regimen, the times when I show flashes of my old self – or more tellingly, when I feel like I’m flying the way I used to – are few and far between. So the fact that I cruised a sub-6 mile while maintaining good form without feeling like my legs or lungs were blowing up was a very welcome surprise.

This isn’t to say that I’ve turned any kind of corner, though; the other repeats of the workout clocked in at 6:04 to 6:15 as usual. Rather, it was an opportunity to celebrate a small victory, in recognition that those moments will probably be more fleeting as the years go by.

Me, with approximately ??? lifetime miles (definitely a lot)

I don’t have any intention of returning to road racing, and I don’t know that I’ll ever reach the ambitious PR milestones that used to fuel my workouts for months on end. And as my training ramps up in preparation for this craziness I’ve gotten myself into, track workouts will become a thing of the past, with the vast majority of my mileage spent on hilly trails instead of flat, hard surfaces. (There’s also probably an age factor in this equation, but since I refuse to acknowledge that I’m getting older, I can’t really quantify it here.)

I guess the best way for me to sum it all up is like this: I have no desire to turn myself into a sports car again, but I’m happy to keep rolling along as a dependable high-mileage vehicle - one that has a lot of little quirks and is falling apart in several small ways, but still manages to make it from Point A to Point B all in one piece. As long as I keep on rolling wherever I want to go, that's enough to keep me satisfied.

And since we're on the topic of old cars and old times, let's go with an old song by my favorite band from my middle school years: the almighty Rush. I spent more hours playing air guitar to this song than you'd even believe if I told you, so I won't. In a related story, I don't remember having any girlfriends in middle school.

Rush, "Red Barchetta" (click to play):

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January 22, 2011

CamelBak Groove Bottle Review and Giveaway

I remember when drinking water used to be so simple.

There was a time when you didn’t have to worry about tap water impurities, plastic bottle toxins, or contributing to a Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that we didn’t know that we should worry about such things.

Times have changed, though – and fortunately, water bottle technology has kept pace with all of the concerns that modern consumers have about the once-simple act of drinking water. Exhibit A is CamelBak’s Groove, a reusable bottle that’s a culmination of several of the company’s recent innovations.

CamelBak Groove

The Groove is a 20-oz bottle made from 100% BPA-free Tritan plastic, with a stainless steel version available as well. It has conveniences such as a thumb loop for convenient carrying or clipping onto a bag, a “flip and sip” straw which prevents leaking when closed, and a Big Bite valve to provide a larger volume of fluid per sip. Most importantly, though, is that the bottle contains its own replaceable filtration system that can purify water from any tap source.

CamelBak’s filtration device sits inside the straw, making it less top heavy than other bottles with filters in the cap. The filter is made of coconut carbon, a plant-based (and therefore sustainable) source that effectively absorbs particulates and chemicals for up to 300 refills. With the filter removed, the remainder of the bottle is completely dishwasher safe, and when the filter’s life span is expired, you can use replacement filters to continue using the bottle for as long as you like.

I've been using my bottle for about a month now, and I can attest that it's extremely user-friendly. The loop makes carrying very easy, the flip top straw prevents any leaking at all, and the taste of water from the valve doesn't have any sort of odd taste to it. This is the only reusable bottle of mine that has a straw, and I've found it a nice convenience to not have to tip my bottle upside down to drink from it - this feature seems especially handy during work meetings. The straw goes practically all the way to the bottom, so you're only lacking a half-ounce or so when it's time to refill. I have the graphite color, which looks pretty cool, but there are a few others you can choose from to suit your preference.

At $24 from Amazon.com (or $32 for the stainless steel version, from the same link), the Groove offers an affordable way to eliminate the consumption of disposable bottles while ensuring that your drinking water is safe no matter where your daily routine takes you. Drinking might not be as simple as it used to be, but CamelBak’s Groove bottle takes almost all of the hassle out of doing the right things.

For one reader, the deal is even better: CamelBak will give away a free Groove bottle to a winner selected at random from the comments below. Leave a comment, and I’ll announce the winner this weekend. Thanks very much to CamelBak, and good luck to everybody!

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

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Random Shots of Beauty

No giveaways this weekend, no updates, ... I almost don't know what to do with myself. I guess we'll go straight to the Random Shot of Beauty.

I'm not sure what it says when you find a huge bone licked completely clean laying in the middle of the trail during the same week that you've seen mountain lion warning signs posted on your favorite trails ...

... but I took this to mean "keep running".

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January 19, 2011

Vibram FiveFingers Trek Sport Review

There’s a philosophy of art and architecture called eclecticism, whose origins trace back to the ancient Greeks. The theory is that instead of holding rigidly to a specific format or set of rules, you combine the best elements of multiple styles to create a finished product that is both more functional and more aesthetically pleasing than any of the previous styles were individually.

I’m thinking that the design team at Vibram must be fans of eclecticism, because that’s essentially what they’ve demonstrated with the FiveFingers Trek Sport: it takes the best elements from a few previous FiveFingers styles, and combines them into a model that’s perhaps the company’s most attractive trail running option yet.

Vibram FiveFingers Trek Sport

The Trek Sport is primarily a hybrid of the original KSO and the KSO Trek – which I use exclusively for hiking and trail running - but also incorporates elements of the wildly successful Bikila, which is my favorite minimalist road shoe. In light of that, the Trek Sport is probably best described in comparison to those other models. (My reviews of those previous models are linked in this paragraph, but I’ll list them at the end of the post as well.)

Trek Sport on L, KSO on R

At first glance, the Trek Sport looks remarkably like the original KSO. It has roughly the same mesh upper, but this version contains abrasion-resistant Coconut Active Carbon, which is a common ingredient in performance fabrics due to its moisture transfer and natural odor resistance properties. It’s probably not enough to completely overcome the eventual “FiveFingers stench” that loyal users complain about, but it’s nice to see that Vibram is at least making the effort. The mesh has a very thin layer of padding at the top of the foot underneath the fastening strap. Like the KSO, the Trek Sport is extremely comfortable against bare skin, although I’ve usually been wearing them with socks this winter for a bit of extra warmth.

From above: a dead-ringer for the KSO

The strap system of the KSO and Trek is retained on the Trek Sport, and wraps completely around the heel. Vibram introduced a “heelless” strap on their Bikila model, and while I find the fit of my Bikilas perfectly comfortable, many Vibram users prefer the strap around the heel for a feeling of greater overall stability. For the irregular terrain of trail running, it’s probably a good call to retain the heel strap on the Trek Sport.

Bikila on L, Trek Sport on R

A closer look at the upper reveals some details that are pulled from the Bikila. On the Trek Sport, Vibram has done away with the dual toe seams that were found on the KSO, which proved to be a problem area, particularly with splitting of the big toe seam (you can faintly see the tear in my pair three photos above), and replaced them with the single panel toe construction of the road model. The protective TPU reinforcements that debuted on the Bikila are also on the Trek Sport, covering more surface area on each toe than they do on the Bikila.

L to R: KSO, KSO Trek, Bikila, Trek Sport

Behind the heel, the Trek Sport uses a high Achilles pad like the one introduced on the Bikila. The heel pad is slightly lower, slightly thicker, and a bit more rectangular on the Sport than on the Bikila, and it represents a significant distinction from the KSO Trek, which doesn’t have any Achilles padding. I found the pad to be very comfortable while still allowing full range of motion, so this is a nice improvement from the Trek to the Trek Sport. There’s also a tiny reflector on the outside heel of the Trek Sport, but it’s primarily a stylistic flourish, and you certainly shouldn’t expect to stop traffic with it.

Front view of the heel pads (or lack thereof): Trek, Trek Sport, Bikila (L to R)

Another important note about the Sport Trek upper is that it’s not made of kangaroo leather. When the Trek was first released, it triggered some engaging discussion among Vibram customers about the material choice of the upper. I discussed this at length in my Trek review, and my opinion is that using kangaroo leather isn’t a big deal. Nevertheless, when the Trek Sport was first described, some folks heralded it as the “Vegetarian Trek”. Obviously, there are enough design differences in the two models to distinguish them for more pertinent reasons, but if you have an issue with wearing leather … then yeah, go ahead and consider this your Vegetarian Trek.

Animal lovers rejoice!

Below the upper, the Trek Sport is nearly identical to the Trek platform: there’s a 4mm EVA midsole with an antimicrobial microfiber lining through the insole area, and a 4mm cleated outsole underneath.

Trek on L, Trek Sport on R

In all the miles I've logged in my KSO Trek and Trek Sports, I've found this outsole more than capable of taking on the most challenging terrain. These models sacrifice a bit of flexibility compared to the podded outsole of the Bikila, but on rocky and technical trails, that’s a compromise I’m happy to make.

No trail too rough or rocky

Like all of my FiveFingers models, the overall fit of the Trek Sport is virtually perfect – it truly feels like a glove that wraps around my foot, and stays in place remarkably well on the steepest hills and roughest trails. The natural motion and barefoot feel of these shoes across all conditions is exceptional; in my opinion this remains one of Vibram’s main strengths in the increasingly crowded minimalist footwear market. The only potential limiter in this equation is the Trek Sport’s weight, which at 6.5oz is heavier than the Bikila (6.0oz) or KSO and Trek (5.7 each) – it’s not a huge difference, but when the goal is true barefoot feel, it’s a difference in the wrong direction.

(I should probably point out that the Trek Sport is still lighter than my two other favorite minimalist trail runners, the 8-oz Terra Plana Evo and the 6.9-oz Soft Star RunAmoc. So yes, I’m nitpicking this point … but I feel like I need something to complain about. It’s my nature.)

Have fun - feel barefoot!

Remember how I said you might think of the Trek Sport as the Vegetarian Trek? Well, you can also think of it as the Affordable Trek, because at a retail price of $100, it’s precisely in line with what you’d pay for a good pair of trail runners. And as I’ve mentioned in other FiveFingers reviews, you aren’t bound by the same 500-mile rule invented by the shoe cartels, so there’s every reason to expect this footwear to last for as long as the outsole provides traction and the upper stays in one piece.

That last point begs the question of whether I’d recommend the Trek Sport over the Trek for dedicated trail runners – and predictably, the answer depends on what your intended use is. My initial reaction is to say that the super-durable kangaroo leather of the KSO Trek is better suited for hardcore trail conditions: places where you might be bushwhacking, rock scrambling, tromping through thick ground cover, and so on. The mesh upper of the Sport is abrasion-resistant, but my gut feeling is that it won’t hold up to the same conditions for as long or as well as the leather version. Having said that, I’ve logged over 100 miles on my Sports, and I haven’t seen any signs of deterioration – so this is something I can report back on if it becomes an issue.

Let them take you anywhere

I’d also give a slight advantage to the leather Trek in terms of comfort against bare feet, as the kangaroo upper feels amazingly soft against the skin. However, if you typically wear socks with your Vibrams, this is something of a moot point. From a thermoregulation standpoint, the leather Trek has decent breatheability, and insulates your foot much better from the cold. I’ve found the Sport to be extremely breatheable but not as good at insulation – so for warm weather, the Sport would be a better choice, but in cool conditions, I’d stick with the Trek.

Sockless on a warm sunny day ... in January. I love California.

And then there’s the matter of cost: the Trek Sport retails for $25 less than the leather Trek. That’s not a small point for people nowadays – and aside from the conditions I’ve mentioned above, you’ll probably have a tough time finding a performance difference.

In the final analysis, it’s very easy to recommend the Trek Sport, which represents eclecticism at its finest: it takes the best features of previous models, and combines them with everything that already works about this innovative line of footwear to make something truly outstanding. If you’re a dedicated trail runner or hiker who doesn’t chronically submit your footwear to unusually harsh conditions, the Trek Sport is a very compelling choice for everyday use.

The Vibram FiveFingers Trek Sport retails for $100 from TravelCountry.com, as well as other online vendors.

See related reviews here:

Vibram FiveFingers KSO review

Vibram FiveFingers KSO Trek review

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila 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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Check out the Running Life book for a collection of our most popular columns.


January 17, 2011

Who Won?

A brief update before starting today’s post: if you’ve been following the whole Hood to Coast DVD subplot recently, but didn’t stick around to see all of the comments on last weekend’s post, I should let you know that the movie’s director left a comment on that page, and he seems like a pretty stand-up guy. He apologized for the misunderstanding around the giveaway, explained how he’s in the midst of delicate negotiations with the distribution company (a point he elaborated on in a separate e-mail to me), and offered up a free DVD for one of my readers after the official video release.

In other words, we’re cool. And if the giveaway offer ever materializes, I think the only fair thing for me to do is go back through the original review post and pick the winner from that list of commenters – so if you were one of them, all hope’s not lost quite yet.

I’ll post further updates as I get them – but for now, let’s resume our regularly scheduled programming …


Imagine this: you’re in the closing miles of a half-marathon, and fairly certain that your time will be fast enough to earn you an age group award. Suddenly you’re passed during mile 12 by someone you suspect is in your age group, and the battle is waged.

You crank your “effort dial” up to 11 as you fight to stay within striking distance of your opponent – and when you’re finally closing in on the finish line, you muster a furious sprint to edge past him, ultimately crossing the line a few strides ahead. At the awards ceremony, you feel rewarded by your effort and look forward to claiming your much-deserved prize …

… only to discover that the other guy beat you by two seconds.

That was my friend Mike’s experience at last fall’s Big Sur Half Marathon, and it inspired our most recent Monterey Herald column. The award discrepancy was due to chip timing: Mike’s rival had passed the start line a few seconds behind him, so when they were racing neck and neck, the other guy actually held a few second cushion that was unbeknownst to both of them.

The whole thing reminded us of some other instances of confusion – one of them coincidentally involving Mike again – when it comes to determining the winner of road races, which seems like an inherently simple thing to do. And this is the part where I normally say that you can read about it in the column that follows below – but today I’m flipping the script a bit. Instead of including the article here, I’m linking to it on our dedicated Running Life webpage.

If you’re wondering about the rationale for this … well, you see, I’ve got this book I’m selling. I may have mentioned it before. It’s available from Amazon.com (also in digital form on Kindle), but the book is actually cheaper from our independent book page, which happens to be our newspaper archive as well. You can also write instructions such as special handling or inscription requests if you order from our dedicated page.

So go check out the Monterey Herald article, and stick around to take a gander at our book. And don’t worry, I won’t force a hard sell on you too often … but I figure a gentle reminder every now and then can’t hurt.

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January 16, 2011

May Dreams Be Realized

“Sleep, sleep tonight, and may your dreams be realized –
If the thundercloud passes rain, so let it rain, let it rain.”

- U2, “MLK” (video after post)

Actual conversation between my 7-year-old daughter and me this past Saturday morning …

Daughter: We had do some journal writing in my class this week, and this is what I wrote: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Me: Um … wow. That’s pretty good. How’d you come up with that?

Daughter: I memorized it from a book about Martin Luther King and copied it. We’ve been learning about him in class.

Me: Right … I thought it sounded kind of familiar.

Daughter: I picked that part because I really liked it.

Me: I like it too - it's cool that you memorized it. I hope your dream comes true.


I’ll pretty much leave it at that for today, aside from a musical snapshot that also ties into this weekend’s holiday: a wonderful gem that often gets overlooked in the U2 repertoire - partially because of its simplicity and brevity, and partially because there was a far more popular song that also paid tribute to Dr King on the same Unforgettable Fire album where it first appeared.

The beauty of this one has never been lost on me, though ... maybe because I also found it to be a sweet little lullaby to sing to my kids when they were babies.

U2, “MLK”, live from Dortmund (click to play):

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January 15, 2011

Orgain Nutritional Shake Winners; Hood to Coast DVD Non-Winners; Random Shots of Beauty

It turns out that today's giveaway winner announcement has an unexpected twist that's pretty much a bummer ... but before I mention that, let's start with the good news.

Addy, Carly, and Elizbeth (in Ohio) - e-mail me your addresses; you've won the Orgain nutritional shake giveaway! I'll forward your contact info to the company rep, and you'll have a full case sent your way soon.

Now for that unexpected part of the story: two days after my Hood to Coast movie promotion was posted, I received a follow-up e-mail informing me that the director doesn't want me to share my copy of the DVD with a blog reader. When I was slow to reply to that one, I received another e-mail the very next day, stating that the director was still concerned about my offer, and would I please return it within three days.

So that's the bad news for today: NOBODY wins the Hood to Coast DVD - not even me. I understand the logic of this, of course: the director wants every last one of us to run out and buy the DVD as soon as it's released, and if I give one away for free, that's one fewer potential customer out there. The frustration from my standpoint is that I had asked in advance about giving a copy away, and shortly after my original post was published, the rep wrote me to say that it looked great. I guess that's the way things go sometimes, but I apologize for getting everyone's hopes up.


This weekend's Random Shot of Beauty could easily be mistaken for a random dose of fear; it comes from one of my most-frequented trails in Garland Ranch Regional Park, and was taken last Saturday. Click to enlarge, and read the sign:

Apparently it's mountain lion season again. And you wonder why I'm so fixated on having enough brightness from my headlamps in the morning.

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January 13, 2011

Petzl CORE Rechargeable Battery Pack Review

Every now and then a product is developed that serves such a great purpose that you wish it would have been around years ago. Considering the hundreds of dark mornings I’ve ventured onto the trails, and the thousands of hours of headlamp battery life I’ve burned in the process, Petzl's CORE rechargeable battery pack is one of those products.

Petzl CORE pack and USB cable; all photos from Petzl website

Then again, I doubt that this pack could have been developed a few years ago, because the technology that’s involved is fairly cutting edge stuff. It also has smart features and design elements that make it versatile, durable, and very easy to use.

Lithium ion polymer battery pack

Most importantly of all, it’s green: Petzl’s CORE is a rechargeable battery pack that is compatible with the brand’s entire line of TIKKA 2 or ZIPKA 2 headlamps. It uses a lithium ion polymer battery that is guaranteed for 300 recharge cycles, thus sparing the consumption of at least 900 regular AAA batteries. And it’s not only eco-friendly, but wallet friendly as well, because it pretty much pays for itself after just a handful of recharge cycles.

Although a few larger headlamps (such as my personal favorite, the Black Diamond Icon) have utilized rechargeable battery packs for a while now, in the realm of compact headlamps – which the vast majority of road and trail runners use because of their convenient size – there was a huge void in similar green technology. Yes, some compact lamps are compatible with rechargeable AAA batteries, but from my experience those batteries don’t burn nearly as brightly or as long as alkaline batteries. The CORE doesn’t remedy that situation to perfection – there’s still a bit of a brightness dropoff, as I’ll explain shortly – but it represents a huge step in the right direction.

Since the TIKKA XP2 is my compact lamp of choice (see my review), that’s the one I tested the CORE pack with most frequently. Here’s how it works: instead of opening the battery case as you normally do, you separate the headlamp into two separate pieces with a twisting motion. I was a bit apprehensive in doing this the first time, because it kind of feels like you’re breaking the thing completely apart. (The dude on the demonstration video embedded below makes this looks extremely easy, but I have to say that I still feel a bit of hesitance when twisting my casing open.) The CORE pack then snaps into place between the two pieces you’ve separated, and powers the lamp just as your alkaline batteries did. Headlamps with the CORE pack still maintain the specified water resistance of the standard casing.

CORE wedged between front and back of standard casing

Placing a new middle compartment between the original housing pieces makes the overall profile of the headlamp visibly thicker, but in practice it wasn’t extremely noticeable. The only times I noticed additional bouncing was when I really hammered the pace, particularly when running downhill – but for 95% of my mileage, it’s hard to tell a difference in bulk attached to your headband. That might be thanks to the overall weight of the CORE, which at 30g is nearly identical to the three alkaline batteries (typically 10g each) that you've replaced. Even better for me from a practical standpoint is that the lamp is still small enough to tuck into the pocket of my waist pack when I’m continuing my run after sunrise.

LED indicator circled in red

The CORE pack has an LED battery indicator to tell you precisely what percentage of charge remains: either greater than 75 %, 50-75%, 25-50%, or less than 25%. It recharges via a standard USB cable into your computer or any other power source with a USB port. If your wall outlet or car charger has a USB adaptor, you can charge the CORE there as well. Recharge time is approximately three hours from a fully drained start.

Cable port underneath protective cover

As mentioned earlier, the CORE is compatible with every model of Petzl’s TIKKA 2 and ZIPKA 2 series headlamps, but since all of those lamps have different light outputs, an ideal battery pack would be able to determine how much power is needed to produce the necessary brightness level for various lamps with maximal efficiency. That’s where the “smart” element comes into play, with the help of a free software package called Petzl OS.

After downloading OS onto your computer, you open the program and plug your CORE pack into the USB port. The program then asks what lamp you’re using the CORE with – you can use multiple profiles if you have more than one lamp – and what brightness settings you’d like to program into the pack. You can customize the brightness settings to whatever levels you want (within the range of the original lamp specs, obviously), and if you’re a visual person, the OS program features graphs to help demonstrate the brightness vs battery life relationship of various settings (the video below this post has a great demonstration of this).

OS interface

Unfortunately, what you can’t do is get the same lumen output or light distance with the CORE as you can with alkaline batteries. For example, a normal XP2 has a maximal output of 60 lumens on the high setting and shines a distance of 60m in spot mode, but the brightest burn you can get with the same lamp using a CORE pack is 50 lumens and 46m. In my opinion, this is the most significant drawback to the unit, because as a trail runner, brightness is king when it comes to the overall utility of any particular headlamp.

As recently as one year ago, the Tikka XP2 had a substantial brightness advantage over its main competitor, the Black Diamond Spot. Then BD went and raised their game significantly, packing 75 lumens into the updated Spot, and 100 lumens into a similarly-sized casing for a new model to be released very shortly. (And in case you’re wondering – yes, I have each of those, and I’ll be reviewing them soon.) I’m all for being eco-friendly when the performance dropoff is marginal, but stepping back from 60 to 50 lumens at the same time that I have an equal-sized lamp putting out 75 isn’t quite the tradeoff I was hoping for. I’ve found the brightness from the CORE plenty sufficient for neighborhood running, groomed trails, or fire roads – but if I’m venturing onto highly technical trails in the dark, I like a little more candle power to light my way.

Think green!

Aside from the highly demanding lighting needs I just described, the Petzl CORE pack is truly a wonderful option for anyone who uses the company’s line of compact headlamps. It has outstanding versatility and customization, and from a social responsibility standpoint, it’s an absolute home run. Hopefully future models will have a bit more muscle to burn a little brighter, but in the meantime, the current version fills a much-needed void in the greening of compact headlamps.

The Petzl CORE pack retails for $40 from TravelCountry.com, where you can also buy the TIKKA XP2 headlamp for $55.

"CORE Rechargeable Battery" by Petzl (click to play):

* Product provided by Petzl
** 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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January 11, 2011

Beauty in the Darkness

A quick update before today’s post: You can still enter the drawings to win Orgain nutritional shakes or the Hood to Coast DVD – winners of each will be announced this weekend. Click over, then come on back!

“Just another night –
With a sunset and a moonrise not so far behind –
To give us just enough light –
To lay down underneath the stars, listening to Papa’s translations –
Of the stories across the sky –
We drew our own constellations.”

- Jack Johnson, “Constellations” (video after post)

Ever since running her first 5K races last spring, my 9-year-old daughter and I have a standing date to go jogging together one night per week after I get home from work.

For the past couple of months, that’s meant running in the dark for part or all of our time together – a prospect that was initially met with some reluctance by my daughter, but one that she’s gradually embraced a little more with each passing week.

Her progression started during the Christmas season, as our first mile typically took us through neighborhood streets lined with holiday lights. She inevitably slowed down to take in the displays that seemed far more cozy, joyous, and welcoming when traveling on foot through the cold winter air than they ever did from the confines of a passing automobile. We quickly learned to adjust our planned route based on which houses had the most impressive lights.

Midway through our run we typically turn onto an abandoned airfield, where the road turns into a dirt path, and the ambient light disappears from our immediate vicinity. It’s here that the darkness becomes expansive, and we embrace the quiet solitude with nothing but each other’s companionship to carry us through it.

Sometimes we gaze at the stars, looking for the familiar shape of Orion, and using its landmarks to visually track the dog star Sirius, or the surrounding constellations of Gemini, Taurus, and Pleiades. We talk about some of the stories across the sky, and contemplate the billions of tales that have never been told but are are scripted in the heavens above.

Other times, we focus on the beams of our headlamps, lighting up our path just a few steps at a time. There’s beauty in that darkness as well, although it’s more intangible than picking our favorite stars from the sky. It’s a beauty that I’m well familiar with, however – and it also led to one of my favorite exchanges with her:

Daughter: This is kind of neat, with everything quiet while we’re staying in this little dome of light.

Me: I know. This is actually one of my favorite things about doing my long ultra races – you spend a lot of time running in the dark like this.

Daughter: Are you always by yourself?

Me: Sometimes I’m with somebody else, running and talking exactly like this. Other times I’m by myself, just enjoying the darkness and silence.

Daughter: It’s peaceful.

Me: Yup. And a lot of other things. I really love it.

Over the course of several runs with my daughter, I’ve recalled how my own affinity for running in the dark was assembled in small doses from one early morning to another, from one rewarding moment stacking upon others, until the inconveniences of the task are nearly forgotten. At first the darkness causes an uneasiness, akin to feeling adrift on uncharted waters – but once you’ve navigated through it a number of times, that sensation becomes familiar, and you develop a greater appreciation for the experience of traveling through.

Sailing through that beautiful darkness with my daughter, soaking in all the lights – whether decorative, celestial, or functional - has been the biggest unexpected pleasure of these dark, cold months. Not enough for me to hope winter sticks around any longer than necessary, of course – but certainly enough for me to not dread it quite so much.

As for the song ... with this daughter, it pretty much has to be Jack Johnson. And this one just happens to be one of our favorites.

Jack Johnson, "Constellations" (click to play):

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Hood to Coast Movie Screening Event

Every now and then – hopefully more frequently than not – I like to think my website provides you with some temporary relief from boredom. Realistically though, that diversion only lasts for a few minutes (or even shorter if you’re one of those who just skims through to see whether or not there’s a contest at the end) – but today, I have the opportunity to offer a longer period of relief. Approximately the duration of a feature-length film, to be more specific.

Last month I received an advance copy of Hood to Coast, a movie that documents the annual race of the same name that has become one of the best known running events in the world. It chronicles the history and growth of the event from its inception in 1982, and profiles four notable teams on their quest to conquer the 36-hour, 197-mile-long running relay.

The film was an official selection of the 2010 SXSW (South by Southwest) Film Festival, and provides a nice glimpse into the craziness that goes along with such an undertaking. Although I have no personal experience with the event to base this opinion on, the movie struck me as a bit heavy on the emphasis of descriptions like arduous, grueling, heroic, and impossible to describe the challenge – but maybe that’s just my own “impossible is nothing” bias as an ultrarunner. There’s no doubt that H2C is a wonderful event; I’m just not sure it ranks up there with Badwater, TransRockies, or even Western States among the most extraordinary feats of human accomplishment.

Nevertheless, the film is entertaining for anyone who likes compelling human interest stories within the sport of running. It’s also very visually appealing, as it was filmed entirely in HD and features several very cool shots of the landscape the runners traverse on their way from the mountain to the coast. It definitely offers a hefty dose of mojo, either to sustain your New Year’s running commitment or just to better appreciate the sport we participate in.

Hood to Coast is having a special one-day cinematic release on January 11th, in 500 theaters in all 50 states; you can click here to find the theater nearest you that is showing the film. Following the premier screening you’ll see videotaped interviews with notable runners such as Mary Decker Slaney, Bart Yasso, and race founder Bob Foote discussing their previous Hood to Coast experiences.

So if you’re sitting around looking for something to do tonight, consider this a recommendation. If you need something more to whet your appetite - or for the severely attention-span-challenged folks out there - I've embedded a three-minute trailer below. And if you happen to see the film, I’d love for you to stop by here again and leave a comment with a brief review.

(But if all you’re looking for is a contest … fine. I’ll mail my copy of the DVD to one commenter below.)

"Hood to Coast Trailer", from SXSW 2010 (click to play):

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January 9, 2011

Orgain Nutritional Shake Review and Giveaway

Hey, guess what? Remember all that giveaway madness that went on back in December? It’s not quite over yet. Today’s giveaway might not be as exciting as a pair of killer trail running shoes, but it’s a pretty nifty prize for anyone who’s interested in trying healthy nutrition alternatives or having a handy meal replacement for life on the go.

A couple of months ago I was contacted by Orgain to try its organic nutritional shakes, which were born from a life-altering experience of the company’s founder. Dr Andrew Abraham is a cancer survivor who was dissatisfied with the traditional chalky meal replacements that patients were often subjected to. He recognized the need for nutritional alternatives that didn’t rely upon artificial ingredients, that tasted good enough to enjoy, and could provide balanced nutrition for optimal health at all stages of life.

(Actually, the whole tale kind of reminds me of the CLIF bar origin story … except in place of “guy on a long bike ride” you’d say “guy with cancer”, and instead of “all-natural, better tasting energy bar” you have “all-natural, better tasting milkshake.” And Southern California [Orgain] instead of Northern California [CLIF]. But you get the idea.)

Orgain was founded in 2008, with the expressed vision of becoming the healthiest beverage company in the world. Dr Abraham has also stated that, “When you drink Orgain, you gain health, energy and life.” Pretty lofty goals, huh? No one will ever criticize the company for lack of ambition.

From company website

So what exactly is Orgain? It’s a ready-to-drink 11-ounce shake made entirely from certified organic ingredients which can be stored for up to a year without refrigeration. It has 255 calories in a 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein (16 grams worth), along with 24 vitamins and minerals, heart-healthy fiber, and the antioxidant equivalent of 10 servings of fruits and vegetables. They are gluten-free, caffeine-free, and contain absolutely no preservatives, corn syrup, saturated fat, antibiotics or hormones. It comes in a completely recyclable package, so you can be eco-friendly after you’re finished. All good stuff, to say the least.

Of course, none if this really matters if the finished product still tastes like chalk. I received samples of two flavors – Sweet Vanilla Bean and Creamy Chocolate Fudge – and had a taste test with my 9-year-old daughter one morning. I started with the vanilla flavor, since that’s pretty consistently my favorite flavor of anything – and after drinking about half the container thought to myself, "This stuff is pretty good." But I didn’t want to influence my daughter’s opinion, so I kept my mouth shut. That’s when we had this exchange:

Me: So how does yours taste?

Her: Great. It’s like drinking chocolate chips.

In kidspeak, that means "this stuff is pretty good." Then we each took a drink of the other’s, and agreed that the taste was quite impressive for something that had sat in our car for two hours.

As to why it was stashed in the car … that was because my daughter and I had just run a 5K together, and we only had about an hour to drive across town, get changed, and show up for her cowboy poetry recital later that morning. Along with the bagel and orange slice she had after the race, the Orgain shake worked great as a meal replacement since we didn’t have breakfast before or after running.

I can also see how these shakes would be a great source of quick, healthy calories after a hard workout, or a wholesome nutritional boost for anyone who’s sick and trying to bolster their immune system (remember, they were first designed for cancer patients). Their extended shelf life and convenient use makes them easy to keep around the house for a while or stuff into a workout bag when you know it’s going to be a long day.

As you’ve probably guessed with keywords like “organic”, “meal replacement”, and “gluten free”, Orgain isn’t exactly cheap. An 11-ounce pack sells for $3.50 from the company website, and may be marked up slightly higher in retail health food markets like Whole Foods. That’s why it’s great to know someone who does giveaways!

In conjunction with this review, three winners will receive a 12-pack case of Orgain shakes, divided equally between vanilla bean and chocolate fudge flavors. To enter, leave a comment below this post by Thursday, January 13th, and I’ll pull three winners out of the “Random Numberinator” and announce them on the weekend. Thanks very much to Orgain for sponsoring this contest, and good luck to everybody!

*Product provided by Orgain
**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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January 8, 2011

WRC Black Diamond Icon Giveaway Winner; VIVOBAREFOOT Neo (or Evo?) Winners; Random Shots of Beauty

It's time to announce our final winners from December's huge giveaway bonanza!

First, the winner of the Black Diamond Icon headlamp and Wilderness Running Company gift card is ... Shel! Contact me at the link below.

Moving on to the main VIVOBAREFOOT drawing - remember the ground rules here: depending on your shoe size and overall availability, you'll either receive a pair of the Neo shoe I reviewed, or the Evo, which in my opinion is a better overall shoe. With that in mind ... Marathon Maiden, Tim Butterfield, and treklightly, you're the lucky winners! Send me your address, and I'll pass your information along to my VB rep.

To everyone else who is interested in the Neo: check this product page to see if your sizes and colors are still available, or to put your name on the wait list for their official launch this spring. Thanks to everyone for playing!


As for this weekend's Random Shot of Beauty: I haven't written much lately about bike riding with my son, but it's still something we do on a regular basis. This photo was taken last week while riding through the Fort Ord open space:

Go ahead and add January bike rides to the long list of reasons I love living here.

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