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February 27, 2011

Writer's Block Mailbag; Upcoming Product Reviews, Running Camera Recommendation, Minimalist Track Shoes, and RunAmoc Troubleshooting

I’ve often mentioned that running is the creative wellspring for most of my writing, so it shouldn’t surprise me that the opposite corollary is true as well: the less I run, the less material I find to write about.

That lesson was driven home especially well over our recent snow trip, where I spent a lot of time curled up on the couch with a book in between brief ventures into whiteout conditions for driveway shoveling, igloo building, or sled-run construction. It was an extended break from running – and consequently, I was kind of grasping at straws about what the next blog post would look like.

Ideal for relaxing; for running and writing, not so much

(And while I don’t have any intention to go into Jack London mode, here are a couple of random side notes from our recent snow trip …

1) If you think I’m exaggerating about the amount of snowfall we saw, consider this: my wife and I bundled up and went for a walk outside on the recently-plowed street in front of our cabin. We probably walked less than one mile out, with our feet sinking almost ankle deep into the snow … and when we turned around to make our way back home, our footprints from the outward journey had completely vanished.

2) When it’s 20 degrees outside and you think you’re a tough guy for leaving the warmth of the fireplace a couple of times a day to wade through waist-high snowdrifts for an hour or so, there’s nothing like a story about several people freezing or plummeting to death on K2 to help keep things in perspective; on that note, No Way Down was not only a gripping read, but a nice reminder that I should never EVER get involved with high-altitude mountaineering.)

Back to the subject at hand: my little bout of slacker-induced writer’s block. I took advantage of the situation to catch up on overdue e-mails and review some of the correspondence I’ve had in recent months. It didn’t take me long to notice that several of the questions I’ve answered lately have common themes – and I figured that for each person who actually went out of his or her way to ask me something specific, chances are that there were others who might be wondering the same thing.

Guess what that means! It’s a mailbag post! As one of my favorite sportswriters likes to say, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.


1. Are you going to be reviewing (fill in the product)?

It’s generally been my habit to keep upcoming product reviews close to the vest for a few reasons. Sometimes I’m not sure if a certain product will post on here on Running and Rambling or on Feed The Habit, where I’m a regular contributor. Other times I’m uncertain of the timing – for instance, I have verbal commitments to review some products that aren’t yet in my possession, either because my particular size isn’t available for testing, or I’m waiting on shipments to arrive - so I have no idea if a review will come together in a few weeks or a few months. And on rare occasions, I’ve ended up sending products back to the manufacturer after informing them that I would most likely write an unfavorable review.

Having said that, I can certainly appreciate why some folks would like to know whether a review of a particular product is in the works. So here’s a list of items that I’m currently testing, which will probably appear here over the next several weeks:

Black Diamond Spot and Storm headlamps
ZYM electrolyte tabs
Saucony Peregrine shoes
Hydrapak E-Lite vest
GoLite Tara Lite shoes
Somnio Nada shoes
Feetures socks
CamelBak Skeeter pack
Icebreaker GT shorts and short sleeve crew
Rokit Fuel breakfast mix
GU Brew electrolyte tabs

These are in addition to two new products from Soft Star Shoes which I’m not allowed to describe in detail, but which I’ll talk more about in an upcoming post.

Here are some other products that I have a verbal commitment for, but I’m still waiting on them to arrive:

Merrell Trail Glove
Merrell Pace Glove
Patagonia Pau shoe
Jinga shoes
Vibram FiveFingers Komodo Sport
Vibram Fivefingers Bikila LS
Patagonia Nine Trails shorts
Stem Footwear
Altra Adam shoe

Like I said, I have no idea when or if the above list will ever materialize. Now here’s the audience participation portion of this post: would you like periodic updates on what’s on my gear review list, even if they're not 100% confirmed? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll see if there’s a consensus one way or the other.


2. What camera do you use for trail running?

For the past year I've used a Canon PowerShot SD1400, a 14MP camera which is perfectly sized (like a deck of cards with rounded edges) for tucking into a small pocket and seems to have relatively good durability. The only downside is that it’s actually too narrow to take timer shots if you don’t have a completely flat surface; in those situations, I often have to prop a small rock or piece of bark under the lens to prevent it from tipping over.

Canon SD1400 on L, Nikon L11 on R

Before the Canon, I used a Nikon Coolpix L11, a 6MP unit which had a significantly wider profile but could still fit in the pocket of my waist pack, and was much easier to take timer shots with. The megapixel count and picture quality of the Nikon wasn’t quite as good as the Canon, but since it was very durable (even surviving a handful of drops on the trail) and served me well for nearly three years, I considered it a good investment.

Same two cameras from the bottom: notice the narrow, curved profile of the Canon

It's also worth noting that with both cameras, I also do a lot of photo editing with Picasa, which is a tremendous help in making my mediocre picture-taking skills look somewhat competent.


3. What shoes do you wear for track workouts?

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I don’t do track workouts extremely often – and as my mileage on the trails increases this spring, my days at the track will be few and far between. Nevertheless, I do like to head out and test my speed every now and then with some quarter-mile or 1600m repeats – and when I do, I’m almost always wearing my Vibram FiveFingers Bikilas.

Of all the minimalist footwear I’ve tested, none offer the same combination of comfort, secure fit, and true barefoot feel that the Bikilas do. They were made for one specific purpose - fast running – and everything about the shoe fills the bill almost perfectly. In fact, part of the reason I’m so interested to test the upcoming Bikila LS is that I’m curious as to how Vibram could improve upon this model.


They're also great for playing in lettuce fields

Sometimes I’m asked if I wear track spikes for these workouts, and while there’s a lot of benefit to doing so from a minimalist standpoint, I don’t have any experience with particular models of track shoes to make any sort of recommendation.


4. Why does my toe poke into the top of my RunAmocs?

I’m realizing that I’ve become something of a Pied Piper for the Soft Star RunAmoc over the past year, and consequently, I seem to get a lot of questions about the fit, performance, or durability of them from customers who have bought a pair. Of all the questions I receive, this one is probably the most common.


Look closely (and click to enlarge) - you'll notice my big toes pushing against top of toe box

Even when the RunAmocs are fit properly – and for most people, that means sizing down one size – first-time wearers note that their big toe presses against the top of the toe box. It looks a bit strange, and people sometimes worry if this will be a source of pressure and/or blisters.

The good news is that this situation is perfectly normal, and the solution isn’t to get a bigger size – it’s simply to get running. The leather of the toe box will stretch a bit as you run in the mocs, and I haven’t heard anybody report any discomfort beyond the first run or two. If you think your toes will be sensitive, a good pair of socks is probably all it takes to make the first few runs go smoothly.

I’m perfectly happy to answer further questions about the RunAmoc, or any other gear that I’ve reviewed, or anything else related to this website that you’re curious about. Feel free to drop me an e-mail anytime – but please be patient in waiting for a reply, as it sometimes takes me a few days to get around to returning correspondence. If I spot a trend in fielding a lot of similar questions, maybe I’ll throw together another mailbag post sometime.

However, since I’ve left the snow behind and I’m looking to jump back into training soon, I’m hopeful that there won’t be any more shortages of things to write about this spring.


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February 26, 2011

Random Shots of Beauty (Winter Edition)

Here is the scene I woke up to on Friday morning:


This was before an additional 20" of snow fell throughout the day.

Obviously, I'm not in Monterey County anymore; our family is spending a few days at our favorite vacation spot in the Sierra Nevadas, a trip which just happened to coincide with one of the biggest snowstorms of the season. Despite my love of warm weather and winter beach days, there's definitely something romantic about seeing the snow pile up outside your window, and knowing that there's no particular place to go. Of course, romance doesn't shovel the driveway three times per day, so that cozy feeling only lasts so long.

The view from our deck. See that brown line at lower right? That's the 4' top railing of the deck.

In a related story, I haven't gone running in five days - so once this weekend is over, it will be time to jump back on the training wagon. It's less than 5 weeks to my first ultra of the season, and something tells me that shoveling snow every now and then isn't nearly enough to make up for my recent Girl Scout cookie binges, let alone enough to prepare me for running 50 miles.



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February 23, 2011

New Balance Minimus Trail Review and Giveaway Contest

Admin note: Remember how I said this review was going to be awesome? Well, by now you’ve figured out from the title of this post what I was referring to. Yes, there’s a giveaway, and I wouldn’t be nearly as stoked about it if I wasn’t so impressed with the shoe … but for details on that, you’ll have to read on.

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In my review for New Balance’s forthcoming Minimus Road shoe last week, I expressed my disappointment that the shoe wasn’t more minimal; rather, it’s intended as a transitional shoe, targeting folks who want to leave standard footwear behind but aren’t quite ready to commit to completely minimal footwear. Since I run almost exclusively in true minimalist footwear, its utility was sort of lost on me.

See, if I were designing a transitional shoe, I’d do something more dramatic. I’d strip the overall weight of the shoe down as much as possible and make the uppers feel like there’s barely anything there. I’d make the midsole low to the ground, with a very marginal slope from heel to toe to promote flat foot strike, but leaving just enough protection in the heel area to accommodate the occasional inadvertent heel strike. I’d make it amazingly comfortable but durable enough to be worn for endless miles in any imaginable conditions.

In other words, I’d make the New Balance Minimus trail shoe.


New Balance Minimus trail version

I suspect that the classification of this shoe will differ between longtime minimalist runners and traditional footwear users. New Balance promotes this as their true minimalist model, and if you’re trying the Minimus in comparison to standard running shoes, the barefoot sensation will be quite remarkable. Pure barefoot runners, on the other hand, will find some of the structural elements unfavorable, and will think of this (as I do) mainly as a transitional shoe. Fortunately, the Minimus is so thoughtfully designed and so well-constructed that it has something tangible to offer both of these groups.

Here are the vital specs for the Minimus Trail: overall weight is 7.1 oz, with a midsole height of 15mm in the heel and 11mm in the forefoot, resulting in a 4mm slope from heel to toe. Considering that most minimalist footwear is completely flat and less than 8mm thick, you can appreciate how barefooters would be apprehensive. Furthermore, the specs aren’t dramatically different than New Balance’s own MT101, which checks in at 7.8 oz and 18mm/8mm heel to toe. So the forefoot of the Minimus is actually higher off the ground than on the 101, but with a much flatter slope.

Accordingly, I consider the Minimus not quite minimal, but it’s the last stop before reaching that destination. And after logging a couple hundred miles on mine, I’ve come to believe that this will be one of the most attractive trail shoes on the market in 2011. It complements my minimalist running quite nicely without feeling like I’m returning to traditional footwear, and has several innovative design features that make it one of the best high-performance trail runners of any variety currently on the market. So let’s take a look at those from the top down.


Lightweight mesh upper; stability strap across forefoot

Two types of mesh comprise the Minimus upper: a wide-open ventilated top layer, with a very thin, finely woven base layer underneath to keep grit away from your toes. Like the road version, the Minimus Trail is made to be worn without socks, and the comfort of the interior lining against bare skin is super comfortable. Its tongue is similar to the MT101, consisting of little more than a thin fabric layer. The fabric of the tongue and top of the toe box is different than the majority of the upper, but is still very light and has minimal structure to it. Standard shoelaces provide nice even tension across the top of the foot.


Sockless liner; heelcups with light padding

Construction of the entire upper is so lightweight and comfortable that your foot feels like it’s inside a soft slipper. It lets water in relatively easily, but also dries very rapidly, making it ideal for stream crossings. There is plenty of room in the toe box for foot splay, and the contour of the last and upper fit my foot like a hand sliding into a glove. (Or maybe a mitten. You get the point.) Fit around the heel is secure without feeling tight, and the ankle collar is cut low to allow full range of motion, with a modest lining on top for improved comfort without added bulk.


Stability straps around heelcup; 15mm heel midsole

Perhaps the most noticeable innovation on the upper are two strips of synthetic leather: one across the top of the foot at the base of the toes, and one that wraps around the heel. The heel strap is similar in appearance to the back of a pair of Vibram FiveFingers, and maintains stability of the lightweight upper around the heelcup. The forefoot strap is anchored by a raised shark fin-shaped portion of the outsole on each side.


Shark-fin outsole overlay; contrasting mesh fabrics of midfoot and toe box


When you first put the shoe on, this forefoot strip feels a bit constricting, but as soon as you start running you can appreciate its purpose. On irregular terrain, it prevents excess lateral movement inside the upper, and when you’re running downhill, the strap prevents your toes from sliding forward into the toebox. If the shoe is sized appropriately (for me, they run true to size), even the steepest hills won’t mash the tips of your toes; this innovation alone deserves some kind of special recognition from veteran trail runners.

The midsole of the Minimus is where New Balance will probably draw the most contention from the barefoot crowd. No, it’s not a zero drop shoe, and yes, 15mm in the heel is fairly substantial. However, I also think this design element will attract one particular group of runners who have thus far been reluctant to try minimalist running: those looking to hammer the pace, especially on hilly trail courses. In fact, one of the first thoughts I had when running in the Minimus was that this shoe is the perfect marriage of minimalism and speed.

Here’s what I mean: despite all the barefoot miles I’ve logged over the past couple of years, and despite being able to tolerate ultra distances in minimalist shoes, there’s one aspect of trail running that remains a huge challenge for me: running fast on steep descents. When I’m really pushing for downhill speed, especially on tricky terrain, it’s extremely difficult to maintain a forefoot strike and prevent my heel from contacting the ground with impact. With the Minimus, you can blast the downhills, and the bolstered heel gives you a small margin of protection before resuming your smooth forefoot stride when the trail levels out.


Yeah ... it's flexible enough

Thickness of the midsole is greater than typical minimalist footwear, but the Minimus maintains pretty decent ground feel, especially through the forefoot area which is only 11mm thick. The entire midsole is flexible in all directions, allowing your foot to contour around trail irregularities just as it would in Vibrams or moccasins. I’ve found the added thickness to be ideal for providing solid, reliable protection from roots and rocks without having to sight the trail as actively as you do in minimalist footwear – which is another feature that’s valuable to hardcore racers.


Vibram high-performance outsole

More innovations are apparent in the Minimus outsole, which was developed by Vibram. It features grippy circular lugs with deep grooves in between for minimal weight and maximal flexibility. The outsole is slightly contoured in the arch area, similar to a pair of FiveFingers but not quite as snug.

Traction of the outsole is truly outstanding, and the Minimus has become my first choice when trail conditions are sloppy. They hold firmly in slippery mud, steady on wet rocks and stream crossings, and securely on loose gravel. Best of all, since the lugs are more circular than knobby, the ride remains fairly smooth even on asphalt – always a nice feature when you have to run a mile or two to reach the trailhead.

Circular lugs with deep cutouts


Across all conditions, the Minimus trail outsole is a dramatic improvement over any minimalist shoes I’ve tested – including Vibram’s KSO Trek and Trek Sport, which I had ranked highest to this point – and are nearly comparable with the most rugged trail outsoles like La Sportiva’s Crosslite and Salomon’s SpeedCross 2. I’d love to see Vibram incorporate this design on a FiveFingers model someday, since the outsole’s flexibility is perfectly comparable to the best minimalist shoes on the market.

In case it isn’t already obvious, I’m extremely impressed by the Minimus trail shoe, and I think it will turn out to be one of the most groundbreaking products of 2011. New Balance doesn’t call it a transitional shoe, and barefooters won’t call it a minimalist shoe, but its exceptional comfort and extensive high-performance features are likely to win fans from both of those camps.

And here’s the part that I’m most excited about of all: in conjunction with this review, New Balance has generously offered one pair of Minimus trail shoes as a contest prize for one of my readers. To enter, leave a comment below this post, and I’ll award extra entries for either a blog link or sharing this page via Facebook – so when you comment below, let me know how many entries you’ve earned (and I reserve the right to verify). Also, if your profile doesn’t have an address attached to it, leave me your e-mail so I have some way to reach you if you win.

I’m leaving the window of opportunity on this contest open for an extended period of time for two reasons: 1) To give as many people as possible a chance to win, and 2) Because the Minimus becomes available for purchase on March 1st, so if you don’t win the contest you can still grab one pretty quickly afterward. The winner will be announced on Saturday, March 5th, so good luck to everybody, and very special thanks to New Balance for sponsoring this contest.

*** UPDATED: The contest is OVER as of 3/5/11! You can purchase the NB Minimus Trail here from TravelCountry.com, or here for the women's version.


*Product provided by New Balance
**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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February 22, 2011

Carnival of Blogging: MInimalist Running

Scroll down for my contribution to a Carnival of Blogging on Minimalist Running.

The article was supposed to appear in this post, but ... nevermind. It's a long story.


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Birds of a Feather: Minimalism and Ultrarunning

“Exactly,” said Dumbledore. “Harry’s wand and Voldemort’s wand share cores. Each of them contains a feather from the tail of the same phoenix … ”

“So what happens when a wand meets its brother?” asked Sirius.

“They will not work properly against each other” said Dumbledore.


- From Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

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A couple of introductory notes are in order: first, this post is part of a larger Carnival of Blogging spearheaded by Jason Fitzgerald at Strength Running, who rounded up several writers to write simultaneously on the topic of minimalist running. After you’re finished here, be sure to check out the links to related posts from other bloggers.

And if you’re a new reader sent here from one of the other websites, welcome! While this is ostensibly a blog about running, you never know what you’re gonna find here. Take a look around, make yourself at home, and kick your shoes off. No, seriously – kick your shoes off, because they’re probably doing terrible things to your feet. Unless you’re a minimalist, of course – in which case you’ve definitely got a friend in me.

Despite the introductory passage above, my assignment wasn’t Minimalism and Harry Potter – although don’t put it past me, I might try that someday – but rather, Minimalism and Ultrarunning. Since I practice both of these things extensively, this topic seemed like the easiest contribution for me to make – and I have to confess that I initially thought that the connection between these two subjects would be obvious.

After all, the Shot Heard ‘Round the World in this whole barefoot and minimalist revolution was Christopher McDougall’s landmark Born to Run, which presented a manifesto against the running shoe industry while simultaneously chronicling the adventures of a few world-class ultrarunners alongside the indigenous people of Mexico’s desolate Copper Canyons. (You can see my full review of the book if you’re curious.) It was all right there: minimalism (since the Tarahumara wear leather sandals, it’s not entirely accurate to describe them as barefooters), trail running, and ultramarathoners – so we’re all one big happy family now, right?

Scott Jurek and Arnulfo Quimare; photo by Luis Escobar

Well, not exactly. What I’ve found in the two years I’ve been showing up to ultras in minimalist footwear is that there’s still a fair amount of skepticism out there about whether the worlds of minimalism and ultrarunning should coexist. New barefoot or minimalist practitioners are correctly wary of increasing their distances beyond the local neighborhood 10K. And conventional wisdom in the ultra community seems to say that minimalist running is fine for short distances or easy terrain, but for big mileage on challenging technical trails, you need shoes that are rugged enough to protect your feet from taking a beating.

I can attest that such claims are simply bogus.

I’ve done ultras in moccasins as well as a variety of minimalist shoes currently on the market. Every mile of my training and racing in 2010 was in minimalist footwear, and I’ve had no reason to change that approach in 2011, up to and including a 100-miler this July. While that may sound unusual, I’m not really breaking new ground in this regard, as several ultrarunners have completed 100-milers in Vibram FiveFingers over the past two years. And I’d wager to bet that nearly every single one of them was told at least once along the way – either in training or during the race itself - that their skimpy footwear was insufficient for the task they were undertaking.

Thankfully, I can report that the acceptance of minimalism has increased significantly over the course of a single racing season last year. When I ran the Quicksilver 50M in Soft Star RunAmocs, virtually everyone I encountered on the course – runners and volunteers alike – were somewhat dumbfounded that someone would do such a thing. By the time I did October’s Firetrails 50 in Terra Plana Evos, minimalism was something my fellow runners had heard about, even if they were wary of trying it themselves. This year, I’m predicting that instead of being incredulous or cautioning me about potential dangers, most folks will just wish me well and hope it works out for me.

50 miles in RunAmocs

I suspect that such easy accommodation reflects an essential truth about both minimalists and ultrarunners: at our cores, we have a very common history and a very similar psychological makeup. Like wands from the same phoenix, at some point in our respective development we were instilled with the same magical properties before ultimately forming into seemingly separate disciplines.

First, the history part: the underlying basis of the minimalist movement is a “back to nature” mentality (which I wrote about last week) that replicates the way our ancestors ran, in the manner that God created for them rather than using a technique that modern technology imposed upon them. Well, where exactly do you think all those cavemen were running? It wasn’t in asphalt subdivisions or on all-weather stadium tracks – it was in the dirt and grass, on hilltops and in valleys, through forests and across streams and wherever else the deer paths led them. And if you believe the idea of persistence hunting, chances are that those primitive trail runners were covering exceedingly long distances on a regular basis. Minimalism and ultrarunning were born together at the dawn of time, but somehow became separated and estranged by the dawn of the 21st Century.

As for the psychology: the mental approach that brings success in minimalist running is so remarkably similar to the mindset of ultrarunners that the two entities are plainly kindred spirits. Both groups are set apart from the mainstream running community, occasionally even outcast as freaks. Both take on tasks that seem impossible to casual observers. And both need to have healthy doses of determination and perseverance in order to succeed.

Both groups also need to be extremely patient with the process. Consider, for example, one of the best-known pieces of advice about barefoot/minimalist running, attributed to a character featured prominently in Born to Run named Caballo Blanco: Easy, then light, then smooth, then fast. Take care of the first three, and fast will take care of itself. Compare that to a common ultrarunning adage: Start easy, then taper off. Ultrarunners who press for speed too early typically blow up in the later stages of a race, whereas those who stay cool and let the race unfold naturally tend to have their best performances.

In each case, there’s a counterintuitive imperative to set your ego aside, to refrain from forcing your will upon the process, and to let things progress and develop in their own time. You have to have faith that what you’re pursuing is completely attainable, and your means of doing it is perfectly correct - even when virtually all external feedback indicates otherwise.

More than any other factor, the patience angle is probably the one that demonstrates how minimalism and ultrarunning are birds of a feather. Truth be told, if I were still chasing 10K age group awards or road marathon PRs, I probably wouldn’t be a dedicated minimalist runner: the huge initial setbacks in speed and the long process of trying to regain it again would require more time than I’d be willing to commit. Fortunately, I was already an ultrarunner before embracing minimalism, so the prospect of chilling out and making progress in baby steps wasn’t all that daunting.

In the final analysis, that’s the way it’s meant to be with minimalism and ultrarunning: two sibling activities built from the same core, extracting the same qualities and offering the same rewards to both of their practitioners. It’s improper to pit them against each other or to try and exclude one from the other; my hope is that in years to come they will be accepted as members of the same family, free to intermingle and enjoy each other’s company without anybody questioning who really belongs there.

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See the other articles from this Carnival of Blogging:

Pete Larson on Stride Length for Minimalist Runners at Runblogger

David Csonka on Evolutionary Roots of Minimalism at Naturally Engineered

Greg Strosaker on Focusing on Minimalist Form at PreDawn Runner

Matt Wilson on Mistakes to Avoid at Run Luau Run

Jason Fitzgerald at Strength Running, who is the host and organizer.


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February 19, 2011

High Tides and Low Tides (Part II)

A quick announcement before today’s post: last month I conducted a review and giveaway of Orgain nutritional shakes, which provide the calories and nutrients of a full meal replacement while somehow managing to be completely delicious. I could only pick three winners back then, but everyone has another chance to win a stash of freebies this spring. Every week from now through April 1, Orgain is giving away a month’s supply (three cases) of its organic shakes to one lucky winner through its Facebook page. So head over there and “like” them or whatever else you have to do to enter, and good luck!

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As for today … normally this weekend slot is where I put a Random Shot of Beauty – but since I have a brief follow-up story to an earlier post this week, I’m changing the script a bit and doing a Random Song of Beauty instead.

In this Valentine’s Day post I described how Bob Marley music has been part of the soundtrack of my love affair with my wife over more than 20 years, starting with a poster hanging in my dorm room. I embedded his song “High Tide or Low Tide”, and almost immediately afterward a few people asked if I knew of the Jack Johnson and Ben Harper remake. Not only am I aware of that version, but I’m nervous that it represents a bit of ironic foreshadowing in the life of one of my kids.

If there’s one musician who is more overwhelmingly beloved in our family than Bob Marley, it's Jack Johnson. We listen to his albums repeatedly throughout the course of any given day, and the kids fall to sleep to the sound of his voice by night. It’s quite likely that any member of our family can sing any one of his tunes by heart – which, considering the extent of his repertoire, is no small feat.


Of all the members in our family fan club, none is more enamored than my 9-year-old daughter. She and I have had many conversations – oftentimes while running together - about the joy of his music, the beauty of his lyrics, and how listening to his songs can simply overwhelm us with positive feelings. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that we’ve bonded over his music, and that it has served as the glue in our relationship on more than one occasion.

So here’s what this story has to do with the previous one: when I first saw the Jack Johnson cover of Bob Marley’s song, I had this strange feeling of a kind of torch being passed. In a not-too-distant place and time, I have visions of my daughter walking into the dorm room of some introverted college knucklehead, seeing a poster of Jack Johnson on the wall, and becoming completely smitten with the kid. And maybe that will lead to something more serious, until one day I realize that she’d rather sing Jack Johnson songs with somebody else besides me.

I know from experience that such things can happen - but when that day eventually comes, I’m not entirely sure that my heart will be able to take it. Until then, all I can do is enjoy the music with her while there’s still time.

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Jack Johnson and Ben Harper, "High Tide or Low Tide" (click to play):




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February 17, 2011

Searching For Eden

All things considered, I’m kind of surprised that I didn’t hear about something like this a lot sooner.

Last month Outside Magazine profiled Erwan Le Corre (linked after post), founder and principal instructor of MovNat, a fitness program that espouses our need to get back in touch with our primitive nature. Instead of sculpting our beach bodies by running ourselves dizzy at the track or contorting ourselves into various workout machines at the health club, we should build strength and fitness the way cavemen did: climbing trees to get fruit and nuts, lifting and rolling rocks together to build shelter, running through the forest and swimming in the sea to stalk prey, and grappling in hand-to-hand combat to establish our tribal dominance.


Erwin Le Corre; photo from Outside Magazine

It’s certainly a compelling concept - especially to the growing legions of barefoot aficionados, as Le Corre fully endorses running unshod, just as our ancestors did 1 million years before Nikes were invented. And the notion of getting back to basics by simplifying our lives will always be a noble one in the age of gadget-and-information overload. The comprehensive lifestyle adjustment that MovNat teaches – going to sleep when the sun goes down, getting regular exposure to nature, avoiding the processed foods and creature comforts that have come to define us as a society – offers plenty of health benefits that would be advantageous to pretty much anybody who tries it.

What really hooked me, though, was the promotional video that’s featured on the MovNat website (and embedded below), showing Le Corre doing some almost unbelievable physical feats – including some highly challenging and high-intensity barefoot running - in nothing more than a pair of shorts. It’s visually stunning and athletically impressive, and if you’re like me, it makes you want to get outside and use the whole world as your playground.

If you do happen to be like me in that regard, and if you have a healthy amount of time and money at your disposal (in which case you're not as much like me as you think), Le Corre conducts primitive boot camps where you sleep in the woods, follow a strict Paleo diet, and receive coaching in this sort of “caveman parkour.” But while I’m completely envious of LeCorre’s talents and training regimen (except for the part where he’s rolling around with another buff sweaty guy in the sand – I’d prefer to skip that particular lesson), you probably won’t be seeing me at a MovNat camp anytime in the future.

I truly appreciate the back to basics movement - especially how its ramifications have impacted my own favorite activity – but it also occurs to me that such hardcore countercultural fervor does more to tap into and exploit our deep-seated human longings than it does to offer practical solutions to the slings and arrows of our modern-day existence. One of my readers, who happens to be a religious studies PhD, has a very insightful take on this: he uses the barefoot running movement (as well as organic food and microbreweries) to symbolize our spiritual efforts to return to the Garden of Eden and experience what the world was like before everything got screwed up. It's an outward manifestation of our inherent desire to draw closer to our creator and find greater meaning in our everyday lives. His brief post makes for a pretty fascinating read; you should definitely check it out.

More tangibly, I’ve never been convinced that modern luxuries are such a bad thing. I’m completely willing to let my inner adventurer run wild all day and all night on rugged mountain trails during an ultra, but I also like a warm shower and comfortable mattress once it’s over. And while there’s certainly a romantic notion to eschewing the technological advances that have collectively dehumanized us, you’d be hard pressed to make an argument that society would be better off without things like mosquito nets or flush toilets or antibiotics – or for that matter, even cell phones or the Internet. Even if the primitive approaches to diet, activity, and human interaction were sustainable in modern times - and I'd argue that they aren't - that's not nearly reason enough to make me actually enjoy them.

I suppose that makes me a lousy caveman in light of the whole MovNat philosophy, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admire and appreciate the feats that Le Corre is able to accomplish. I’ll probably even incorporate bits of his dogma into some of my workouts – I’d certainly rather climb rocks or trees than lift weights in a gym – while I’m running in moccasins and otherwise channeling my inner Tarahumara. In the final analysis, however, I prefer to enjoy the best of both worlds: exploring a distant Garden of Eden every time I disappear into the trails, but happily returning to modern nirvana as soon as I’m finished.

*
Outside Magazine profile: Erwin Le Corre


MovNat - Erwan Le Corre, "The Workout the World Forgot" (click to play):




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February 16, 2011

In The Limelight

"Living on a lighted stage approaches the unreal -
For those who think and feel ...

Living in the limelight, the universal dream ... "
- Rush, "Limelight" (video after post)

*

I briefly contemplated presenting this as a weekend Random Act of Beauty post – except that it’s not entirely random, and it’s not so much beautiful as it is self-indulgent.

Nevertheless, it’s a sight that I consider absolutely sublime:

The Staff Picks bookshelf, in the limelight of the main entrance of our local Borders bookstore. Cast your gaze to the lower shelf, just right of center, where you’ll see a little book called The Running Life, right there on the same table as Chris McDougall’s Born to Run. Think there’s a chance that one of the store managers here might be a runner?


Below the book is one of those hand-written little tags where an employee tells you why this is such a great read. Ours says that the book is written by two local newspaper columnists, has great insight for runners of all abilities, and that it will change your life forever and contribute to world peace … or something like that. It's favorable.

I believe it's fair to admit that I’ve been relatively passive when it comes to promoting and marketing The Running Life. There’s a saying among writers that as soon as the book is completed, you stop being a writer and start being a salesman. Suffice it to say that I’m far more comfortable as a writer than I am as a salesman … come to think of it, I’m far more comfortable at anything than being a salesman. It's the writing that gives me joy; the selling part is almost complete anguish and torture - and that's not nearly as much of an exaggeration as you think.

Consequently, my friend Mike has done most of the heavy lifting on getting this thing distributed and promoted – and getting shelf placement in bookstores is no small accomplishment. I also have to admit that it’s pretty unreal - and pretty freaking cool - to walk into a bookstore and see your own book alongside the best and brightest of the industry.


For example, at what other time in my life will I be able to say I shared equal billing with Lance Armstrong, Dean Karnazes, and Jon Krakauer? But that’s me, baby, mixing it up with the big boys. Sure, I'm like a child among giants here - but if the fine patrons of this particular Borders care to think otherwise, I'm not going to be the one to correct them.

Rest assured that I don’t have any misconceptions about sales of our book rivaling the literary glitterati alongside it. At this point, I honestly don’t care if our book sells 100 copies or 100,000; just knowing that I got to see it on the featured shelf at a major bookstore is all the reward I need. (Good thing, too – because we’re a lot closer to that first number than the second.)

Of course, if you’d like to buy it, I certainly wouldn’t object - in fact, I'd be completely grateful - so you can get it here from Amazon.com, here on Kindle, or directly from our website where it’s a couple of bucks cheaper and you can leave us specific instructions for inscriptions or special orders.

Also, if you’re looking to buy it from a Borders bookstore, you might want to hurry. In that regard, I feel like The Running Life grabbed one of the last passenger slots on the Titanic; that stack of books you see is probably going down with the ship, but at least the journey was nice while it lasted.

*

And for no real reason other than being in the mood for it, here's one of the classics.

Rush, "Limelight" (click to play):





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February 15, 2011

New Balance Minimus Road Shoe Review

Remember how New Balance doled out information about its Minimus shoes in very small increments over last summer and fall, only releasing partial photos and snippets of information in an effort to create buzz about the products and initiate a slow boil of customer demand? Well, with the release date nearly upon us – they’re officially available on March 1st – I’m taking a cue from New Balance in the way I review their shoes.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m hoping to build some excitement around this line of shoes - and trust me, by the time we get to the end, there’s something very cool that’s gonna happen. But it’s going to be a slow boil – at first just generating a small amount of heat with a shoe that I’m basically kind of lukewarm on, before moving onto a model next week that I think might be one of the hottest products of 2011. And we’ll cap it all off with … well, you’ll just have to wait and see when we get there.


New Balance Minimus Road


We’re kicking things off with the Minimus Road version, about which I’ve already sort of tipped my hand a bit. It’s not that it's a bad shoe … it’s just not a minimalist shoe. New Balance categorizes it as a transitional shoe, targeting the same market who would be interested in the Newton Gravity, Brooks Green Silence, or Saucony Kinvara: runners who are seeking barefoot biomechanics without giving up the familiar features of a traditional training shoe.

However, since I scolded Saucony for disingenuous marketing in calling the Kinvara a minimalist shoe, I’d be remiss if I didn’t direct the same criticism toward New Balance with this shoe. Most likely, I’m getting hung up on the name; if something’s called Minimus, I expect it to be, you know … minimal. So maybe they just need a more accurate name. Like Medius, perhaps. Or Transitionus. You get the idea ... but I’m starting to digress.

So here’s what you get with the New Balance Minimus Road version: a transitional trainer with 16mm of midsole in the heel and 12mm in the forefoot, resulting in a nearly-flat 4mm drop. At just 8oz, it’s fairly lightweight compared to traditional trainers, and actually equal to some true minimalist shoes such as the Terra Plana Evo. It’s extremely well-constructed - as you’d expect from New Balance – and has a handful of subtle design elements that give you a feel for the biomechanics of running naturally. We’ll look at those from the top down.


Mesh upper with wide toe box


The Minimus Road’s upper looks like a classic running shoe, and actually brings to mind some of New Balance’s old-school looks from the 1970s. Its mesh upper has decent ventilation, but probably runs a bit hotter than Saucony’s Kinvara, and isn’t nearly as airy as Newton’s Gravity. The toe box is nice and roomy, providing plenty of space for foot splay, which is a great departure from classic running shoes. The heel area is built like a standard trainer (at least on the upper – more on this soon), with a fabric liner and a small amount of padding around the collar.


Traditional heel structure with padded collar

One really cool aspect of the upper is that New Balance designed it to be worn without socks – so the sockliner fabric extends throughout the interior of the shoe, and is sewn directly onto the midsole, without any insole to mess around with (see next photo).


I thought this was a nifty touch as well: Less is more – get it? It’s not only a sweet slogan, but it looks like the shoes are texting me. Just like all the cool kids do.

Below the upper, the Minimus Road has a relatively firm midsole with a very slight arch support built into it. Given the thicknesses of heel and forefoot, there really isn’t any ground feel to speak of, but there also isn’t any of the cushiness that you experience in traditional running shoes (or for that matter, even in some transitional shoes). The midsole will hold form pretty well if you land with a midfoot strike, but will also absorb shock if you regress back to a heelstrike pattern as you fatigue.


Undercut heel area in profile


However, one intriguing aspect of the midsole seems to promote midfoot strike just by its shape. Looking at the heel area from the side, you can see that the midsole material is undercut and doesn’t actually contact the ground along the last few centimeters in the back of the shoe. In practice, this makes it far easier to land more forward on your foot – and if you’re already accustomed to midfoot running, the Minimus is made to order for you.


Ndurance rubber outsole with honeycomb pattern

Underneath the midsole, New Balance uses a proprietary rubber called Ndurance that is cut into a honeycomb pattern, with small cutout areas for decreased weight and increased flexibility. The heel area has a more traditional-looking tread, but the remainder of the outsole is relatively smooth, and honestly doesn’t provide great traction in any sort of off-road use. They also get a little bit slick on wet surfaces, but the only times I found this to be a limitation were on excessively steep roads.


Cutout areas in outsole, smooth overall tread pattern


Like other transitional shoes, the Minimus Road version targets a very specific demographic: road runners who are looking to move very gradually towards minimalist running, or who just want something a little lighter, flatter, and firmer than what they’re accustomed to. The barefoot-specific design elements definitely distinguish this shoe from traditional running shoes and effectively promote the mechanics of natural running.

Compared to the minimalist footwear market, the number of quality entries in the transitional space is relatively limited; of those, the Minimus is a fairly strong option. However, if you’re looking for a true minimalist shoe from New Balance, you’re going to have to wait for the next review. Trust me – both the shoe and the review are going to be worth waiting for.


*Product provided by New Balance
**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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February 14, 2011

High Tide or Low Tide

Admin note: I had a product review locked and loaded for today, before noticing the date that this would post, and … D’Oh! Time to come up with a quick (and hopefully, slightly more romantic) Plan B. Look for the review next time.

*

“In high seas or in low seas –
I'm gonna be your friend, I'm gonna be your friend.
In high tide or in low tide –
I'll be by your side, I'll be by your side.”

-Bob Marley, “High Tide or Low Tide” (video after post)


This probably isn’t a shocking thing to hear about two native Californians, but my wife’s and my relationship with each other has revolved extensively around Bob Marley music.

One of my first inklings that this could be the Right Girl was when she surprised me with tickets to a Bob Marley Day concert (although truthfully, she didn’t have to do a whole lot of detective work to know I’d bite, since I had a Bob Marley poster in my dorm room), which was a perfect excuse for us to leave campus behind for a whole day with nothing more important to do than hang out together and get to know each other. There were a lot of bands playing that day … but I don’t seem to remember who they were. The girl, I remember.

For the rest of our time in college, we attended more reggae concerts together, and Bob Marley was a constant background music staple in our respective apartments. And when it came time to start planning a wedding, it didn’t take us long to decide which song would be our first dance as husband and wife. (It wasn’t the intro song; it was this one, seen in a rare concert video.)

Over the years, his music has been an ongoing presence in the life of our family. Our children have been raised on it (in a related story, we should have taken it as a sign that our most stubbornly independent kid’s favorite song at age 3 was Get Up, Stand Up), and there’s never been a time when a Bob Marley disc wasn’t in the minivan’s CD changer. And while nothing about all this makes us particularly good parents, it feels like an important responsibility for us to uphold.

On that note, the following song seems like an appropriate one to include here: it celebrates familial love across generations, and it’s a nice representation of the beautiful simplicity of Marley’s music. It also happened to turn up on the soundtrack of our videotaped wedding album - but it’s probably even more applicable to our relationship today than it was when we were newlyweds. There have been more high tides and low tides in the past year than either of us could have imagined – which is why I’m eternally grateful to have my best friend at my side.

*

And because music videos weren’t exactly prominent back in Bob’s day – and since I just mentioned the familial theme of this song – a concert version of the tune by Stephen Marley featuring his grandmother (Bob's mother Cedella, before her death in 2008) on backup vocals seems especially fitting.


Stephen Marley, “High Tide or Low Tide” by Bob Marley (click to play):





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February 12, 2011

Random Shots of Beauty

This is starting to be a recurring theme around here ... but I'm posting a Random Shot of Beauty just before heading out to enjoy another fantastic day. This was taken last weekend:


Rugged geocachers high above Soberanes Point, 6 miles south of Carmel at the northern edge of Big Sur. Our family has made a few similar outings lately, in preparation for a short vacation coming up in the spring. I'll discuss this more over the next few weeks, especially in regards to our family's interest in geocaching, and the gear (footwear and otherwise) that's available for kids for activities like this.

In the meantime, here's the view from the same spot looking south:


See that little strip of road way down there by the point? It's mile 20 of the Big Sur Marathon course. And as much as I love that race, on days like this there's no doubt in my mind that the view is way better from the top.


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February 10, 2011

Seirus Innovation Glove Review: Original All-Weather, Xtreme All-Weather, Hyperlite, and Softshell

Despite my recent posts celebrating the pleasantly warm weather we’ve enjoyed on the Monterey Peninsula for the past 2 months, it should be pointed out that I’m not completely immune from facing harsh winter conditions sometimes.

December through March tends to be the rainy season in these parts, and there’s also a slightly counterintuitive relationship between the beauty of our winter days and the coldness of the corresponding nights and mornings. If skies are clear and sunny during the day, our nights will be especially frosty and frigid. When skies are overcast, there’s a better than average chance that I’m going to get wet on my morning run - either through actual measurable rainfall, or from the moisture of dense fog blanketing my favorite valley trails.

What I’m getting at is, I run in cold weather sometimes – and over the past several weeks I’ve ventured out into my share of 30-degree mornings or steady downpours. And the reason I’m telling you about such unspeakable hardship (yes, really) is because I’ve also been using a collection of gloves that have made this misery quite a bit easier to bear.

The gloves are from Seirus Innovation, a company born primarily around ski and snow gear, but one that continually adapts and expands its product line to provide functional crossover potential for outdoor winter athletes. They currently have over 300 products in five main categories: gloves, liners, masks and balaclavas, hats, and "essential equipment" such as boot dryers and snow wallets.

Seirus has so many gloves to choose from that when setting up the review, I had a Paradox of Choice in trying to decide which models to test. So I basically told the rep, “I do a lot of trail running and MTB riding in wet conditions that get as low as 20 degrees”, and she responded by giving me 4 pairs to test: the Original All-Weather, the Hyperlite All-Weather, the Xtreme All-Weather, and the Softshell Lite. They’ve all performed very admirably for both running and bike riding, and I’ve used all of them frequently enough to distinguish my preferred circumstances for each.

Before describing the specifics of each glove, one important caveat should be pointed out about Seirus gloves: many of their models, especially the All-Weather versions, are marketed as 100% waterproof … which is only about 95% accurate. Of the four models I tried, only one was truly waterproof. For the others, the material that’s used is indeed impenetrable, but the seams aren’t sealed. (It actually says this on the packaging that comes with each pair of gloves, but the font size isn’t nearly as prominent as the “100% waterproof” part.) This style of construction improves breathability and flexibility, but it does allow water to seep through the seams. Consequently, you’ll see some negative reviews of these on various online retail sites posted by customers who expected them to keep their hands absolutely dry in all conditions.

So if you’re wearing an All-Weather glove and stick your hand in an icy stream or get caught in an ocean squall somewhere, yes, your hands will get wet. However, in my experience with them I’ve found that regular old rain stays out pretty well – and when water does trickle underneath the surface, the gloves act similar to a surf wetsuit, in that your body heat warms a thin layer of water that is trapped against the skin, keeping you comfortable despite being wet.

Seirus All-Weather glove


Now that we’re all clear on the waterproof/not waterproof question, let’s talk specifics, beginning with the most popular glove in the lineup: the Original All-Weather glove. Seirus uses a material called Weather Shield tri-laminate that is 100% windproof (same disclaimer about the seams here, though – you can definitely feel some air sneaking through) as well as waterproof, but manages to be breathable as well. Three layers are combined together: an outer shell of Polartec 4-way stretch fabric, a middle layer with the weatherproof membrane, and a wicking microfleece interior.

On the palm side there’s abrasion resistant leather, and the knit cuffs stay in place quite nicely on your wrist. I typically wear these for running when temps are in the 30s, or for MTB riding in the 40s. Perhaps the best aspect of these gloves – and this will be a recurring theme for all the models I tested – is how thin and flexible they are for the amount of warmth they provide. Wearing the All-Weather gloves, I still have enough dexterity to use zippers and headlamp buttons, which is a very nice perk when you’re reluctant to expose your fingers to the cold.


Seirus All-Weather Xtreme glove

For more extreme conditions, Seirus has the Xtreme All-Weather glove, which is the only truly waterproof glove in this lineup. It has the same 3-layer fabric as the Original All-Weather glove – but in this case the seams are sealed, preventing any water from seeping in. It has a Soft Grip palm, and the same snug form-fitting comfort as the Original. The Xtreme is a little bit thicker than the Original, so dexterity isn’t quite as good, but this has quickly become my best severe weather glove. I’ve used it comfortably for temps in the high 20s (as cold as it gets around here, really) as well as in the rain, and they work equally well as a cold-weather MTB glove.


Seirus Hyperlite All-Weather glove

When the weather isn’t quite so nasty, Seirus has a Hyperlite version of the All-Weather glove, which provides the same weather resistance as the original with a bit less warmth - or as the website describes it, “half the weight, all the awesome.” They can be used as a single layer, but are thin enough to wear as a liner for a bigger, thicker glove if you happen to find yourself in Alaska or some other place I never hope to encounter. Dexterity with these thin gloves is pretty impressive, as I can even use my compact camera while wearing them. Right now I wear these for temps in the 40s, and they’ll probably become my go-to glove as winter turns into spring shortly.


Seirus Softshell Lite glove

The misfit, so to speak, of this review is the Softshell Lite glove, which uses a lighter Polartec stretch shell on the outer layer instead of the more rugged exterior of the All-Weather gloves. Wind and water-resistant barriers are only on the palm and side walls instead of on the entire hand surface, which decreases its utility in harsh weather. Finally, they’re not quite as form-fitting as the others, so finger dexterity is compromised just a bit.

Hearing all that, you might conclude that I don’t like them … but actually, I’ve used these more than any of the others. The softshell construction still provides good insulation, and breathability is noticeably better than the All-Weather models. They have great versatility for a wider range of conditions; I’ve worn them for multi-hour runs that started in the low 30s and finished in the high 40s, and my hands generally stayed at a nice consistent comfort level throughout. If I’ve got an early morning 20-miler to knock out and I know that it’s not going to rain, these are the gloves I’m taking with me.

On the whole, I've really been impressed with my Seirus gloves, and I honestly can't recall any mornings where I've felt like my fingers weren't warm enough. I suspect that the Xtreme gloves would be suitable for temps into the teens or even lower, but fortunately for me, I haven't had to put them to such a severe test. Regardless, there’s certainly something for everybody in this assortment, and a few pairs in rotation would probably be enough to get you through an entire winter. Most Seirus gloves are available at Amazon.com with slightly variable prices based on size and color; the links for each are right here:

Seirus Original All-Weather gloves retail for $27-$35.


Seirus Xtreme All Weather Gloves retail for $44.


Seirus Hyperlite All-Weather gloves retail for $25-$30.


Seirus Softshell Lite retail for $44.

*Products provided by Seirus Innovation
**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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February 8, 2011

Jacks Peak County Park

"I don't want the world to see me -
'Cause I don't think that they'd understand -
When everything's made to be broken -
I just want you to know who I am."

- Goo Goo Dolls, "Iris" (video after post)


Perched on a hilltop overlooking the Monterey Peninsula, Jacks Peak County Park is something of a hidden gem for trail runners. At merely 500 acres, the park is really too small to do any high-mileage training – but the trails it does have are beautiful, and the park boundary also contains the highest point in the Monterey Peninsula.



My preferred running route is a perimeter tour that provides a great sampling of all the park has to offer, and is the easiest way to rack up 6 or 7 miles without having to backtrack. And on a day last week when most of the rest of the country was bracing for heavy February snowfall, Jacks Peak seemed like a great place to celebrate being a Californian.

Before we get rolling with the tour, a brief note about the name of the place: Scotsman David Jacks arrived in California during the Gold Rush and settled in the pueblo of Monterey just prior to California statehood in 1850. In the aftermath of the statehood movement and the Mexican-American war, he progressively – and quite controversially – became one of the wealthiest land owners in the state, at one point owning more than 100,000 acres in Monterey County, including most of the Peninsula.

Over the years his property was parceled out and changed hands several times, but the Jacks influence is still prominent in Monterey. Landmarks and roads bear his name, and one of his dairy farms was the origin of perhaps his best-known contribution to society: Monterey Jack cheese, which was first produced near the banks of the Salinas River. And then there’s the namesake peak, standing over the city as a monument to the guy who once owned nearly all of it.

The funny thing is, as far as peaks go, Jacks is rather unimpressive: it stands only 1068’ above sea level – by comparison, my favorite ridgeline in Carmel Valley (which technically isn’t part of the Peninsula) is more than 2000’ - and for the most part lacks the wide sweeping vistas that you hope for when climbing to the highest point in any given area. However, none of that changes the fact that it’s a cool little place to run, so I’ll stop the history lesson here and just get to the tour.


Despite its proximity to neighboring cities, the park has a very remote feel to it. To get there, you have to drive away from the city limits, climbing through pine and cypress forests until you’ve reached a small parking lot in a hilltop hideaway. It takes less than 10 minutes to get there, but it feels like you’re leaving the whole world behind.

Incidentally - see that city above? That’s not Monterey; it’s actually the neighboring town of Seaside, adjacent just to the north. The route I take for this run doesn’t offer a direct Monterey view until the very end, but it’s always worth the wait to get there.


I park outside the main entrance, and jog past this sign that consistently befuddles me. For the remainder of this report, let’s pretend that trail running isn’t a sport, OK? Otherwise I might get in big trouble.


Entering the park is like stepping into another world. The first stretch of trail reminds me of running in the Sierras, with its tall evergreen trees, soft pine needles underfoot …


… and cool vistas that periodically open up before you. In this shot, my route will eventually take me down the left side of the far valley and back up the other side, towards the Peak that is out of the frame to the right.


There are a few family picnic areas in the park, such as this one at the trailhead to the Earl Moser trail, named after one of the early trail benefactors at the time the park was established.


I’m thinking that Earl must have liked single track, because his trail contains a lot of it …


… as well as a few small meadows that almost take you by surprise when you encounter them. For the vast majority of time you spend on this side of the park, you’re completely enveloped in the tall pines, almost making you forget that you’re anywhere near the ocean …


… except for periodic glimpses of the coastline jutting into the ocean from a distance.


After a long gentle downhill into the valley, there’s a trail junction that always does two things to me: 1) gets me excited that I’m approaching the final climb to Jacks Peak, and 2) irrevocably plants the intro song into my head for the rest of the run. It’s happened enough times that I know not to try changing it: there’s simply no way I can run on the Iris Trail and not carry the Goo Goo Dolls’ "Iris" along with me.


Although it’s plainly a love song, the chorus is still somewhat appropriate: I don’t want the world to see me. It’s extremely rare that I encounter anyone else on this trail, which is exactly the way I like it when I’m looking to escape the day for a while. That kind of feeling in that kind of setting is simply the most wonderful experience I can ask for – and the Iris Trail never fails to deliver. I just want you to know who I am.


After a roller coaster climb, the trail finally emerges from the tree cover to offer views of coastal hills in the distance …


… before rewarding you with a wide-open look at Carmel Bay and Point Lobos at the southern end of the Monterey Peninsula. Remember how I said that Jacks Peak itself is rather unimpressive? Climbing up it is somewhat anticlimactic as well. This vista is seen from the lower shoulder of the peak on the south side; from here, the trail switches back and forth up toward the top …


… with the killer view fading into the trees the whole way. From a scenic standpoint, this section of trail is definitely a prospect of diminishing returns …


… because by the time you reach the actual top of Jacks Peak, your view has all but vanished. On the plus side, there’s a nice little bench to sit on, and a patch of grass to throw a ball around in … if sports were legal here, that is.


It’s not until you descend down the opposite side of the peak that you get your only direct view of the city of Monterey. The wait is rewarding, though, as the sight of Monterey gently sloping down to meet the sea always fills me with joy.


At the observation point, I decided to goof around a little bit and show off the new shoes I was wearing, but the lighting for this picture was terrible. I’m still including it, though, because here’s what I had to do to get this shot: 1) balance my camera on a small rock on top of a larger rock on top of a sloped bench seat, 2) hop up from the log on the ground to the 4”-wide railing without injuring myself, and 3) stand up without losing my balance and pitching over the 50’ drop on the other side ... all within 10 seconds. I just hate to have an effort like that go wasted.

Nevertheless, I did recognize that the shot of my shoes was pretty bad, so …


… I sat down on a log to take another one. It’s a prototype of something that should come to market later this year. Unfortunately, at this point I think that’s just about all I’m allowed to say.


Continuing along the trail, you turn away from Monterey and soon see the city of Seaside through the trees again, meaning that you’re close to the main park entrance and the end of the run. I usually linger at the car and take in the view while stretching for a few minutes before heading back to rejoin the rest of the world below.


Finally, here’s one more shot of my footwear, the style of which should be a dead giveaway for anyone who’s followed this blog for a while. Rest assured I’ll post more information about them as soon as I can.

**

As for the song, I have one more connection to it that is completely unrelated to running. Back when I was a baby blogger, one of the first writers I discovered was a remarkable girl who was dealing with more hardships at a very young age than most people have to face in their entire lives. She poured her heart into her writing, revealing both stark vulnerability and an admirably strong spirit. One day she used this song to conclude a particularly memorable post – her blog is private now, otherwise I’d link to it – that immediately hooked me, and commenced what became my favorite “blogger relationship” (yes, there are such things) over the years.

And in case you’re wondering … yes, my wife knows about all this, and she happens to love the girl too. So there’s nothing sneaky going on, aside from a song that simply gives me a lot of happiness.


Goo Goo Dolls, "Iris" (click to play):



*See other photo tours under tab at top of page.


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