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April 30, 2011

Running Life Book Discount; Random Shots of Beauty

Two brief reminders before this weekend's RSOB ...

1) If for some reason you missed it, be sure to sign up for a chance to win a pair of Merrell Barefoot Women's Pace Glove trail shoes; the winner will be announced here next Sunday.

2) You've got one more day to purchase my Running Life book at the 20% discounted price from our website, in conjunction with our promotion at the Big Sur Marathon race expo. The discount is good through close of business on Sunday, May 1.

Speaking of the Big Sur Marathon, that's the subject of our Random Shot of Beauty:

View of the beautiful, rugged Pacific coastline from Highway 1 in the Carmel Highlands, an equally beautiful and rugged stretch of road that this year's marathoners get to traverse twice. Lucky them.

As for me, I won't be in the marathon this year - I'll be doing this again instead. Honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way.

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


April 28, 2011

Merrell Barefoot Women's Pace Glove Review and Giveaway

Obviously, the big news with today’s post is that it features a giveaway of another sweet Merrell shoe. This time around, it’s the Merrell Barefoot Pace Glove, a model that my wife has been testing for a couple of months, and one that the company introduced last year as “designed specifically for women, by women.” So there’s definitely a strong Girl Power vibe around the website today; maybe this finally makes up for all those Britney Spears, Beyonce and Shakira photos I used to post here all the time back in the old days. (OK, maybe not … but it’s a start.)

Merrell Barefoot Pace Glove

The Pace Glove is one of three models in Merrell’s barefoot collection for women, and is the one best suited for trail running, making it the female equivalent to the men’s Trail Glove that I reviewed earlier this month. In fact, it’s so similar to the Trail Glove that I initially questioned what exactly the distinctions are that make the Pace Glove a more female-oriented shoe.

That’s not meant as a knock; the Trail Glove is an outstanding shoe, and the Pace Glove is equally remarkable. It’s just that when comparing the two models, there’s not a whole lot to distinguish the male from the female of the species. At 4.7 ounces, the Pace Glove is a bit lighter than the 6.2-oz Trail Glove – not unlike women and men in general, right? - but its overall structure and performance features are otherwise nearly equivalent.

Like the Trail Glove, the Pace Glove has an upper constructed of microfiber and breathable air mesh, which provides nice ventilation while still keeping the foot well-insulated in cold conditions (especially with socks) when necessary. Rubber toe bumpers in front improve the upper’s durability and offer protection in case of toe-stubbing.

Merrell’s Omni-fit lacing system, along with vertical TPU overlays hooked into the laces, wraps the entire midfoot to make the shoe fit like a glove (thus the name, I suppose). It has the same synthetic leather rearfoot sling to stabilize the ankle, and a grippy microfiber footbed that prevents your foot from sliding around on top of the midsole.

Since all of these features are also present on the Trail Glove, and since one of my observations about that model was how the snug fit caused slight difficulty getting my foot into the shoe, I specifically asked my wife about this (more than once, actually). She reported no difficulty getting the shoes on, and she wears socks with them every day. This might reflect the relative narrowness of women’s feet compared to men’s – or maybe it just indicates that I have fat feet; we’re only an experiment of two. At any rate, she reported that the Pace Gloves are extremely comfortable, even when wearing them for several hours.

Turned upside down, you can’t tell a difference between the male and female shoes; they both utilize the identical Vibram TC-1 rubber outsole that provides great traction in nearly all trail conditions, and has proven to be extremely durable after hundreds of trail miles (my model) and approximately 100 mixed road and trail miles (my wife’s). I had a couple of small quibbles with this outsole in my Trail Glove review, but I have to say that I’m very impressed by how the lugs have retained their thickness even after extensive use.

Pace Glove on L, Trail Glove on R

Predictably, the best way to distinguish the male from the female is to look at the tail end. Instead of the thin ankle collar with pull-up thumb loop on the Trail Glove, the Pace Glove has a more lady-like foot sling that is stretchable but sits securely around the ankle once the shoe is in place. I suspect that the wrinkled fabric of this collar might be a source of mild discomfort with sockless runners, but since my wife isn’t in that category, it posed no problems whatsoever for her.

Close-up of heel sling; yellow TPU overlays attach to lace system

The same structure and technology that Merrell uses through the midsole and outsole of its men’s barefoot models are present in the Pace Glove as well. It’s built with a completely flexible, true zero-drop platform to promote the biomechanics of natural running. Total “off the ground” height of the Pace Glove is approximately 12mm in the heel and forefoot, combining the outsole thickness with a 4mm compression molded EVA midsole, 1mm shock absorption plate in the forefoot, and the thin insole footbed.

Super-flexible midsole

The height of this shoe was probably the most interesting consideration for me in comparing my wife’s performance feedback with my own. When I first wore my Merrells, the 12mm spec seemed relatively high – probably due to the fact that I’ve been running barefoot or using true minimalist footwear for the better part of two years – and the Trail Gloves at first seemed a little too cushiony to be truly minimalist. However, my wife typically uses thicker zero-drop shoes like GoLite’s Micro Lite, and she could tell a big difference in reduced cushioning and increased ground feel once starting with the Pace Gloves. She even developed some soreness underneath her metatarsal heads after increasing her distance too quickly with the Merrells; while this wasn’t a positive development for her, it was proof to me that this line of footwear really does approximate barefoot running quite effectively.

At this point, my wife doesn’t want to go any thinner than her Pace Gloves, and I wouldn’t want to go any thicker than my Trail Gloves; however, we both love wearing our respective Merrells. This was the genesis of the premise in my Trail Glove review that Merrell’s Barefoot line is well-positioned to become the first mainstream barefoot shoe, equally attractive to dedicated minimalist users as well as recreational runners who want to go as light and low as possible without giving up modest comfort and protective features. Just as it did with the men’s version, Merrell’s women’s Pace Glove should appeal to a broad spectrum of runners, and I anticipate it will become a lot of people’s favorite shoe this year.

The Merrell Barefoot Pace Glove retails for $100 from TravelCountry.com – but for one lucky female reader, I’ll spare you the trouble of buying a pair. So here’s your chance, ladies: the giveaway contest for one pair of Pace Gloves is on.

We’ll use the same contest rules as the other Merrell giveaway: one entry for a lone comment, plus one additional entry for a Facebook or Twitter link to this contest page, and a third for a blog link to this page. Men are welcome to enter and perhaps become a Sugar Daddy for their lucky gal. When you leave a comment below, tell me how many entries you’ve earned. The winner will be announced next Sunday, May 8th.

Good luck to everyone, and very big thanks to Merrell for sponsoring this giveaway!

*Product provided by Merrell
**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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April 26, 2011

Hiking Yosemite With Kids, Part 2: Yosemite Falls

If you were following Part 1 yesterday, you’ll recall that my wife and I had just guided our three kids on a hike to the top of Nevada Fall and back, a 7-mile round trip with about 2000’ of climbing, and an adventure which helped them fall in love with Yosemite the same way my wife and I each did on our first visits here.

We didn’t tell the kids this at the time, but the Mist Trail was our “building confidence” hike – because we knew that the challenge of Day 2 would be significantly greater.

Our objective for the day was Yosemite Falls, which at roughly 4 miles from our starting point at Yosemite Lodge was only slightly longer than the previous day’s outing, but has an additional 700’ of climbing, much of it over very irregular rocky terrain. (I've also profiled this hike in a previous photo tour from two years ago.) If there are any city folk reading this who want a frame of reference, the hike is roughly the equivalent of climbing up two Empire State Buildings – except that instead of having an enclosed stairwell and railing to hold onto, the path on the top third of the climb is covered in snow, frequently gets slippery, and is less than 1 foot wide. Hopefully that helps.

To their credit, even after we explained the goal of the day (we conveniently left out the Empire State Building part) none of the kids shrunk from the challenge – which is a good thing, because the trail demands full commitment right off the bat, as it starts with a series of more than 60 switchbacks that help you gain altitude in a hurry – approximately 1000’ in the first mile.

After a mile and a half or so, the trail levels out, just as the footing starts to get tricky. It’s a nice courtesy of the trail to introduce these challenges one at a time, to keep you from getting too discouraged once you hit the sections that are both steep and technical. You also enjoy* a nice little downhill portion before commencing the real difficult stretch of trail ahead.

(*"Enjoy" might be the wrong term, since you know you’ll have to make the elevation back up in the very near future. As my father-in-law put it, “I hate giving back elevation” – and as you might guess, he wasn’t thrilled with the brief downhill part.)

The good news is that just as the trail shifts to expert level, you have some killer views of Yosemite Falls, and get close enough to get saturated by the spray if you linger for too long.

And as you continue even higher, you get the “only one spot in Yosemite to see this” vantage point of having both Yosemite Falls and the face of Half Dome in your field of vision.

It was somewhere above 6000’ elevation that the snow progressively became more of a factor; at first it started as decorative accents on either side of the trail …

… before becoming enough of an impediment to make you alter your course, especially around switchbacks and turns …

… then completely obscuring the trail except for a narrow footpath …

… before ultimately blanketing everything in sight, which thankfully didn’t occur until just below the top of the climb. Incidentally, see that rock there? That’s one of the ones I sat on while taking a “sun break” to warm my toes up a bit, as I mentioned in this post about wearing Vibrams in the snow.

As for the kids, the snow seemed to energize them; approaching the last third of the climb, the girls started to drag just a bit, but as the snow got deeper and we got further and further into a winter landscape, they forgot that they were actually exercising and started goofing around in the snow. Either that, or the caffeinated CLIF Bloks my wife and I gave them about halfway up the hill were finally starting to kick in. (Seriously.)

Whatever the cause, they showed no signs of fatigue, throwing snowballs and making snowmen and generally having a blast …

… until my toes were warm enough to finish the outbound leg by heading toward the overlook area, where (fortunately for me) the granite was completely dry under the glare of direct sunlight.

The Yosemite Falls overlook is one of the coolest spots in the park, but this “pre-fall” section is as close as the majority of my family got to seeing it ...

... because the rest of the path to the overlook is a somewhat vertigo-inducing route down the face of the cliff …

… with these narrow stairs and this small handrail the only thing to keep you from plunging over the side.

My son was the only one who felt compelled to stand at the edge by himself. Actually, that’s not entirely true; my 7-year-old (remember, the one we deemed “most likely to tumble off a cliff or waterfall”) also went down with us, but I kept one hand on her at all times, and for some reason it didn’t seem like a good time to try playing around with my camera in the other hand. Call it a hunch.

We returned to the safer part of the overlook and enjoyed the views while having another lunch at the top of Yosemite – our second in two days, with one on each side of the valley. Not too shabby for a first family trip, I’d say.

I took this photo after lunch because it was such an oddity: my wife, who’s waaaaayy more paranoid than me when it comes to standing near steep dropoffs, and who has deferred two separate opportunities to overlook Yosemite Falls, randomly walked to the edge of the cliff and called our son over to point out the view of Yosemite Lodge in the distance far below. This also seems like a nice moment to point out that I don’t account for 100% of the crazy in our family – my wife’s good for at least a percent or two sometimes.

Once we had our fill of both food and the beautiful views, the return to the floor of the valley was one of those situations where the journey down takes almost as long as the way up. By midday, the paths of snow had turned slushy and slippery, and the combination of technical footing and steep descents dictated that we go fairly cautiously, especially in the company of little legs that had completed their second major day of climbing in a row. We didn’t have any serious problems, though …

… and before we knew it were back on the valley floor, looking back up at where we had just been. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of “did we really just climb to the top of that thing?” to instill a sense of accomplishment in the kids … and OK, in the adults as well.

In the final analysis, all of our kids performed wonderfully with both of our day hikes, and proved without a shadow of a doubt that our concern about their ability was somewhat unfounded. It’s worth pointing out that my wife and I wouldn’t describe any of our children as remarkable athletes; they’re just everyday kids who occasionally need some encouragement to be active, but generally enjoy goofing around outdoors and exploring the natural environment. Adventures like this seem like the kind of thing that should be commonplace with children, but are sadly becoming more of the exception in modern society.

In many ways, children might be seen as little microcosms of endurance athletes: if they’re motivated and determined to accomplish something, they’re capable of overcoming just about any perceived physical limitation that might stand in their way. And fortunately for my wife and me, the beauty of Yosemite was a perfect means of stimulating our kids’ ambition to push themselves further than normal in hopes of finding a significant physical and spiritual reward.

The really cool thing is that this effect works just as well on grown-ups as it does on kids – which is why I’m hopeful that this will be the first of many family outings into Yosemite.

*See other photo tours under tab at top of page

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April 25, 2011

Hiking Yosemite With Kids, Part 1: Mist Trail

Admin note: this was intended as a single post, but in true Running and Rambling fashion, I got carried away with things, and before I knew it I had a monster post on my hands. So we’re doing this as a two-part deal, on back to back days tonight and tomorrow. Feel free to comment on one, both, or (sigh) neither – whatever you prefer is fine with me. At this point I just need to rest my fingers for a while.


For each of the past few years, my wife and I have made a springtime pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park. On each of these trips, one of our most frequent topics of conversation while hiking throughout the valley has been when we thought our kids would be ready to join us on similar outings.

It was a more complicated question than just taking a family trip together; after all, there are plenty of families who bring young kids to Yosemite to walk around the meadow, explore the trails of the valley floor, or camp in the shadow of the mountains. But since we live in a rural area, our kids are able to experience a lot of natural beauty and do those outdoorsy activities at home. If my wife and I were going to give up our annual dose of seclusion to drag the kids along on a multi-day excursion, they had to be able to handle exploring the park in the same way that we enjoy. They also had to be able to appreciate the majestic grandeur of Yosemite, and capable of putting in the long hours that it might take to appreciate some of its unique features up close.

In other words, they had to be pretty strong little hikers.

Last fall, we finally decided to go for it, and made reservations to visit the park during this year’s spring break. However, we still weren’t fully convinced that our youngsters were up to some of the challenges, so after the first of the year we spent a lot of weekends hiking in the hills of Carmel Valley, all the while counseling them that the trails of Yosemite were even steeper, with more tricky footing, and more unpredictably variable weather conditions. We also assured them that all their practice would be totally worth it. They gradually paid their dues on our home trails, and last week was time for them to cash in and have some fun.

In addition to me and my wife, the cast of characters that set out on our first morning in Yosemite included our 12-year-old son, who was already a veteran of climbing up Sentinel Dome; honestly, we weren’t too worried about him. Our 9-year-old daughter runs with me on a weekly basis, but also shares my affection for wasting the day away with a good book underneath a warm blanket, and would probably be the first one to get discouraged if conditions got too wet, cold, muddy, or otherwise uncomfortable. However, she was also recently drafted into the Running and Rambling gear testing collective, so she was probably feeling a bit of pressure to finish the hike to increase her chances of getting more free stuff in the future. I considered that to be a good thing.

The biggest question mark going into the hikes was our 7-year-old daughter, who had the smallest legs of the group, but is also something of a firecracker. We ultimately decided that if we could channel a portion of her energy for relentless chatter into simply moving one foot in front of the other, she’d be fine. However, she also has the shortest attention span of the group and is prone to wandering off on her own without warning, so she earned “most likely to wind up tumbling off the edge of a cliff or waterfall somewhere” status with my wife and me. Fortunately, since you’re seeing this report on my blog instead of the evening news, you pretty much know how that turned out.

Our first day would be spent on the Mist Trail, which I’ve already documented more thoroughly in this photo tour. It’s about 3.5 miles in one direction, rising nearly 2000 feet while passing by two spectacular waterfalls. It’s one of the most popular hikes in the valley …

… when it’s open, that is. When the trail’s still officially closed for the winter, you’d be surprised at how effectively that scares the tourist traffic away. In our case, it also triggered a nice early-morning discussion of situational ethics, such as when it might be OK to disregard the rules to do something that is totally cool. Yes, it’s a slippery slope of logic: when the objective is seeing a cool waterfall, I’m completely OK with it, but if my youngest daughter ever tells me that she’s thinking about BASE jumping off Half Dome someday, you bet your ass that I’ll say “Absolutely not – it’s against park rules!” So let’s just say I take some liberties with parental authority, and move on.

The Mist Trail more than lived up to its name, as we made our way up the steep granite staircase that was soaked from the spray of nearby Vernal Fall.

Remember what I said about having natural beauty at home? Well, um … we don’t have a waterfall like this in Carmel Valley. We ended up timing our trip almost perfectly for waterfall volume, as heavy late-winter snowfall had melted quickly over the previous couple of weeks of sunshine; consequently, all of the falls we saw on our trip were in full-fledged boom mode.

For the most part, the trail to Vernal Fall was passable, aside from a few little snowbanks to maneuver around here and there. However, between cool temperatures, an overcast sky and getting increasingly soaked, the chill factor on this stretch of trail became pretty bad. But to our pleasant surprise, nobody really complained about it.

It also helped that by this point we were close to the top of Vernal Fall, where we could dry off above the waterfall spray, and where we had the place completely to ourselves. (Must have had something to do with that closed trail thing down below.) Each of our kids stood on the precipice of the 480’ vertical drop – and that’s pretty much all it took for them to be sold on Yosemite.

After a brief break, we continued up the trail with the final objective for the day, Nevada Fall, looming in the distance ahead.

The upper portion of the Mist Trail is essentially one long staircase, much of it in direct line of sight with Nevada Fall – but since the spray from this fall blows in the opposite direction, it’s not nearly as cold as the section below Vernal Fall.

Staircases gradually turn to switchbacks, but by this time we were close enough to the top that excitement seemed to override fatigue pretty easily for all of our kids.

At the top of Nevada Fall, we once again had the whole rock to ourselves, which made for a perfect lunch spot after a few hours of climbing. It was also a nice opportunity for my daughter to model the CamelBak pack she was testing; I’ll have a full review here in the next week or two, but suffice it to say we were both very pleased with it.

There are two ways to descend from the top of Nevada Fall: via the John Muir Trail, which is the thin line of snow that’s barely visible at right-center in the photo above, or to retrace our steps down the Mist Trail. Luckily, we chose to stay out of the snow as much as possible on this hike … because unbeknownst to us, on the following day we’d see a ton of it.

Which is where we’ll pick up the story in Part 2 next time.

(UPDATED: Part 2 is here.)

*See other photo tours under tab at top of page

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April 23, 2011

Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove Giveaway Winner; Random Shots of Beauty

Since I promised a winner on Saturday and my Saturday's practically over, we'll get right down to business: Nate in Colorado, e-mail me your address - you're the lucky winner of the Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove giveaway!

To everyone else, thanks very much for your entries and comments - and be sure to check out TravelCountry.com, where the Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove is well-stocked and available for purchase. And ladies, stay tuned for a Merrell Barefoot Pace Glove review and giveaway in the very near future.

As for this weekend's Random Shot of Beauty, the location was a no-brainer, but the specific shot selection was a little more difficult to choose:

I went with the old standbys: Yosemite Falls on the left, Half Dome in the distance on the right. More details on this next week as well.

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April 21, 2011

Hiking Yosemite in Vibrams: Minimalist FAQ

Today’s post is something of a precursor for one to follow next week – or perhaps it’s more of a long tangent that I figured would justify a post all its own.

The main story next week will be how our family spent two days hiking some of Yosemite National Park’s signature trails, in conditions that would be called adventurous even by ultrarunner standards. The side story is that I did both hikes in Vibrams – just as I’ve done for all of my hiking over the past year and a half – and about all of the comments, inquiries, and occasional snickering that I received along the way.

Freak feet!

I’ve mentioned a few times that minimalist footwear is becoming a bit more commonplace in the ultrarunning community, to the point where you’re not automatically considered an idiot or a freak for showing up to run 50 miles in a pair of moccasins or barefoot shoes. However, among hikers, there’s definitely still a strong element of surprise and disbelief. If I had a nickel for every time I heard something like Did you see what that guy was wearing? or Oh my gosh, that guy was in toe shoes! or even some kind of smart aleck remark after I passed somebody going the opposite direction, I would have finished the hike noticeably wealthier than when I started.

I’m pleased to note that several other people didn’t just make comments in passing, but actually stopped to ask me direct questions about the Vibrams - and since I ended up answering a lot of the same inquiries multiple times, I thought that a public debriefing would be useful to anyone who might come across another minimalist idiot in Yosemite someday. Because chances are, that idiot might very well be me.

So here’s what I heard most frequently on the trail over the two days of hiking …

Q: Do those give you enough support?

A: This was probably the most common question I received, and it’s quite clear that conventional wisdom about having a sturdy footbed and firm structure around the ankle is alive and well among recreational hikers. Of course, the proper answer is no, they don’t give me any support … but that’s the whole point. Unfortunately, passing someone on the trail doesn’t really afford you enough time to have a whole discussion about the inherently brilliant natural architecture of the foot, so I typically summarized this point by saying “I just let the foot do the work”. Which I’m sure didn’t make any sense to half of the people I told, but you never know.

Q: Don’t you need any cushioning?

A: If question #1 was about support, #1A was about cushioning. To be sure, Yosemite’s classic trails have a huge amount of granite, often irregularly shaped and jagged, which to many hikers means you need a thick, soft midsole to absorb the impact.

There's a trail there somewhere

My answer for this was similar as the first one – I let my foot do the work – with one caveat: I do tend to “pick my line” a bit more carefully when I’m descending the steep, rocky trails than I used to in standard trail shoes. It’s very similar to the accommodation I make while trail running, where I take the steep downhills noticeably slower than my previous “bombs away” fashion – but it’s not as big of a difference as you might expect. I still jump down onto rocks, or bound from one jagged granite step onto another … but there’s just an extra dose of caution thrown in there for good measure – which, considering that I was hiking with my kids instead of racing to get a belt buckle, is probably a good thing.

Q: Do your feet get wet?

A: Yes, definitely. Depending on the conditions, this is the one legitimate drawback to wearing Vibrams on the trail; if air temperatures are decently warm, it’s not a big deal, but if it’s cold outside (or if the ground is cold – see below), your toes definitely get chilled far more easily than in standard footwear. The flip side of this is that if you’re doing full immersions at stream crossings, the Vibrams dry much more quickly than traditional shoes – and at Yosemite in the springtime, crossing runoff channels just goes with the territory.

Hard to see ... but there's a stream running straight down the trail

The only time when I had an issue with comfort was during a stretch of about 45 minutes of continuous snow; between my feet being soaked and the frigid ground sucking heat away from me, my toes got a little bit painful. Luckily, the only remedy I needed was to sit on a warm rock every now and then and let the sun shine on my black-clad toes for a while, and I was fine. But if there hadn’t been rocks to sit on every so often, I would have been fairly bummed.

Warming my toes in the sun

Q: How is the traction?

A: Pretty much the same as regular shoes, but for this trip, I decided to be a little extra cautious and chose my newer pair of Trek Sports rather than my traditional standby KSO Treks, because the outsole lugs were a little more worn down on the older Treks. Between the knobby outsole and the ability of your foot to grip the ground naturally, traction has almost been a non-factor for me in Vibrams, with a couple of exceptions.

Thick mist + slick rocks + steep steps = a challenge coming back down

On steep descents, if the rocky surfaces are both irregular and wet, I have to be even more careful about where I’m placing my feet. If the steep descent has a lot of loose gravel, I have some occasional slipping, but I’d say it’s about equivalent to the troubles I see other people having in their super-lugged SUV boots. So I wouldn’t say they’re slip-proof, but they’re probably the equivalent of most standard trail shoes or boots out there.

Q: Don’t your feet hurt?

A: The short answer is no, but I’m always careful to include something like “it takes some getting used to” or “I’ve been doing this for a while”. Over the course of a couple of years, I’m now at the point where spending all day on my almost-bare feet on rocky trails isn’t that big of a deal, but if you’re a newbie minimalist and try to hike up and down some crazy rugged trails, you’ll definitely get sore feet afterward. Last year, I did the Mist Trail hike in Vibrams; it was one of the first day hikes I had done in them, and I do remember having significant soreness afterward. This year, I did the same route with no problems at all. So there’s obviously an adaptation curve to all this, and I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking that you just slap on a pair of Vibrams and everything’s suddenly a breeze.

Q: Why do you wear those?

A: Because it’s fun! Actually, check that – it’s magnified fun. The same pleasure that I feel in connecting with the earth during routine runs on my home trails of Monterey County is increased about 100-fold when I’m in one of the most majestic places on the planet. Part of the joy I take in being in wilderness areas is the way I feel at one with the landscape – and when I can feel every bump, pebble, and contour of that landscape as I’m moving across it, I feel even more connected than I ever imagined.

Overlooking the Silver Apron above Vernal Fall

Among all of the minimalist shoes I’ve tested, nothing matches Vibrams in their replicating a true barefoot feel, as if they are a natural extension of the foot – and that’s why they’re my shoe of choice for long days of hiking. And if there was some way for me to put into words the exhilarating feeling of swinging your nearly-naked feet over the precipice of a cliff or the lip of a high waterfall, I think folks would be lined up at the door wanting to experience it for themselves.

Having said all that, however, wearing the Vibrams wasn’t even the highlight of the trip … but for the rest of the story, you’ll have to wait until next week.

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April 20, 2011

Vibrams Over Yosemite

Not much point to today's post, really ... except to share one of many pictures from our family's week at Yosemite National Park:

My Vibram Trek Sports, as seen from the top of Yosemite Falls. I'll have a more specific post about hiking around Yosemite in Vibrams tomorrow night, and another post next week about how the whole family fared on some of Yosemite's most famous and challenging trails (spoiler alert: they did awesome) - but for tonight, I'm just savoring a wonderful trip to one of the most beautiful places on earth.

One final note: you've only got two more days to enter my Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove giveaway contest; the winner will be announced this Saturday.

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April 19, 2011

Spring Sock Review: SOLE Lightweight and Dual-Layer, Feetures Ultra Light and Elite

I’m not sure how the idea came to me, or why I actually acted on it rather than having the good sense to leave it the heck alone … but a couple of months ago, it occurred to me that perhaps my wife didn’t have quite enough things to do. And since I’m a devoted (if somewhat oblivious) husband, and tend to have plenty of gear at my disposal, I figured it would be a great idea to deputize her as a product reviewing apprentice. Honestly, it seemed like a decent thought at the time.

To her credit, she took my foolish notion in stride, and instead of wringing my neck for putting one more crazy task on her plate, she graciously played along. The results of her cooperation will be evident in the next couple of weeks; I’ve already indicated that she’s testing Merrell’s Pace Glove for me, and today, I get to report on six different socks from two different companies that she’s been testing over the past several weeks.

The sock review seemed like a perfect match for her, because 1) all of the products here are primarily road socks, and she does a lot more road running than I do, and 2) I'm already on record countless times saying that when it comes to socks, my heart belongs to Drymax. So instead of conducting a contest where everyone would be competing for second place, I handed it over to an impartial judge; it seemed like the fair thing to do.

First up were two pairs from SOLE, a company I first profiled when reviewing their sport flips (which, coincidentally, my wife also tested for me; I’m thinking I might need to offer her some sort of benefit plan soon). She tested the dual layer performance sock, a running-specific model, and the lightweight multi-sport sock. Both are extremely thin socks that use Tactel, a synthetic nylon fabric that is very soft, dries eight times faster than cotton, and retains its shape after repeated use and wash cycles. They both also come in multiple heights, are available in either black or white, have seamless toe construction, and employ SOLE’s TensorFit arch band to reduce slippage and keep the sock in place.

SOLE lightweight sport sock

The lightweight sport sock has instep vents for increased breathability, with a two-component fabric blend of 82% Tactel and 18% Lycra. The dual layer sock has (as the name implies) two separate layers of fabric to reduce friction and prevent blisters – an inner layer that hugs your foot, and an outer panel with large vents for breathability. If you like dual-layer socks but don't like their thickness, the SOLE sock is for you; it's definitely one of the thinnest dual layer socks I've ever seen. It has a coolmax component to help move moisture away from the foot, with a fabric breakdown of 52% Tactel, 35% Coolmax, and 13% Lycra.

SOLE dual-layer running socks

As you’d guess from the fabric construction, the lightweight sock is a bit thinner and stretchier, and the dual layer is a bit better at moisture management and blister prevention. As to how they feel, I think it’s best to say that one of the hallmarks of a good sock is when it doesn’t bother you in any way – in other words, my wife didn’t have any complaints about them, but they didn’t completely, um … knock her socks off, I guess. They’re probably worth a try if you live in a hot climate or like extremely thin socks for running or other athletic activities.

The remainder of the socks were from Feetures (typically written with an exclamation point! To get you excited!), a North Carolina-based family company who suckered me into agreeing to a review by exploiting my affection for the UNC Tar Heels (where I went to grad school). However, I had enough presence of mind to refrain from telling them that my wife went to Duke, because that could have made the whole situation way too awkward. (Yes, these details matter - just ask anyone in North Carolina). She ended up testing three somewhat similar models – the ultra light running, ultra light multi-sport, and light cushioned multi-sport – as well as the Elite, a new model which turned out to be the real standout of the group.

Differences between the first three socks are fairly subtle: the light cushioned socks are slightly thicker than the ultra light versions, the ultra light running has a Durasoft fabric blend of merino wool and bamboo rayon for softness, moisture wicking, and odor control, while the multi-sport models have a trendy-sounding iWick fabric for moisture transfer. They’re all made with SnugFit technology which uses bands of Lycra to hug the foot, Y-heel construction which prevents the sock from slipping in to the shoe, and a seamless toe area.

Feetures ultra light running sock

Aside from the cushioned versions feeling thicker than the ultra lights, my wife had a hard time distinguishing any performance difference between these three – but again, she didn’t really have anything negative to say. They all feel smooth against the foot, are good at not bunching inside the shoe, and seem well-built with no stray elastic or loose threads after multiple washings.

However, she did notice a clear difference with the feel and function of the Elite, Feetures’s new ultra light running and cycling sock. It’s tangibly thinner and lighter than the other models, and fits even more securely. Fabric construction is 79% iWick, 13% polyester, 13% Lycra/Spandex, and each pair has a designated left and right sock, anatomically contoured specifically to that particular foot. There’s also a Power Arch design which provides additional support to the instep area. This is an aspect that particularly impressed my wife, in that she’s been having some increased arch pain recently - perhaps related to the aforementioned barefoot shoes she’s been testing for me, but that’s another story – and she can feel the difference in support when wearing the Elite socks compared to any of the others.

Feetures Elite sock

So if there’s a clear winner from this comparison review, it’s the Elite sock from Feetures. There’s not really a clunker in the whole bunch, though – so if you’re feeling adventurous and want to try out a sampler of socks, here are your links to purchase pages from the company websites:

SOLE lightweight sport sock: $9.50 - $12.50 depending on ankle height

SOLE dual-layer performance sock: $12.50 - $15.00 depending on ankle height

Feetures ultra light running sock:$13.99

Feetures ultra light multi-sport sock: $13.99

Feetures light cushioned multi-sport: $10.99

Feetures Elite ultra light running/cycling sock: $13.99

*Products provided by SOLE and Feetures
**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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