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May 31, 2011

Soft Star RunAmoc Dash Review

Before today’s review, a disclaimer is in order: there shouldn’t be any misunderstanding around these parts about my level of affection for the Soft Star company.

I first developed a crush on them after testing their Roo slippers, then fell head over heels in love when they introduced the RunAmoc last spring. Best of all, those feelings were reciprocated, as the company invited me into their product development process, provided prototype moccasins for me to test, and incorporated my feedback into what would eventually become my favorite minimalist running shoe. This spring I even started calling myself Team Soft Star, and wearing their logo on my shirt like a smitten schoolgirl wearing her boyfriend’s football jersey. You could say we had a thing.

Imagine then – if I can continue my tortured analogy – if you were that girl, and one day your boyfriend showed up with goth makeup, a terrible new haircut, about 6 crazy facial piercings, and said he was thinking of quitting the football team. You’d be a little bit concerned, wouldn’t you? That’s sort of how I felt when I first laid eyes on the new RunAmoc Dash. The shoe was ugly, way too metallic-looking, and had significant performance limitations. Even worse, the initial plan was to for it replace the RunAmoc I fell in love with; it makes sense now that I felt like a scorned lover, right? (Um … right?)

Soft Star RunAmoc Dash

Fortunately, as I described in this preview post, Soft Star never lost its ability to listen, and it never gave up caring about me (and by “me”, I really mean runners in general … but it’s much more romantic if I just say me.) They were agreeable to some makeover advice, and the revamped moccasin that I once considered a goth freak slacker version of its earlier self is now a very respectable partner that you’d be proud to be seen with in public – and in some ways, it’s actually a nice improvement over the original. I felt secure enough in our relationship to wear them through 53 muddy miles at Woodside in March, but I’d still rank them one notch below my first love, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

Fun in the mud at Woodside

The good news is that instead of replacing its predecessor, the Dash is now simply an addition to the existing Soft Star catalog, so there should be a style of RunAmoc to satisfy just about anybody.

So how is the Dash different? Most folks will describe it in four words: A RunAmoc With Laces. However, the addition of laces to an old-school moccasin design has some significant ramifications, both from an aesthetic and functional perspective.

2mm street outsole

From a spec standpoint, the Dash is pretty much identical to the previous model, which for clarity is now referred to as the Original RunAmoc. Its weight is roughly 6oz, slightly variable depending on the size and outsole thickness. They are available in non-perforated leather – called the Dash Smooth – or in perforated leather, called the Dash Lite. Suede uppers or custom colors are available for an additional charge. All styles are available with either a 2mm Vibram street outsole or a 5mm Vibram trail outsole, and 100% of the ground feel and flexibility of the Originals are preserved in the Dash. Retail price is slightly more expensive, at $97 for the Dash compared to $87 for the Original.

Perhaps the addition of a simple set of laces, which give the Dash a more shoe-like appearance, shouldn’t be such a big deal to me, but I have to say that I dwelt on this aspect for a long time. Part of what I loved so much about the Original was its primitive simplicity: a rubber slab, two pieces of leather, and a string around the ankle holding everything in place. This might sound corny, but there’s a very native, ancestral vibe about wearing Original RunAmocs that’s lacking with the Dash. If I want minimalist footwear that looks like a regular shoe, I have plenty of choices out there – but if I want an old-school moccasin, there’s only one option. In that regard, I felt like Soft Star was moving away from its identity just a bit by adding laces.

However, I fully concede that I’m in the minority with this opinion, and that the addition of the laces addresses two important points of feedback from many RunAmoc users. The most frequent comments Soft Star received were either that 1) they wanted a moc that looked slightly more formal in hopes of wearing them to work or social gatherings without attracting attention, or 2) they reported that the midfoot and forefoot areas of the moc were too loose and floppy for running. With one design change, both of these concerns are fully resolved in the Dash.

Yes, they look more like shoes – I guess whether that’s good news or not is up to you. If you get a black leather version, they could certainly pass in most work settings without people thinking you’re an elf or a Hobbit. And when the laces are tightened across the midfoot, the upper of the Dash stays nice and snug against the foot, even when swinging it forward during the running stride. You no longer have to trust that the upper will stay correctly in place with each footfall; thanks to the dialed-in fit, you’re much more confident of this in the Dash.

There are subtle construction details that further improve the fit of the Dash through the midfoot and forefoot. The last is slightly narrower than it was on the Original RunAmoc, although there is still plenty of room in the toebox for natural toe splay. There’s also a lateral overlay of leather that’s continuous with the eyelet panel, so when you tighten the laces, the tension on either side of the upper increases as well. When tightened properly, the Dash actually curves to the contour of your foot, especially through the arch; this enhanced fit is a significant upgrade from both a comfort and performance standpoint.

With a traditional lacing system in place, the Dash lacks the lace through the ankle collar that was employed on the Original RunAmoc – and for me, this has been a source of some frustration, in part because I’m something of an oddball. During prototype testing, the fit of the heel cup was the last piece to fall into place; early versions were too loose, or too floppy, or just didn’t sit right on or around the ankle. On the final version, the fit of the heelcup is very comfortable around the ankle, and generally stays in place very well, unless you happen to have a strange stride like me.

Here’s what I mean: I tend to land on the inside of my heels - even with my practiced midfoot strike – especially on the right side. With an ankle strap to hold the heel section in place, I could secure the Original RunAmoc well enough that I landed consistently on the middle of the outsole – but with that heel strap removed, I tend to roll inward on the Dash.

As you can see in the photo above, the Dash does have a heel cup that should keep most users properly aligned, but for me, my right heel lands about a half-inch to the inside. I did all kinds of experimentation with the front lacing in an attempt to make the rear area more stable, but there wasn’t much carryover from lace tension to heel stability.

Consequently, I slide off the inside of the designated landing area - so after about 100 total miles, I start riding directly on the leather to the inside of the heel rather than on the outsole. This causes some comfort issues on multi-hour training runs, and ultimately limits the life span of the moccasin.

Right heel rolling inward after 53 miles at Woodside

Between the aesthetic preference and the heel issue, the Dash isn’t ready to overtake the Original RunAmoc as the love of my life, but it certainly has some compelling aspects that other users might prefer. If you found the Original too loose or unpredictable through the forefoot, or if you’re interested in a moccasin that can pass for an everyday shoe, the Dash was made for you. If you have heel alignment issues or prefer the tribal style of the Original, you’re better off sticking with that one.

So here are your shopping links for both the Dash and the Original models:

Soft Star Original RunAmoc Lite with perforated leather

Soft Star Original RunAmoc Smooth with chocolate suede

Soft Star RunAmoc Dash Lite with perforated leather

Soft Star RunAmoc Dash Smooth with black leather

Remember that custom colors and materials are available for all of the options above. Pick a style and color, and get your elf on!

*Product provided by Soft Star
**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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May 28, 2011

Running Life Book Review; Monkey Shakes for Sale; Random Shots of Beauty

A couple of quick announcements – one happy, one sad - before this weekend’s regularly scheduled RSOB:

First, the good one: Jennefer from a website called Good Reads published one of the best reviews I’ve seen of my Running Life book - a review that you can read right here. Also, in an effort to sell off our own supply of the book more rapidly, Mike and I have decided to keep the discounted price permanent on our dedicated Running Life website. It’s now cheaper on our site than on Amazon.com, and we’re happy to oblige specific requests for signed copies or anything else you like. Get your copy now, just in time for summer reading season.

The next announcement was a complete bummer to me: the Monkey Shake company that I've reviewed and promoted in the past is probably going out of business in the very near future. Owner Chris Hughes distributed an e-mail to his supporters announcing that life events have prevented him from continuing normal business operations.

He’s putting the business up for sale dirt cheap on eBay, where anyone with an entrepreneur's heart, some e-commerce and marketing skills, and an appreciation for the nutritional needs of endurance athletes could potentially build the brand into something huge. His request to us was, if you know of anyone who's a little crazy (visionary), has a lot of energy, and a little bit of cash, have them check out the offer on eBay.

Who knows – maybe you’ll be the next nutritional rags to riches success like the CLIF company. Chris is a great guy, and Monkey Shakes are an awesome product, so I hope this whole situation works out well for everybody involved.

This weekend’s Random Shots of Beauty come from the Salinas Valley, where my favorite agricultural season, the strawberry harvest, is in full swing:

(Click to enlarge)

Seeing workers in the fields is always a stark reminder for me that the simple pleasures I enjoy don’t come without a cost. I’ve written about this before – and whenever I run past the laborers in the campos, I feel almost guilty with gratitude for the blessings I’ve been given.

Also, in honor of the holiday weekend, and continuing on the same theme of good things that come with a cost, here’s one more shot from a Salinas farm stand:

Because freedom isn’t free ... and many have paid the greatest price of all in protecting it.

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May 26, 2011

Beautiful Barefoot Running Style: Dr Mark Cucuzzella

I had grand intentions for this post, which was originally scheduled to be an in-depth review of a product I’ve gradually warmed up to over the past several weeks. Unfortunately, I’m stuck in one of those time vortexes (or is it vortices? Anyone?) where everything throughout the day is a blur, until I finally look up at the clock and realize it’s two hours past my bedtime, and I have to wake up again in five more hours. Sleep, wake up, repeat – and so it goes.

Accordingly, I’m delaying that review for a few days, which gives me an opportunity to share a tremendous video that I’ve been saving for just such an “I gotta make this quick before I fall asleep at my keyboard” occasion. It’s been making the Internet rounds over the past several weeks, and features Dr Mark Cucuzzella, who is gradually becoming one of the most well-respected proponents of barefoot running in the United States.

Along with being a family practice physician, clinical researcher, race director, Air Force Lt. Colonel, and remarkable barefoot runner, Dr Cucuzzella is also the founder of Two Rivers Treads Center, the nation’s first all-minimalist shoe store. In the mesmerizing video that follows, brief snippets of natural running advice are superimposed over continuous scenes of him (as well as 19-year-old Cody Marsh) running at full speed with naked feet. Some of the tidbits are overly pedantic – unless you happen to use phrases like “impact transient” in everyday conversation – but for the most part, the film is the video equivalent of a picture being worth a thousand words. In just over four minutes, you’ll probably have a similar appreciation of natural running as you’d get by reading a whole textbook on the subject.

Truthfully, I’m not sure what aspect of this video is more delightful: the tranquil and historic backdrop of Maryland’s Antietam National Battlefield, the beautifully playful violin soundtrack, or the wonder of observing somebody run so fast and seemingly effortlessly while going completely barefoot. I will say that I’ve watched it several times now, and still find something new to impress me each time. Hopefully you’ll find it equally instructive and impressive.

“Barefoot Running Style” by Jason Smith (click to play):

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May 24, 2011

Elevation Confusion

A few years ago my friend Mike and I wrote a facetious Monterey Herald article that was a somewhat fictionalized account of our frustrations with using GPS devices in everyday training. Last month, we had occasion to write more seriously on the topic, but the outcome was no less frustrating than the first time around - in fact, it was probably worse.

What started as a simple inquiry about the modified Big Sur Marathon course turned into a trip down the analytical rabbit hole, where we saw and learned more information than we possibly imagined – not to mention about 100 times more than we wanted. Fortunately we had a pretty reliable tour guide to help us make partial sense of this strange new world, but despite his best efforts, the whole process was something that Mike and I couldn’t escape quickly enough.

We stuck around long enough to make an article out of it, though, which follows below. One more note about this post which has nothing to do with the topic at hand: Mike wrote the first draft of this one, and took a page from my playbook by opening with a song quote. I don’t know if he purposely picked a tune that accompanies one of my favorite music videos of all time, but that’s the way it turned out. The video is after the post.

Running Life 5/5/11        “Elevation Confusion”

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
- Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (video after post)

Any runner will tell you that it’s easy to figure out when you are running into a headwind, or to determine whether you are headed uphill or downhill. You can also be relatively certain about the distance you’ve traveled, especially if there are mile markers on the road or if you’re wearing a GPS device.

But how high are those hills you climbed? And how much climbing have you done over all the miles you’ve measured? Answering those questions sometimes requires an advanced degree – and even then, you’re probably not certain of your accuracy.

Case in point: prior to our Big Sur Marathon preview article, we attempted to quantify the differences in climbing between the traditional course that features Hurricane Point and the out-and-back course that includes the rolling hills of Carmel Highlands twice. Researching the subject was one of the most mind-boggling ordeals we’ve experienced lately.

We started with the elevation profile on the race website (admin note: this page has now been taken down), which indicated that the total climbing over the new course was 2400 feet. The data came from a Naval Postgraduate School scientist who used a USA Track and Field website mapping tool. He explained to us that the elevation information is stored in US Geological Survey NED database tables, and then extrapolated over a known distance (in this case, 26.2 miles). He also said that this could differ from GPS measurements, as hand-held GPS units update position and elevation on a scheduled interval which might impact the fidelity of the data (seriously – those are his words).

Another tech-savvy (our polite way of saying geeky) friend of ours used his Garmin GPS watch for two previous Big Sur Marathons as well as this year’s modified course, and shared with us his GPX files, which plot latitude and longitude points alongside data from the USGS database. His readings showed approximately 1750’ of climbing for the standard course, and 1630’ on the new course. He disputed the idea of inaccuracy due to delayed reporting, and noted that his dataset contained 3425 points in it – approximately one measurement every three seconds, or every 40 feet of road.

3425 data points plotted over a 30m NED dataset ... or something like that

Then he shifted into high gear, and explained that position readings typically aren’t updated on regular intervals, but are dependent on the rate of change. In other words, the faster your position or elevation is changing, the shorter the recording interval becomes in order to enhance accuracy.  He also advised us that handheld devices rely on triangulation of satellites in the “GPS constellation” for accurate position reporting, as well as the visibility of a 4th satellite to add the elevation component. Finally, the fact that the dataset was taken on the side of a cliff (the race course on coastal Highway 1) might be problematic, since positions just a few meters away on either side of the road could have statistically significant differences in elevation.

It was right around here that our heads started to spin.

The discussion wasn't finished, however … because our friend’s data from his two Big Sur Marathons on the standard route also deviated by about 100’ from each other. When we asked him to account for this, we inadvertently opened the floodgates to a whole world of fractals, interpolations, calibrated barometric variables and fluctuating weather permutations, smoothing algorithms, and numerous other scientific conditions that we couldn’t begin to comprehend. Suffice it to say that any elevation data you see in course profiles is going to have a degree of uncertainty – in some cases, quite a significant amount.

Fortunately, none of this distracted from the task at hand on race day for our tech-savvy friend, who ran 2:53:05 for 15th place overall at this year’s Big Sur Marathon, using his Garmin GPS watch as usual. It’s worth noting that his time this year was virtually identical to his personal record from the standard course, even though there was (according to his watch) slightly less climbing this year. External conditions such as wind and air temperature might have made an impact as well, but honestly, who the heck really knows?

All that the two of us learned for sure in this process is that we prefer to stick to simple considerations like knowing which way the wind is blowing. From now on we’ll just refer to our local marathon as a hilly, challenging course, and leave the elevation claims for the scientists to figure out.

As for the video: this one is often imitated, but never duplicated. I’ve always considered both the song and video clip to be two of the best snapshots of Bob Dylan’s overwhelming hipster genius in the prime of his career.

Bob Dylan, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (click to play):

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May 22, 2011

Sweepstakes Contest: Meet the Moment with CLIF Bar

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that one of the most admirable traits of the CLIF Bar company is their extensive charitable giving which impacts both their local neighborhoods and the global community. They also have a knack for inspiring grassroots involvement to increase awareness and support for various social or environmental causes.

Every now and then, they come up with an idea that not only encourages grassroots effort and gives a ton of money to charity, but also has the potential to turn a few participants into extremely fortunate people indeed. One such contest is going on right now: it’s called Meet the Moment, and before the end of the summer it’s going to completely fund the adventure of a lifetime for three grand prize winners.

In the meantime, here’s what’s going down: CLIF produced a video (embedded below) called “Meet the Moment”, featuring ultrarunning stud Geoff Roes and several other hardcore outdoor athletes describing that magical feeling of being completely at one with the activities they love; the sense of being 100% focused in the moment, and how they push themselves toward new adventures in hopes of freezing that moment for as long as possible.

The video is part of a larger initiative called Protecting the Places We Play, CLIF’s campaign to preserve trails, beaches, slopes, mountains, and similar locations outdoor enthusiasts love. At the end of the film, CLIF invites viewers to go to the Meet the Moment website and submit a photo and description of their own moment. For every person that submits an entry, CLIF will donate $5 to one of five non-profit projects (you get to choose which one) focused on environmental preservation. The entry process only takes a few minutes, and I’ve included my own entry below this post as an example of what the finished product looks like.

CLIF's baseline financial commitment is pretty generous on its own, but here’s the really cool part: if 10,000 people submit entries, the company will double everyone’s contributions to $10 toward the charity they selected. That’s the grassroots thing at work: if we all collectively step up, CLIF will step up in a huge way. So submit your own entry, then pass the word to your friends.

The contest ends July 31st, at which point CLIF will select three winners to receive up to $8000 to spend toward planning the 2-person outdoor adventure of their choice. Want to go rim to rim across the Grand Canyon? Travel to Mexico’s Copper Canyons to run with the Tarahumara? Take a walkabout in Australia? You pick the adventure, and CLIF picks up the tab. They’ll even throw in another $4000 in cash for some walking around money once you get there.

Is that enough to get you excited yet? Check out the CLIF video below, then follow the link to enter the contest on your own. If you should happen to win and need a partner to share your epic adventure with, you know where to find me.

"Meet the Moment", by CLIF Bar (click to play):

Now it's your turn! Go to the Meet the Moment website and submit your own entry. This is mine:

Good luck to everybody!

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May 21, 2011

Random Shots of Beauty

Apparently today was supposed to be The Rapture. So, um ... is anybody else still around here besides me? We'll make this weekend's RSOB a brief one, on the slim chance that I'm unavailable shortly.

The beautiful symmetry of a Salinas Valley lettuce field, as seen during some lab testing for my recent Vibram Bikila LS review.

See you next week, heathens.

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May 19, 2011

New Jinga Original Shoe Review

When I first delved into minimalist shoe reviews a couple of years ago, one of the companies I had the most fun learning about was Jinga.

I suspect that’s because I have a soft spot for small companies who manage to do everything right: those who build unique, high-quality products in the most socially conscious manner possible, and give back to their communities in meaningful ways.

Jinga is a Brazilian company that combines all those things – think of them as the South American equivalent of Soft Star or kigo – along with a healthy dose of the joyous, artistic flair that defines Brazilian culture. There’s a one-word Portuguese colloquialism for this kind of exuberant, creative rhythm of life: ginga, the spelling of which was tweaked just slightly to provide the company name.

NEW Jinga Original shoe

I explained the company’s background and social calling more extensively in my review of the original Jinga shoes, which were primarily designed as dance shoes but serendipitously gained some traction in the burgeoning minimalist community. Their shoes underwent a major facelift this spring, and the new style is a significant improvement in nearly every aspect – that is, aside from one sizeable drawback for running which I’ll describe shortly.

(One other quirk is that the new models are still called Jinga Originals - but for the purposes of this review, "original" will refer to the older style. Entendeu?)

Super flexibility: one shoe curled in the other

Best of all, the primary features that make Jingas so attractive to minimalist fans are still there: the shoes weigh less than 150g each, and they’re completely flexible in all directions. There is a cushioned 2mm insole that is removable, leaving a mere 4mm of outsole between your foot and the ground.

Removable insole; mesh and synthetic leather upper

Construction of the uppers is noticeably more durable this spring, with a more structured mesh and synthetic leather combination than the previous model. There is more lateral stability thanks to strategic placement and increased size of the synthetic overlays on either side. Previous Jingas would collapse something like a slipper when your foot was out of it; the new ones retain their shape better and therefore have more of a shoe “look” this year.

There’s a little bit more padding around the ankle collar and throughout the upper on this new model, and since there wasn’t a weight tradeoff to increase the structure or comfort, these changes are definite improvements. The uppers feel more comfortable against bare feet than their predecessors, and Jinga now crafts the shoes in separate mens and womens styles to provide a more natural fit.

The new models don’t compromise Jinga’s Brazilian flamboyance, either: I picked the white and gold shoes for review, which are actually one of the more subtle of the company’s line of color combinations in both mens and womens styles. If you’re looking for shoes that will blend into the crowd … well, maybe you can pick the all-black ones. Otherwise, Jingas are designed to let your colors fly.

So far, everything’s a bonus on the new models … but here’s the major change that is indeed an improvement, but also something of a limitation:

A brand new outsole, made from TPU instead of the original PVC material.  It is substantially more durable and protective than the original, but maintains the same degree of flexibility. You’ll also notice, however, that it’s practically polished smooth; that design is intentional, and reflects Jinga’s primary calling in the footwear market.

Jinga shoes were originally created as dance shoes, intended to help you get your Capoeira on when you hit the dance floor in Rio. From a dance standpoint, the new outsole is a remarkable improvement: the smooth surface is ideal for gliding across a hardwood floor, while maintaining just enough traction to help you stop easily, turn quickly, and twirl, um … more twirlingly, I guess.

As you can imagine, this doesn’t exactly translate well to going out for a trail run. Instead, Jingas can be your everyday casual shoe, whether you’re walking around the neighborhood or going out with a group of friends. Despite the outsole’s appearance, it has good enough traction on concrete, asphalt, or carpet that you don’t have to worry about slipping. And if you happen to step into a club on your way home, you’ll be ready to dance the night away.

One final point to note about buying Jingas is that they’re not available for sale in North American stores. You can shop for them on the Jinga website, where they retail for 55 pounds – which, thanks to a wretched US dollar, will put you out 90 bucks. American customers can purchase from the website, but the checkout program doesn’t convert your charge to US dollars until after you’ve confirmed your purchase. I’d love to see Jingas enter the US market more effectively in the near future, because they’re the kind of product from the kind of company that it feels good to support.

And if they can help me dance a little bit better, that would be a pretty cool bonus.

*Product provided by Jinga
**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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May 17, 2011

Minimalist (and Affordable) Shoe Options for Kids

One of the biggest discrepancies – or hypocrisies, if you’re more cynically-minded – about the minimalist shoe movement is this: virtually every manufacturer of natural footwear makes reference to walking or running “the way God made us” or “the way our bodies were designed to”, often noting that in modern society, our feet start out strong and healthy as young children, only to be progressively weakened and deformed by using traditional shoes.

The problem is that if you actually subscribe to this notion (as I do), and are inspired to find footwear for your children in hopes that they can maintain healthy foot development and function throughout their lives, you’ll be sorely disappointed at the options that are available. I’ve been searching and experimenting with various styles of minimalist footwear for my three children, and can attest that the process can be both cost-prohibitive and frustrating. In light of that, I thought a brief overview might help open some doors or create some new leads for anyone else out there who is facing a similar situation.

Before we proceed, some specifications and ground rules are in order. My 12-year-old son typically occupies the smallest size of the men’s footwear range (size 7-8), as does my 10-year-old daughter in women’s styles (size 6-7). My 7-year-old daughter is at the high end of most kids’ size charts (3-3.5). Since they’re all growing like beanpoles, they usually grow out of shoes before they can wear them out – so my wife and I try to be as budget-conscious as possible with shoe purchases. We typically look for shoes in the $20-30 range, and will only pay more than $40 if it’s a durable shoe that we can buy big in hopes of getting a somewhat extended lifespan. We look for bargains wherever we can find them: on eBay, through Google searches, or any other coupon or discount offers we learn about.

Also, for the sake of this discussion, we’re talking about all-purpose shoes that can be worn to school and used for any activity that comes up in the course of a kid’s day. We’re excluding any slippers (although my kids all love these) or any sport-specific demands aside from running, hiking, and climbing. It’s a lot to think about, for sure.

So here’s where we stand now, along with links to all of the products mentioned. I’ll detail each kid individually, but before doing so, one particular shoe deserves mentioning, as they’ve been on the feet of all my kids this spring:

The Saucony Kilkenny XC flat (spikeless). These have attracted attention from minimalist runners over the past couple of years because of their lightweight (average 6oz for adult sizes) construction and relatively low profile - about 15mm in the heel and 10mm in the forefoot by my measurements. My wife and I were drawn to them because of their aggressive outsole, which we thought would come in handy while hiking in Yosemite. We found a deal on them (from 6PM.com, I believe) and got three pairs for about $30 each.

The Kilkenny is a fairly popular shoe with high school XC teams, so it’s produced in large quantities; consequently, it’s usually easy to find closeout deals on the previous year’s model, especially in small sizes – for example, right now at the link I included above, you'll see them for $25 from the Saucony website. However, when purchasing, make sure you’re getting the SPIKELESS version – otherwise your kids might end up accidentally aerating your carpet or inflicting harm upon themselves.

Fortunately, my son has worn a pair of Kilkennys throughout the school year, so we were already aware of the one major quirk with this shoe: it runs incredibly small. As in, at least one full size – in some cases more. In fact, the shoes run so small that my youngest daughter who normally wears a size 3 kids shoe was able to fit into the women’s size 6 of the Kilkenny. They also run a bit narrow through the forefoot, so I don’t like them as an all-day everyday shoe, but for high-demand activity they’re really quite respectable. All of my kids now use these as their dedicated running shoes in addition to any hikes our family does.

Aside from the Kilkennys, here’s what’s in the shoe closet for each of my kids, from oldest to youngest:

My son loves his kigo edge shoes, which I reviewed here, and which typically retail for $70. The kigo blog often has coupon promotions, which is how I grabbed two pair of these for about $35 each. The second pair went to my middle daughter, who fits into the smallest women’s size. kigos also tend to run a bit narrow and quite small as well, and they have unisex sizing that sometimes requires a jump of a full size (instead of half-sizes) into the next model.

These are my son’s everything shoe – even for mountain biking - and he absolutely loves the minimalist construction and flexibility of them. However, you can see the wear he has put on them in about three months; for the price we paid, these were a great deal – but if we had to pay full price, they may not justify the cost.

Another shoe that my son wears on occasion is a Sockwa Amphibian that I received as a test pair, but never officially reviewed here (for various reasons, too complicated to go into now). I really like the Sockwa company, and I’ve had several discussions with the owner about the direction they’re heading; I think they’re on the verge of producing a great minimalist product, but the Amphibian wasn’t quite it for me. My son likes it, however, and I’m eagerly awaiting Sockwa’s next generation minimalist shoe.

My middle child’s collection looks very similar to my son’s:

She’s got the Saucony Kilkennys - still sporting the race chip from her most recent 5K, which she wears like a badge of honor – as well as the same kigos that her brother uses. The edge is an everyday shoe that she alternates with the other model pictured: the Simple Satire, which I reviewed here after we scored a closeout pair for $20 from REI (whose inventory is currently limited, but I found them for $18 to $26 at Amazon.com). The shoe has a zero-drop platform with a standing height of approximately 1”. It’s not purely minimalist or super-flexible, but it bends well enough to allow natural foot movement, and it has a great fit and decent traction for P.E. class or just kicking around the neighborhood.

Simple makes grown up versions of the Satire as well, but my daughter still fits into the “big kid” sizing, which is nice because it saves you a few bucks. The kids shoes come in some cool color patterns such as a leopard print from REI or a giraffe print from Amazon - but before you buy any pair, make sure that you identify the right size in the Little Kid, Big Kid, or adult models, because a lot of the colors and patterns are the same in all three categories.

Considering that she’s the youngest kid in the family, my 7-year-old has a shoe collection that puts her brother and sister to shame:

You see the aforementioned Kilkennys, as well as a pair of low-cut Converse Chuck Taylors that are very similar in construction to the Simple Satire, with a flat 1” platform, fair flexibility and good outsole traction. We got ours at Target for $20, and the Amazon link above has them for $18-$30 depending on size and color.

The pink shoes above are a pair of Speedo Surfwalker water shoes, which you can buy for less than $20 here at Amazon.com, and are definitely the most minimal shoes in the collection. They’re super lightweight and completely flexible, and my daughter loves wearing them as an everyday shoe, even wearing them for day hikes before she had the Sauconys. The only caution I’d offer is that with excessively rugged activity like climbing trees or scrounging in the dirt, their durability shows some signs of strain, especially where the upper meets the outsole.

The other shoes in her assortment are from Terra Plana’s VIVOBAREFOOT kids collection: the Pally model I reviewed here, and the Oaky model I reviewed here. Granted, we received both of these free of charge, and Terra Plana isn’t exactly known for its bargain pricing – but to their credit, the kids’ models aren’t nearly as steep as their adult versions, and the company frequently has coupon offers like they did in conjunction with each of those review posts. If you had used the 50% off coupon that went along with my review, you could have picked up the very fashionable Pally for $30 – which is a fantastic deal when you consider how versatile and comfortable VIVOBAREFOOT shoes are.

The best case in point is my daughter’s Oakys, which are noteworthy for a couple of reasons:

1) These are far and away her favorite everyday shoes, even after the laces have frayed and the insoles have holes in them thanks to constant use since she received them last October. She’s worn them in the sandbox, in mud puddles and playing in the river, and for pretty much every activity you can imagine. When it comes to all-purpose durability, these have to rank near the top. However …

2) They’ve also been the topic of a year-long argument between me and the P.E. teacher at her elementary school, who sat her out of class a few times for having “improper footwear”. During one phone conversation, when I asked the teacher why they weren’t acceptable, she replied that they weren’t athletic enough. When pressed, she clarified: you know, something with a heel and good support and cushioning. After a few back-and-forth exchanges, she was finally agreeable to let my daughter participate in P.E. class in the Oakys, but still directs occasional comments toward her like “maybe you should wear some regular sneakers next time.” Needless to say, it’s been a little bit frustrating.

A funny postscript to the whole story is that about a month ago, wearing the same Oakys that weren’t athletic enough for elementary school PE class, my daughter took second place among all first-graders in a city track meet. No, she didn’t bring her medal to school to show the teacher afterward … but the thought definitely crossed my mind.

The overall minimalist market for children continues to expand, with new entries from major players like Vibram and Merrell this spring, although they might be priced a bit too high (FiveFingers for kids are $60) for cost-conscious shoppers right off the bat. Hopefully after they’ve been on the market for a year or so, or if they get updated in the near-term, this spring’s models will eventually become available at more affordable prices. In the meantime, the good news is that there are several good options out there if you’re willing to do a little bit of bargain shopping.

Healthy foot development is indeed a gift we can bestow upon our children, and fortunately, it appears to be one that’s becoming easier for parents to provide with each passing year.


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May 15, 2011

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS Review

It’s fair to say that I was initially a little bit apprehensive about testing this particular shoe. After all, I’m the guy who raved about the Vibram FiveFingers Bikila when reviewing it last year, and who consequently referred to it (several times, in fact) as the gold standard for minimalist road running. From my experience, there simply wasn’t very much to find fault with.

So when Vibram announced the release of the FiveFingers Bikila LS this spring, I envisioned two possible scenarios: 1) they’d make changes to the shoe that I didn’t like, which would make for an awkward review, or 2) the changes wouldn’t be significant enough to distinguish the Bikila LS from the original Bikila, in which case I’d have difficulty in deciding which model to recommend.

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS

As it turns out, I was kind of an idiot, because I completely didn’t expect scenario 3): that they’d make substantial changes which represent a noticeable improvement over the original, while making the shoes more accessible to a wider range of minimalist runners. But that’s exactly what Vibram has done with the Bikila LS – and it’s also a good reminder to me that this company might never cease to impress me.

Bikila LS on left, original Bikila on R

The best news of all is that even with notably altered appearance, Vibram maintained pretty much all of the construction aspects of the Bikila that I liked – and since most of those similarities are on the underside of the foot, we’ll take this review in the opposite direction than usual, starting from the bottom up:

Bikila LS on top, original Bikila on bottom

I could also save us both a lot of time by referring you to my original Bikila review, where I describe the outsole and midsoles in greater detail. The Bikila LS shares the exact same 4mm anatomically podded outsole design, and the same 3mm polyurethane midsole that is thickest under the ball of the foot to support the impact zone of forefoot running. The midsole and sockliner are covered with the same soft Dri-Lex material for comfort and moisture-wicking performance. Standing height (outsole plus midsole) of the Bikila LS is 7mm, and its overall weight is 6.0 oz, which are identical specs to the original Bikila.

My Salinas Valley test lab

One note about the outsole performance and durability: most readers are well aware that the vast majority of my mileage is done on dirt. One of the most frequent questions I had after reviewing the Bikila was how long its outsole would last on asphalt – and obviously, I’m not the most qualified person to speculate on that. However, many other people asked whether the outsole was sufficient for trail running, to which I’d say this: for smooth fire roads and groomed trails, it’s fine. For technical trails or thickly gravelled fire roads, I do notice a decrease in both traction and protection compared to Vibram’s KSO Trek or Trek Sport. I’d wager that the long-term durability is pretty good; my current Bikilas have at least 300 miles on them, and signs of wear on the outsole (see earlier photo) are relatively modest.

It’s not until we get to the top of the shoe that you notice any difference between the Bikila and the Bikila LS. On that note, take a wild guess: do you know what LS stands for? Lace system! Because, you know … this one has laces. That’s the big, obvious change in this updated version, and we’ll return to it in a second – but first I’ll point out some changes that are harder to see.

Sockless in Salinas

Material construction of the Bikila LS upper has the same Coconut Active Carbon fiber that’s used on the Trek Sport, and which has natural breathability and odor resistance. It’s a very comfortable material, but this change was kind of a wash for me; I really love the thin microfiber upper of the original Bikila, and I wouldn’t say the LS is an improvement from a comfort standpoint. I wear both models without socks, and I’ve done marathon distances in each of them without any hot spots or irritation from the uppers.

Polyurethane dots on toes at left; TPU overlays on toes at right

Another subtle change is visible at the toes, where the tear-resistant TPU protection that looked like clear stickers on the Bikila has been replaced with a set of small raised abrasion-resistant polyurethane dots. I haven’t had an issue with the clear TPU, but I’ve seen reports of them tearing along the edges on occasion, so I’m guessing this is Vibram’s response to that known issue.

Thicker heel collar on LS at left; thin collar on original at right

Behind the heel, the collar of the Bikila LS is slightly thicker and wider than the more form-fitting Bikila, which is probably built to accommodate a wide variety of foot sizes and shapes. Speaking of variety …

Lace system and tongue allow for wide foot opening

… that is the main advantage the lacing system provides, and that’s the main advantage of the Bikila LS over the Bikila. On the original, the upper had a very secure glove-like fit, but some users found it too constricting across the top of the foot in comparison to other FiveFingers models. People who had a wide midfoot or a high instep had difficulty with the fit of the Bikila, and there really wasn’t any adjustability aside from the top strap that only made things tighter. Again, this wasn’t an issue for me, but it was probably the biggest complaint I’ve heard about the Bikila.

With the Bikila LS, you open the top like a traditional shoe, and use the laces to customize the tightness however you like. It’s significantly easier to put this model on your feet than having to wriggle your toes into the original Bikila. Once your feet are in, you tighten the laces against a thin tongue which sits very comfortably against the skin, with the same soft lining underneath as the rest of the sockliner.

Having a lace system also eliminates the strap loop on the outside of the foot, which some users had reported as a location of minor irritation when the strap was pulled too tightly.

For a couple of reasons, I love the fact that Vibram decided to go with speed laces on the LS rather than traditional tie laces. The main benefit is a functional one, as the elasticized laces are very effective at evenly distributing tension across the top of the foot. However, there’s also a high-performance element to this system as well – namely, the ability to put the shoes on quickly.

Speed laces were born in the triathlon world to decrease transition time from bike cleats to running shoes; with the Bikila LS, whether they intended to or not, Vibram has created the world’s first purely minimal triathlon shoe. They’re super-light, incredibly comfortable without socks, and able to be put on in a flash; if I ever return to my triathlon background, I’m definitely using the Bikila LS as my race-day shoe.

Ready to race!

Needless to say, Vibram has raised the road minimalist shoe bar – one that was already set fairly high by the Bikila - substantially with the Bikila LS. It maintains all the ideal aspects of the Bikila, and incorporates a significant design innovation to successfully accommodate a larger variety of users. If you’re currently happy with your Bikilas, I can’t honestly say the lace system is sufficient reason to upgrade – but if you’re on the fence between which one to buy, or if you suspect that you’d have a hard time fitting into the Bikila, the Bikila LS is an easy bet that doesn’t cost you any more money than the original.

The Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS retails for $100 from TravelCountry.com.

*Product provided by Vibram
**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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May 13, 2011

Blogger Meltdown; Random Shots of Beauty

*tap, tap, tap* … Is this thing on??

The “big news for me that honestly isn’t that big” from Thursday and Friday was the brief implosion of Blogger, which went completely off the grid for nearly 24 hours, and caused all posts which had been published within the 30 or so hours prior to the shutdown to completely vanish – including the just-about-final draft of a cool product review I had scheduled for Friday morning.

Consequently, the posting schedule’s getting shuffled around a bit this weekend, and the review post (which I fortunately had saved as a Word document) will show up here Sunday night. In the meantime, I’m doing the customary weekend Random Shot of Beauty, but including a bonus Random Video of Awesomeness that originated in the same venue. And hopefully nobody at Blogger will accidentally spill Mountain Dew on the mainframe anymore … because I kind of didn’t know what to do with myself this week in those awful hours when my virtual world went dark. I wish I were exaggerating.

The Random Shot of Beauty is an easy one: a leftover shot from last weekend’s Miwok 100K:

A view of Point Reyes as seen from the hillside high above Stinson Beach. It tells you something about the beauty of the Miwok course that this picture didn’t make the race report.

As for the Random Video of Awesomeness, it was filmed by Jim Vernon of a Bay Area trail running group called The Endurables, and it chronicles the race among the leaders throughout the day at Miwok. It’s simply mind-boggling to realize how fast these dudes are moving, especially when you see them in person and note how effortless they make it look. Even though we were in the exact same race that day, these guys and I were doing completely different sports.

"Miwok 100K 2011" by The Endurables (click to play):

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May 10, 2011

An Architect in Moccasins: Miwok 100K Race Report

“Do you still believe in all the things that you stood by before –
Are you out there on the front lines, or at home keeping score?
Do you care to be the layer of the bricks that seal your fate?
Or would you rather be the architect of what we might create?”
- Rise Against, “Architects” (video after post)

The first time I came to Miwok, I was building up to my maiden 100-mile race, and hadn’t quite fully wrapped my head around the huge numbers involved beyond the realm of the 50-milers I was familiar with. I believed that getting to 100 miles was possible, but aside from that, I didn't have any tangible experience to base that confidence upon.

It was only during that initial 100K that I got my first taste of what the 100-miler might have in store – in both good ways and bad. So with another 100-miler on my schedule this summer, one of my top priorities was to make it to Miwok again, to see if I still had that same belief in myself, and to hopefully get a glimpse of what kind of experience I might be able to create later this year.

With a few more races under my belt now – and for another reason I’ll describe shortly - I’m a different runner than I was the first time here. As it turns out, Miwok was a little different as well; this year’s course included some new trails and a couple of route changes, but still packed about 10,000’ of climbing into some of the most scenic trails in Northern California. The day promised a lot of great things to see – and with that, we’ll start the report.

(As usual, click any of these photos to enlarge ...)

You’ll be forgiven for thinking this is the start line: a bunch of people standing around, chatting the time away, making nervous jokes to take their mind off the situation at hand. Unfortunately, when I took this photo, the race was more than 5 minutes old; after a scramble across the sand of Rodeo Beach, the route immediately narrows to a single-track climb where people in back of the crowd are forced to stop in their tracks for at least a few more minutes before slowly proceeding up the hill. Since it’s the first half-mile of a 62-mile race, and since none of the people in the group around me were exactly charging for a podium finish, nobody really seemed to mind the brief delay.

Once you make it up the first trail, you hit a paved road where you can look back at the start area behind you …

… which is a lot more attractive than the long grind up Conzelman Road ahead.

The reward for climbing up Conzelman is pretty sweet: a killer vantage point of the Golden Gate Bridge emerging from the morning fog.

After seeing the bridge, the trail winds its way gently downhill again …

… until you reach a “Wait – weren’t we just here?” moment in returning to the Rodeo Beach aid station at mile 7. The good news is that you don’t have to wait five minutes to cross the beach a second time. The bad news is, you have to cross the beach a second time.

Leaving Rodeo Beach (for good this time), this year’s route generally took us in reverse through the final section of the traditional race. In my previous Miwok report, I griped about having to go down this large stone staircase at mile 61; this year, we went up them instead. Don’t be shocked when I say this … but it turns out that up is harder.

Climbing the first ridge gives you a glimpse of Tennessee Valley, and you get to enjoy another long downhill to the aid station there. By this point of the race, your legs and mind may as well get used to the pattern: long grinding uphills, followed by long steady downhills – because that’s pretty much what you spend the day doing out here.

After Tennessee Valley comes the longest section of the race without aid; an 8.9-mile up and down stretch including wide ridgeline fire roads …

… and twisty-turny singletrack …

… and some sweet forest trails with foliage overhead and wildflowers underfoot. Believe it or not, you haven’t even reached the prettiest sections of the course yet.

That starts shortly after leaving the Pan Toll aid station at mile 20, where you see the first of two landscapes that Miwok is famous for: plush shady trails meandering through giant redwood forests.

Ahh, the Dipsea Trail … such great memories.

Here’s the second landscape that defines Miwok: grassy single-track on the high slopes of Marin County, with a beautiful seascape in the distance below. You can’t gaze at the sea for too long, however …

… because long portions of this section include what locals call “half-track” trail, which because of its narrowness and slope has been known to roll more than a few ankles over the years.

Each time I’ve done Miwok, the hardest section mentally is the long out and back from the Bolinas Ridge aid station at mile 27 to the turnaround point of the course at mile 34. Fortunately, I didn’t have any thoughts of quitting the race here – because as this sign (click to enlarge photo) outside the aid station says, I would have ended up with a wrinkled soul. Nobody needs that.

The forest somehow vanishes about 500’ from the Randall Trail turnaround point, which at Miwok signals the bonus good news that you’ve actually done more than half the distance. For some reason, that knowledge is always very reassuring.

Remember how I mentioned I was a different runner now? That wasn’t just because I’m a couple of years older and have a few more races on my resume. I was also doing the race in Soft Star RunAmocs, for which I’ve made no secret of my affection over the past year. This spring I had an idea to spread the love a little more publicly than my little hole-in-the-Internet-wall, and the elves at Soft Star were completely on board, sending me a race shirt and setting me up with fresh mocs shortly before race day.

Knowing that this is probably the closest I’ll ever come to actually being a sponsored runner, I figured I’d start calling myself Team Soft Star, since “that crazy guy in the moccasins” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. At Miwok, I was the poster boy for RunAmocs – and honestly, I had a ton of discussions about them on the trail. For the most part, the ultrarunning community has been incredibly curious and open-minded about the whole minimalist thing, and my reception at Miwok was wonderful, for two primary reasons:

1) More than virtually anyone else, ultrarunners can certainly identify with hearing people tell them that something they want to do is crazy, impossible, or potentially harmful – and then going ahead and doing it anyway. Also …

2) Recall that I started at the very back of the pack, which means that I passed a lot of people throughout the day. I imagine that it’s hard to question whether something is effective when the guy doing it is pulling away from you.

So there you have it: Team Soft Star, coming to a trail near you someday. Meanwhile, back at the race …

Even though you’ve turned the corner towards home, returning from Randall Trail is still a fairly significant challenge, as you climb two solid miles through the redwoods before finishing the “more up than down” roller coaster route back to Bolinas Ridge at mile 41.

While the out and back is the toughest mental section for me, the mostly uphill 6-mile return through the half-track and single-track toward Pan Toll was without a doubt the toughest physical section. The incline is just steep enough to grind you down, but just gentle enough that you feel guilty for walking it. This is where I struggled the most, and where I ultimately resorted to gameplay with the two runners in this picture.

They passed me while I was taking a photo, and I made a concerted effort to catch back up and settle in behind them. The girl was running the whole race, but the guy was her pacer, so he had fresh legs and great energy and kept a steady pace while engaging her in conversation the whole way. I asked if I could tag along, and mentally latched onto them like the caboose of a train; my only goal through the whole section was to stay close enough for them to pull me. This was a significant turning point for me; if I had fallen back, the race very likely could have turned ugly, but by making the extra effort to stay close, I made it through my roughest patch of the course without slowing down at all. For that, I was grateful, and I made sure to thank them both afterward.

Leaving the Pan Toll aid station at mile 48, you’re welcomed with a 2-mile downhill stretch …

… followed by a pretty section of flat single track on your way to Muir Beach. This was one of the only level sections on the course, with a nice smooth trail, and when I passed through the wind began swirling at my back, with cloud cover briefly gaining the upper hand over the sun. It was like the ultra gods were smiling on me …

… and when I got to Muir Beach at mile 54, the aid station people were cheering for me. I mean … how much better can an ultra get?

Since the course had changed this year, Miwok’s homestretch featured a gauntlet of major climbs, beginning with this one right after the aid station …

… where you start with a nice view of Muir Beach below, and then head higher up the hill …

… to get your first view of Pirates Cove, one of the prettiest sections of coastline in Marin County. It’s best to keep your gaze fixed on the shore, though …

… because if it drifts inland a bit, you might feel a stomach punch sensation after seeing the climb out of Pirates Cove that awaits you another mile or two ahead.

The good part of the Pirates Cove climb is that every now and then you can look over your shoulder and enjoy the view below …

… because keeping your eyes fixed uphill might get discouraging.

Once you’ve finally climbed out of Pirates Cove, you’ve got less than 10K left to go – and when you see the mile 58 Tennessee Valley aid station down below, you can begin to smell the barn.

I mean that literally, because Tennessee Valley has a lot of barns. And horses. Horses that smell. It’s also home to some wild critters …

… such as this kitty who didn’t seem too bothered by a moccasin-clad runner trudging up behind him. Then again, I can’t imagine why he would be.

Predictably, there’s another long climb out of Tennessee Valley …

… followed by another long descent to sea level. On the original course, once you reach sea level here, you’re done – but this year the finish wasn’t at Rodeo Beach – it was at the local YMCA …

… which was up and over these hills in the Point Bonita area. I generally love exploring new trails – but when I’m looking for the finish line after running 60 miles and all the new trails seem to lead uphill, my enthusiasm tends to wane just a little bit.

The reward for your final climb is one last view of the Golden Gate …

… and a downward sloping road to Point Bonita just ahead.

Considering that this is a world-famous race, the finish line at Miwok is quite unpretentious: there’s a clock, a line drawn on the ground, and a few people standing around clapping. I crossed the line 11 hours and 35 minutes after starting, giving me a nearly 15-minute improvement over the previous time I was here, which felt pretty nice …

… but not nearly as nice as the hot showers that were available after the race. Before showering, though, I had to take a couple more pictures …

… like this one of Team Soft Star at the finish line. I won’t claim that it was easy to run this course in moccasins – but I can definitely say that my feet didn’t hurt any more than the rest of me. I had some soreness through my ankles and on the bottom of my feet, but it was generally the same kind of muscle soreness that you get after any super-long workout.

What I didn’t have were blisters or any major hot spots, and my Drymax socks did a perfect job of protecting me from dust and grit coming through the perforated leather. (I’m not talented enough to be on Team Drymax, though – they have plenty of real ultrarunners onboard.) The mocs were more than up to the task of getting me through 62 miles of hilly, occasionally rocky and technical terrain – I couldn’t really ask for more.

I’ll have a follow-up post or two in the near future about where the whole RunAmoc thing goes from here. In some ways, it ties back into the same notion I started this report with: testing the limits of what’s possible, and gradually converting belief into tangible accomplishment one mile at a time. I hadn’t officially wrapped my head around the idea of doing 100 miles in moccasins prior to this race, but Miwok clearly gave me the confidence to at least consider it. Between now and July, perhaps it’s time for me to be an architect who dreams of something remarkable that I just might be able to create in the mountains above Lake Tahoe.

“We still believe in all the things that we stood by before –
And after everything we've seen here maybe even more.”

Rise Against, "Architects" (click to play; lyrics advisory):

*See other race reports under tab at top of page

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