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June 30, 2011

Western States 100 Pacer Report

Part of the appeal of pacing at Western States is being able to taste some of the excitement and drama of the event without actually, you know ... having to run 100 miles. If you’re also a little bit self-serving, the appeal of pacing somebody a few weeks before your own 100-miler is that is gives you an opportunity to practice things like moving through aid stations and running through the night all while getting in a nice long training run.

Of course, there’s an intangible benefit to pacing as well, which I’ll explain towards the end of the post. In the meantime, I figured I’d share some of my own observations from Gretchen's night while she’s dragging her feet to write an official race report. (**UPDATED! Gretchen's report is up now.)

At Western States, your role as a pacer begins at Foresthill, the mile 62 aid station which is also the primary access point for crew and spectators throughout the entire course. I got there early enough to sit and watch the front runners come through before grabbing a quick nap in the grass later in the afternoon.

It was while sitting on the side of the road next to my bib number and hydration pack that I had one of the most memorable conversations of the day, courtesy of a girl in a Montrail Running Team shirt who was staring at my RunAmoc Dashes:

Montrail girl: You’re not going to pace somebody in those shoes, are you?

Me: Actually … yeah. I am.

(long pause)

Montrail girl: No, seriously.

Me: Seriously.

Montrail girl: So what are those, anyway?

I started my little spiel about Soft Star and the whole minimalist thing, but I’m pretty sure she lost interest about 30 seconds in. I guess I’ll just consider that to be planting the seed, and let someone else cultivate it later on.

Pacers have the option of running 1.6 miles up the course to the Bath Road aid station to meet their runners a little bit ahead of Foresthill. For some reason the road to Bath left me a little more tired than I had anticipated, but I figured I probably shouldn’t complain about that to Gretchen when I saw her, seeing as how she had just run 60 miles through the mountains to get here.

After she emerged from the trail, Gretchen gave me a quick status report (the short version: she felt great) on our way to Foresthill, where she made a quick aid station stop, and we set off down the beautiful, gently sloping single track on our long descent towards the American River crossing at mile 78.

Gretchen had run the course fast enough that nearly all of our journey to the river was done without headlamps. We saw the river almost the whole way down, and enjoyed an evening chorus of frogs, ducks, and crickets alongside the sound of the flowing water. It was just another night to them, and their symphony represented life going on all around us, regardless of what happened in this crazy race. That seemed comforting – and it may have been my favorite part of the night.

One thing that really impressed me about Gretchen was that she almost never stopped moving. She was in and out of aid stations in a flash, and whenever I took a few extra seconds for pictures or to make gear adjustments, she was gone. This photo just before the river crossing was the only time she willingly stopped – and even then, as I was checking the photo and loading my camera back into my pack, I soon heard an aid station volunteer shout, Hey, dude – your runner’s already left! I scrambled down the riverbank to catch up, and was barely able to jump in the raft before Gretchen pushed us away from shore. She claims she wouldn’t have left without me. I’m not so sure.

Brown’s Bar aid station at mile 90 is a cross between a cool Halloween party and a cozy New Year’s Eve bash. When we pulled into the aid station, I commented to Mr. Raggedy Ann that I was working fairly hard to keep up with my runner. He started to tell me about a race where he paced a runner who eventually dropped him; unfortunately, I never got to hear the end of it, because by the time he was ten seconds into his story, I looked over my shoulder and noticed that Gretchen had vanished.

This was a cool touch: in the neighborhood surrounding the Placer High School finish line were a couple groups of intrepid fans who thought pulling an all-nighter to cheer the runners home was a perfectly reasonable idea. The level of enthusiasm that people – both participants and spectators – have for this race is truly admirable.

That’s part of the intangible benefit I took from this experience as well: admiration for all the runners who competed, and inspiration for when I take on a similar challenge in a few weeks.  I enjoyed spending a fun night with a good friend, and I'm hoping that some of her success rubs off on me when it's my turn to tackle 100 miles.  It was a privilege for me to be a part of Western States – especially since Gretchen didn’t need me any more than I needed a pair of Montrails – and it turned out to be a perfect boost of encouragement and motivation at just the right time.

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June 29, 2011

Patagonia Pau Shoe Review

In previous posts I’ve lamented how relatively limited the formal minimalist footwear market is compared to the myriad of athletic and/or sandal styles available. Today’s review features another addition to the “dressy minimal” category, and happens to be from one of my favorite companies: Patagonia, whose name is almost synonymous with high performance and social responsibility.

Patagonia Pau

Patagonia isn’t generally known for formal wear, and the men’s Pau shoe has a styling that could pass equally well for casual outings as it would as office attire. It also lives up to the company’s reputation as an eco-conscious manufacturer, even earning an “Eco-Star” designation from Outside magazine for its green construction elements. In the interest of full disclosure, it takes a little bit of resourcefulness to make the Pau a true minimalist shoe; I’ll explain what I mean in a minute. For now, let’s get to the review.

Leather upper and removable insole

Uppers of the Pau are made from full grain leather, available in Walnut (my version) or a very dark Velvet Brown. There’s a thin liner of Dri-Lex merino wool, a naturally wicking fabric that provides comfort even if you’re going sockless. Waterproof stretch gussets on either side of the tongue make the shoe very easy to slip on and off. The toe box is naturally roomy, with plenty of space for your toes to spread apart.

Hevea rubber outsole

Green construction is most evident in the outsole, which is made of 70% hevea milk latex, a sustainable resource derived from the tropical hevea tree; you can read here about how the tree’s milk is processed into rubber. The outsole has a honeycomb pattern similar to VivoBarefoot models, except that the rear foot honeycombs are convex while the forefoot ones are concave. Thickness of the outsole is 12mm, which is thicker than the VivoBarefoot Oak but slightly thinner than Merrell’s Tough Glove.

Opanka stitching around outsole

Another eco-friendly production method is known as Opanka stitching, which is a European method of shoe construction where the outsole is hand sewn onto the upper, rather than glued with chemical adhesives. This stitching is evident around the entire outsole as well as the top of the upper and the back of the heel. It’s a very durable construction method that minimizes the use of toxic byproducts.

Insole with one-inch heel

Here’s what I mean about the Pau not being a true minimalist shoe: the standard issue model comes with an insole that is 1” high in the heel and tapers to the forefoot. However, the insole is removable, and that was the first thing I did after receiving the shoes. There’s no additional midsole layer, so once the insole is out, you’ve only got the layer of hevea rubber between you and the pavement. You could also put a thin, flat insole - such as the one Patagonia uses in its Advocate moccasin - in place of the thick one on the Pau if necessary for comfort or to make up for the fit differential (see below).

Perfectly flexible with insole removed

Once the insole is removed, the Pau is completely flat and completely flexible, and functions just like a true minimalist shoe. However, removing the insole also changes the overall fit; the toe box is roomier to the point of being excessive, and the collar will be 1” higher on your ankle. My recommendation is to get at least a half-size smaller shoe than you normally wear, which will compensate for both the taller ankle height and the roomier toe box.

Translucent forefoot outsole

Ground feel with the insole removed is quite good, especially through the forefoot, where the hevea outsole is so thin as to be translucent. Overall weight of the Pau is 9oz (slightly less without the insole), which is comparable to the VivoBarefoot Oak but heavier than Merrell’s Tough Glove. Patagonia claims that the hevea material is highly durable and puncture-resistant, and I haven’t had any problems that would indicate otherwise.

More Opanka!

For a product that wasn’t specifically designed as a barefoot shoe, the Pau comes awfully close to meeting all the requirements that minimalists look for. It also makes a nice addition to the gradually expanding lineup of natural footwear that is suitable for professional use or formal occasions.

The Patagonia Pau retails for $130 from the company website.

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

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June 27, 2011

Soft Star Moc3 Review

Every now and then I wonder if there isn’t some larger force at play in this whole minimalist footwear renaissance; while it might not quite approach divine intervention, there’s certainly been a healthy dose of serendipity along the way.

Soft Star Moc3

Case in point is the new Soft Star Moc3, which is as much the story of the designer as it is of the company. According to the video at the end of my Moc3 preview post, this new model was born when one of the most insightful shoe designers in the world happened to walk into the workshop where Soft Star elves were striving to further expand and enhance their already outstanding natural footwear inventory.

The designer is Mike Friton, and if you were drafting the ideal resume for a minimalist shoe designer, you probably couldn’t invent a better one than Mike’s. He ran competitively at the University of Oregon, and had a student job moonlighting in Bill Bowerman’s shoe lab – you know, the one that would eventually become Nike - by hand crafting shoes for elite athletes. He earned a degree in anthropology and continued working with the Nike lab for many years, with a primary focus on footwear innovation, including development of the original Nike Free. Mike left Nike a few years ago, and is currently teaching shoe design at the Portland Art Institute.

Part of Mike’s anthropology research involved studying different styles of shoe construction all over the world, and from the very beginning, he’s promoted barefoot running while trying to convince the traditional shoe establishment that minimal, natural construction was of the utmost importance. During an e-mail exchange I had with him recently, he elaborated on this point:

I made many trips to the Oregon dunes where we would run barefoot and often ran strides barefoot on the infield of the track. Many of the great coaches of my time (Bowerman, Lydiard) promoted barefoot running. I think the inspiration that led me to minimal footwear was from my running experience and doing research in medical journals. There are many studies going back over 60 years that cite lower incidence of knee and hip problems with cultures that are barefoot or in minimal footwear. I began looking at these journals over 25 years ago.

In many meetings with my footwear colleagues I have stated that "shoes are bad for you". This used to be met with blank looks until I cited the articles I had read. It has now become acceptable and even cool to talk about, but the problem is that every company is jumping on the wagon but few really understand the issues related to footwear construction. Most are just making thin midsoles and calling them minimalist. The real issue is making footwear dynamic; shoes should follow the foot, not the other way around.

Of course, Mike’s philosophy and design skills are only half of the equation – the other half is the workshop he happened across one day, where Soft Star has loyally dedicated itself to minimal construction and natural foot function from the time Mike was running laps at the U of O. The skill sets of the designer and the manufacturer complement each other perfectly, and the resulting product is something that’s both truly innovative and highly functional.

An executive summary of the Moc3 would describe it as footwear made of neoprene, leather, and a thin rubber outsole; however, it’s also one of those products that’s hard to place in a single category. Since it’s made by Soft Star, my initial tendency was to call it a moccasin, although it looks and feels more like a bedroom slipper. The website calls it a shoe, and it’s durable enough to handle almost any outdoor activity you can imagine, but when it’s on your foot it seems like you’re wearing little more than a pair of thick socks. And of course, there’s more to its construction than meets the eye.

Perforated leather upper with breathe-o-prene lining

Like my favorite RunAmoc Lites, the Moc3 uses perforated leather on the majority of the upper – but the major distinction in these uppers is what’s underneath. The entire sockliner is composed of a 4-way stretch material called breathe-o-prene that is used in athletic gear like shoe insoles and injury prevention braces. Breathe-o-prene pulls moisture away from the skin to help keep your foot dry, and has an open cell construction that ventilates the foot very effectively. However, it still forms a solid enough barrier layer to keep most dust and grit from reaching your toes through the perforated leather.

More breathe-o-prene at ankle opening for stretch entry

When I first learned that a neoprene-like material would be used for these, my immediate concern was whether the Moc3 would begin to stink after a while. Soft Star advertises this model as odor-resistant, and I have to say that thus far I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well they resist stench. I might change my mind in another hundred miles or so – the most I have on a single pair so far is about 70 – but for the time being they certainly have better odor control than most of my other minimalist options, including my trusty RunAmocs.

2mm Vibram street outsole welded to T-Rex fabric

The most distinctive aspect of the Moc3 is the outsole, which evolved from a “podded” look to a single piece of Vibram 2mm rubber shaped to coincide with natural ground contact areas. There’s no last to this shoe whatsoever, so the entire bottom surface can contour to your foot. The outsole is welded onto a very thin, completely flexible layer of T-Rex material that Soft Star uses on the bottom of its grippy Roo slippers. Thanks to its outstanding flexibility, the Moc3 accomplishes Mike Friton’s goal of dynamic footwear that moves with the foot in every position and in all directions; there’s no structural element of this shoe that prevents your foot from moving 100% naturally.

In my preview post I mentioned that ground feel with the Moc3 is better than anything I’ve ever worn – in fact, it’s so pure that I actually shy away from using them sometimes. If I’m doing a run on super-rocky or jagged terrain, I have to slow down a lot more in the Moc3 than I do with my 5mm-trail-outsoled RunAmocs. I wore the Moc3 for one 50K trail run, and my feet got beat up a lot worse than they typically do in FiveFingers or RunAmocs. The product webpage says they’re suitable for dirt and moderate trails, and that “tough-footed” barefooters can use them on technical trails. So perhaps I just need to toughen up – but I’d still classify the Moc3 as a street, fire road, and groomed or moderately technical trail model.

Outsoles after about 70 miles

The net result of combining a soft foot-hugging upper, a completely thin and flexible outsole, and less than 5oz of weight per shoe is this: it feels like you’re not wearing a shoe at all. Part of the reason I’m somewhat confused about calling the Moc3 a shoe, slipper, moc, or sock is that it doesn’t really fit any of those things; it really just feels like an extension of your foot with some minor reinforcement.

Early in the testing process, I realized that this was one of the most comfortable pieces of footwear I own, even rivaling my beloved Roo slippers. I was so pleased with their comfort that on more than one occasion, when I had to return a prototype to Soft Star for inspection, I included a note asking if I could have them back afterward – even the early models that were falling apart in places. I now have two pairs of Moc3s that I use in heavy rotation: a dedicated running pair that gets muddy and sweaty, and a secondary pair that I use for lounging around the house or wearing casually.

Reflective striping on the heel

Despite my infatuation with them, there are a few noteworthy disclaimers about the Moc3 to point out, especially for returning Soft Star customers who are used to a “have it your way” ordering process. Things are slightly different with this model in the following ways:

*  As of its initial release, there isn’t a smooth leather option for the Moc3, and you can’t customize your colors and materials like you can with other models.

*  Because of the thinness and flexibility of the undersurface, the 5mm trail outsole isn’t available on the Moc3. I tested a prototype with the trail outsole, and the overall feel was fairly awkward, with my foot sliding off the edge of the outsole quite a bit. This is something else that may be revisited at some point, but for the time being, only thin is in.

No laces, straps, or other means of adjustment

*  Like other Soft Star models, the Moc3 is only available in whole sizes, but since there’s no lacing system or any other way to adjust the tension around the ankle or through the midfoot, if you’re between sizes on these, you may have a difficult fit. Sizing up might give you a looser fit through the midfoot, and sizing down might cause your toes to touch the front seam.

If you’re OK with those caveats, the Moc3 is really an extraordinary shoe (or moc, or slipper, or whatever you want to call it) that is unlike practically anything else in modern minimalist footwear. It retails for $94 from the Soft Star website.

Related reviews:

Soft Star Original RunAmoc

Soft Star RunAmoc Dash

Soft Star Roo slippers

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

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


June 26, 2011

Random Shots of Beauty

One of the most coveted sights in ultrarunning: the Placer High School track in Auburn, CA, as seen under the lights in the dark early morning that accompanies a sub-24-hour finish at Western States:

If you can't see this scene as a runner, the next best thing might be seeing it as a pacer, and knowing that your runner just completed a truly epic accomplishment.

I'll follow up on this briefly a bit later on ... but for now, it's time to get some rest.

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June 23, 2011

Soft Star Moc3 Arrives; Moccasins in National Geographic; Western States Mojo

A few odds and ends to wrap up the week before I head off to one of the biggest trail running events of the year …

The much-anticipated Moc3 is now available from the Soft Star website. You can read my Moc3 preview article here, and I’ll have an official review published sometime next week.

Coincidentally, I happened to be wearing my Moc3s when I was interviewed in May by a writer for the National Geographic Education website, who was putting together an article about ultrarunning. The finished product was published earlier this month, and you can check it out here.

However, before you get too excited, it’s important to note that the “Education” arm of National Geographic is an entirely separate entity from the parent magazine, and is geared toward school-aged readers – so instead of “Inspiring the world through exploration and cultural enlightenment”, the general vibe is more along the lines of, “Hey, look – grown-ups actually use geography sometimes!” Nevertheless, the article made for a nice read, and the "ultrarunning in moccasins" angle was included an an extra curiosity – or as one of the Soft Star Elves wrote to me, They make you out to be slightly crazy. Well, true … but it’s not like they had very far to stretch.

On Saturday morning I’m headed to Foresthill, CA to participate in the Western States Endurance Run as a pacer for Gretchen, whose running talent I hinted at in my recent Auburn Trail Run report. I’m penciled in to run 38 miles with her, which would normally be a pretty tall order for me; I can only hope that the 62 miles she’s running through snow and heat and steep canyons before joining me might put just enough sting in her legs for me to keep up. Either way, it promises to be an interesting night.

You can follow her progress through the day or night on the Western States tracking page; she’s runner #119. And if you’re looking for extensive previews and reporting on this year’s event or updates from the front of the pack on race day, be sure to check out Bryon Powell’s outstanding coverage over at iRunFar. Bryon happens to be running the race as well, taking the concept of embedded journalism to a whole new realm.

Since I’ll be fairly late in posting over the weekend, here are a couple more Western States-related items for you to chew on. The first is a trailer for a feature-length film that will be released this fall; it’s an inside view the epic 3-way battle at last year’s WS100, where the 100-mile distance was turned into an honest-to-goodness footrace throughout the final several hours. It remains to be seen whether that scenario was lightning in a bottle or a sign of things to come – but regardless, the race was far and away the coolest story in ultrarunning last year.

“Unbreakable: The Western States 100”, by JourneyFilm (click to play):

The second clip is an in-depth (13+-minutes) profile of Geoff Roes, last year’s Western States champion, who also happens to be undefeated at the 100-mile distance. Considering his athletic prowess, it’s quite remarkable what a mellow, laid-back guy he appears to be. He doesn’t exactly display the eye of the tiger, but I guess if you can run like a deer it doesn’t much matter. The video is an enlightening look into his training regimen, his mindset during long races, and his overall philosophy about trail running, and is a great portrait of a champion who sometimes seems nearly as reluctant as he is dominant.

“Geoff Roes: Slogging to the Top”, by Running Times (click to play):

Whether it’s Geoff who crosses the line in Auburn first this weekend or somebody else, Western States will have another remarkable story to tell for everybody who competes this year, and I’m grateful that I’ll have a front-row seat to see a part of it in person – just as long as I can keep pace with that girl.

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June 21, 2011

An Evening at John's Place

I was going to post this as a Random Shot of Beauty a couple of weeks ago, except for the fact that I felt nearly overcome with dread while taking it:

The National Steinbeck Center in downtown Salinas, where my friend Mike and I were scheduled for a “Meet the Authors” presentation for our Running Life book on a recent Friday evening. We were invited to talk a little bit about our book, read a few excerpts, and explain how the natural beauty of Monterey County helps inspire both our running and our writing.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m much more comfortable as a writer than as a promoter, and this night was no exception. Of course, I might not have felt nearly so self-conscious if we hadn’t been speaking just below the brooding visage of Steinbeck himself, looming over us as if waiting to pass judgment. You know … no pressure or anything.

Our warm up act – I swear I’m not making this up - was a class of mariachi guitarists. It was one of those “Only in Salinas” scenes, and helped to lighten the atmosphere a bit before Mike and I took the stage.

It wasn't competely empty ... it just seemed that way sometimes.

Attendance for our presentation was less than what we hoped for; check that – it was WAY less - although I guess if you count the mariachi players you could say we had a decent showing. However, for as anxious as I was beforehand, once we started talking about the book and running, the whole experience was actually more enjoyable than I had anticipated.

I presented a slideshow of images - most of them taken directly from this website – called “Running in Steinbeck Country.” As I began to describe the timeless beauty of this area, the stories that took place here long before my arrival, and the appreciation I have both for this land and the people who occupy it, I settled into something approaching comfort. (Although considering the circumstances, that’s still a pretty strong word; perhaps “I no longer wanted to crawl under the table” is more accurate.)

Obviously the two of us don’t measure up to Steinbeck any more than we do to Olympic-caliber runners – however, in both cases, lack of world-class talent doesn’t diminish our enjoyment of either activity. I enjoy writing, I love running, and as long as I can continue to do both of them in some form or another, I’ll consider it one of life’s greatest blessings.

*The Running Life is now available for $16 from our dedicated book webpage.

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


June 20, 2011

Vibram FiveFingers Komodo Sport Review

When Vibram FiveFingers first hit the market, and especially after the outstanding KSOs were released, part of their appeal was that they were adaptable to practically any activity you could think of. Early marketing campaigns showed users running, hiking, practicing yoga, doing parkour, leaping from boulders into a lake, and so on. The product mimicked barefoot function almost perfectly, and people came up with countless new applications for use as their popularity increased.

From the beginning, Vibram has embraced customer feedback and suggestions for improvement, and as a result, they’ve spent the past couple of years expanding and specializing their product line to appeal to the widest range of athletic interests possible. So while the KSO is still a great all-purpose shoe, it’s not nearly as good for hiking and trail running as the KSO Trek, or for road running as much as the Bikila (and Bikila LS).

(And to make sure everyone knows what I'm referring to before we progress any further, let's throw in some back links to my original reviews, shall we? I'll have these at the end of the post as well:

Vibram Fivefingers KSO review

Vibram FiveFingers KSO Trek review

Vibram FiveFingers Trek Sport review

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila review

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS review

OK - back to our primary programming.)

Vibram FiveFingers Komodo Sport

This spring, Vibram introduced the Fivefingers Komodo Sport, which is targeted at multi-sport athletes and general fitness enthusiasts. It has some very noticeable design changes from previous FiveFingers models, most of which are very effective, although there’s one in particular that I wasn’t crazy about. It features an entirely new outsole that will appeal to athletes who demand a lot of lateral movement (think tennis, basketball, etc), and is ideal for working out in the gym. However, it’s still quite attractive as a running model – in fact, most of my testing has centered around trail running (I know … shocking), and this model has performed nearly as well as the KSO Trek, which is Vibram’s gold standard for going off-road.

Closed mesh upper; PU abrasion dots on toes

From the midfoot to the toes, the upper of the Komodo looks very similar to the Bikila, although its closed stretch mesh material is slightly thicker than the mesh used on either the Bikila or Bikila LS. Also present here are the same polyurethane dots above the toes which the Bikila LS uses for increased abrasion resistance.

Very dirty ... but still very yellow

The Komodo is available in black, gray, or yellow; the dark colors are quite sharp-looking, and the yellow is, um … very yellow. Since bright colors aren’t really my thing, I was kind of hoping that a lot of trail miles would dull the color of this particular pair a bit, but that hasn’t quite happened yet. I’ve heard that some folks really love the bumble-bee look though, so I won’t dwell on this too long.

Separate straps around heel and on top of foot

One of the design changes I wasn’t crazy about was the addition of a second strap to the upper. Stylistically, this two-strap design borrows from both the KSO (with its single strap that wraps around the heel) and the original Bikila with a top strap that isn’t integrated around the heel. On the Komodo, there is a second, independent Velcro strap to adjust the heel fit – but in practice, I found that cinching this strap tighter than the “factory” positioning resulted not in a more snug ankle fit, but in gapping at the inside of the ankle, as seen here:

Gapping at R inside ankle collar with heel strap tightened (click to enlarge)

Ultimately, rather than mess around in search of the perfect heel fit, I just returned the strap to its starting position, and the ankle collar stayed in place just fine. If you have unusually fat ankles, loosening the strap probably won’t help, either, since the primary size-limiting component here is the circumference of the ankle collar. So I’d say the extra ankle strap is a nice idea, but doesn’t quite deliver the practical application for which it was intended.

Removable smooth 2mm insole

One noticeable change to the Komodo is a smooth insole that provides a seamless, stitch-free bottom layer for improved comfort against bare feet. The insole is 2mm thick and is removable, although replacing it is somewhat difficult thanks to the individual toe cutouts. Many sockless users will appreciate the fact that for the first time, there’s no stitching underneath your foot to cause potential irritation. Although I generally wear socks for my long trail runs, I’ve spent many sockless miles in the Komodos, and the combination of sockliner and insole is nearly as comfortable as the Bikila and Bikila LS. If you’re thinking of removing the sockliner on these, be forewarned that the undersurface is fairly coarse, so you’ll probably end up wanting socks – which might defeat the point of removing the insole in the first place.

The insole brings up a point of overall thickness, which gets a little bit confusing with FiveFingers sometimes, because some models use insoles and others use an EVA midsole. On the Komodo, there is no midsole material, so its standing height is the 2mm insole plus the 4mm outsole, or 6mm total thickness. That’s actually slightly less than the Bikila models at 7mm (3mm insole plus 4mm outsole), as well as the KSO Trek and Trek Sport (4mm midsole plus 4mm outsole), but slightly more than the KSO with a 2mm insole and 3.5mm outsole. Perhaps it’s the power of suggestion, but I found that the Komodo’s ground feel generally reflects the specs: it’s noticeably better than the Trek and Trek Sport, roughly equal to the Bikila and Bikila LS, and slightly worse than the original KSO.

At 7.1 oz, the Komodo weighs in as the heaviest FiveFingers to date, although to be fair it’s only a half-once heavier than the Trek Sport. I suspect that the extra weight is primarily attributable to the additional Velcro strap – which is unfortunate, since I just explained that I didn’t find the extra strap very effective – and perhaps the thicker mesh of the upper. If you use these as a dedicated running shoe, you’ll probably notice a weight difference compared to the 6.0-oz Bikilas, but if used for their intended multi-sport purpose, the additional weight of the Komodo might not be too troubling to most users.

New multi-sport outsole

Here’s where Vibram really changed the game on the Komodo: its brand new aggressive 4mm rubber outsole that is grooved in multiple directions to facilitate rapid stopping and turning, and for additional grip on generally flat or smooth surfaces such as asphalt or hardwood. Just as with the overall thickness, flexibility of the outsole is a middle ground for Vibram as well: the Komodo is more flexible than the KSO Trek and Trek Sport, but slightly less than the podded Bikila and Bikila LS.

Just for kicks, I spent several afternoons shooting baskets on the blacktop with my kids while wearing my Komodos, to get a feel for how they perform in rapid stop-and-go situations. The outsole is really quite strong in this regard, probably the equivalent of many general-purpose sneakers on the market. It’s a significant improvement over the original KSO, and I don’t have to worry about wearing the knobs down like I do whenever I wear my Treks on pavement. I would imagine that if you’re in an aerobics class or using weight machines at the health club, the Komodos would give you all the grip you need.

Lab testing in the Wasatch foothills

I’ve also been pleasantly surprised as to the general durability of the outsole for running. I’ve put close to 100 trail miles on mine, and they aren’t showing any significant signs of wearing down yet. When I heard that this was a “multi-sport” model, my fear was that it wouldn’t be compatible with distance running, but the Komodo has been more than up to the task. In fact, for dedicated trail running, I definitely prefer it over my Trek Sports, although it’s not quite strong enough to dethrone the KSO Trek as my first choice. For dedicated road running, I still prefer the lighter weight and overall comfort of the Bikila LS, but if you’re going back and forth between road and trail a lot, the Komodo would be an ideal choice.

All things considered, the Komodo just might be the successor to Vibram’s original KSO as the premier all-purpose do-anything model. The KSO was the first FiveFingers model I owned, and I used it for everything – trail running, yard work, and general goofing around. Thanks to my product review gigs, I now have the luxury of owning different models for different uses – but if I had to go back to a time when I could only pick one FiveFingers model to do everything with, I’d definitely pick the Komodo over the KSO now. For anyone else in that situation, the Komodo would make a great introduction to the joy of wearing Vibrams.

*Disclosure: this review was sponsored by TravelCountry.com, who provided my pair for testing, and who have the best stock and selection of all Vibram FiveFingers models anywhere on the Internet. The Vibram FiveFingers Komodo Sport retails for $100 in both the men’s model and women's version.

See related reviews:

Vibram Fivefingers KSO

Vibram FiveFingers KSO Trek

Vibram FiveFingers Trek Sport

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS

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June 18, 2011

Barefoot Kids Animation; Random Shots of Beauty (Father's Day Edition)

A few odds and ends for you this weekend on the subject of children and fathers ...

* First, a quick reminder: you've got until the end of Sunday to purchase VIVOBAREFOOT children's shoes at a 15% discount with coupon code RNR15. Your kids' feet will thank you, because ...

* This should be obvious, but being barefoot is great for your kids. Short of that, having barefoot shoes is the next best thing for healthy foot development. VIVOBAREFOOT recently released a video promoting this theory; the clip combines children's art-class visuals with a description of some recent research into the benefits of natural footwear for kids. It also has precisely the sort of Oliver Twist-y narration that you'd expect from an English company talking about children's shoes.

The information itself probably isn't anything you haven't heard before (especially if you've hung around here for a while), but the animation is kind of clever, so take a few minutes to check it out:

"Barefoot is Best", by VIVOBAREFOOT Kids (click to play):

* Finally, since today is Father's Day, a brief snapshot comes to mind about what it means to be a father. Sometimes fatherhood isn't about the major things like being a role model or teaching right from wrong or providing comfort or counsel during life-altering circumstances; sometimes it's just letting a tired fat kid sleep on your shoulder in the middle of a long day:

By the way - the kid in the backpack? That would be me. Happy Father's Day, Dad.

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June 16, 2011

Evolution of the Soft Star Moc3; Moc3 Preview Video

In my ZEM Gear review earlier this week, I described how the gap between socks and shoes is narrowing, as socks become increasingly rugged and shoes become less and less substantial. ZEM was an example of a company approaching the ideal middle ground from the sock side, and today I’m excited to offer a photo and video preview of a new minimalist model from a company who originated on the shoe side of the spectrum.

Truthfully, calling Soft Star a shoe company is something of a misnomer, since they primarily specialize in slippers and moccasins, including the well-publicized (around here, anyway) RunAmoc and Dash which I’ve worn for all of my ultras this year. Their footwear was already almost as simple and natural as possible, but this spring they’ve managed to create a fairly remarkable product that even makes moccasins seem bulky by comparison. Last week the company released a promotional video of the new moc, which follows at the end of this post.

The new model is called the Moc3, and it’s essentially a hybrid of sock and slipper; think of what would happen if your form-fitting socks snuck out of their drawer and mated with your most comfortable indoor/outdoor slippers, and you get a good sense of what the Moc3 is like. It will be available for purchase on June 23, and I’ll have an official review posted shortly thereafter. In the meantime, I’m sharing a bit of the product development process that I’ve been involved with since the first of the year; I always find it fun to go back and see how something evolves from prototype to finished product, and this particular process has been very interesting indeed.

When my first prototypes arrived in the mail, they reminded me of water booties on top, and bear paws on the bottom.

For obvious reasons, the outsole was the most distinctive aspect of these new mocs; unfortunately, it was also the most problematic. I wore these for all of one day before the rubberized Vibram patches started peeling off all over the place – this would be a recurring theme for the first few test pairs. However, they were super-comfortable, and it was clear that this was something that could completely break the mold of other minimalist shoes on the market.

About halfway through the process

Once the prototypes held up long enough to actually take a few runs in them, another recurring concern was the overall fit.  The earliest prototypes were too loose, causing my foot to slide around inside them. Sometimes the heel area was snug but the length was too short. When the length was extended, the ankle opening was too wide. Sizing switched back and forth between standard numeric shoe sizes and a “small-medium-large-XL” convention like you use for T-shirts. (I think they settled on traditional shoe sizing, but I’m not positive.) There was a lot of tinkering, and several prototypes were tested and discarded before the proper width and length were dialed in.

Playing around in Jacks Peak, Monterey

However, even with the fit somewhat off-kilter on each pair, I was having a blast in these mocs every time I went for a run. The blue and black pair above are what I was wearing in this photo tour in Monterey, on a day when I was jumping off tree trunks and climbing on fence railings and otherwise acting like a little kid; the feeling of running through the woods in a pair of thin slippers channeled my inner wild child even more quickly than my standard RunAmocs do. In my book, that’s a good thing.

You’ll notice that the outsole design was still under experimentation on this pair, with some of the previously-separated pods now merged together. This worked a little bit better … but I hadn’t logged very many miles before these outsoles started peeling off as well. Back to the drawing board.

Smooth leather outer surface

There was also some discussion of whether to make the outer surface of the uppers out of smooth or perforated leather. My preference is always for perforated leather, and that’s the style that’s used in the promo video below, but there’s a possibility that smooth leather will be an option for customers who prefer it; I’ll confirm this prior to the official review.

Finished product: Soft Star Moc3

By the time we were done, there was probably more trial and error involved with the Moc3 than any other prototype testing I’ve been involved with. The good news is that every problem that was identified was properly solved, and the finished product is truly extraordinary. The outsoles (now a single piece) stay attached even with high mileage, the fit is comfortable and secure through the whole foot, and the ground feel is among the best I’ve ever felt.

Single-piece outsole

There’s one more important point to note abut this whole process: the Moc3 is the brainchild of Mike Friton, one of the most impressive shoe designers you’ll ever meet. He’s featured in the video that follows, and I’ll have more to say about him in my official review next week. In the meantime, Soft Star produced this outstanding video overview of the development process, with some additional shots of the finished product that will be available next week.

Soft Star's Moc3 retails for $94 from the Soft Star website.

"Moc3: Running Uninvented" by Soft Star (click to play):

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