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September 29, 2011

Education in Action: Lava Beds National Monument

Seeing as how I’ll probably be referencing it for the next several weeks, I figured a recap of my week away from Running and Rambling headquarters was in order.

I had the opportunity to help chaperone a group of over thirty 8th graders - one of whom was my son - for a week of camping, hiking, cave exploration, and various other outdoor adventures, all in the name of education.

(Click to enlarge any photo)

Our destination was Lava Beds National Monument, an area near the California / Oregon border that lies on the flank of an enormous shield volcano. It’s an area of remarkable geologic activity and a region of great historic significance – basically, it’s a place that makes science and social studies totally cool. This is a major selling point when you’re dealing with a bunch of moody adolescents.

Nearly every activity we did there could be the topic of its own post, some of which were practically writing themselves in my head while I was still in the midst of doing them (I love it when that happens). I also managed to grab a few morning runs, and took advantage of the setting to do some extensive gear testing – all of which made for a pretty fantastic week from a blog standpoint. There were a couple of notable exceptions, as I’ll explain shortly, but for now let’s get to the overview.

Actually, one of the first downsides (for me, anyway) came right off the bat. I’ve never been a big fan of camping; as I’ve told anyone who’ll listen, I’m perfectly willing to stay out all day and all night doing any sort of crazy messy outdoor activity you choose … but when it’s all said and done, I like a warm shower and a nice bed afterward. But for the entire week of this field trip, there were no beds or showers, or even a water feature like a lake or river to rinse ourselves off.

I thought I’d hate this aspect of the trip, but you know what? With my inflatable queen-size air mattress, goose down sleeping bag, and ergonomic pillow, it was … well, I still didn’t like it. But I guess it wasn’t quite as miserable as I feared it would be.

Our campground was situated in an area that had the feel and appearance of a high desert plain. We were at about 4500’, temperatures were hot (90-100 degrees) all week, and everything was dusty … the only difference between this and a typical desert is that the predominant feature of the terrain was dried lava rock.

We spent a lot of the week studying geology up and down: down, as in this mammoth crater (called, fittingly enough, Mammoth Crater) that is the source of almost all the lava beds we would explore …

… and up, as in a journey to the top of Little Mount Hoffman, one of many buttes in the region formed after a lava explosion, when the magma cooled in the air and fell back to Earth to form a cinder cone. In the distance behind the lava field is Mount Shasta, a massive composite volcano that dominates the landscape and is visible from most of the park.

(And if you’re wondering how I can throw around terms like shield volcano, cinder cone, and composite volcano so easily – well, it was an educational trip, after all; I figured I may as well pay attention.)

Our group activities centered mainly around “caving”, or descending into hollowed-out lava tubes. Some, like this one called Skull Cave, are enormous openings that you could probably drive a bus through …

… while other cave entrances are marked by nothing more than a sign and a hole in the ground with a ladder in it. There are countless caves in the park, with more than two dozen officially marked and mapped out, some of them containing miles of networked passages that drop hundreds of feet underground.

If you’re lucky, you can stand upright in the caves, but more often than not (especially if you’re 6’2”) you have to do some method of crouching or duck walking. Notice that I’m wearing kneepads, which come in handy …

… in the multiple areas where you have no choice but to crawl on your hands and knees. Things could be a lot worse, however …

… because there are plenty of tubes where all you can do is wriggle like a worm across the lava rock floor. Some stretches like this are 10-20 yards long; it’s definitely not the place for anyone who’s remotely claustrophobic. By the way, that’s my kid working his way through the opening with a couple of his buddies. Yes, I followed behind them; no, it didn’t go well.

In case you missed it in the earlier photo, I was wearing Vibrams in this cave – the FiveFingers Trek LS, which I’ll officially review next week. However, the thought occurred to me: am I the first one to post pictures of Vibrams in an underground cave? That would be kind of cool; I think I need to investigate this further.

From “down” to “up” again: the following day we climbed Schonchin Butte, a relatively middle-aged cinder cone at roughly 65,000 years old …

... in contrast to the eruptions from at a spot called Fleener Chimneys which are merely 10,000 years old – the blink of an eye in geologic terms.

The chimneys were also a cool spot to practice a little bit of lava rock climbing, as demonstrated here by my son …

… and here by me, again in my Vibrams. I don’t have any aspirations of becoming a rock climber, but there’s something very primal and rewarding about clawing your way up to the top of some enormous land mass. Small doses will suffice for me, though.

I mentioned the social history of the region, and the most memorable story took place right here, in an area known as Captain Jack’s Stronghold. It’s named after the leader of the Native American Modocs, who were the last tribe standing near the end of the so-called Indian Wars.

In 1872 and 1873, the United States Army was charged with relocating the Modoc north to the Klamath Reservation in Oregon. The Modoc tried to negotiate terms to stay in their homeland, the Army refused, and killings took place on both sides – the most significant of which was Captain Jack’s assassination of US General Edward Canby, which stood as the only death of a United States General during the Indian Wars.

Of course, the Army didn’t react kindly to the Modoc resistance, and came back with several hundred troops to remove the tribe by force or extinguish them entirely. The story didn’t end well for the Modoc – it never did for the Indians – but the final band of 60-80 Modoc used the caves, tunnels, and harsh lava terrain as a natural fortress, holding off the entire Army for nearly six months before eventually fleeing and scattering across the northwest.

It’s stories like that, told in the actual setting where they occurred, that bring history home in a way that no amount of textbook reading can accomplish. The same rule applies to volcanoes and caves: it’s one thing to learn about them in a classroom, but another thing completely to see and feel and experience them firsthand. That’s why trips like this are so awesome for the kids, and why I felt fortunate to be included. (I'm still just a big kid in a lot of ways.)

The fact that it gave me some great blog fodder was completely secondary – but it’s the one you’re likely to hear about more in the weeks to come.

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

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September 27, 2011

Go Out and Play

Without going into too much detail, I can tell you that the last several weeks have been a little bit turbulent. Not necessarily in a bad way, but just … crazy, I guess.

I’m used to this feeling – the anxiety of having 100 things I want to do and not nearly enough hours to do them, with my mind constantly racing at all hours of the day and night - when I’m in the midst of super high-mileage training weeks with an ultra looming on the horizon. The funny thing about the current situation is that my race calendar is completely empty – and therefore, there’s no urgent need for me to keep training.

And make no mistake, my training has taken a significant dive. However, in the midst of the whirlwind, I still find myself lacing up my shoes as often as possible and heading toward the nearest trail I can find. In times like these, it’s not so much about staying in shape as it is about maintaining some semblance of mental well-being, or perhaps even momentary peace of mind.

It was during one such moment that the idea for our most recent Monterey Herald column was born; the article follows below.

Running Life 9/22/11        “Go Out and Play”

“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.”
- Clinical report in PEDIATRICS, January 2007

“We run, not because we think it is doing us good, but because we enjoy it and cannot help ourselves ... The more restricted our society and work become, the more necessary it will be to find some outlet for this craving for freedom.”
- Sir Roger Bannister

When it comes to playtime, our society actually starts children out pretty well. It’s not until adulthood that things get screwed up.

The vast majority of elementary schools – including all of them on the Monterey Peninsula – include daily recess as part of the curriculum. It’s the time when kids leave the world of book reports and multiplication tables behind, and escape to a world of four square battles, double-dutch routines, or any magical adventures they can imagine.

Photo from JustRun.org

In middle school, recess is gone, but kids have mandatory physical education classes every day, an “active break” where they are instructed in the importance of regular exercise and exposed to a variety of sports and games. When they get to high school, P.E. continues, along with a wide selection of athletic teams awaiting their participation.

Anyone who has played high school sports can tell you those memories are among the most cherished in their entire lives; every practice they attended, and every play of every game made some tangible contribution to their emotional happiness. Even for those who didn’t play sports, their fondest childhood memories are typically related to time spent playing outdoors: climbing to a tree fort, bike riding through the neighborhood, or splashing in a river or lake somewhere.

But when those kids eventually take on jobs and families, they find that the world doesn’t place the same priority on recess and playtime that existed when they were young. If they cling to those games they loved as children – by playing in rec leagues, taking lessons from a local club, or signing up for various races – they sometimes sense the “real world” frowning upon them. Young parents aren’t supposed to leave their kids with a babysitter so they can work out; upwardly mobile career workers aren’t supposed to have free time for exercise; respected professionals aren’t supposed to be seen in sweaty running clothes.

Grown-ups gradually internalize these expectations and feel guilty or self-centered for taking time to exercise, even though it still stimulates their emotional well-being. And when life gets crazy and schedules get tight, exercise is almost always the first thing to drop off the priority list. “I just don’t have the time anymore” is the most common remark you’ll hear from formerly lifelong athletes, and it’s the reason we hear most frequently when catching up with runners who used to train with us.

Recess for grown-ups

The irony, of course, is that exercise never ceases to be a necessary part of our happiness and healthy development. Adults can find the same satisfaction and enjoyment from games and races that they did as children. Throughout my entire adult life, exercise (running in particular) has offered the same escape from the troubles of the world that play breaks did when I was a child in elementary school. In fact, it seems that whenever life gets the most difficult, stressful, or hectic, those are the times when I need my exercise outlet the most.

Exercise is recess, and it’s just as important now as it was when you were a child. Go outside and play!

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September 26, 2011

Wrightsock Running Socks Review

Sock reviews are always a little bit awkward for me. Many times on this page, I’ve expressed my undying love for Drymax socks, and I’m typically uninterested in trying any other brands. My wife, however, is open to experimentation – a very good quality, I might add – and is usually willing to test different sock varieties.

When I explain this situation to company reps, some of them withdraw their review offer, and others agree to have my wife review the socks instead of me. None of them, however, responded in the way the Wrightsock company did.

A family of happy feet!

Not only did they send my wife a healthy supply of test socks, but they also provided a full assortment of men’s and women’s socks in various sizes, effectively outfitting my whole family. My wife uses them for running, and the kids use them at school and for hiking. I also ended up testing a few pairs – and while they didn’t blow me away, I have to say they were better than I anticipated.

I actually have experience with Wrightsocks in the past; several years ago when I was an avid marathoner, my wife gave me a pair as a gift in my Christmas stocking. At that time, the company had established its niche as “the double layer sock company”, making dual layer socks that are a highly effective means of blister prevention. Unfortunately, those early socks were too thick and too warm for my liking, and the inner fabric layer tended to bunch up around my toes. I never bought another pair, and my lasting impression was quite unfavorable.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised with Wrightsock’s current offerings. They still make double-layer socks, but they are much thinner than the old pairs, much more breatheable, and hold their shape significantly better on both layers. They’ve also expanded their inventory to include single-layer socks, which are branded as WrightOnes. Our sample selection included both single and double-layer models, with a variety of styles and fabrics to keep things interesting.

The double-layer system works like this: the layer closest to your skin is a contoured fabric called Dri-Wright that wicks moisture away from the foot. The outer layer of fabric is specific to the activity; some are very similar to the inner layer, others are quite different. For example, my wife was impressed with the Running II sock, which has virtually the same material construction – 70% Dri-Wright, approximately 25% nylon and 5% Lycra - on the outer layer as on the inner surface. On the other hand, my favorite socks from the group were the Merino TRL, a trail running model whose outer layer features 72% merino wool.

Overall thickness of the socks is much less than I remember, which in my book is a good thing; it makes for more effective temperature regulation, and goes along with my minimalist philosophy. However, if you like more substance around your foot, Wrightsocks come in a variety of thicknesses, with a cushioned DLX model at the top (most thick), and the Lite model at the bottom. In other words, there’s something for everybody.

The new product for Wrightsocks this year are their single-layer WrightOnes, which use the same Dri-Wright fabric (78%) for moisture wicking and ventilation, as well as nylon (16%) and Lycra (6%) for a contoured fit and stability on the foot. There is also seam-free construction to reduce any chafing or hot spots. These socks are pleasantly thin, but my wife’s favorite is actually the SLX, which has a bit of cushioning under the heel and metatarsal heads. She’s not quite the minimalist freak that I am.

Although I didn’t test anything to make me give up my favorite Drymax socks, I was certainly impressed by the improvements Wrightsock has made since I last tried them. The company’s strength is offering double-layer construction that still manages to be respectably thin. If double-layer socks are your preference for blister control but you want to maintain a natural feel, they’d certainly be worth a try.

(And if you have experience with Wrightsocks or have a favorite model to recommend, please chime in to the comments section below.)

Wrightsocks are available for $11.00 from REI.com as well as the company website. REI also currently has last year's version of the Merino TRL on sale for a very attractive closeout price of $6.00.

*Products provided by Wrightsock. Affiliate sales support Running and Rambling.
**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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September 24, 2011

Guest Post Feedback; Random Shots of Beauty

I can't begin to tell you how good it feels to be back in the land of the wired. (By the way, that's w-i-r-e-d, not w-e-i-r-d.  I'm never too far from that second group.)  My week off was great, but I definitely experienced some tech-withdrawal-related ailments and anxieties after several days of being off the grid.

Before we get to the Random Shot of Beauty, a few questions: What did you think of the guest post idea? Did the final products fit in with the overall Running and Rambling vibe, or did they feel out of place? Is this something I should consider doing again sometime down the road, or are we better off keeping it a one-time experiment? I'd love to hear any feedback about how the week went from a reader's standpoint.

Regardless, I'm indebted to my three guest posters - Spokane Al, Danny Miller, and Mary Parlange - for manning the counter here at the shop while I was off playing in the wilderness. I'll have some details from the trip in the weeks to come, starting with this week's RSOB, which was taken en route:

(click to enlarge)

The western face of Mount Shasta, towering over the foothills of Northern California at more than 14,100 feet. We enjoyed this view at a fuel stop in the town of Weed, California, where you can also purchase one particular souvenir that the town has become famous for:

Your own personal "I Love Weed" T-shirt. To my son's credit, he knew better than to try bringing one of these things home.

As I said, Mount Shasta wasn't on the itinerary for this trip, but one of our travel companions has climbed it several times ... so needless to say, it was an active topic of conversation throughout the week. I think my to-do list just got one item longer.

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September 23, 2011

Barefoot in Switzerland: Guest Post by Mary Parlange

Our final guest post of the week brings an international flavor to Running and Rambling.

The topics are familiar ones around here – barefoot running, experimentation with minimalist footwear, and being a disciple of Christopher McDougall and Barefoot Ken Bob. However, her geographic location provides an interesting perspective, perhaps not in the way you might guess.

The post that follows below is the introduction to an ongoing series that will document her progression toward becoming (or possibly not becoming) a barefoot runner. Read her post below – and remember to leave her some comments – then check out the next part of the story on her website, called Gydle (I have no idea what it means, either).

Barefoot in Switzerland by Mary Parlange

Last summer I read Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run. For the ten runners out there who haven’t read it yet, it’s about the Tarahumara Indians, an elusive group of Yoda-like people running vast distances around the Mexican desert in huaraches. McDougall, a journalist, picks up some colorful characters along the way and they challenge the Tarahumara to their own homespun ultra out there in the Mexican outback.

The book inspired me. I’m always a sucker for a well-crafted sentence, and McDougall has a really engaging style. He also interviewed researchers about running form and barefoot running; the science seemed sound and intrigued me. Most of all, I liked the people he was hanging around with in the book. They didn’t seem like the type who worried about their 10K split times. They didn’t run to “get a workout” or lose weight, or because studies show that if you run for 40 minutes every day your risk of heart attack decreases by 23.6%. These were my kind of people. They ran because if they didn’t, they’d go nuts. I dreamed of joining the “ultra” brother(sister?)hood. Switzerland is full of gorgeous trails and crazy ultra races.

I also dreamed of running barefoot, or at least barely shod, like the Tarahumara. True, in my seven years here, I’ve never seen a single person running barefoot. I do see a lot of women walking around in heels, but no one wears Vibram Five-Fingers or huaraches, much less runs in them.

Unable to find a “minimalist” shoe in the local stores, I turned to the Internet and ordered a pair from London. They didn’t fit; even worse, inaddition to a 14-franc VAT charge and a 30-franc customs processing fee, I had to shell out for the return postage. Fail. Fifty francs for absolutely nothing – now that’s minimal!

Like a spurned lover on the rebound, I succumbed to the softness of a new pair of Nikes. I started to run longer distances, taking them off occasionally to run barefoot on the beach or the soccer fields, the Born to Run nirvana shining like a beacon in my head as the sun set over Lake Geneva.

The pain in my right heel started slowly. I kept training, aiming for an upcoming half marathon. Then one day my heel hurt so badly I had to stop mid-run. I could hardly walk home. The extent of my folly began to sink in. I had taken a perfectly functional foot and cushioned it like an egg! Hadn’t I paid any attention to what McDougall was saying? Combined with the sporadic soft-surface barefooting, my foot was thoroughly confused.

I decided the Nikes were to blame. A minimalist shoe would solve the problem. I found a specialized running store and mentioned Born to Run. Never heard of it. “Pieds nus?” (naked feet?) Ah, yes, they’d heard about the “American craze,” but this was a serious shop for serious runners. I left with a pair of expensive trail shoes that resembled a couple of oversized bees. They had the lowest-profile heel in the shop. My foot still hurt, I hobbled out of bed every morning like a 90-year-old, but gradually I began to run again, moderate distances, every other day or so.

But the dream wouldn’t die. I just knew, deep down inside, that I was a crazy barefoot ultra-runner.

While in New Mexico this past July, I bought a pair of New Balance minimalist trail shoes. I hesitated to wear them, though. They sat in the closet while we went hiking in the Alps in August. And they sat in the closet while I ran along the lake, hardly feeling my heel any more. Maybe I should leave well enough alone.

“Guess what your crazy brother has done this time,” my mom said one day. “He ran barefoot for a half a mile, and now he has blisters all over his feet.”

I took it as a sign.

I Skyped him. Turns out he, too, had read Born to Run, and then he’d gone one further and borrowed a copy of Barefoot Ken Bob’s book, Barefoot Running Step by Step, from a friend. The day before, he’d run barefoot for nine minutes on a gravel road in Montana. The blisters were just a little setback. He held his foot proudly up to the camera; the quarter-sized blood-red souvenirs were truly formidable. Maybe I shouldn’t have picked such a steep hill. Um, ya think?

I quickly downloaded Barefoot Ken Bob’s book onto my iPad.

Don’t give up, I urged my brother. I’m joining you!  Let’s Go Barefoot!  Despite the 5,000 miles of ocean and continent separating us, we can run this road together.

To see Mary’s journal and follow her progression to barefoot running, visit Gydle.

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September 21, 2011

Marathon Pacing: Guest Post by Danny Miller

Danny Miller runs ultras, and he writes very long posts. It’s no wonder I felt a connection to him.

He contacted me after an article I wrote about pacing, and explained that he was a marathon pacer who had some interesting stories to tell about his experiences, for better or worse. The post that follows is a little bit of both. And yes, it’s long – but like a marathon, once you make it to the end, you’ll be happy you stuck with it.

When you get there, be sure to give Danny some feedback in the comment box below.


Marathon Pacing       by Danny Miller

I was terrified the first time I lined up to pace. It was the 2010 Kansas City Marathon and I was holding the 4:20 stick in my hand, 20 or so people surrounded me who had told me they wanted to stick with me during the race.

“Crap”, I thought to myself. “What have I gotten myself into?”

Marathons had become training runs for me. I had been exclusively running 50 mile and greater races for at least the past two years. I hadn’t run 26.2 since my marathon PR, San Francisco, a 3:38 five days after fighting through the worst 50-miler I had ever run, at Mt. Hood. I forgot my body glide at that 50 - let your imagination run wild with that.

“I don’t want to screw up someone’s time. What if I do? I’d feel so terrible.”

The only marathon I’d run since then had been in training. We all know what a training run longer than a marathon is like. They typically involve many stops at the car, some sitting down, lots of eating, and a relaxed pace. They weren’t constant stretches of running, plus, nobody DEPENDED on me to run during my training runs. If my shoe got untied during a training run, I just stopped and tied it, then lounged around a bit. No rush.

“I can do this, I ran 100 miles a few months ago. If I can run 100 miles, I can do anything.”

A running buddy of mine was a pacer. He was injured and they were looking for a replacement. He asked me if I was interested. I said sure, and that was about it. I passed along some running qualifications and ended up in his spot, 4:20.

“I did that 18 mile training run at race pace last week, I was fine with that.”

“Crap! I didn’t poop this morning!” I always poop before a race.

With a boom, we were off.

I’m a pacer with a group in Kansas City called Runners Edge. We’ve got a core group of pacers that hit the local races and do some traveling: Lincoln, St. Louis, Denver, and Wichita. We’re growing and it has been a lot to be a part of it from somewhat early on. All our events are road races. Funny seeing how I’m a get-lost-in-the-woods-on-a-trail kind of guy.

We use a strategy called SmartPace. The idea is to run your first mile about a minute slower than your race pace, second mile about 30 seconds slower, then ease into race pace over the next couple of miles. You end up running the core of the race slightly below race pace to make up for the start. This is ok as you’ve had a nice easy warm-up to get you settled into that pace.

We also groom the pace to fit the course. If there’s a big climb at mile 22 (like there is in Kansas City) we slow the pace there and speed up elsewhere to compensate. Most pacers work in walk breaks at the aid stations as well. If I’m due to run a 9:35 for a 2-mile stretch and I know there’s an aid station in that stretch I’ll run a 9:25 and give the runners 20 seconds to walk through the aid stations. My medical training has shown me that Gatorade is more effective in you than on you.

Our coach, Eladio Valdez III came up with this strategy in 2005 after trying lots of other ways to get folks through marathons. He had tried everything – run a mile, walk a minute – even pace – run/walk combinations – nothing was working well. That’s when he tried the “start out smart”, “ease into the race”, “run a race to fit the course”, strategy. SmartPace was officially born in 2008. The group has paced 16 half and full marathons since 2008 using this strategy. (Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in the training Eladio does with his group and I’m not compensated as a pacer aside from free entry to races.)

What we’re doing works. Surveying 700+ runners from two recent races we’ve found that 2/3 of folks who run with our pace groups achieve their goal time. That’s not bad.

Most runners are a little hesitant to start so slow.

“The average pace for 4:00 is 9:09 and you want to run a 10:15 first mile!? Are you nuts?”

Nope, not nuts.

Around mile 5 of the race I had to pee. I wasn’t sure what to do. If I stop for a port-a-potty I’ll get stuck in a line and lose my group. Hmm.

“This is so much easier when it’s just me, nobody else to worry about.”

I spied a parking garage. It looked promising, so I handed the stick off to my co-pacer and sprinted ahead. I did my business and caught back up to the group. Little out of breath, but I was ok.

“Whew, crisis averted. Wait, I still haven’t pooped.”

I used to be one of those runners who, when I wanted to run a 4 hour marathon I started off at a 9:00 pace and held it, the whole race. The math was simple to me: 9 minute miles get me a 4:00 finish with some walking at the aid stations and a potty break. Easy math. Disregard the fact I felt like crap running like that. At least I hit those 4:00 finishes.

We hit a big hill, a quarter mile behemoth below the Liberty Memorial in KC - a beautiful monument with a crappy hill to run up. We walked it. It was planned out for us. Tons of other runners passed us, huffing and puffing up the hill. Groaning and sweating. We kept walking. We had a plan.

It was stressful to walk the hill, especially so early in the race. I knew once we were at the top we’d pick it up again. A little faster than our race pace, but we had 4-5 miles of easy terrain ahead of us. My runners could handle it.

“Hey, I called them ‘my’ runners. Maybe I can do this, maybe I’m not as nervous as I was at the start.”

I still hadn’t pooped.

We give out wrist bands at the pre-race expo. Sometimes the race funds this, sometimes we sell them, gotta pay for the printing. We always have a shirt that says ‘pacer’, plus we carry a stick with our time. No balloons for us. Some folks take multiple times, not sure which they’d prefer. I enjoy imagining them at home or in their hotel later, map of the course pinned to a large board in front of them, meticulously considering every second difference between 4:15 and 4:20 on the course. Not sure which band to put on their wrist. Maybe they put on all three bands. I saw a guy with five on one arm once - no joke.

The next several miles were amazing. Kansas City is famous for wide avenues and the KC Marathon uses them. Lots of space. We cruised through old Westport, and window shopped at the Plaza. Ward Parkway is beautiful as it runs along Brush Creek, huge trees surround you, cool breeze with a soft sun.

Couldn’t pick a nicer day.

Another hill presented itself, this one almost a mile long. That’s ok, it’s built into the pace. We slowed, we held our jog but we pulled way back.

“Nice and steady everyone, this is the roughest part of the race.” That was a lie.

We made it to the top, all of our crew in tow. Little bit of zig-zagging through some beautiful old neighborhoods and we were back on Ward Parkway and 4 miles of dependable terrain. Waldo awaited us.

A pain tore through my belly.

“Was that my stomach?! That’s really uncomfortable. Ohh, I really have to go.

When you’re pacing, people are depending on you whether you know it or not. Some folks stay behind you and chase you. Others stay ahead of you, never letting you pass. They may never say one word to you, but they’re watching you.

Then there are the folks who run with you, chatting the whole time. Asking your running history, what you do for a living, what you’ll name your kids. Everything. One thing I try to do is to never let on that I run ultras. The pacer isn’t there to boast. The pacer is there for the runner. Someone running their first race doesn’t need to know about how you felt at mile 80 of your last hundred. 26.2 is an enormous distance for them, don’t degrade it. It’s all about the runner.

I have buddy who brings Trivial Pursuit cards with him. Runners love that.

“I have to stop, it’s either coming out of me in the port-a-potty or on the course, my choice.”

I didn’t know what to do. I panicked. I told my pacer I’d catch them, but I had to go to the bathroom. So, I found a port-a-potty with no line and went for it. My group was gone. At least I could go.

Ten minutes later I was done. TEN MINUTES. How could I make up ten minutes of time? I was a failure.
I couldn’t keep up with my group, I’d abandoned them. I started running and freaking out. People would judge me: “who’s that pacer without a group, he must be worthless”.

I started sprinting, but I knew I couldn’t keep that up at mile 18. I needed a plan.

A guy in front of me passed his wife, as he did she yelled: “we’ll see you at the next aid station!”


“Hey, I know this is going to sound really weird, but can you give me a ride to the next aid station. I’m a pacer and I had to go to the bathroom and I lost my pace group and I really need to catch them! I swear I’m not weird or creepy!”

She did it, she gave me a ride. I freaking hitchhiked.

I always hate losing people during a race. You can usually see it coming from a few miles away. They get quiet and fall back a bit. They take a few extra seconds during the walk break. I can always spot it. It sucks. You run 20 miles with someone you really want to see them finish with you. But you can’t slow down for them. You have a job and there’s others depending on you for that.

I was standing at the next aid station, several cups of water in hand when I saw my group coming.

“Where you guys been?”

They got a kick out of what I did. I felt guilty, but whatever, they were what was important. We headed off for the last six miles. Little did I know we had one more hiccup in front of us.

It got hot, real hot. Real fast too. At the worst place possible. Around mile 22 in Kansas City you get a nice little surprise, in the form of a 2-mile long uphill. No bueno.

We slowed for the hill. We slowed too much. We were falling behind pace, and fast. I wasn’t sure if I should hang onto the group or keep moving. I was a newbie, didn’t know how to handle it. Turns out my co-pacer was a newbie also. Dang.

We slowed. Newbie mistake.

By the top of the hill we were at least two minutes behind pace with about three miles to go. Whoops.
We never made the time up. We finished around 4:22.

The lady tried to put a medal around my neck – “no thanks, I didn’t run the whole race.”

I was sure I’d never be asked to pace again.

I was asked to pace again. I’ve paced seven races now with four more scheduled for the fall of this year. The butterflies before the race have disappeared also, although there’s still some there – I think it’s good to be a little nervous about everything. I also learned that Imodium AD before the race helps with GI issues. This saves me some sprinting.

Course markings are always fun. Usually they’re right, sometimes they’re not. Trust your Garmin, that’s my mantra. Well, trust it to within .1 miles. If you’re at 11.5 and you haven’t seen the 11 mile marker yet, you won’t. Or, if you do, and it’s in the wrong spot, move on. Bank those minutes for the end of the race. Maybe they fix it later, maybe they don’t. Coming in sooner is better than later.

Also have learned to stick to my pace, I have to leave people. They understand.

My goals? I’d love to pace a really huge race like Chicago or New York. That’d be fun. Although, I like the little ones too. I like the chance to really get to know the runners. That’s really why I’m out there anyway, for the runners.

Danny Miller is MD/PhD student at the University of Kansas Medical Center.  Read more from him at A Marathon Is A Warmup.

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September 19, 2011

Life in Miniature: Guest Post by Al Olsen

My relationship with Al Olsen goes back a few years to when this was a very triathlon-centric blog, and “Spokane Al” began dropping into the comment section more and more frequently.

I started visiting his own blog, where he has the following bio: an early 60s year old human doing the best he can with what God gave him as he attempts the never ending odyssey of transforming his body into that of a triathlete and endurance athlete. On several of his posts, I found myself appreciating his perspective not just on triathlon, but also life in general.

He and I have also had several e-mail conversations on the subject of classic rock, which is a passion for both of us. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when the article he submitted came complete with a Beatles lyric. Check out his post below, and please weigh in with some comment feedback when you’re finished.

Life in Miniature     by Spokane Al

“Woke up, fell out of bed,
Dragged a comb across my head … ‘
- The Beatles, “A Day in the Life” (song after post)

Waking up in the morning and climbing out of bed, I feel my age and then some. The creakiness of my bones, along with the accumulated soreness from previous days’ training efforts, causes me to move as if I am in my eighties.

I slowly work my way downstairs, and if I am up to it, perform some abdominal exercises or a stretching routine and am feeling better and have knocked at least a decade or so off my body.

Breakfast comes and my morning fueling routine leaves mefeeling strongeryet again as I take a quick look at the headlines over my bowl of oatmeal.

Moving, puttering, taking care of tasks and talking with friends and neighbors helps to drop some more years from my body and mind. I am once again feeling alive and living with purpose. The warm summer sun is a welcome friend and later, as I enjoy a protein smoothie on my patio for lunch, with only the birds and some good reading material for company, I am appreciative and thankful for my great life and am looking forward to the evening workout.

I eat an early, light dinner in preparation for what is to come, and give myself plenty of time to bond with the bathroom facilities before heading out.

This evening’s workout is a speed work effort with members of my triathlon club. We meet at the coach’s house and walk and jog up the hill towards the track.

A couple of warm up laps followed by some technique efforts in the soft grass in the center of the track gets me feeling a bit better prepared to run.

This evening’s workout is 6-10 x 400 which means that it will hurt a bit.

I shuffle forward to the start with my gaggle of tri-buddies and soon we are off. We run like the wind, and although the speed of each of us is relative, it feels good to be pushing my pace on the smooth, flat track.

A short recovery jog between each effort helps at the beginning but as the intervals begin to pile up, the effort needed to continue and maintain the pace does as well.

Before long I have finished eight intervals and we are done, and we gather around, all glossy with sweat and good cheer, as we relive this workout and old races, and discuss upcoming events. We are all equals in this circle.

Afterwards, as we walk back to the coach’s house, lively conversations can be heard rising up through the warm summer night.

We once again gather in the coach’s front yard and he brings out a cold, frozen box of popsicles. As I enjoy that mixture of sugar, water, and artificial flavorings frozen on a stick, I am once again just a youngster, laughing and talking with friends, before responsibility steps back in and calls each of us.

As in most other days, I have completed another modified, sped up version of my circle of life. It will begin anew in the coming morning and it is good.

Thank you for visiting.

Read more from Spokane Al at his website www.spokaneal.blogspot.com.

The Beatles, "A Day in the Life" (click to play):

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September 17, 2011

Ultimate Direction Bottle Pack Sale; Barefoot Ken Bob Book Winner; Random Shots of Beauty

A few odds and ends before our regularly scheduled fare …

* First, following my recent trend of using the weekend post to announce great gear bargains, there’s another awesome sale to check out at The Clymb.

This time it’s from Ultimate Direction, makers of the Uno waist pack that I’ve worn at least twice per week for the last few years. I love their Uno model - see my full review here - because it’s one of the few remaining waist packs to hold the bottle upright; I’ve never been a fan of the slanted or horizontal bottle configurations that seem to be all you can find nowadays.

Ultimate Direction Uno

That’s a matter of personal preference, however – and no matter what kind of bottle carrier you like, you can get them (along with a small selection of hydration packs) for huge discounts (as in, $12 instead of $30 for the Uno) until Monday Sept 19th at 9AM PDT. Go check out the sale and take your pick.

* As mentioned last month, I’m going to be away from Running and Rambling headquarters for the next week, and I’m handing over the keys to a few guest bloggers in my absence. (If you submitted something and haven’t heard from me yet, don’t worry – I’m sending out notices this weekend.) I’ll introduce each of them individually before their posts, and I’m leaving the comments section open on each one.

Most of the people who submitted entries are seeking objective feedback about their writing from a generally unfamiliar audience – so I’d love it if we could make this a true community effort and let each of the winners know your reaction to the pieces by leaving comments for them to view. Get involved, people.  However, I expect everyone to behave themselves and act responsibly, or else you’ll all be in trouble once Daddy gets home.

* Time to get down to business and announce the result of the Barefoot Ken Bob book giveaway: Eli (Gourmet Triathlete): e-mail me your contact info – you’re the winner! Thanks very much to everyone else for entering, and don’t worry, more giveaway contests are around the corner this fall.


And finally, our Random Shot of Beauty: this one comes from my recently-documented Tin House hike in Big Sur, and probably sums up in one scene what it took me a couple thousand words to describe in the report:

(click to enlarge)

Redwoods, fog, steep hills, and family; an almost perfect weekend adventure.

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September 15, 2011

Vibram FiveFingers KomodoSport LS Review

Let’s say you’re in this relationship, and there are a lot of really great qualities you love about the other person, but there’s one glaring issue or personality quirk that you’re not sure you can live with. Maybe he (or she) is a smoker; maybe he hates cats; maybe he has an angry or jealous streak a mile wide. You get the idea.

Obviously, that’s cause for concern, and you’d be reasonable to wonder if the two of you were a good long-term match. Now consider this: what if the person actually changed the one thing you wanted him to change? You’d be impressed and happy and grateful all at once, right? You’d feel wonderfully relieved, and completely comfortable in declaring your love for that person.

On that note … allow me to introduce my new love, the Vibram FiveFingers KomodoSport LS.

Vibram FiveFingers KomodoSport LS

Like any good relationship story, there’s some history to this one: I began falling for this shoe’s predecessor, the FiveFingers KomodoSport, when I reviewed it earlier this summer. They were comfortable and durable, and had some nice innovations that represented improvements over previous models. I used them for everything from trail running to tennis, and described them as Vibram’s premier all-purpose, do-anything FiveFingers model.

KomodoSport LS - medial view

However, there was one glaring drawback: the fit around the ankle was somewhat sloppy, and the heel strap that was intended to customize the fit ended up sadly ineffective. I typically experienced gapping on the inside surface of my ankles (see this picture), which was especially problematic whenever I went hiking or trail running.

Happy hiking in the KomodoSport LS

Well, guess what? With the KomodoSport LS, that problem is solved. There are a couple of other very minor changes to its predecessor - but for the most part it’s the same shoe I nearly fell in love with, only without the one prominent fault that made me hesitant about a long-term commitment. (On a related note … it’s quite possible that I take these shoe reviews too seriously sometimes.)

Elastic speed lace system

Obviously, the major change in this model is right there in the name: LS, for Lacing System, which Vibram first introduced on its FiveFingers Bikila LS last spring. It’s an elastic speed lace system similar to what triathletes use, and serves two important functions: 1) It makes the shoe much easier to put on and take off, and 2) It accommodates a larger variety of foot shapes, making them accessible to a wider range of users. High insteps, wide midfeet, fat heels … pretty much any quirky deformity short of having a 6th toe will fit into these FiveFingers.

Wider opening on LS (right) compared to original KomodoSport (left)

The lace system also allows you to customize the tension across your midfoot area; you can wear them loose for knocking around the house, then cinch them up tight when knocking around a soccer ball. The adjustability is as easy as a quick tug here or there to adjust the tightness, and you’re good to go.

No socks, no problem!

Here’s my favorite benefit of the LS model: the lace tension creates a very secure fit around the entire ankle, eliminating any gaps where pebbles or other debris can get lodged against your skin. Where I used to wear socks with the KomodoSports for trail activity, I have no problem hiking or trail running sockless in the KomodoSport LS. Dust infiltration onto the toes is still present, but more effectively filtered than it is on the original KSO or the Trek Sport – although not quite as good as the leather KSO Trek.

Padded collar on LS (right) compared to original (left)

Another revision that probably contributes to better ankle fit is the heel collar of the LS, which is slightly more padded than the original KomodoSport. However, it’s not a major difference; I’d probably attribute 5% of the improved fit to this collar, and 95% to the laces.

Old strap system on left, strapless on right

Removing the heel strap in favor of laces has one other benefit that minimalist users will enjoy hearing: it makes the shoe lighter. Weight of the LS is 6.7 oz, compared to 7.1 oz for the KomodoSport. Have I mentioned yet how glad I am that the heel strap is gone?

Polyamide mesh with extra reinforcement on last 2 toes

Most of the remaining features are exactly the same on the KomodoSport LS as on its predecessor. The upper is a very soft polyamide fabric with a thin mesh interior lining. The LS has some additional abrasion/tear resistance on the tops of the last two toes, with thicker polyurethane dots on top of a thin plastic reinforcement. If you somehow smack these toes hard enough to tear the fabric, you’re going to have bigger problems to worry about - most likely broken toes. Take my word for it.

Removeable insoles (yellow)

Insoles on both the KomodoSport and LS are removable, although I keep them in on both models. It adds 2mm of height, but the seamless footbed is super comfortable, especially in comparison to the scratchier surface underneath. There’s also a microfiber coating on the footbed that is intended to decrease friction from lateral movement during athletic activity.

Vibram TC-1 rubber outsole

To make those lateral movements, you need an outsole that’s up to the task, and the LS uses the exact same innovative Vibram TC-1 rubber outsole that debuted on the KomodoSport. Grip is great on both dirt and hard surfaces; over the course of multiple activities with this outsole (on both shoe versions), I’d say it’s very nearly equivalent to the knobby outsole on the KSO Trek and TrekSport. Thickness of the outsole is 4mm, giving you a standing height (outsole plus insole) of 6mm, which is thinner than the any of the Bikila or Trek FiveFingers models.

The advantage you have with this outsole over the Trek and Bikila is that it’s truly all-purpose; it performs just as well on asphalt as it does on single-track. Whenever I’m wearing my knobbier FiveFingers models, I find myself trying to avoid pavement whenever possible, because I’m paranoid about wearing the lugs down too quickly. And when I wear my Bikilas, I’m concerned about tearing them up too much on the trail. That’s a major reason I recommended the KomodoSport as the best all-around Vibram model, and obviously the improved fit of the LS vaults it directly to the top of the list.

Needless to say, I’m smitten with the Vibram FiveFingers KomodoSport LS, which retails for $110 from TravelCountry.com, who also carries the women's version for the same price.  If you can only buy one pair of Vibrams and need to use them for a wide range of activities, the KomodoSport LS would definitely be my top recommendation.

*Product provided by TravelCountry.com. Affiliate sales help support Running and Rambling.
**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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September 14, 2011

Big Sur Adventures: Tin House / Tan Bark Trail Hike

Two brief announcements before today’s post …

1) You’ve still got time to sign up for the Barefoot Ken Bob book giveaway contest, with the winner announced on Saturday.

2) If you’re a fan of Sugoi apparel – I’ve reviewed their products in the past, and always been impressed - there’s a flash sale at The Clymb you should definitely check out. From now until Sept 19th at 9AM PDT, you can save up to 55% on some sweet Sugoi running and cycling performance apparel. Go check out the sale, then come back here for an escape into the redwoods.


“Huggin' and a kissin', dancin' and a lovin' -
Wearin' next to nothing ‘cause it's hot as an oven -
The whole shack shimmies!

Funky little shack! Funk-y little shack … ”

- The B-52’s, “Love Shack” (video after post)

Although it’s just a short drive down the road from us, sometimes Big Sur seems like an entire world away.

Its shady redwood forests and abundant streams stand in contrast to the open hillsides and dry landscape of the Monterey Peninsula just a few miles (OK, more like 25) to the north. Its rustic cabins and tranquil isolation are a marked change from posh Carmel or Pebble Beach estates and the constant influx of tourist traffic further up the road.

In other words, it makes for a wonderful place to escape. However, in recent years the quiet beauty of Big Sur has been even more secluded than usual, as huge portions of this area were ravaged by wildfires in 2008. Nearly all of Big Sur’s hiking trails were closed that summer, and remained off-limits to the public until select portions were re-opened just a couple of months ago.

(As usual, click any photo to enlarge)

Last weekend, with the school year in swing and the everyday hassles of life creeping up on us, the timing seemed right for a temporary escape – so headed down the coast to one of Big Sur’s most distinctive trail destinations. We parked at a pullout on the side of the road, took in the rugged coastline for a few minutes, and made our way into the hills.

Our route would follow the Tan Bark Trail, named for … well, more about that in a minute. In the meantime, see those grownups in the picture? That would be Grandma and Grandpa, who we always welcome on outings like this - because if there’s one thing cooler than a beautiful hike with the kids, it’s a beautiful hike with three generations of family.

Grandpa’s an especially interesting resource to have along, because he has a wealth of information about Monterey County history, having lived here virtually his whole life. He also happens to be a contractor – so he can take in a beautiful scene like the one above, and say things like, “Hey, that’s a relay box on the ground! Someone’s running electricity out here!” I know – I didn’t see it at first, either.

This wasn’t an easy geriatric hike, however; the trail quickly climbs upward along Partington Creek …

… and up some steep switchbacks to gain about 1800’ over the course of three miles through the forest …

… not to mention through the fog, a Big Sur staple that lays as heavy as a wet blanket over the surroundings …

… giving everyday scenes like a cluster of redwoods a quality that is equal parts totally cool and distinctively eerie.

Here’s a trail lesson from Grandpa: this is a tan oak tree, which was frequently harvested for – you guessed it – tan bark, the namesake of this trail. Huge amounts of bark were taken from this area and loaded onto boats in the cove at the bottom of the hill (also at the end of this post) for distribution to San Francisco, and from there, to all over the world. The bark is used by leather manufacturers for tanning hides, and during the late 19th and early 20th centuries this was one of the biggest material industries on the California coast. Today tan bark is also used for playground mulch – or if you’re like our family, you can just use the trail as your playground and leave the bark on the trees.

(And sure, I could have just looked all that information up on Wikipedia –but there’s no WiFi in these canyons. All things considered, that’s probably a good thing.)

Onward and upward, the sun was finally starting to pierce through the fog – either that, or it was the Rapture. We could have been convinced of either one.

This sparse assortment of rocks is actually an old settlement called Swiss Camp that was inhabited in the 1920s. By this point, you’ve done pretty much all your climbing …

… and soon come across a sign pointing you towards the Tin House, where things really get interesting.

Before visiting the house, however, it’s never a bad idea to take in the view – even if most of that view is obscured by the thick fog you just climbed through.

A short distance down the fire road, the Tin House becomes visible in the thicket …

… that has overgrown the house on most of three sides.

One side of the house is still cleared, however, so you can hop up onto the patio …

… and head over to the open door frame in front …

… and venture into the remnants of an ambitious project gone horribly wrong.

The local legend goes something like this: the Tin House was constructed in 1944 by Lathrop Brown, a former Congressman from New York who purchased large parcels of Big Sur land in the 1920s. He and his wife built one house on a nearby river, and later wanted a second residence that was situated above the omnipresent layer of fog. Building materials were in short supply due to the war, so the Browns used tin sheeting from local gas stations for the exterior, while furnishing the interior quite lavishly.

Once the house was completed, the Browns moved in and made two very disturbing discoveries: 1) an all-metal house gets as hot as an oven during the day, and 2) when the tin cools off and shrinks, it makes a horrible crinkling sound that kept them awake all night long. The couple lived in the house for all of one day and night before packing their belongings and moving out, never to return.

Obviously, tin doesn’t age very gracefully, either, as the structure has been ravaged by the elements over the ensuing years. However, if you’re careful, you can still tiptoe around the crumbling metal and broken glass and tangled plumbing and stray electrical lines to explore what was once a spacious, beautiful home.

Grandpa came in handy here as well, explaining how rooms such as this kitchen were probably laid out …

… and appreciating the craftsmanship of a side-staggered chimney standing defiantly against the wreckage. He appreciates good work when he sees it …

… and was probably thinking about how this place could probably be fixed up as a fun project sometime. Fortunately, he’s got enough at home to keep him busy.

After exploring the home for a while, we headed back through the ghostly living room …

… and sat on the patio to enjoy a lunch with a view. You can see why this spot would appeal to someone looking to settle down off the beaten path, if it weren’t for that whole “furnace during the day, noisy during the night” thing.

Quick footwear note: shoes for this hike were Vibram’s FiveFIngers KomodoSport LS, which I’ll be reviewing here … tomorrow! If you can’t wait that long, here’s the short version: they’re awesome. (But really, you should come back tomorrow.)

Once our legs were rested and our bellies were full, it was time to bid the funky little shack farewell and make our way down the hill – this time on the eponymous Tin House trail, which is mostly a wide fire road that descends from open vistas …

… through the cover of redwoods …

… and finally back into the looming fog of the Big Sur coastline. It’s hard to gauge your elevation on a trail like this, but as you get closer to the bottom …

… you start getting glimpses of the rocky shore, and know you must be getting near sea level.

The trail bottoms out at Highway 1 about three-quarters of a mile south of where we started, so making a loop requires a walk back along the roadway, which is thankfully almost all downhill.

When you return to the Tan Bark trailhead, there’s a bonus option of following the trail another mile downhill to water’s edge at Partington Cove, and taking a side trail through a tunnel and across a small footbridge to the landing dock where countless boats came to be loaded up with bark.

With tired little legs, we called it a day at this point – but the nice thing about being so close to this faraway world is the possibility of returning here another time to do some more exploring.


And of course, the most obvious line that I omitted from the intro song which pertains to our destination: Tiiiiin roof! Rusted.

The B-52’s, “Love Shack” (click to play):

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

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