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October 31, 2011

VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Trail Follow-Up Review

“The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”
- from Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

Longtime readers will note that it’s been a while since I fawned over my favorite author, which honestly is probably good news for all of us. However, it’s worth noting that most of the crazy little principles of social dynamics he dreams up tend to hold fairly solid with real-world application.

Case in point is my review of VIVOBAREFOOT’s Neo Trail shoe this summer, which I composed after taking all of one run in them. If I had to give you a one-sentence synopsis of the shoe at that time, I would have said something like this: rugged minimalist trail shoe, a little too heavy and hot for my liking, but probably great for hardcore conditions.


Well, guess what? After logging about 150 miles on them – as well as some unorthodox use that I’ll explain in a second - here’s my synopsis of the shoe: rugged minimalist trail shoe, a little too heavy and hot for my liking, but certainly great for hardcore conditions. That is to say, I changed all of one word. But since I’m too compulsive to post a review of just one sentence, I’ll throw in some additional insights to make this post worth your price of admission.

And in case you needed reminding (and were too lazy to click the link to my review above), here are the vital specs for the VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Trail:

*  Weight: 10.5 oz with the removable insole, 10.0 oz without
*  Outsole: 4mm directional lugs on top of 2.5mm base
*  Standing height: 9.5mm with removable insole, 6.5mm without
*  Upper: hydrophobic closed mesh

With that in mind, let’s breakdown my little synopsis one part at a time, starting with …


The upper material on the Neo Trail is super-durable, to the point of seeming virtually puncture-and tear-resistant. I had a unique opportunity to test their ruggedness while exploring caves at Lava Beds National Monument, which requires a lot of commando crawling to worm your way through narrow passages of irregular, jagged, occasionally sharp lava rock.

Crawling through lava tunnels

We went caving each day of our trip, and on the first day I wore my Vibram Trek LS, which performed just fine, but the leather became very scuffed and scratched. My son wore a pair of New Balance Minimus, and by the end of the trip the uppers were torn to shreds. On the second day we ventured into the caves, I switched my Vibrams for the Neo Trail, and it was the best decision I could have made. The uppers took a substantial beating over several days and held up remarkably well, emerging completely intact without any evidence of ripping. I can’t think of a more challenging test than that.

Of course, that ruggedness comes with a tradeoff, as I’ll describe in a minute. Meanwhile, continuing the synopsis …


I’ll make this part quick: every awesome feature of VIVOBAREFOOT shoes is present in the Neo Trail. Flat, low-profile, outstanding ground feel, flexible in all directions … the company knows what they’re doing here. Enough said.

Thick, angled outsole lugs 

Trail Shoe

Aside from the rugged upper, the outsole truly defines the Neo Trail as a trail-ready shoe, built to handle a wide variety of harsh off-road conditions. In my first impression review I described how the angulation of the lugs is different in the heel and forefoot to help with traction on steep hills, and the depth of the lugs allows you to shed mud or slush easily. Sure, you could use this shoe on the road, but that would be as much out of place as driving an ATV down Main Street.

Too heavy

This is the biggest drawback for me about the Neo Trail: it’s just too heavy for me to use for ultrarunning. When I’m running 50 miles or more, I want to carry as little excess weight as possible. The Neo Trail is 10 oz – by comparison, my Soft Star RunAmocs are 6oz, and most Vibrams are in the 6 to 7oz range. After enough miles, those few ounces make a big difference. When it comes to VIVOBAREFOOT models, I’d rather take on an ultra in my 8-oz Evos (as I did last year) than in the Neo Trail, and sacrifice improved traction for lighter weight.

Too hot

This is the tradeoff for having a practically bulletproof upper; you lose the ventilation that a more open mesh construction provides. Whether this is a good feature or not is a matter of personal preference and intended use; if you need a water-resistant upper for cold-weather use, the Neo Trail is awesome. If you like your trail shoes breatheable and water permeable to drain efficiently, look elsewhere. I happen to be in the breatheable/drainable camp, but that shouldn’t impact your own decision-making. Remember, I’m a warm-weather California boy.

Great for hardcore conditions

Many of my running miles were logged at Lava Beds National Monument, where the trails are strewn with lava rocks of all shapes and sizes, some visible and others hidden. It’s an area where accidentally whacking your foot against a sneaky rock or inadvertently taking a sharp impact on footstrike is a common occurrence. If I had run here in my FiveFingers, I would have been a lot less comfortable, and very likely would have stubbed or broken some toes along the way.

Because of that, I was thankful to have the Neo Trails with me; the thickly-lugged outsole helped absorb unexpected impacts, and the protection of the toe bumper and closed uppers prevented unnecessary bumps and bruises. If you frequent a lot of rocky trails, the Neo Trail is built for the task. Likewise, they would probably be a great option for extremely muddy or sloppy conditions as winter approaches.

Protective uppers and rubberized toe bumper

My final verdict on the Neo Trail is that if they were more lightweight and ventilatory, they’d be one of my top choices for next year’s ultra exploits. As it is, I’ll keep them in my lineup as a specialized model for harsh conditions, but switch to one of my other standbys for high-mileage training and racing days.

The VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Trail retails for $130 from the company website.

*Product provided by VIVOBAREFOOT
**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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October 29, 2011

CamelBak and Water.org Holiday Fundraiser; Seasonal CLIF Bar Winners; Random Shots of Beauty

In similar fashion as last weekend, we’ll do a couple of shopping notes before getting to the contest winners and Random Shot of Beauty.

The first note is quick: a reminder that you’ve only got a couple more days to get black and silver Soft Star RunAmoc Dashes for a 20% discount with coupon code TRICK, which expires October 31st. Also remember to check out their Moc3s now available in red or brown colors.

This second item requires a little back story: last year, the CamelBak company teamed up with a non-profit organization called Water.org whose mission is to provide safe access to drinking water in high-risk communities throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America. Water.org was founded by Matt Damon, who also bankrolled Charlie Engle’s Running The Sahara film which raised money for H20 Africa, a similarly-minded clean water agency.

Matt Damon with stainless steel Groove bottle (photo courtesy of CamelBak)

The partnership between CamelBak and Water.org works like this: with the purchase of every limited-edition Groove reusable filtered water bottle (which I reviewed back in January), CamelBak will donate $10 directly to the charity. You can choose from this plastic version with specialized artwork for $25, or a stainless steel version for $35.

This is the second holiday season that these two organizations have teamed up for this promotion, and last year CamelBak was able to help more than 10,000 people gain access to safe water. The bottles are great for everyday use and make an affordable, eco-conscious Christmas gift. Yes, it’s almost time to start thinking about that.

Moving on to the regular business for the day – it’s time to announce our seasonal CLIF Bar giveaway winners. The response to this contest was great, but I – more specifically, the random number generator - can only choose three winners, so … Joyce, Adam, and Sparkplug: e-mail me your contact info – you’ve won! Thanks very much to everyone else who entered, and another big thanks to CLIF for sponsoring this contest.

Finally, this week’s Random Shot of Beauty. Carmel Valley is largely dominated by oak trees, so we don’t get the eye-popping fall colors that some areas of the country enjoy. However, this particular section of Monterey County also features ideal soil for countless winemakers, so our local seasonal colors look more like this:

(click to enlarge)

As seen in a vineyard at Bernardus Lodge, makers of one of the best wines our area has to offer.

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October 27, 2011

Find the Right Girl (And Make Her a Wife)

Sometimes the things we write for the Monterey Herald are time-sensitive: local event coverage, race training advice, commentary on recent events, and so on. Other times I come across an interesting story and squirrel it away for a while, figuring I can revisit it when there isn’t anything else readily jumping onto the computer screen for me.

One such column follows below. It’s an overview of an event that first captured my attention a few years ago; it gave me one of those “You’ve got to be kidding me” reactions that initially seemed completely ridiculous, but the more I thought about it, actually became oddly fascinating. No less ridiculous, but definitely fascinating.

So with nothing else to write about last week, I finally went through my browser bookmarks and cobbled together something that hopefully reflects some of the strange appeal that I first felt when learning about this bizarre competition myself. Also, since this is the Internet, I found a cool companion video to give you a better sense of what it's all about.

And in case you’re wondering afterward … no, I don’t have any plans to try this someday.

Running Life 10/20/11                                                “Find the Right Girl”

Guys out there, listen up: Maybe distance running isn’t your thing. And maybe you’re not particularly suited for track races either. That doesn’t mean you have to give up your dreams of athletic glory through running.

Maybe what it means is that you have to find the right wife.

More specifically, perhaps it’s time to find a female partner and try your skill at wife carrying, a sport where men race each other through an obstacle course of dirt, ramps, forest terrain, giant logs, and a 1-meter deep water hazard – all while physically carrying a woman along the way.

Both photos courtesy SundayRiver.com

Wives can be carried one of four ways: 1) traditional piggyback (considered very amateur, and traditionally frowned upon), 2) Santa Claus-style with the wife flung over one shoulder, 3) Fireman style with the wife around the neck and over both shoulders, or 4) the Estonian carry, where the wife hangs upside-down on the man’s back, with her legs around his shoulders and her face at his rear end.

Sure, it sounds funny, but wife-carrying is serious business. The 12th annual North American Championships just took place over Columbus Day weekend - giving you 50 full weeks to prepare for next year’s event –and the World Wife Carrying Championships (WWCC) have become increasingly popular every year. Competitors from all over the world square off in this unique test of fitness, strength, agility, and teamwork, and the winners are rewarded with the wife’s weight in beer.

That’s right … beer. So the heavier your wife, the greater the reward – but only if you win. And don’t think you can just marry some anorexic in order to gain a competitive advantage; the minimum weight of wives in the event is 108 pounds, and females weighing less are required to wear a weighted rucksack to meet the standard.

Wife Carrying Championships feature many similarly strange rules, and perhaps the oddest one is this: the wife you carry doesn’t even have to be yours. According to the official rules, “The wife to be carried may be your own, the neighbor's, or you may have found her further afield.” The only requirement is that she is at least 17 years old.

The World Championships originated in Finland and take place there annually. There’s historic context to all this: some say the event commemorates a 19th-century marauder whose gang raided small villages to steal food and kidnap the town’s women. Others think it recalls a custom of young men sneaking into neighboring villages to steal someone’s wife for their own, literally carrying them back to their own house. Sure, it’s barbaric, but realistically, there probably weren’t many other sports in early Finland aside from wife stealing.

As you might expect, Finns dominate the world championships, but there’s another country whose runners do shockingly well: Estonians, whose carrying method revolutionized the sport. Although it looks ridiculous, the Estonian Carry is remarkably efficient, and Estonian teams ran away with multiple titles before the rest of the world finally followed suit.

The Estonian carry is fraught with all sorts of embarrassment and/or danger; consequently, the WWCC page describes the ideal wife as, “composed of humor and hard sport on a fifty-fifty basis.” Seasoned racers recognize that the wife’s spirit and determination are often equally important to victory as the husband’s physical skill. Which brings us back to our original thought: if you’re not finding the success you seek in running, maybe the best thing you can do for yourself is to find the right girl.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad lesson for our non-running lives as well.

"2011 Wife Carrying Championships", from Maine Sun Journal (click to play):

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October 26, 2011

Calf Car Review

Quick reminder: If you somehow missed the CLIF Bar holiday giveaway contest, get over there to put your name in the hat.  Winner to be announced Saturday night.

A few weeks before my 100-miler this summer - gosh, that seems like a long time ago now, doesn't it? - I received an e-mail from John Kulik, a Reno-based trail runner who had invented a contraption that he claimed was the Rolls Royce of leg massagers. He was making the devices in his garage and started a business by selling them one by one, and claimed that they gave him the best calf massage he'd ever received.

To me, the key word in that last sentence was "calf", because ever since becoming a barefoot and minimalist runner a few years ago, my calves tend to get disproportionately painful compared to the rest of my leg muscles after a hard workout or racing an ultra. I've tried a few different hand-held massagers, but it's often hard to isolate deep trigger points in the calf with a modified rolling pin or a happy face wooden ball. So when John offered to make a massager for me, I took him up on the offer.

The Calf Car!

His invention is called the Calf Car, and I found myself using it quite frequently in the weeks before and after the 100-miler. Although my training volume has tapered since then, I still use it intermittently to work on stubborn knots that aren't responsive to stretching. It's not quite the "best massage ever", as I'll explain later, but it's pretty effective for applying deep pressure in a focused spot within the large muscle bellies of the calves.

It's also a great machine for anyone who's into self-inflicted pain - more on that in a second.

Foot rest cushion; rubberized ball on 4-wheel cart

If you've ever sat on top of a tennis ball or lacrosse ball to work a knot out of your hamstring, the operational concept of the Calf Car is simple to understand. It uses a free-rolling rubber ball (think of the texture of a racquetball) on top of a 4-wheeled acrylic cart that rolls forward and back along a grooved track. You rest your heel on the pad at the bottom of the board and move the ball up and down along your calf using a chopped-off golf club handle.

Modified golf club handle; removable "knot buster" knob 

The lower you rest your calf, the greater the pressure when the ball rolls underneath it. Consequently, you can really do some deep penetration if your calf is low enough. Giving myself a deep massage is one of those situations where the process hurts like crazy, and the soreness afterward is actually increased - but once it wears off, you can tell that the knots have broken up a bit. In other words, it’s a lot like getting a real massage.

You also get this cartoon of a cow driving car #69 ... I'm not sure I want to know what that means

Using the Calf Car, it’s possible to apply pressure to the medial and lateral areas of the calf by maneuvering your body around a bit. For example, if you want to target the inner calf area, you roll your foot slightly inward on the heel rest. Sometimes it’s a little tricky to position your body just right while still leaving one hand free to pull the cart back and forth, but with a little bit of practice I became pretty efficient at all the positions that targeted my muscles the best.

Soft Star Roo slippers not included

Although the Calf Car is primarily designed to massage the calves, there are a couple of other applications that come in handy as well. The "knot buster" knob on the front of the board (see picture up higher), which is removable when using the car for its primary purpose, can be used as a pressure point for the hamstrings by sitting on top of it. I found this process to be fairly awkward and not nearly as effective as the calf massage. The wheeled cart also detaches completely from the track, and can be pressed and rolled onto the top of your shin to help massage tendonitis associated with shin splints.

My main concern when using the Calf Car was how the rubber ball would feel rolling against my skin – in particular, whether it would pull on my leg hair or cause any other irritation. I was pleased to find that the rolling didn’t tweak my hair at all (although it’s worth noting that I keep it clipped fairly short), but I did develop a hot spot in one area after putting heavy pressure for a long period of time while trying to roll out one particular problem knot. John has told me that he’s considering using other materials for the ball, and this would probably be an area worth exploring further.

Aside from that one issue, I was really pleased with how the Calf Car is able to penetrate and loosen up almost all of the knots in my calves. As for whether it’s the best massage ever, here’s what I think: there will never, ever be a tool or machine as effective as the human hand, and there will never be a massage device that feels better than having someone knead through those problem spots one by one. Yes, that makes my standard for any contraption like this impossibly high - but short of that, I can still recognize when something is useful and practical for everyday use, and I’d definitely recommend the Calf Car if you suffer from chronically sore or knotted calf muscles like I do.

The Calf Car is available for purchase for $99 from the company website.

*Product provided by John Kulik and Calf Car

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October 24, 2011

CLIF Bar Seasonal Flavors Giveaway

“Then shalt thou count to three - no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.”
- From Monty Python and the Holy Grail (video clip after post)

I can’t say with any certainty whether the CLIF Company bases their inventory policy on Monty Python’s fictional Book of Armaments, but one thing is sure: when it comes to their seasonal flavors, the number of the counting shall be three.

Here’s what I mean: for the past two years, CLIF has released a trio of limited release flavors with a holiday theme.  Last time around, our family tested all of them, and each flavor was outstanding – so much so that we went out and stocked up on all of them in December, before they disappeared from the shelves for another nine months. (Once the bars sell out of stores, they’re gone for the year – so if you see them, grab them quick.)

This year, the seasonal flavors are back, and the press release that accompanied my sample shipment announced the debut of a new flavor in the lineup: Peppermint Stick, which is about as wintery-sounding as you can get. However, when I was picking my way through the box, something seemed amiss – so I e-mailed my CLIF rep to ask about it.

Me:  Does this mean that the Cranberry Orange Nut Bread flavor is discontinued? That would be a bummer - we all really liked that one.

Her:  That is correct, but I promise you won’t be disappointed with the Peppermint Stick!

Apparently there isn’t enough room in the holiday lineup for four flavors, so this season, as in years past, there are three – no more, no less. The lineup for 2011 is Iced Gingerbread, Spiced Pumpkin Pie, and Peppermint Stick.

CLIF Bar 2011 seasonal flavors; photo courtesy of CLIF Bar

I have to admit that I’m still a little bit disappointed by the development, as I definitely preferred the old Cranberry Orange flavor to the new Peppermint Stick one. It’s simply one of those individual preference things, but I should also point out that I am strongly overruled by my kids, who all love the new Peppermint Stick bar.

It’s no wonder, really. The new flavor tastes almost exactly like a candy cane on Christmas morning – except, you know … one that’s totally good for you. Like the other seasonal flavors, CLIF’s Peppermint Stick is all-natural, made with organic ingredients, and packs the same wholesome balance of carbohydrates and protein for sustained energy that regular CLIF Bars are famous for. In other words, they’re just like other CLIF Bars, but a little more festive.

They’re also a little more charitable; like last year, 1% of sales from this season’s holiday CLIF flavors will be donated to the Winter Wildlands Alliance, a national organization working on behalf of cold-weather athletes and outdoor adventurers to address issues that impact winter recreation areas. It’s all in the spirit of giving, which is something CLIF does exceptionally well.

On that note, I’m pleased to announce that CLIF is doing some festive giving through this website as well. In conjunction with this post, CLIF will award 4 bars of each holiday flavor (12 bars total) to three different readers. Leave a comment below this post to enter, and winners will be announced on Saturday, October 29. Obviously, a very big thanks goes to CLIF for sponsoring this contest, and good luck to everybody!

*Products provided by CLIF Bar

"Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch", from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (click to play):

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October 22, 2011

Soft Star Holiday Specials; Barefoot Running Book Winner; Random Shots of Beauty

Before we get to the main order of business for the day, there are a couple of cool sort-of-holiday-related announcements from Soft Star that are worth passing along …

The first is that you can between now and October 31st, you can purchase the black and silver version of the RunAmoc Dash for 20% off – just use coupon code TRICK when checking out to receive the discount.

Soft Star RunAmoc Dash

You can read my RunAmoc Dash review here, and pick up the sale version either for yourself, or perhaps for that special Raider fan on your gift list.

Also, Soft Star's Moc3 has been a very popular style for the company this year - and for very good reason -  but until now it’s only been available in solid black. If you’re one of those who wants a little more color in your life, you can now get the Moc3 in brown to match your fall wardrobe, or red in preparation for Christmas. Click here to choose your new Moc3 color.

Moc3 in red or brown.  Sorry the image is so small - that's all they have online right now

Business item #1 is announcing our Barefoot Running book giveaway winner. Marlon Magdalena: e-mail me your contact information – you’ve won! To everyone else, thanks very much for entering, and remember that you can pick up the book for $11.55 from Amazon.com in traditional or $12.99 in Kindle format.

Item #2 is our Random Shot of Beauty, which continues the sort-of-holiday-related theme. Also, I took two similar photos this week and couldn’t decide which one to use, so you’re getting a bonus RSOB this weekend thanks to my indecision. (You’re welcome.)

Because Central California typically enjoys summertime weather well into October, sometimes the only reminders that the holidays are approaching are when you start seeing pumpkin patches in unusual places …

… such as this one beside a lettuce field in Salinas (click to enlarge) …

… or this one in front of a pasture near Hollister, a town which unfortunately is more famous for a clothing company of the same name (which actually has no origins here) than for the beautiful rural ranch community that it’s been for the past 150 years.

Finally, speaking of the holidays sneaking up on us … stay tuned for another cool giveaway next week.

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October 20, 2011

Altra Intuition Women's Running Shoe Review and Discount Code

Quick reminder before today's post: you've got one more day to enter my Barefoot Running book giveaway. Winner to be announced tomorrow night.

There’s been a fair amount of buzz this year about Altra entering the market as a revolutionary new shoe company … but I don’t really believe it.

After all, they’re not doing anything that other companies haven’t done before. The barefoot-inspired natural running revolution is well into its third year now, and by this point just about every variation of natural footwear has been tried. The key to success today is to work with the base of knowledge that’s out there, and develop products that deliver high performance while maintaining the pure biomechanics that naturalists have come to demand.

On that basis, Altra scores very high marks. They’re a company that’s a little bit late to the party, but one who has clearly done its homework on what natural runners are looking for. Over the past few months they’ve debuted a variety of models aimed at specific types of runners: the Adam and Eve for pure minimalists like me, and the Instinct and Intuition for zero-drop midsole fans like my wife. (They also have a trail-specific zero-drop model, the Lone Peak, scheduled for release very soon.)

Altra Women's Intuition

I’m lining up an Adam review for the near future, but in the meantime my wife got first dibs on evaluating the Altra company by testing their zero-drop women’s model, the Intuition. (Get it? Women’s Intuition? It’s a lot better than naming it “She Knows When You’re Lying”, I guess.) Truthfully, she’s an ideal person to test the shoe, because as I’ve mentioned in the past, she’s not onboard the pure minimalist bandwagon yet, but she really likes wearing flat-platformed athletic footwear.

That’s also the reason why I don’t consider Altra to be particularly ground-breaking, because the Intuition is at least the 4th zero-drop running shoe my wife has tested for me over the past year or so. It’s also not the first female-specific running shoe in this category she’s worn – I’ll throw in some comparisons as we go along - and there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the construction. However, the Intuition has rapidly become her favorite running shoe, to the point where she’s already shopping for a second pair – which is also reason enough for us to take a closer look.

From the top, the Intuition looks pretty much like your standard trainer, with a breatheable mesh upper that provides good ventilation in hot weather. The upper has asymmetrical lacing that is designed to be open in the foot’s natural flex zones, providing a secure fit with fewer pressure points. The upper is also shaped in what Altra refers to as an A-Wrap, which makes the midfoot area snug while leaving the toe box area more roomy.

Merrell employs this same concept with its Barefoot shoe line, but the midfoot of the Altra isn’t nearly as snug as Merrell’s models. To many runners, that will be a point in Altra’s favor, as one common criticism of Merrell’s shoes is that they are too narrow in the forefoot, making them difficult to put on or uncomfortable to wear for long durations. From heel to toe, the shape of the Intuition’s female-specific last is wider than Merrell’s Pace Glove, which is a strength or a drawback depending on your preference. One of the things my wife really likes about the Intuition is the width of the toe box, which gives her feet plenty of room to splay upon impact.

All Altra shoes come with two insoles, one of which helps accommodate zero-drop newbies. The “support” insert has a molded arch and heel wrap like traditional insoles, which helps ease the transition to flat platform shoes. The “strengthen” insole is completely flat with no arch support, which is the recommended choice for truly natural mechanics.

As for that zero-drop platform: it’s approximately 10mm high, but the shoe has a total "stack height" of 21mm, providing plenty of cushioning for a smooth ride. My wife feels that the Intuition diminishes impact much more effectively than the GoLite Micro Lite or Merrell Barefoot Pace Glove. She feels the ground impact much less with Altras; from my minimalist perspective, this was disappointing, but from her “I just want natural biomechanics with the comfort of a regular running shoe” standpoint, this is her favorite aspect of the Intuition.

Part of the explanation for the comfortable ride is a midsole material called A-Bound, a proprietary compound which Altra claims returns energy back to the foot with each step. There’s also something called a Natural Ride System, but I’m not quite certain how it works. Here’s how the website describes it: A combination of unique design elements and materials, working together to let the foot do its thing. Components include outsole and midsole componentry with proper metatarsal parabola, Zero Drop, and foot shaped lasts working together to allow you to run as nature intended. No artificial flavors!  If you can make sense of that, you’re doing better than me. Whatever they’ve got going on in there, it certainly makes for a comfortable platform.

One drawback of the midsole is its relative stiffness, as you can see in the above photo where I’m really pushing hard to curl up the shoe. I’d like to see slightly more flexibility here, but newcomers to zero-drop shoes may appreciate the similarity to traditional trainers. Weight of the Intuition is 8.1oz, which is comparable to regular running shoes (as well as the 9.0-oz Micro Lite), but significantly heavier than the 4.7-oz Pace Glove which is also a lot more flexible.

Altra uses different outsoles on its minimalist and zero-drop shoes, and the Intuition features a FootPod design which mirrors the bones and tendons of a naked foot. This is intended to allow maximum flexibility at all the points where your foot wants to flex, but I suspect that some of the effectiveness of this outsole is hampered by the stiff midsole. Otherwise, it’s a very durable rubber material that’s ideal for roads and grippy enough for fire roads or mellow trails.

Obviously from a spec standpoint, there’s nothing about the Intuition that jumps off the page to make it clearly superior to the other models my wife has tested. So when construction features are a toss-up, you go with how the shoe feels – and by that standard, the Intuition has clearly been the running shoe of choice for my wife this summer and fall. It offers an ideal combination of natural biomechanics with the protection and comfort of traditional running shoes. It’s not exactly revolutionary, but it’s pretty darn good – and that’s probably the best you can hope for from any new company.

The Altra Intuition retails for $100 from the company website, but if you use this link for your shopping, 10% of the purchase price will be deducted at checkout.

*Product provided by Altra
**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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October 18, 2011

Barefoot Running: Book Review and Giveaway

Honestly, it’s getting hard to tell all these barefoot running books apart nowadays – and sometimes it seems like authors need to have either a remarkable story or some eye-raising claims in order to get noticed. Michael Sandler has both, and his Barefoot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth is probably one of the most interesting reads on the subject that I’ve encountered so far.

First, the backstory: Sandler was a professional-level cyclist and inline skater before suffering a freak accident during a training session that quickly developed into a near-death crisis. Several surgeries and an extensive rehab process later, he was left with a titanium rod in his femur and a significant leg length discrepancy, and he was told that he’d never be able to run again.

Sandler defiantly tried to run, but had multiple recurrent injuries that couldn’t be solved by orthotics or modern shoe technology. It wasn’t until he started going barefoot that his pain dissipated, and he gradually increased the frequency and duration of his barefoot running until he no longer had any use for shoes.

Today Sandler runs 10 to 20 barefoot miles per day, on all kinds of terrain. He also founded a website called RunBare, which has become one of the best online resources for novice and experienced barefooters. He has coached elite level athletes for more than 20 years, and continues to instruct athletes of all abilities who want to improve their efficiency through natural running techniques.

In other words, there aren’t too many more dedicated or authoritative barefoot advocates out there. And when it comes to the pure mechanics of barefoot running, his book is probably the best overall manual I’ve seen. The central focus of Barefoot Running is several chapters that explain the anatomy, biomechanics, proper technique, progression, and complimentary drills and exercises associated with starting or refining your barefoot running. All of them are simply excellent.

I also mentioned some eye-raising claims, and there are plenty to choose from in the beginning and closing segments of the book. Some of Sandler’s positions I very much appreciate, while others I find quite far-fetched.

We may as well get the bad parts out of the way first: in his book, Sandler makes a lot of claims that strike me as either pseudo-scientific or way too New Age-y for my liking. For example, he spends a lot of time talking about becoming “grounded”, and how the simple act of taking your shoes off can have a tangible impact on your overall well-being by equalizing your body with the polarity of the Earth. Among other things, he claims that being barefoot can help you sleep better, regulate your hormonal cycles, accelerate recovery from trauma, decrease chronic inflammation, decrease chronic pain, and prevent musculoskeletal injury. He says going barefoot connects us to Schumann Resonances, and throws around terms like electro-pollution and geopathic stress to explain how going barefoot keeps our bodies healthier by becoming synchronized with the planet.

Knowing Sandler’s experience, it’s easy to see why he believes in the all-healing capacity of going barefoot, but it seems like a step too far in terms of what’s actually provable. Sandler also voices a strong spirituality in his barefoot exploits, but it’s along the lines of simply being meditative in the moment or tapping into “The Source” of energy and life. While I completely identify with the spiritual impact that running (barefoot or otherwise) offers, my own beliefs differ from Sandler’s, so these spiritual allusions mean something completely different to me than they do to him.

However, there are a lot of things I like about Sandler’s philosophy of barefoot running. First and foremost, he preaches the need to progress extremely slowly and cautiously, and emphasizes the risk of injury and the importance of frequent rest periods to let your body accommodate to the new stresses placed upon it. He’s also very blunt about just how much a moderately fast shod runner will have to slow down in order to properly run barefoot, and acknowledges how frustrating and potentially deal-breaking this aspect might be. From personal experience, this was one of the biggest obstacles for me in my barefoot progression, so I always cringe when I read books or articles suggesting that going barefoot is a magic bullet, and if you just get rid of your shoes, your running will quickly or automatically improve.  It's not nearly that easy or certain, and Sandler points both of those caveats out.

Sandler also scores high marks with me for recognizing that there are times when barefoot running isn’t safe or appropriate for the conditions, and that there are some runners who will be just as content and satisfied by wearing minimalist footwear. He is clear that his own preference is to go barefoot, but he doesn’t have any problem with runners who stick with minimalist footwear without any interest in losing the shoes entirely. He realizes that going completely barefoot doesn't have to be the end destination for everybody - but this contradicts some other barefoot gurus (e.g., Barefoot Ken Bob) who believe that going “naked” is superior in every way, and that even minimalist shoes like Vibrams are agents of destruction.

In fact, there’s a whole chapter devoted to considerations of using minimalist footwear; it's one of many aspects of Sandler’s book that I’d recommend.  Even though I found some portions objectionable, there’s far more to like here than not. Barefoot Running is available for $12.40 from Amazon.com and is also available in Kindle format, and it would be a standout selection in your expanding inventory of barefoot instructional books.

Additionally, in conjunction with this review, the publisher has agreed to provide a copy of Barefoot Running to one lucky reader. Leave a comment below this post to enter, and I’ll announce the winner on Saturday, October 22. Thanks very much to Random House Publishing, and good luck to everybody!

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October 17, 2011

Orbana Energy Drink Winners, Redux: You ALL Win!

I had another topic planned for tonight, but there was a late-breaking development to a recent post that was worth interrupting regular programming.

If you happened to enter last week's Orbana Healthy Energy drink mix giveaway, I received some great news from the company rep: EVERYBODY’s a winner! The three recipients whose names were drawn will receive a 5-pack of the drink mix, and everyone else who left a comment will receive two free packets to try.

In case you needed reminding, the deal in the original post was this: by entering the contest, you agreed to send me your feedback about the mix after using it, and I would add those comments to the review. The plan now is to collect comments from everyone who gets a sample, and create one giant feedback post at the end of November.

So here’s the way we’ll work it: if you entered the contest, e-mail me your contact info, tell me which comment was yours - don’t assume that I know your clever Blogger username – and give me your address so I can forward it to the Orbana rep. She’ll get the samples in the mail to you, and I need to have your feedback by November 27th (the end of the Thanksgiving weekend) so I can have a post go live by the end of the month.  This is an honor system thing, as I obviously have no way to enforce who returns feedback to me in a timely fashion.  So if you send me your info, I trust that you'll do the right thing and cooperate, or run the risk of bad blog karma.  (I'm not exactly sure what that might be, but you get the idea.)

Oh, one more thing … remember how I said that everybody who entered is a winner? Let me modify that statement just a bit, to show you one person who’s kind of a loser:

Here’s a tip, people: if you’re going to enter my contests, you might want to leave some method of identifying yourself. And before I get 30 e-mails saying “I was Anonymous!”, allow me to point out that this person is automatically disqualified.

To everyone else, enjoy your Orbana, and needless to say, a HUGE thanks to the Orbana company for setting this up. And keep your eyes peeled for another giveaway contest tomorrow.

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October 15, 2011

Orbana Energy Drink Winners; Random Shots of Beauty

Before getting down to business, one follow-up note about my last post from the Symbol Bridge, where it was pointed out to me in the comments that I mistakenly referred to a medical symbol as a caduceus instead of the more historically accurate rod of Asclepius.

Having a health care background, I was kind of embarrassed for the oversight - until I sent an e-mail to the doctor who was running with me that day. I told him that I wasn't even aware that I had my medical symbols mixed up, and asked why he didn't correct me when we were in the cave.

His response? "I always thought it was a caduceus."

So now I feel a little better. It doesn't make me any more correct, but at least I know I wasn't the only one misinformed.

The main topic of the day is our announcement of the Orbana Healthy Energy drink mix giveaway winners. Lucid Moon Studio, Chris (Ultra Blog), and Stephanie Z, e-mail me your contact info - you've won! Remember, the deal is that you give me your feedback after using it; I'll probably paste your comments into the body of the original contest post once I collect them all. Congrats to you three, and thanks to everyone who entered.

Here's your weekend Random Shot of Beauty:

(click to enlarge)

A typical farm house in a typical agricultural field on the outskirts of Salinas, CA. There's nothing particularly remarkable about it, unless you've just spent five days in Los Angeles, as our family did this week. The trip was wonderful - but as we left the big city behind and ultimately returned to these small, rural scenes, they gave the unmistakable feeling of being home again.

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October 13, 2011

Running Back Through Time: The Symbol Bridge

Spending a week in the outdoors is awesome, and spending a week with a group of middle school kids can be highly rewarding. But spending a week in the outdoors with a group of middle school kids is enough to make you want a temporary escape.

(Click any photo to enlarge)

Such was the case on my trip to Lava Beds National Monument, which was a great experience, but occasionally left me a little bit restless for some time to clear my head. There was one other like-minded parent – who, as luck would have it, also happened to be a member of my training group at home – chaperoning the trip with me, so we stole a few early mornings to sneak out of our tents and go running before the rest of the campers woke up.

(And thankfully, he also brought a camera, because this run took place on the day after my blog camera broke, which qualified as a major catastrophe under the circumstances. It’s nice to have friends who are sympathetic to the cause.)

On a couple of our runs, we weren’t merely traveling away from the campsite, but almost literally back in time – through a volcanic landscape that describes the formation of the Earth so many years ago, and to a destination that is filled with voices from the past.

I guess if you’re looking to connect the present day to the remote past, a trail called Missing Link would be a good place to start. This trail was less than a mile from our campsite, and led the way to our ultimate destination at Symbol Bridge.

The Missing Link Trail makes for a pretty mellow way to start an early-morning run; it’s a fairly serene, almost completely flat trail that meanders through the high desert brush, letting your legs greet the day in a nice, easy manner.

To the casual observer, the terrain underfoot looks fairly gentle as well – and in some stretches it was. The trouble was that footing on this trail, like every other one in the area, is deceptively tricky, because …

… all the trails out here sit atop a massive volcanic field, where sharp, irregular lava rocks jut out from the ground unpredictably all over the place. Sometimes the lava rocks are shallow and hard to see, other times they’re tall and dense, without any flat surface for foot placement. In either case, these are trails where you need to keep your eyes open …

… and your feet a little more protected than usual. Although I reported that I wore my Vibram Trek LS for the entire week of camping and hiking here, I decided to go with VIVOBAREFOOT’s Neo Trail for my trail running, because I knew the thick, knobby outsole would give me better grip and improved protection than the FiveFingers would. It occurred to me that breaking a pinky toe while chaperoning a field trip might be seen as bad form.

Approaching the Symbol Bridge, we passed collapsed lava tubes that once were conduit channels for molten lava directly underground …

… before arriving at the Symbol Bridge, so named because … well, you’ll see in a minute.

This was our designated turnaround point, but before heading back to camp, we dropped down into the rocks to wander around …

… and take a look at the symbols and stories from the past, left here for our enjoyment by the Modoc Indians who called this area home for thousands of years. (By the way, this photo contains the image that was seen in close-up in last weekend’s Random Shot of Beauty).

The pictographs are prominent here, but there’s not much consensus on what they actually mean. According to the park website, the fracturing of the Modoc tribe by the US Army prevented any ethnographic study from taking place later on – and it’s also possible that the Modoc just felt like keeping some of their stories to themselves.

One fascinating aspect of these drawings is that they are all made with lines that are roughly one finger wide. If you stare at them long enough, it’s easy to imagine a Modoc choosing each particular location carefully – low weather exposure, enough sunlight to see but not to fade – before dipping his fingers in paint at this very spot to cast the lasting images on the stone.

This particular wall segment was especially interesting to us for a couple of reasons – one, because of the sheer density of paleo-doodles …

… and secondly, because my running partner that morning is a physician. Or, as I said to him immediately upon seeing the drawing on the left, Hey – that looks like a caduceus! Maybe the Indian who painted this was a tribal doctor! My friend could very well have been staring at the calling card of some long-passed professional forefather. I decided to look for any sort of ancient symbol that might represent a primitive blogger, but for some reason that profession was underrepresented on these walls.

As to why this place is called a bridge instead of a cave – it’s because the cave actually opens on two sides, forming a land bridge on top. You can go rockhopping down one side of this rock formation, and back up the other … and in between, you try not to think about the huge boulders perched perilously in the ceiling overhead.

Also, remember what I said about the Modoc choosing the proper place for their paintings? The bridge structure allows an ideal amount of light to filter through, but the rocks with the drawings are never directly exposed. Of all the caves and lava tubes in the area, this spot seemed just about perfect.

We could have spent a lot longer climbing around the rocks and looking at pictures, but we had kids to get back to, so after briefly stepping into the world of our forerunners, we retraced our steps …

… and returned to the present day, to the campsite where the students were getting ready for breakfast. By our normal running standards, this outing seemed relatively short – probably less than 5 miles in all – but in other ways, it might have taken us farther away from the everyday world than any we’ve done in a long time.

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

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October 11, 2011

VIVOBAREFOOT Evo and Neo Flash Sale; Running Characters

Before today's post, one quick reminder and one cool announcement ...

The reminder is quick: there's still time to enter my Orbana energy drink giveaway, so you can (hopefully) put the stuff to better use than I did. Winners will be announced Saturday night.

As for the announcement: It's time to grab some discount VIVOBAREFOOT running shoes from The Clymb again. The featured models are the Evo and Neo; the Evo is the high-performance running shoe, while the Neo serves equally well as a running shoe or all-purpose athletic model. During this flash sale, the Evo is available for $55, and the Neo is available for just $50 - both prices are crazy cheap.

There are a few casual models available as well, primarily in the women's variety, while the running models are available in both genders. Like all Clymb sales, time is limited - this one ends at 9AM PDT on October 14. Remember the procedure here: sign up with an e-mail address, then get access to the super-steep bargains. Go check it out now - the post will be here when you get back.


As for the post, my friend Mike wrote some recollections of a few runners we shared the road with in the past, and turned it into a Monterey Herald column that published last week. I know all of the people he's referring to, but I confess to having forgot most of these stories until reading them recently and thinking, Oh, yeah ... I forgot about that one. And by the time I finished the article, I remembered that I was glad to have forgotten.

Running Life 10/06/11 “Running Characters”

Like any great story, your running life is made more interesting by the characters who inhabit it. Over the years, we’ve certainly run with our share of memorable cohorts.

Usually what happens on the roads and trails stays there, but we’ve decided that the statute of limitations for a few transgressions has expired, so we’ve decided to tell a few of the more interesting stories. Besides, these characters have moved away by now, and we’ve changed the names here so they wouldn’t be recognized anyway.

The Stealth Guy: “Doug” had a job that kept him travelling a lot, and even when he was home his hours were unpredictable. He knew where and when we ran each morning, but we never knew when he was going to show up. And even though most of our early morning runs were done in the dark, Doug always wore black shorts and a black shirt.

He was a very fast, efficient, and quiet runner and loved to unexpectedly come up behind us and yell loudly; or sometimes he’d lay in wait ahead of us when he knew we would be passing. Believe us – being startled in the dark early morning causes an adrenaline rush that can last for several miles. It certainly helped our training.

Doug also provided some unexpected advice one morning when we had a discussion of what male runners wore under their running shorts. To most of our knowledge, the choices were the lining of our running shorts (nothing), a jock, boxers, or briefs. However, Doug added another choice one day, casually commenting that he wore his wife’s underwear as it was more comfortable and didn’t chafe. For the benefit of all involved, that part probably should have remained stealth.

The Pitt: Most conversations in our mixed-gender group are typically rated PG, but whenever “Dave” ran with us, the subject inevitably turned to sex. He had a sort of Brad Pitt complex, believing that he was irresistible to all women. Whenever we ran by any attractive woman on the trail, Dave would wait until she passed out of earshot (sometimes just barely so), and then say, “She wants me.”

This particular quirk of personality became so standard that whenever the group ran by any woman, the entire group of us women included, would all say, “She wants me!” at precisely the same time as Dave.

Often on very long training runs, typically over the 20 mile mark, Dave became afflicted with some strange runner’s variant of Tourette’s Sydrome, where his mouth simply failed to filter anything the brain was thinking. At those moments, EVERYONE on the trail would hear “she wants me”, “he wants me”, or “it wants me” as they were near our group. It made for some embarrassing moments, but just as with The Stealth, it caused a training benefit, too – because our group often tried to sprint away from Dave in the later miles whenever another walker or runner approached.

Special Forces: We had a military Special Forces officer run with us for quite a while, and he taught us one very important lesson: experienced, disciplined runners who run at the same time every day are usually very aware of their bodily functions. If there’s any possibility of “going” on the run, they typically carry toilet paper and a plastic bag.

Inexplicably one morning, our Special Forces guy had the need but forgot his paper. In this dire circumstance, “Paul” kept a cool head under pressure and acted resourcefully, heading to the nearest house that had newspaper delivery. He politely stole the classified ads for later use, and folded the rest of the paper back the way it was.

Paul continued this habit every now and then, and it was just a little story until we realized that whenever Paul had a “need” on Thursday morning, he made a point of grabbing our column from the sports section. Needless to say, after that realization, we didn’t think our Special Forces guy was quite so special.

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