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November 28, 2011

Magic, Hope, and Inspiration

Given our societal fascination with commemorating even the most mundane pop cultural milestones, I was surprised when a fairly significant anniversary passed with relatively little fanfare earlier this month - especially when you consider that pretty much nobody thought we’d ever see it.

This past November 7th marked 20 years to the day that Earvin “Magic" Johnson announced his retirement from professional basketball. It was a day that many sports fans – especially those, like me, who lived in Los Angeles – remember in the same way we do the Challenger explosion or even September 11th. Yes, that seems like hyperbole – but for perhaps tens of thousands of people, it was one of the most horrible things we could imagine, happening to one of our favorite people in the world.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson; photo from SI.com

I’ve referenced several times before that I was your typical jock kid growing up. I was a Southern California dreamer who bled Dodger blue and Laker purple (as well as Ram navy and gold, but that’s a separate tale of heartbreak), and for more than a few years, my life’s ultimate ambition was to play professional basketball for my hometown Lakers. Eventually my own hoop dreams died out, but my favorite team always owned a piece of my heart – and when I was a college-aged sports junkie watching the Showtime Lakers and playing pickup hoops at every possible opportunity, Magic Johnson was definitely the coolest guy on the entire planet. (And this is without even mentioning the fact that the Red Hot Chili Peppers wrote a badass song about him.)

So as corny as it sounds, Magic was the first person I really "cared" about who got HIV. I never met him personally, and didn’t know anything about him besides what I saw on TV and in magazines … but I distinctly remember being absolutely heartbroken when I watched him on November 7, 1991.

November 7, 1991; screengrab from this video

We knew so little about AIDS back then, and the small amount of information we did understand was simply terrifying. The fatality rate was seemingly 100%, and it usually happened in agonizing fashion. Death was going to be inevitable and merciless, and one of the biggest heroes of my youth would be reduced to a wasted shell of his former self before finally succumbing. Watching his press conference, I thought to myself, Oh God, he's going to die now. I don’t want to watch him die.

Of course, Magic Johnson didn’t die – not that year, or the next, or the one after that, or any of the twenty years since making his announcement that stunned the sports world. He’s gone on to have a long, healthy, enormously successful life by any measure - just as he told us he would in 1991, when virtually nobody in the room or watching on TV believed him.  Rather than becoming a high-profile victim of AIDS, he became a symbol of hope that the disease didn't have to be an automatic death sentence.

In the meantime, I’ve grown twenty years older as well; I no longer bleed for the Lakers or get emotionally attached to athletic heroes, and I realize that life throws us all manner of awful hardships, usually for reasons that don’t make any sense whatsoever. And the Magic Johnson announcement doesn’t have nearly the same significance to me anymore, and probably wouldn’t even be worth mentioning here ... except that it also played a decisive role in the life of somebody else who I’ve come to see as a true inspiration. Somebody who I wouldn’t know if not for my running (and blogging) exploits, and somebody who I’m enormously proud to call a fellow runner.

It’s somebody whose story I’ll tell in my next couple of posts, to coincide with another significant cultural anniversary later this week. Hopefully you’ll be inspired as well – but if not, it’s certainly the fault of the teller, not of the subject.

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November 26, 2011

Weekend Ramblings; Patagonia Sale at BackCountry.com; Random Shots of Beauty

A few product-related odd and ends before our customary Random Shot of Beauty …

*  If you’ve been a slacker on returning your Orbana feedback to me, good news: I’m extending the deadline by one more week in order to run a series of posts on an unrelated theme next week.  Therefore I’m pushing back the Orbana feedback post until the following week, which means you now have until next weekend to send me your feedback. So e-mail me if you’ve been sitting on your review, and I’ll publish them the week of December 5th.

*  When I announced the giant Vibram FiveFingers closeout sale at TravelCountry.com, I indicated that there was no telling how long the sale would continue. Well, now they’re telling: many of the sale prices (20 to 33% in most cases) will end after Monday the 28th, so get them while the getting’s good.

*  Another cool outdoor gear sale is going on right now at Backcountry.com, which carries an enormous variety of gear for just about every activity you can think of. They’re also a solid supplier of Patagonia apparel, with a healthy selection of Patagonia shirts, shorts, pants and jackets (filter those links by brand on the right-hand side) included in the current sale. Click the banner below to check out the entire sale:

And that’s enough business for today; on with the RSOB.

This week’s offering is a scene from Thanksgiving morning in Salinas …

Some little kid getting a drink from some grown-up turkey at an aid station. Our whole family entered a local 5K that turned into a great time for everyone involved. I made a long morning of it, running extra miles beforehand for what ended up being my biggest training day in quite a while*. I wish I could say that it made up for the calories I consumed later in the day … but I’m afraid that single meal might have set me back about a week’s worth of mileage. Thank goodness it’s still the offseason.

*I may have a report posted sometime in the next couple weeks, but who knows. Busy busy busy.

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November 23, 2011

Toast Masters

(Admin note: in case you weren't aware, it's something of a holiday tradition around here to show clips from old Peanuts specials; don't worry, there will be plenty of time for the running and gear stuff later.)

Every year, as my kids and I sit and watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, the following scene never fails to crack us up. For all their quirks and foibles, one thing is certain: that Peanuts gang could whip up a mean batch of toast.

It's also inevitable that one of us ultimately says, "One year we need to have toast, popcorn, jellybeans and pretzels for Thanksgiving." We haven't ever followed through on this promise - sort of like how Charlie Brown never quite manages to kick the football - but one of these years we just might surprise ourselves.

Excerpt from A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (click to play):

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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November 21, 2011

Boar Skin Outsoles, Grounding Yourself, and Dancing in the Dirt: Adventures with Michael Sandler and Soft Star Shoes

One of the coolest things about being a product tester for Soft Star is that every so often, a package shows up unannounced on my doorstep, containing a pair of moccasins with some odd twist or another that I hadn’t really anticipated.

More than any other company I’ve worked with, Soft Star shows an incredible willingness to think outside the box on product design. They constantly seek ways to modify and improve their existing running models, and frequently solicit user feedback for consideration on what elements to include or exclude from their final products. In most cases, the prototypes I receive in the mail aren’t intended for formal review; they simply come with a note explaining that the elves are experimenting with either a new insole, new upper material, new outsole, new laces, etc; my job is to run as many miles as I can in the mocs and report my feedback on the aspect in question.

Even though I know not to be surprised by the unexpected anymore, last month the company caught me completely off guard, with a prototype moccasin that I never would have thought of. As usual, they’re looking for my feedback, but in this case they’d like it opened up to the masses as well – so if you make it to the end of this post (we’ll take a long detour to get there, but I’ll try to keep it interesting), please chime in on what you think of the whole idea.

Not your run of the mill RunAmocs ...

The shoes that arrived at my house last month looked like normal RunAmocs from the top: perforated leather uppers, laces around the ankles, and a boar skin insole underfoot. It wasn’t until I turned the shoe over that I figured there must be some kind of mistake.

They started out perfectly white, just like the insole

Where a Vibram outsole would normally be, there was now an additional layer of boar skin. At first I honestly thought they had screwed up the manufacturing process and forgot to attach the rubber outsole – but the note inside the package assured me that the construction was intentional.

Boar skin like a whitewall beneath the upper

I’ve often described the RunAmoc as something our primitive ancestors might have worn, which occasionally triggers the response that Native Americans didn’t have Vibram outsoles. Animal hides, however, are something they most definitely did have – so once again, Soft Star’s looking toward the future by reaching into the past … and that aspect alone seems pretty sweet.

Here’s where the story goes a bit off-course: when I asked how they got the idea to use boar skin, they told me that Michael Sandler had visited their workshop one day and asked if the elves could make him just such a pair.

That would be Michael Sandler, author of the Barefoot Running book that I reviewed and gave away last month. He was in Oregon on a book tour and stopped in to Soft Star headquarters, and had a discussion about shoe construction and various materials that would optimize ground feel and “conductivity” – more on that in a second.

Upon hearing this, I shot Michael an e-mail, basically asking, Where did you get the idea to use boar skin?, and What made you want to try it?

That same afternoon, my phone rang … and on the other end of the line was Michael Sandler. We embarked on a wide-ranging discussion including topics from barefoot running to connection with the Earth to future directions in shoe manufacturing – and it was one of the most fascinating and enjoyable conversations I’ve had in quite a while.

One point that came through loud and clear is that Michael is a true believer. In my review of his book, I criticized him for being a little far-reaching with the health benefits he claims are alleviated by going barefoot, and for embracing the somewhat obscure science of "grounding”, where the goal is to equalize the electrical potential of our bodies to that of the Earth. However, these are both areas that Michael has studied extensively and supports wholeheartedly – and after listening to him preach for a while, I have to say I’m a little bit intrigued.

In particular, the notion of grounding is of paramount importance to Michael. He referred me to texts such as Earthing: The Most Important Health Discovery Ever? and other studies about the electrical effects of being directly connected to the ground. In order to become grounded, you need to be conductive – but the biggest obstacle to conducting the Earth’s energy is our footwear. Natural materials such as animal hides are inherently conductive, while synthetic materials like rubber outsoles completely block any transfer of energy from the Earth.

However, animal hide outsoles are only a starting point. Michael would ideally like to see outsoles made from plant products, because he’s a vegan who objects to the use of animal products – the boar skin Soft Star uses is sourced as scrap material, so the animal isn’t killed for it, which makes it a bit more vegan-palatable – and because plant materials have even greater conductivity than animal products. When I prompted him with suggestions of hemp or palm or bamboo outsoles, he gave me examples of these very concepts being used in other cultures at various points in history. Whether any of this makes practical sense is somewhat tough to tell, but Michael’s clearly an expert on the topic – and when it comes to footwear, conductivity is one of his highest priorities.

All of which brings us back to the boar skin RunAmocs. Michael got a pair just like mine, and he’s a huge fan. Some of his exact words were, “there’s something magical about how they feel”, or, “they make me hop, skip, and dance on the trails”, and, “I can’t help but feel like a kid again in these.” He says they allow him to fully feel the ground, but provide just enough protection to take the edge off sharp rocks or errant roots. They also improve his form by promoting high steps and light footstrike, two hallmarks of natural running.

Michael Sandler and Jessica Lee hopping, skipping, and dancing

With about 100 miles on my pair, my own experience with the boar skin mocs is a little more tempered than Michael’s. There’s no question that the ground feel is outstanding, and they maintain (or even improve) all of the flexibility that my normal moccasins allow. I’ve also been quite impressed with their durability: even though much of my testing was on asphalt, the boar skin hasn’t become ragged or torn apart like I suspected they might. They could seemingly hold up for several hundred miles without wearing thin in high impact areas.

As you may have already predicted, the biggest drawback with a leather outsole is traction. They get slick on wet surfaces like roads after a rain, and they have practically no grip on loose trail surfaces or in sloppy conditions. Granted, the uncertain footing makes you very careful about proper form and gentle landings, but I’d still prefer something with a bit of grip to it when I’m trying to keep my legs under me in the middle of a rainy 50-miler somewhere.

The round wear marks on the outsole are thanks to small rock plates ... which are the subject of another post entirely.

Accordingly, my opinion is that the boar skin mocs would have a relatively narrow range of use.  They would be awesome on groomed trails or smooth single track in dry conditions with relatively gentle climbs and descents, but I’d avoid them if I anticipated any loose gravel, wet dirt, or steep hills - which eliminates a majority of my regular training runs. The ground feel really is outstanding - possibly the equal of Soft Star’s slipper-like Moc3 – and if you subscribe to the idea of grounding, they’re definitely the next best thing to being completely barefoot.

Incidentally, Michael Sandler happens to agree with me on all this. He acknowledges that the traction of animal hides is far from ideal, and that the boar skin mocs aren’t well-suited for certain conditions. However, both of us also agree that this is a fascinating concept for shoemakers to explore. We’d love to see further experimentation with more natural and conductive materials, and we’re pleased to be involved with Soft Star as they push the envelope in this regard.

Now it’s your turn: what do you think of all this? Do you buy into the idea of connecting to the ground? Is the tradeoff of traction for conduction something you’d be willing to try? Would you be interested in having a pair of mocs like this in your collection if they’re only intended for limited use? Is there anything else you’d like to contribute to the conversation?

Remember, Soft Star is soliciting feedback on this one, so this is your opportunity to let them hear your opinion. Sound off in the comments below, and I’ll wade back into the discussion as needed to answer questions or give replies.

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November 19, 2011

Weekend Ramblings; Random Shots of Beauty

A few odds and ends before getting to our regularly scheduled Random Shot of Beauty …

* If you missed the first announcement, be sure to take advantage of the Vibram FiveFingers closeout sale at TravelCountry.com. Every model in stock is discounted at least 20%, and some are priced at 33% off retail. Obviously the earlier you get there, the better the selection will be, so don’t dilly-dally.

* This one’s neither here nor there … but every ultrarunner knows that the end of the year ‘tis the season for entering race lotteries. I threw my name into this hat today – we’ll see how things play out in a few weeks.

* If you were one of the lucky recipients of my Orbana giveaway contest last month, you’ve got another week to return your feedback to me so I can compile a review post in early December. Please don’t make me chase you down.

* Speaking of giveaways: it’s time to announce the winners of the Monkey Shake contest! Wes, Pamela, and Andrew (One Step Further): e-mail me your contact info – you’ve won!  To everyone else, thanks for entering, and remember the awesome coupon code discounts available on the Monkey Shake website through the end of November: THANKS2011 for a Buy 2, Get 1 Free offer on 3-pack bags, and RANDR25 for an additional 25% off your purchase. Go get your Monkeys here - and obviously, a very big thanks to Corey and the Monkey Shake company for sponsoring this contest.

This week’s Random Shot of Beauty hints at one of the downsides of the changing seasons:

Shadows falling across the Fort Ord open space, heralding early nightfall after the recent time change. My son and I are trying to keep our regular after-work bike rides – if you click to enlarge the picture above, he’s the blue speck on the trail in the distance - but with shortened daylight hours and chaotic holiday schedules, it often seems like we’re racing shadows and darkness just to keep it rolling.

It also makes us appreciate each successful ride a little more than usual, which perhaps isn’t such a bad thing.

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November 17, 2011

Vibram FiveFingers Closeout Sale; Almost There on the John Muir Trail

Goodness gracious … is it Friday already? The week has gone by in a blur – and a few longer articles that are bouncing around in my head just haven’t had the opportunity to get properly composed on the computer screen. So today you’re getting a couple of brief notes, neither one related, but both remarkably cool …

First, and most time-sensitive, is this: my affiliate partner TravelCountry.com just decided to have a spur-of-the-moment, kick-off-the-holiday-season-in-style blowout sale on their entire inventory of Vibram FiveFingers models. The timing is somewhat coincidental for me, as I seem to be getting a lot of questions related to the FiveFingers Bikila over the past several weeks. My answers usually go something like this: the Bikila remains my favorite pure minimalist road running shoe, scoring extremely high marks in comfort, durability, and performance.

Cruising the Salinas Valley in Bikila LS

Right now you can get the original Bikila for $60 - probably the best bargain of the whole bunch - or the more versatile Bikila LS for $80. You can also get my favorite all-purpose shoe of the year, the Komodo Sport LS for $88, and the super-rugged hiking/casual Trek LS for $112.

In addition to being a complete surprise, this TravelCoutry.com sale may be somewhat fleeting, as the following e-mail from my rep will explain:

We are taking the unprecedented step of placing the Vibram Fivefingers brand, as a whole, on sale. We don't know how long this will last since we're matching sales of other retailers. Vibram may come back and tell everyone to stop it.

As of right now the brand is on sale so strike while the fire is hot, so to speak. Inform your subscribers that this is a very limited time offer.

So there you go. Get a move on for some great Vibram prices, then come back for a very cool video.

Trek LS during a week of camping in September

I stumbled across this little gem in the most unlikely (for me, at least) of ways: I accepted a friend request on Facebook, and started scrolling back through the girl’s page to see what she had been up to lately. One of the things she shared was the following video, which initially was something like salt in my wounds after cancelling a trip to Yosemite last week - but it nevertheless left me a bit mesmerized, and I ultimately clicked the “repeat” button more than a few times.

Here’s the setup: last summer, a group of multimedia artists spent 25 days hiking the majestic John Muir Trail through the Sierra Nevadas, capturing their experience on film for what will eventually become a full-length documentary. Until then, we have this small taste of what’s to come, which also features a groovy little tune by a band called Opus Orange. If you’re like me, one of your first thoughts after watching will be, “How long is it until next summer?”

“Almost There” by The Muir Project (click to play):

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November 14, 2011

Monkey Shake Review, Coupon Code, and Giveaway!

“Well I am just a monkey man –
I’m glad you are a monkey woman too … “

- The Rolling Stones, “Monkey Man” (video after post)

This particular product review is one that I’m super happy to conduct … and one that I honestly thought I wouldn't get another chance to.

My relationship with Monkey Shakes goes back to when I first reviewed their products more than two years ago. I loved the company’s back story, their ambition to support a community of regular folks striving for healthy lifestyles, and owner Chris Hughes's commitment to providing high-quality nutritional products for endurance athletes. I became a monkey man right from the start.

Unfortunately, it takes a lot more than good intentions and a great product to make ends meet – and over the past couple of years, Chris had some health issues and other life challenges that made it impossible for him to continue the company he loved.  Last May he put the whole operation up for sale on eBay, and the odds of the company’s survival seemed bleak.

That’s why I was delighted to learn that today, the monkeys have a new home - and I can still be a monkey man! And after this post, at least three people will have a chance to become monkey men or women too … that’s right, we’re doing a giveaway. Read on, fellow monkeys.

The new owner of Monkey Shake is Corey Singletary, an endurance athlete who is maintaining the same overall business philosophy that launched the company: a dedicated guy with a food grinder, a product he believes in, and a desire to do right by his customers. He’s updated the website and revamped the packaging, but otherwise kept all the essential elements of the product intact.

They still include a Barrel of Monkeys toy - just like the old days!

Most importantly, the recipe hasn’t changed from the original formulation that I loved the first time I tasted it back in 2009. Basically, Monkey Shakes are a protein-rich powder that you blend with additional ingredients to create an “ultimate all-natural recovery shake” in a variety of flavors, limited only by your imagination. They normally come in sealed 2-serving bags, and are sold in 3-bag packs (6 servings total) for $14.99 – but between now and the end of the year, you can get a discount deal, and for the rest of this month you can get them at an even greater discount; I’ll explain all this shortly.  First, more about the product.

For optimum recovery, our bodies need timely nourishment, and the benefits of taking in protein after a workout are well-documented. However, Monkey Shakes take this strategy two steps further, by providing the proper ratio of carbs to protein for maximal nutrient absorption, as well as the right types of ingredients for optimal physiological benefit. There are also healthy dashes of essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and some fiber thrown in for good measure. All of the ingredients are 100% natural without any added flavors, sweeteners or anything else that comes from a lab. (If you want a more detailed explanation of all this, check out this page on the updated website.)

Monkey Shake ingredients; photo from company website

The best part is, the finished product tastes great. It comes in two base flavors, cocoa and vanilla, which you can then mix with any ingredients you want from your own fridge and cupboard. There are some recipe ideas on the website, but pretty much any fruit- or dairy-based formulation would work. My favorite combination is a Strawberry Honey Monkey - vanilla powder mixed with strawberries, milk, honey, and yogurt – but I’m also partial to Blueberry Monkeys and Peach Monkeys.

Sound good yet? Here’s where the news gets even better: there are three special promotional offers for Monkey Shakes available right now, and one very cool giveaway contest in conjunction with this review.

First, the promotions: between now and the end of the year, Corey is enacting what he calls "recession pricing"; instead of $15 for a 3-pack, he's selling them for $13, or a case of 15 bags (30 servings) for $62.  Also, from now until the end of November, you can use coupon code THANKS2011 to receive a “Buy 2, get one free” deal on standard 3-packs of either cocoa or vanilla flavors. On top of that, you’ll get an additional 25% off by entering coupon code RANDR25. So instead of getting 6 bags for 30 bucks at roughly $2.50 per serving, you get 9 bags for 26 bucks minus 25%, which is … well, this is getting complicated. Trust me, it's a killer deal.  Both of the coupon codes above expire on November 30th, so go here to get your monkeys on.

Finally, we’re also doing a giveaway to celebrate the return of the Monkeys. Leave a comment below this post to enter, and three winners will receive a free three-pack of their choosing; you can even get a combination of vanilla and cocoa flavors if that’s your preference. I’ll announce winners this Saturday evening, November 19th. Big thanks to Corey and the Monkey Shake company for sponsoring this promotion, and good luck to all you monkey men and women out there!

The Rolling Stones, "Monkey Man" (click to play):

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November 12, 2011

VIVOBAREFOOT and Patagonia Discounts; Random Shots of Beauty

A couple of shopping notes before today's post ...

First, you've got only a couple more days to take advantage of the 20% discount offer for VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Kids shoes. Both the lace-up version and Velcro version are available, and if you enter coupon code KIDSRNR20, the discount will be applied at checkout. Look over my review of the Neo Kids shoes here, then hit the links above for the sale prices, which expire after November 14th. Your kids can thank me later.

The other sale announcement isn't necessarily a blockbuster, but is noteworthy nonetheless: from now until November 24th, Patagonia is offering free shipping on every purchase from their website - so if you've been waiting for a good time to grab some fall or winter apparel, this might be it. I grabbed a pair of duck pants which just might be the most comfortable house-lounging pants I own; hopefully you'll find something similarly enjoyable. Click the banner below to go shopping:


This weekend's Random Shot of Beauty is one that I never got the chance to see in person:

A view of Half Dome, barely visible through the fog and snow from the park's webcam atop nearby Sentinel Dome. About two weeks ago, temperatures were unseasonably warm at Yosemite, so our family got the notion to sneak in one last day hike before the high trails became impassable under snow cover.

Sure enough, as soon as we circled this weekend on the calendar, weather forecasts began calling for rain and snow - and when decision time came on Thursday and this was the view we saw, you could say we literally got a case of cold feet. Staying close to home and taking a warmer day hike seemed like a much more palatable option, which means Yosemite will have to wait until springtime.

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November 11, 2011

A Brighter (And Lighter, And More Comfortable) Geometry: New Balance Minimus 2012 Uppers

From the time the updated New Balance Minimus was first announced, much of the focus was on the revised platform. Instead of the 4mm heel-toe drop of the 2011 version, the 2012 Minimus will have a pure zero-drop platform – news that was met with much rejoicing from minimalist fans. (Random Monty Python-nerd link.)

However, the forthcoming shoe is more than just a low-rider version of its predecessor. There are top-to-bottom improvements based on user feedback and lessons learned from the initial Minimus trail and road models, as the latest installment of New Balance’s slow-boil marketing campaign demonstrates.

New Balance Minimus road upper

In the newest addition to the New Balance Minimus Zero website, Senior Designers Drew Nyssen and Chris Wawrousek explain the process of improving the comfort of the original Minimus line – which was already pretty great – while simultaneously decreasing the overall weight and maintaining the high-performance fit. There are also a handful of high-res photos to whet your appetite for the new models, which are scheduled for release in February.

Multiple colors of Minimus trail uppers

Among all the shoes I’ve tested this year, the New Balance Minimus trail version undoubtedly had the most comfortable upper – so if the company finds some way to improve upon that aspect, I’ll be duly impressed. Combine that with the flattened platform and the revamped outsoles, and the Minimus is very high on the list of shoes I’m looking forward to testing in 2012.

Translucent upper material

The new website content just went live this morning; check it out here for a longer glimpse of what’s to come, and I’ll continue to post updates as the company passes them along.

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November 8, 2011

Lessons for a Lifetime

Sometimes it’s far too easy for me to get carried away with this writing business.

Every now and then my friend Mike sends me a draft of a Monterey Herald article to edit – usually just a matter of changing some words around, polishing things up a bit, and sending it along to our editor. However, sometimes I change a few words, and change a few more, and sprinkle in some new ones of my own, and add some phrases here and there to tie things together … and before I know it, I’ve written a completely different article.

Such was the case when I received a draft of an article about cross-country running. Mike wrote something, and I ended up writing something completely different – the result of which follows below.

Running Life 11/03/11            “Lessons for a Lifetime”

Question: What high school sport has the largest participation nationwide? Hint #1: it’s happening right now. Hint #2: since we’re the ones asking, you should have a good idea what the answer is.

That’s right, it’s cross country, informally known as XC. Many of our running partners either coach local teams or have children running on them. In many cases, these kids are 2nd or even 3rd generation XC runners in the family. It’s wonderful to see kids following the healthy habits of their parents and enjoying the sport.

High school XC girls; both photos here from FootLockerCC.com

One of the best things about running is that it can be a lifelong activity, and cross country teams are an ideal way for kids to learn the joys and benefits of running. XC is an ideal team sport at the middle or high school level: costs are low, no training facilities are needed, it’s open to runners of both genders, and you can have a competitive team with only 5 runners. Our hope is that all the young runners we know will continue to enjoy the benefits of running well into their old age.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen too many XC runners leave the sport after high school for various reasons. Some feel a time crunch from college classes and job commitments. Others miss the camaraderie that their school team provided, and find that logging miles by themselves isn’t nearly as rewarding as they thought. Some emerge from the competitive setting of XC without ever equating their running with fun; it’s only a means of hard work and pressure.

Scholastic XC teams need to emphasize to students that running is not only a competitive outlet and athletic challenge, but it’s also a means of lifelong health and well being. Young runners should realize the link between fitness and health, and understand the rationale for the types of training they are tasked with. Coaches should explain fundamental training concepts like speedwork, hill running, increasing distance safely, form drills, weight training, or any other workouts they assign.

One issue that always comes up, particularly at the high school level, is whether coaches should allow runners to miss a team practice for other activities. More specifically, should XC team members be permitted to run in competition if they miss several practices? Does it matter what the reason is for the missed workout? Is a certain number of missed practices too many? If so, what’s that number? And what if the student is doing the same workouts as the XC team, but on his or her own time? On race day, should a talented runner who has conflicting commitments be able to take the place of a slower teammate who has attended every practice?

It’s a tough call no matter how you analyze it. If the goal of high school cross country is to get as many kids involved in the sport as possible, it would certainly be discouraging for a slower, more dedicated runner to miss a chance at the varsity or first-team squad and give up his or her spot to a faster runner who is a part-time teammate. We wouldn’t want those kids to walk away from the sport – and besides, it’s not uncommon for an uncertain sophomore or junior to some day break through and become a senior star.

If the coach’s primary motivation is to build a tight-knit team, it makes sense to reward the kids who train together the most. On the other hand, if a coach purely wants to be competitive, he or she will be tempted (perhaps even justified) to run the top 5 runners regardless of how many practices each one has attended. Ideally, a skilled coach will balance all of these considerations without any extreme expectations.

After all, high school is precisely the time when students should be enabled and encouraged to try different life experiences. If a kid wants to be in the band or math club or student government or drama, and those commitments happen to conflict with some XC practices, it seems wrong to punish that runner by sitting out a race. 100% dedication to a single sport or activity at such a young age isn’t just misguided, it’s detrimental to the goal of most academic institutions: developing well-rounded young men and women who are ready to venture into the world outside the school boundaries and make greater contributions to society.

Cross country is an outstanding team sport, and is a perfect vehicle for teaching kids to motivate and push each other to great accomplishments. It teaches them the value of hard work and gives them the thrill of competing with a band of like-minded brothers (or sisters). But in the final analysis, its main objective should be to teach the lifelong benefits of running and racing to as many kids as possible. If too much of the joy is overshadowed by coaches with misguided priorities, those kids risk losing the benefits that long-term runners appreciate.

We’re very grateful to all of the XC coaches out there who dedicate themselves to enriching the lives of so many young people. We hope that cross-country participation continues at the widespread level that it presently enjoys, and we pray that the current generation of XC runners will grow to experience all the fantastic joys and rewards that running has brought us over the years.

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November 6, 2011

VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Kids Review and Coupon Code

When the VIVOBAREFOOT Neo was introduced this spring, it filled an important gap in the company’s adult lineup by providing a high-performance running and general athletic model at a more affordable price point than the flagship Evo model that preceded it. Likewise, the VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Kids models fill an important gap in the company’s children’s lineup – but in this case, it’s for a slightly different reason.

VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Kids, lace-up version

Although they’ve long been on the forefront of children’s minimalist footwear, VIVOBAREFOOT’s kids product line historically consisted of scaled-down versions (the company calls them “Mini-me” versions) of the adult models, most of which are styled for casual or formal use.

For example, I’ve made several references to how my youngest daughter adores her Oaky shoes and wore them for everything from climbing trees to running in track meets, but the fact remains that those shoes (which to our dismay are no longer available) were a scaled-down version of the Oak, which is one of my everyday work shoes. This led to one of the most memorable predicaments of our previous school year, when my daughter’s phys ed teacher repeatedly kicked her out of class because her shoes weren’t “athletic-looking.” That situation ultimately got resolved, but it was a headache that I would have rather not had to deal with.

VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Kids, Velcro version

All of which is a long way of saying that I’m very happy to announce that VIVOBAREFOOT finally has a dedicated children’s athletic shoe in its lineup. The Neo Kids and Neo Velcro are variations on a similar theme: Mini-me versions of the high-performance Neo shoe that have all of the minimalist features kids need, along with colorful sneaker-like styling that they love. And they come in a package that should be suitable enough to pass the “athletic-looking” test from even the most stringent gym teachers.

Best of all, at the end of this review there’s a coupon code to make the Neo Kids available at a nice discount for this week only – but before we get to that, let’s talk some more about the shoes.

My daughters are no strangers to VIVOBAREFOOT footwear – in addition to the aforementioned Oakys, they’ve tested the Mary Jane-style Pally as well as the now-extinct Aquarius – and they’ve been wearing both versions of the Neo Kids for most of the current school year. They’re obviously very familiar with the structure and function of VIVOBAREFOOT shoes, and if you’re similarly familiar with the company, there’s nothing about these new models that’s going to surprise you; they’ve got all the features you admire, and very little to nitpick about. Accordingly, we’ll run through the important specs in somewhat rapid-fire fashion.

Both models have a 3.5-mm outsole which is puncture-resistant and completely flexible in all directions. Traction on the outsoles is slightly slick in wet conditions, but otherwise perfectly adequate for pretty much every outdoor activity kids will encounter.

There’s a removable 3mm insole, meaning that total standing height is either 6.5mm or 3.5mm. Removing the insole also increases the roominess inside the upper, which effectively adds another half-size or so for growing feet.

Our modus operandi with VIVOBAREFOOT kids shoes is to buy them somewhat big (a half- to full size) and wear them with insoles until the shoes start to get a little snug. At that point, we remove the insole to allow for a bit more growth and increase the lifespan of the shoe. Even with doing that, your kids will almost definitely grow out of VIVOBAREFOOT shoes before they wear them out. In fact, you can probably hand them down to a sibling, repeat the insole in / insole out process all over again, and still not break the Neo Kids down.

Just as in the adult Neo, the kids versions have a low profile around the ankle to allow full range of motion. There’s just enough padding around the collar to provide comfort but not too much to add excess bulk. The sockliners are soft enough against the skin that both of my daughters prefer to wear their Neos sockless.

Weight of the Neo Kids is slightly different from laced to Velcro versions, but not significantly. The laced version weighs in at 128g, while the Velcro is slightly heavier at 133g. Removing the insole decreases weight by about 6 additional grams per shoe.

Like all VIVOBAREFOOT shoes, both of the Neo Kids models are completely flexible in all directions, allowing the foot to bend and flex in any way it wants to. Above all other aspects of minimalist footwear, this flexibility is probably the most important feature for children’s shoes – and it also happens to be the one that VIVOBAREFOOT excels at. Even compared to outstanding options like Vibram and Soft Star, VIVOBAREFOOT’s outsoles are the best in the business at combining ideal protection with complete flexibility.

As the names imply, the main distinction between the laced and Velcro Neo Kids models is in the uppers. The laces version is exactly the same as the grown-up Neo, while the Velcro version has two straps for easier entry and exit. Both versions feature breatheable mesh material over the same amount of surface area, so there shouldn’t be a comfort or ventilation difference associated with the different styles.

When I reviewed the Aquarius shoe this summer, my main criticism was that the upper had too much synthetic leather material and not enough breatheable mesh – so I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that VIVOBAREFOOT has remedied that problem very nicely with the Neo Kids.

As mentioned earlier, both styles of the Neo Kids have very kid-friendly styling, and there are a few color options of each one to choose from, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a pair to go with your little angel’s best outfits. VIVOBAREFOOT’s Neo Kids shoes normally retail for $75 from the company website, but for the next week you can get them at a 20% discount using my coupon code.

Between now and November 14th, enter coupon KIDSRNR20 at checkout to receive 20% off any style of VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Kids shoes. The code isn’t active on any other styles, and you have to log into the website (by entering an e-mail address) to receive the discount. Here are your links:

VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Kids lace-up style

VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Kids Velcro style

Go take advantage of this discount opportunity while it lasts, and thanks very much to VIVOBAREFOOT for providing it!

*Products 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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November 4, 2011

GU Energy Products Sale; Random Shots of Beauty

I’m getting an early jump on this weekend’s Random Shot of Beauty so you can jump on a good deal while it lasts …

This time it’s another time-sensitive sale from The Clymb, where you can load up on a lot of great GU energy products for up to 70% below retail price. There’s my favorite drink mix powder, GU Brew, block-style GU Chomps, and holiday flavors of standard GU gel. You can also buy GU’s specially formulated Roctane gels at a great bargain – like getting high-performance gel for regular-performance price.

Anyway … go get your GU on at The Clymb quickly, because the offer’s only good until Sunday, November 6th at 9AM, or until everything’s gone – whichever comes first.

This weekend’s RSOB is another sign of the season …

A rainbow over the hills of Carmel Valley, one of the aftereffects of our first storm system of the fall ... and a hint of the rainy season that's right around the corner.

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November 2, 2011

The Day The Blogging (Almost) Died*

*Or, Nerd Tragedy in the Catacombs
**Or, If I Weren't Quite So Chubby I Wouldn't Have These Problems

The second most frequent question I receive via e-mail – behind a myriad of “what kind of shoe should I buy?” queries – is what kind of camera I use while running. I’ve discussed this once before, but a recent set of circumstances required me to get a new camera, which happens to be a lot like the old camera, but not exactly so. I’ll explain more in a minute. In the meantime, please indulge me in a little back story …

About two years ago I made what was possibly the best investment in my blogging career, purchasing a Canon PowerShot SD1400 as a dedicated blog-use camera. It was sleek, compact, super-easy to use, and took remarkably decent pictures that didn’t require a long set-up period to get started or a long shutter lag between shots. It gradually became a constant companion in my running exploits as well as my everyday routine. Basically, I took it with me everywhere.

It also turned out to be surprisingly resilient to sweat, dust, moisture from fog and rain, or the occasional accidental drop on account of my clumsiness. In fact, it had proven so durable that I rarely had any second thoughts about tucking the camera into a pocket for whatever strange adventure I encountered … which is how it ended up in my back pocket as I descended into the Catacombs.

This was perhaps the most notorious of the cave networks at Lava Beds National Monument, and before taking our group of 8th-graders underground, everybody was made aware that exploration of the cave would be extremely challenging in places. In other words, I can’t claim I wasn’t warned.

We eventually broke into small groups and made our way down into the tunnels, which started out relatively manageable …

… before becoming so low as to require some commando crawling …

… and ultimately reaching portions where the ceiling scraped against your back even as your belly was scraping against the ground. (On a related note, it’s definitely not the place to be if you’re slightly overweight. Or remotely claustrophobic.) It was in a section very much like the one shown above – a photo, incidentally, taken by a friend who is much skinnier than me, using a shock-resistant camera – that I felt the sharp protrusions of lava rock against my backside while I was wriggling through a narrow tunnel.

When I finally made it to an area when I could sit upright, I reached into my pocket and found the glass LCD screen on my camera had shattered. RIP, Best Blogging Investment Ever.

So the search was on to find a replacement, and my first instinct was to replace my old camera with the exact same model. But when I looked it up on the Amazon.com page, there was an automated “There is a newer model of this item” sign, which took me to the Canon PowerShot ELPH 300. After a bit of comparison shopping between the two, I decided to purchase the updated model.  (As a bonus, it was a few bucks cheaper.)

Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 on left, SD1400 on right; photo taken with yet another camera.  Yes, we have a few cameras at home.

Here’s how the two compare*: they’re roughly the same size, with almost all of the same user features. The main spec difference is that my old camera had 14.1 megapixels, while the newer one has only 12.1 MP. From what I read, consensus says that the lower MP value doesn’t sacrifice image quality or detail, but results in smaller file sizes. I suppose that’s good.

*This should go without saying, but I’m nowhere an expert when it comes to digital camera reviews. So all this is just one idiot’s opinion.

The case of the new camera is a coarse plastic, as compared to the smooth polished exterior of the old camera. I initially didn’t like this change, but now I think it might help me have the whoopsies less frequently when pulling it out of my pocket. One can hope, anyway.

ELPH 300 on left, SD1400 (with shattered LCD screen) on right

One downside of the new camera is that the back side controls are slightly less intuitive and user-friendly. For example, there’s no icon for the self-timer where the old one used to be; the feature is still there, but you have to make one additional click to the menu screen to find it. I’ll probably get used to this, but it’s still kind of a disappointment.

ELPH 300 on left, SD1400 on right

The nicest thing about the new camera is that it’s slightly wider and more square on the bottom, which means that it balances a little more easily for those aforementioned self-timer photos. If I can decrease the number of rocks or twigs I have to arrange to get my camera to balance, that will be good news indeed.

Time will tell if the durability of this new camera is as good as my old one was; my adventure calendar has been woefully empty lately, but that should hopefully change in the near future. No matter how well it performs, though, I’ve learned one important tip: if I ever take my camera underground again, I should probably invest in a nice little carrying case.

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