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December 29, 2011

The Keeper List: Running and Rambling Gear of the Year 2011

Before today’s post, an overdue announcement of sorts: over the holidays, I was pleased to see a small spike in sales of my running book. If you don’t recall my book, I can’t really fault you, because I do a lousy job of actually promoting or marketing the thing.

Each time a sale came in this month, I thought to myself, you know, I should announce some sort of reminder on the website about this – the book might make a good Christmas gift. And then in typical slacker fashion, I kept postponing or forgetting about doing so, until Christmas came and went and I completely missed the holiday shopping wave.

But since we still have a decent supply of books available, and since New Year’s is about doing the stuff you want to do rather than worrying about pleasing everybody else, I may as well mention it again here: Hey, I have a book for sale! It’s mainly geared toward novices and anyone who wants insight into life as a runner, but in my humble opinion there’s stuff that anybody will enjoy. And if you order from our website – where it’s less expensive than Amazon.com for some reason – we can autograph it or do any other special requests you’d like.

With that, I’ll stop the pandering – but today’s post is all about grabbing some additional stuff to make your running life more enjoyable.

It won’t particularly come as a news flash to anyone when I say that I get a lot of gear to review. What might surprise some newer readers is that I review even more stuff than you see here on this website.

Most of my shoe reviews end up here, as minimalism has become a nice little niche I’ve settled into, but I also contribute to other websites and magazines after testing apparel or other trail running gear. The biggest portion of this extracurricular product testing goes to FeedTheHabit.com, with whom I’ve partnered for more than two years now.

I recognize that I’m in an enviable situation, so I pay my good fortune forward as often as possible by giving almost everything away. Running partners, family, and non-running friends have all been the recipients of gear from top (headlamps, hats) to bottom (socks, shoes) and everything in between (clothes, food, watches). They get free stuff, my wife gets her closet space back, and I feel good about sharing the wealth; it’s a winner for everyone involved.

Here’s my caveat, though: if there’s a piece of gear that I love, or one that I get a ton of great use out of, I keep it for myself. Accordingly, my Gear of the Year review should rightfully be called the Keeper List, because it’s all about the stuff that’s too awesome for me to give away.

However, my Keeper List differs from other annual ratings in one important way: the best gear isn’t necessarily from 2011. Rather, my list is a Jeopardy-style competition where the only way to become champion is to defeat the current champ. (Completely tangentially, it’s the same way I choose my wines.) Sure, the newer stuff will tend to be better – but if I have a Ken Jennings-like piece of equipment that crushes all potential challengers year after year, there’s no reason to take it off my Keeper List. And yes, there are a couple of those items included below.

Finally, before we proceed, a note on formatting: The first link of each entry will go to my original review of the product, and the second will go to a purchase link from Amazon.com or one of my other affiliate partners. Remember, affiliate sales support Running and Rambling, so, you know … help me help you, and all that. Now let’s get to the list; these are my keepers for 2011.

Part 1: Gear and Apparel

Headlamp for roads: Black Diamond Sprinter. A 68 lumen headlamp in front with a blinking red LED in back for an unbeatable combination of visibility and safety. The entire lamp weighs a mere 3.5 oz, and the lamps are completely rechargeable. Black Diamond is updating this product for 2012 (yes, I’ll have a review), but until then you can get the current version for $64 at Amazon.com – it’s the best investment you can make in your safety this winter.

Compact headlamp: Petzl Tikka XP2 with CORE rechargeable battery pack. There’s nothing better than a headlamp that’s bright enough to light the trail before dawn, and small enough to tuck in a pocket afterward. This category has stiff competition, most notably from Black Diamond’s Spot, which is a little bit brighter. However, what tips the scales for me is the rechargeable capacity of the XP2 with the CORE pack: it’s eco-friendly, easy to recharge, and saves a ton of money in the long run. The headlamp sells for $41 from Amazon.com, and the CORE pack sells separately for $39.

Headlamp for ultras: Black Diamond Icon with rechargeable NRG battery pack. I don’t think twice about it anymore: if I’m running through the night, the Icon is on my head. It’s relatively lightweight (6.6 oz), super bright (100 lumens), with enough battery life to burn high all the way to morning. Best of all, if you purchase an NRG battery pack, it’s completely rechargeable – and just to remind you, I love being green. Black Diamond is also updating this lamp next year, and I’m very curious to see if or how they can improve it. The current Icon is discounted to $55 from Amazon.com, and the NRG pack sells separately for $25.

Nightlife at Western States 2011: Black Diamond Icon, Nathan Endurance vest, and one very fast ultrarunner (hint: not me)

Jacket: Patagonia Nine Trails. You’ll see this name again further down the list as well; basically, 2011 was the year that Patagonia became my go-to ultrarunning brand. I wore the Nine Trails jacket at three ultras and during countless training miles last winter and spring; for lightweight weather-resistant insulation, there’s nothing better. Unfortunately, it’s not currently available on the Patagonia website, but TravelCountry.com has a closeout price of $60 on remaining stock.

Shorts: Patagonia Nine Trails. Are you sensing a theme yet? My first ultra in the Nine Trails shorts was the Miwok 100K in May, and I never looked back. Anytime I’m running for more than 4 hours, these are the shorts I’m wearing. Like the jacket, the shorts aren’t currently available from the company, but TravelCountry.com has a few pairs in size small available for $60.

Shirt: Patagonia Capilene Silkweight. I never reviewed this shirt, but here’s a true story: Back in the spring, when Soft Star offered to put their logo on any shirt I wanted to use for my upcoming ultra calendar, I told them to buy this Patagonia shirt. I have a couple other capilene shirts from past races; they’re not only the most comfortable items in my collection, but they’re remarkably durable after multiple runs and washings. So my official Team Soft Star kit this year featured Patagonia shorts, shirt, and jacket – a nearly clean sweep in the apparel department (the only exception was my socks). The shirt is available for $39 from the Patagonia website – and if you’d like your own Soft Star logo on it, I’m sure the Elves would be happy to oblige.

At the Tahoe Rim Trail 100: Patagonia shirt and shorts, Ultimate Direction Uno waist pack 

Gloves: Sugoi Firewall LT. Sorry, no review link on this one either: I did a glove comparison for Ultrarunning magazine this fall, and these ended up being my favorite from the bunch. It’s a nice upgrade from the previous Firewall gloves, with similar water resistance and slightly better insulation. $35 from Amazon.com.

Small hydration pack: Ultimate Direction Uno. I’ve had my current model for years – and before that, I used an older version for several years as well. It fits me well, I like the upright bottle position, and the separate pockets give surprisingly ample storage for such a small pack. I use it anytime I’m running between 90 minutes to 3 hours. $17 from Amazon.com.

Large hydration pack: Nathan HPL 020. How awesome is the 020? Not even Nathan can beat it. This year they released the Endurance, a similarly-designed and very strong vest that I wore while pacing at Western States (see WS photo above, and see my Endurance vest review here) – but when it comes to selecting one pack as my gold standard, I still prefer the 020. And when you consider that they’re available at the extreme discount price of $53 at Amazon.com, there’s no reason this vest shouldn’t be in every ultrarunner’s gear closet.

Break time in Zion National Park with the HPL 020

Tights: Salomon Trail III. Full disclosure: I don’t wear a lot of tights - fortunately in California, I don’t have to. So my list of contenders in this category isn’t huge, but these tights have been the most comfortable of those I’ve tried over last winter and this fall. Available for $69 at Amazon.com.

GPS: Soleus GPS 1.0. This review just posted a couple of weeks ago, so I don’t need to rehash things here, other than to say that I’m a big fan. It’s basic, high-quality, and extremely affordable at $87 from Amazon.com.

Socks: Drymax. This is the true Ken Jennings of the group: I’ve probably tested a dozen other brands over the past few years, and none compare to Drymax. I wear their lite trail model ($12 from Amazon.com) for training, and the max protection model ($31 from Amazon.com) for ultras. The Drymax reign continues.

After 50 rainy, muddy miles at Woodside in Soft Star RunAmocs and Drymax max protection socks 

Part 2: Footwear

As you might expect, my shoe list can be broken down into several categories – in this case, I went by primary use, starting with …

Minimalist road shoe: Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS. Vibram came up huge this year with the advent of their LS models – laced versions of popular models that made the footwear easier to use and more accessible to a larger variety of people. From its inception, I’ve labeled the Bikila my gold standard for minimalist road running shoes, so you can imagine how impressed I was when the company managed to improve it this year without sacrificing anything that made it awesome in the first place. Right now they’re discounted to $70 at TravelCountry.com, so grab ‘em while you can.

At play in the Salinas Valley in Bikila LS

Minimalist all-purpose athletic shoe: Vibram FiveFingers KomodoSport LS. I’ve worn mine for running, basketball, tennis, floor workouts, and just plain goofing around. They’re getting very popular with CrossFit and Paleo workout enthusiasts as well. If you have multiple activities to do and only enough money for a single pair of Vibrams, this is the one. They’re currently discounted to $80 at TravelCountry.com.

Minimalist trail running: Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove. 2011 may well be remembered as the year Merrell triggered a seismic shift on the minimalist landscape with its Barefoot line of footwear. In my review I called this shoe minimalism for the masses, and since then I’ve recommended it to a lot of trail runners. They retail for $110 from TravelCountry.com.

Minimalist hybrid trail/road running: Altra Adam. They’re not the ultimate trail shoe, or the ultimate road shoe, but they’re a pretty solid combination of the two. They normally retail for $100 on the company website, but if you use this link you’ll get them for a 10% discount.

Minimalist hiking: Vibram FiveFingers Trek LS. My first-generation Treks had defeated all challengers as my favorite hiking shoes until Vibram topped itself with the Trek LS. Rugged leather, durable outsole, crazy comfort. They’re also nice enough to pass as dress shoes if you so choose (but I don’t – see below). They’re currently discounted to $112 from TravelCountry.com.

Rock scrambling at Lava Beds National Monument in Trek LS

Minimalist dress shoe: Merrell Barefoot Tough Glove. This shoe took out one former champion (the VIVOBAREFOOT Oak) in my collection, and has been an almost-everyday shoe since April. It looks sharp, it’s super comfortable, and it’s got all the right mechanics. It retails for $120 from TravelCountry.com.

Minimalist kids shoe: VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Kids. I was lucky enough to have several brands of shoes for my children to test, and the Neo Kids emerged victorious. Their minimalist construction is unbeatable, and the styling is ideal for kids to use like good old-fashioned sneakers. They retail for $75 from the VIVOBAREFOOT website.

Transitional trail shoe: New Balance Minimus Trail. Yes, it’s odd that the shoe with the most minimal-sounding name is actually the least minimal of the group mentioned here, but there’s no question that New Balance means business when it comes to cruising light and low to the ground. The Trail version of this shoe (also called the MT10) has a slipper-like feel, lightweight flexibile construction, and rugged traction underfoot. Its principal drawback to pure minimalists – the 4mm heel to toe drop – is precisely what makes it ideal for transitioning from a structured, supportive shoe to the minimalist end of the spectrum. The 2012 version will have a flat platform, but in the meantime you can get the 2011 Minimus for $100 from TravelCountry.com.

Do you have enough items for your shopping list yet? I’m already waist-deep in reviews for 2012, which I’ll collectively preview sometime next week. There are some very strong offerings from most of the heavy hitters mentioned here; it will be interesting to see if any new products wrestle the title of “keepers” away from the current roster. Time (and miles) will tell, I suppose – so let’s meet back here again next year and I’ll let you know for sure.

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December 24, 2011

VIVOBAREFOOT Book Winner; Random Shots of Christmas

A couple of brief notes before an equally brief post ...

1. Thanks to everybody who commented on my Christmas cookies and entered the VIVOBAREFOOT book giveaway this week. The winner is Adelyn, who I've already contacted via e-mail.

2. I'm taking a brief digital siesta after this post, but I hope to be back by the end of next week to officially close out 2011.

And now your Random Shot of Christmas:

The town Christmas tree in Carmel, CA, as seen a couple of hours ago this evening.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

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December 21, 2011

Frosting and Rambling, Part 3 (With a Secret Giveaway Inside!)

As I mentioned previously, the primary theme of this post is Christmas-related. In particular, it has something to do with these:

(Click to enlarge any of these photos)

Christmas cookies that my wife makes and the entire family decorates as one of our Advent traditions. It’s a subject I’ve described here a couple of times before, and one that’s typically reliable for some fun responses.

However, the topic of Christmas cookies doesn’t really have anything to do with running – at least, so I thought until earlier this week. That’s because it wasn’t more than a day after putting the finishing touches on our family’s batch of goodies that I received a package in the mail from VIVOBAREFOOT. Here’s what I found inside:

A thin book, a small goodie-shaped box, and a note of some kind either wishing me a Merry Christmas or thanking me for my support this year or something along those lines … honestly, I was a little distracted by wondering what the heck was inside the box.

I’ll get to that in a second, but first, about the book: it’s a glossy version of VIVOBAREFOOT’s very informative eBook about minimalist running. I downloaded and printed this when it was first released online this summer, and found it to be a nice overview of the benefits of barefoot running and the philosophy of minimalist footwear. It also has some drills and stretches that I found quite helpful and that I continue to practice today.

However, since I already have a copy of this book, and since we’re ostensibly talking about holiday cheer, I’ve decided to conduct my own little flash giveaway right now. If you’d like my copy of the book for yourself, leave a comment below this post and I’ll pick a winner on Saturday night. I figure I may as well pay this one forward.

On the other hand, I’m not offering the contents of the box, because, well … they’ve already been taken care of, so to speak. Imagine my delight when I found these cool little VIVOBAREFOOT cookies waiting for me. They lasted just long enough for this photo session to wrap up before getting consumed by my “product testing crew”; when the subject is cookies, it’s amazing how quickly my family steps up to offer assistance.

In their defense, my family could have very well been experiencing cookie-separation anxiety at the time, because of all those cookies in the top photo, only a small portion ever make it into our own bellies. Most of them are given away to friends and neighbors, which is the Christmas-y thing to do and all that, but it does require a little more restraint than most of us (well, OK … mostly me) are comfortable with.

Instead, the joy in our cookie tradition is in the decorating, which different members of our family approach in different ways. For example, my wife excels at classic beauty – I dare say it comes naturally for her – although she’s experimenting with swirls and twirls and expanding her skilled repertoire with each passing year.

My 8-year-old daughter is still growing into her own artistic identity; a couple of years ago her works had a prominent Jackson Pollack feel to them, but I’d now say she has more of a cubism-era Picasso vibe going on.

My son follows in his mother’s cookie-styling footsteps quite closely, which fits his own personality as well; he’s a straightforward, no-nonsense kid who does things pretty much by the book. Not that there’s anything wrong with that … and I suppose if he had to pick one parent to emulate, he certainly made the responsible choice.

His 10-year-old sister apparently would make the opposite decision, in that when it comes to cookie designs, she and I are kindred spirits – so much, in fact, that it’s become hard to distinguish her own works from mine.

For example, here’s a small sampling of our creations. Some of them are hers, others are mine – and it’s honestly hard for me to tell which ones are which. They’re all kind of fun, however …

… such as this pair: Elwood Blues on the left, and Fozzie Bear on the right.  One's on a mission from God, and the other's wearing fart shoes.  (Yes, we saw The Muppets this year; and no, I haven't laughed that hard in a long time.)

Here we have SpongeBob’s friend Patrick on the left, and a tie-dye hippie angel on the right. This is Northern California, after all.

This pair needs some explanation. On the right is my attempt at Perry the Platypus. On the left is a Christmas tree with an identity crisis. If anyone ever claims that a Christmas cookie can’t be introspective, send them my way.

And with that, we’ll call it a wrap on the 2011 cookie report, but not on the holiday cheer. If you want in on the VIVOBAREFOOT book giveaway, drop a comment in the box below, and I’ll announce the winner on Saturday night. Happy Holidays and good luck to everybody!

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December 20, 2011

Huge VIVOBAREFOOT Discount Sale at PlanetGear.com

It’s funny the way some of these post topics intersect sometimes.

I had planned a Christmas-themed post for tomorrow night, which then became a Christmas-and-VIVOBAREFOOT-themed post, which is still on deck as scheduled. However, in the midst of all this I received an e-mail from PlanetGear.com regarding a massive VIVOBAREFOOT sale going on this week, and it seemed significant enough to interrupt regular programming (or non-programming, as the case may be) to fill everyone in.

Here’s the deal: VIVOBAREFOOT’s outstanding minimalist running shoes, the Evo and Neo, are currently on sale for ridiculous discounts at PlanetGear.com. As in Evos for $55 ridiculous. Neos for $45 ridiculous. There are a couple other models thrown in the mix for good measure, but basically it’s a minimalist runner’s bonanza.

(Feel free to check out my Evo review here or my Neo review here if you need refreshers on either one.)

Obviously, selection is limited to stock on hand, and right now there are quite a few more women’s colors and sizes available, although men can still find something pretty cool as of this writing. Go check out the sale, and grab yourself or a loved one an early and very affordable Christmas gift.

And since this isn’t a regular post and the whole thing is pretty self-explanatory, I guess that’s all I need to say until tomorrow night.

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December 19, 2011

kigo drive Review and Coupon Code

In contrast to the number of companies who have moved into the minimalist arena recently, it’s worth noting that kigo is already on their third generation of minimalist athletic shoes.

That’s not to say that they’ve perfected their craft, though – in fact, when I reviewed their second generation edge* shoe, I came away fairly disappointed, in that there wasn’t really much to distinguish the newer version from the previous one; more specifically, a lot of the deficiencies I identified in the first-generation shel shoe went largely unaddressed. Not that I expected the company to jump through hoops for me, but it’s always a cool thing to see a company respond to user feedback.

(*in case you’re wondering about the convention here: all kigo shoe models, just like the company name, are written entirely in lower-case. I explained why in my edge review.)

kigo drive

That’s why I’m happy to report that this time around, kigo has indeed made some significant changes to their flagship athletic shoe, and that the new drive is very close to what I was hoping the shoe would be more than two years ago. It’s not 100% perfect, but it’s a significant upgrade to a shoe that already had a lot of attractive features to begin with.

One of the things I appreciate about kigo is their commitment to responsible shoe construction, and everything about the drive is true to that mission. Material construction of the outsoles and insoles utilizes PLUSfoam, a compound created from various combinations of reclaimed consumer products.

The uppers are constructed of a CYCLEPET compound made from recycled plastic bottles. All dyes, glues, and water- or stain-resistant elements are certified non-toxic. And when you’re done with the shoes, you can send them to the company’s recycling center so the materials can be reconstructed for the next pair.

Like its predecessors, the drive has outstanding minimalist specs as well: it’s a completely flexible, pure zero-drop shoe on a 2mm outsole, weighing roughly 4.5 oz. This is approximately a half-ounce less than the edge, which is impressive considering how light it was to begin with. If you want to leave the removable 2mm insole in place, your standing height is 4mm, otherwise there’s a mere 2mm of thickness between your foot and the ground.

drive on top, edge on bottom; the edge is my son's everyday school shoe, thus explaining the heel wear

Now for the improvements. Previous kigo shoes were uncomfortably narrow through the entire foot, particularly in the toebox area. Even though the CYCLEPET upper material is somewhat flexible, it wasn’t enough to make up for the narrow last which restricted natural toe splaying.  kigo fixed that with the drive, creating a wider footprint front-to-back, most notably in the toebox, which now allows plenty of room for all your toes to do their thing.

The upper has also been revamped, and now features a speed lacing system for ease of entry and for custom tightness around the midfoot. This is a huge improvement over the previous versions, but there’s still one aspect I’d like kigo to tinker with: when you tighten the laces, the fit improves around the midfoot, but remains somewhat loose around the heel. It would be great to see a strap or some other means of construction that incorporates the ankle collar into the midfoot area for more uniform tightening.

kigo’s outsole was one of its strengths from the start, and I still give it fairly high marks for traction on roads and dirt, in dry and mild-to-moderately wet conditions. The problem here is that while kigo has stayed the same, other brands have made remarkable advances in minimalist outsole traction for off-road use (in particular, a 2012 Vibram model that I’m not allowed to talk about yet), so now this fingerprint pattern is just a “solid but not outstanding” feature of the drive.

Sizing was also an issue with previous iterations of kigo shoes, but the drive runs true to size. However, it’s (somewhat oddly) only available in half sizes, so if your size happens to be an even number, you’ll have to wear something a little bit roomy or a little bit snug. Sizing is still unisex, which might be an issue if you’re a male with excessively wide feet or a female with unusually narrow feet.

Last year I expressed some concern to the kigo owners that their window to get established in the minimalist athletic shoe conversation was closing, thanks to the influx of so many new companies coming to market. With the drive, kigo appears to have raised their game sufficiently well to remain near the forefront of this category - and they offer a relatively unique product in terms of design and material construction that makes it distinctively attractive and sets it apart from most other minimalist shoes on the market today.

The drive retails for $91, which is a less fortunate upgrade compared to the edge*. However, from now through the end of the year, you can use coupon code SHIPKIGO to get them with free shipping here from the kigo website. The offer ends on December 31st, so take advantage of it for a late Christmas or early New Years gift.

(*See the comments section for a brief exchange with one of kigo's owners regarding the price point.)

*Product provided by kigo
**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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December 17, 2011

Honey Stinger Contest Winners; Random Shots of Christmas

Before today’s Random Shots of Christmas (as I’ve decided to call the weekend posts this month), let’s wrap up the Honey Stinger contest from earlier this week. Thanks very much to everyone who responded, especially those who already use Honey Stinger products and provided positive feedback; I had no idea that so many people were already so crazy about the waffles.

So let’s get to the winners: Derrick, Mary Shannon Johnstone, and Maggie Wolff: e-mail me your addresses – you’ve got a sample pack of Honey Stinger stuff headed your way. To everyone else who wants to get their hands on the new strawberry waffles, here’s the link to purchase them from Amazon.com.

On to the customary weekend RSOB, er … RSOC. The first comes from my own Carmel Valley neighborhood, on the road that brings me back home after every morning’s run:

As it happens, my house is only about two-thirds of a mile from this sign, so I haven’t really seen any red-nosed reindeer crossings further out in the valley. But it’s getting close to the right time of year, so I’m definitely keeping my eyes peeled.

The other is from Salinas, from the same chocolate shop that went into patriotic mode on September 11th:

So apparently the shop has a muralist on the payroll. As for what I’m doing at a chocolate shop so frequently in recent months, that’s none of your business; it’s still my offseason. That is, at least for a couple more weeks.

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December 15, 2011

Soleus GPS 1.0 Review

I typically shy away from GPS reviews, partially because the whole prospect seems entirely overwhelming, but also because I have very simple tastes.

The only piece of information I really care about getting from a GPS device is “How far have I run today?” I don’t care about vertical gain or compass direction or barometric conditions. I don’t care about my heart rate zones or calories burned. I don’t care to upload, map, or otherwise analyze any data after the run. I don’t care to maintain a digital training log or join yet another online community. Just tell me how far I’ve run.

Although it’s a simple premise, it’s also an important one, for reasons that might have more to do with my own neuroses than any physiological rationale. When I’ve got an ultra in my sights, 30 miles is kind of my standard benchmark when it comes to completing a good long training run. 30.5 miles is a legitimate long run, but 29.8 is woefully inadequate. (OK, yes … it’s not the physiology; the problem is me.) Therefore, it’s also crucial for the device to be accurate, so I’m not always wondering if the distance it says I ran was the distance I really ran. Honestly, I can drive myself crazy with this stuff.

Finally, from a practical standpoint, I’m absolutely terrified of taking on in-depth GPS reviews. There are too many technological considerations than I can legitimately understand, and too many features and components that I don’t adequately utilize; consequently, it’s hard for me to deliver an authoritative opinion on whether a device is worth the (normally very hefty) cost. Especially when my friend DC Rainmaker has become such a guru on GPS devices, there’s no way I can pretend to match that kind of expertise.

So why am I reviewing a GPS watch today? Because the product in question is almost revolutionary, in all the ways that are most important to me. It’s basic. It’s affordable. It’s eco-friendly and low-profile. Best of all, it’s highly accurate, and tells me exactly how far I’ve run.

Soleus GPS 1.0; photo from Soleus website

The Soleus GPS 1.0 has the potential to be a game changer. It retails for $99 (actually, even less than that – see the end of this post), a price point that is less than half of the lowest-cost wrist-mounted GPS from Garmin. It offers the basic features you need – plus a few others – without needing a software program or tech support to figure out how to use the darn thing. For technophobic runners who appreciate simplicity, accuracy, and affordability, the Soleus GPS gives you exactly what you’re looking for.

Continuing the theme of simplicity, my review is going to be somewhat stripped down as well, for reasons I explained earlier. However, I’d be negligent to not refer you to DC Rainmaker’s full in-depth review of this same device, which he breaks down in his typical “all the information you ever wanted plus a lot of information you didn’t realize you needed” fashion.

Timex sleek Ironman on L, SOleus GPS on R

Here’s what you get with the Soleus GPS 1.0: a GPS watch that is roughly the size of the Garmin 401 and Garmin FR610. It’s marginally bigger than my customary Timex Sleek Ironman watch, but with a weight of only 2.0 oz, it’s not much of an extra burden on my long runs. It has an alarm, chronograph, lap/split tracking, 100-lap memory, 12-second backlight, and a USB rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The casing is water resistant to 30 meters so it’s fine to wear in the rain.

Additional features that are nice (but which I don’t really utilize) are calories burned – calculated by an algorithm using body weight and distance run – and your current pace or speed in metric or English notation. Like I said, I’m not so much into those things; I mainly want to know how it works in measuring distance.

First and most importantly, the Soleus GPS is super accurate. I did my first test runs at the track, where the readings were spot-on. While running with training partners, I did comparisons to their various Garmin units, and distance measurements were usually within a few hundredths of a mile for runs in the 10- to 12-mile range. On trail runs, it appears to hold its satellite signal quite well in canyons and under tree cover. The signal also holds steady when the device is underneath a jacket sleeve, which is pretty much every day at this time of year.

Top to bottom: chrono, distance, time of day

While running, you can choose from a few different displays; the one I use most frequently is stopwatch / distance / time of day, which are the only three things I’m concerned about when I’m on a long training day. You can take split times or create lap markers at regular intervals, but I don’t even do either of those things. Like I said, I’m basic.

There are a few minor drawbacks that I’ve encountered in daily use, the first of which is a slow satellite acquisition time. It often takes up to a couple of minutes to lock into a signal, which is significantly slower than my friends pick up signals with their Garmins. I’ve also had some difficulty with the size of the “stop/save” button, in that it’s small in relation to the others, and it’s sometimes difficult to keep pressed down for long enough to save your data. When I’m wearing gloves – which again, is almost every day this time of year – the button is even trickier to push firmly.

Finally, the size of the display numbers is fairly small in comparison to most other watches or GPS devices I’m familiar with. If you have difficulty with small readouts, this might be problematic, but luckily for me it’s just a minor inconvenience.

Aside from those issues, the Soleus 1.0 is everything I want in a GPS – and more importantly, it doesn’t bother with the things I don’t want. I suspect that I’m not the only one who appreciates a simple, straightforward GPS, and there could potentially be a big market for something like this - a highly accurate device that tells you how far and fast you’re running, for a price that won’t set you too far back.

The Soleus GPS 1.0 normally retails for $99, but you can currently find them on sale for $87 from Amazon.com.

*Product provided by Soleus
**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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December 12, 2011

Honey Stinger Waffles, Energy Bars, Energy Chews and Gels: Product Review and Giveaway

Without going too far out on a limb, I predict that the winners of today’s contest will be at least 75% satisfied.

That’s because the prizes in question come from Honey Stinger, and of the four products I had the opportunity to sample, three of them were delightful; the fourth one, not so much. Then again, your tastes may vary from mine, and you could get 100% enjoyment out of them - but we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here. First let’s get to the review.

Honey Stinger is a sports nutrition company based in Steamboat Springs, Colo, that has developed a fairly diverse line of honey-based products using all-natural and organic ingredients. Since their inception they’ve sponsored cyclists, runners, and triathletes, and in early 2010, they turned quite a few heads by welcoming Lance Armstrong to their ownership team.

Armstrong’s influence is evident in Honey Stinger’s most distinctive product: an organic energy waffle inspired by a traditional Dutch pastry enjoyed by cyclists throughout Europe for many years. The stroopwafel originated in the Netherlands over 200 years ago, and consists of two thin layers of baked batter with a syrup filling. They’re sold by sidewalk vendors and are a longtime favorite of touring cyclists looking for a quick boost of energy.

Honey Stinger’s version comes in three flavors: original, vanilla, and a new strawberry flavor released this fall. I received a batch of vanilla and strawberry waffles for family sampling during a couple of long geocache hikes, and my kids absolutely went wild for them. I really like the taste as well; they remind me of a softer, sweeter Pop Tart, which used to be one of my favorite cheap breakfasts back in college (I liked the unfrosted kind, and didn’t bother to heat them). They make a nice diversion from traditional energy bars – and if that isn’t enough to impress you, rumor has it that Lance rides with these in his back pocket. In case that matters.

I was also impressed with Honey Stinger’s Rocket Chocolate energy bars, which are made with 30% honey and contain 10g of protein each, along with 22 vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and calcium. These are great for the middle of a long bike ride, but I also used them as a post-run snack. They have a nice chewy texture and a very pleasant chocolate taste – certainly more than I expected from a honey-based product. I suspect my kids would have agreed also … except that I didn’t share these items with them. Being the blog owner has its privileges.

Before you feel too sorry for them, the family also got to sample two varieties of organic energy chews, in lime-ade and pink lemonade flavors. These are the Honey Stinger equivalent of CLIF Bloks or GU Chomps, but they are slightly smaller and their texture is much softer, making them easier to chew than those other brands. Our family’s consensus was that the lime-ade flavor is decent, but the real star is the pink lemonade. It’s a unique variety among any other energy chews we’ve tried – Honey Stinger also has other unusual flavors like fruit smoothie and pomegranate passion fruit - and the taste is a nice balance of tart and sweet. They were voted a close second behind the strawberry waffles as our favorite Honey Stinger product.

The only disappointment in the group was Honey Stinger energy gels, but that may be partially due to the fact that I only tested one flavor. I sampled the ginseng flavor, and found it to have a strongly bitter aftertaste that was very unpalatable. I first tested these on a long run with my wife, and just to confirm my initial reaction, I asked her to taste the same pack I had just opened. She hated it as well; honestly, the taste was so bad that we squirted the rest of the gel pack onto the ground.

Honey Stinger gels come in five flavors, and I suspect that the banana or strawberry flavors might not have as strong an aftertaste as the ginseng ones we tested, but that’s just a hypothesis. These honey-based gels have a thinner consistency than regular energy gels, so they would be easy to dissolve in a bottle of water as some runners and cyclists like to do – that would probably dilute the aftertaste as well.

So there’s the lineup, and here’s the contest: in conjunction with this review, Honey Stinger will provide three winners with a sample pack of the products I’ve described here. Quantities and flavors may vary depending on availability, but you’ll get a good cross-section of what the company has to offer – and obviously, I highly recommend the waffles. Leave a comment below this post to enter, and three winners will be chosen at random and announced on Saturday.

If you can’t wait that long, here are product links for purchase from Amazon.com:

Honey Stinger organic strawberry energy waffle - 16-pack for $22.50.

Honey Stinger Rocket Chocolate energy bars - 15-pack for $20.

Honey Stinger pink lemonade organic energy chews - 12-pack for $17.

Honey Stinger energy gel assortment pack - 24-pack for $27.

Big thanks to Honey Stinger for sponsoring this contest, and good luck to everybody!

*Products provided by Honey Stinger. Affiliate sales support Running and Rambling.
**See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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December 10, 2011

13.1 Los Angeles Giveaway Winner; GU Roctane Drink Mix Giveaway Winner; Random Shots of Beauty

I’ve got a slightly extended Random Shot of Beauty post for today – but first, it’s time to announce the winners of two separate contests that took place this week.

As you’ll recall, the 13.1 Marathon Los Angeles road race drawing was conducted in my typically random fashion – but as it turns out, the winner ended up being in the same neighborhood as the race. Lauren L: e-mail me – you’re the winner, and I’ve got a free registration code for you.

On the other hand, the GU Roctane drink mix contest was completely subjective, and I had no ground rules other than to do something to make me choose you. This one was decided pretty early in the game, when RD Jim dropped his comment in the box. I mean … the dude made a video for me; after that, everyone else was pretty much competing for second place. (Although Anthony’s comment and link to the mobile app page certainly piqued my interest – this is something I need to investigate a bit further.)

Anyway, congrats to the winners, and as always, thanks to everyone else for playing. Stay tuned for another giveaway contest next week.


With the holiday season in full swing, I’ve decided that for the rest of the month I’ll change these weekend posts to Random Shots of Christmas instead of the customary RSOB. (Besides, there’s beauty in Christmas, so I’m not breaking form too dramatically here.) On that note, I had my camera with me this morning …

… while hanging out with practically everyone else in town at a dilapidated airstrip in the middle of Carmel Valley Village …

…. where everyone awaited two special passengers arriving by air ...

Santa and Mrs Claus, making their customary appearance at the annual Santa’s Fly-In event that has everything you could ever ask when it comes to quaint small-town traditions. After Santa mingles with all the kids, the fly-in is followed by a parade through the village …

… where Santa’s sleigh gets towed by a tractor. It’s just another of those distinctly Carmel Valley scenes that makes me happy to live here.

One unfortunate but unrelated postscript to the story is that while all this Christmas cheer was taking place, I was being left out of the Western States 2012 lottery. Now it’s on to Plan B for next year, which is, um … actually, I don’t really have a Plan B. So I guess my new Plan A is to come up with a Plan B. As soon as I figure something out, I’ll be sure to let you know.

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December 8, 2011

Orbana Healthy Energy Drink User Reviews

A brief admin note before today’s post: You have one more day to enter 2 contests: one for the 13.1 Marathon Los Angeles and the other for a tub of GU Roctane drink mix. Head over to this post to enter both contests, but be forewarned: the competition for the GU mix is pretty formidable.

Today’s post is born from one of the most remarkable acts of generosity I’ve ever seen from a product sponsor.

Back in October, I did one of my typical review and giveaway posts for Orbana healthy energy drink, with the stipulation that the winners would send me their feedback for a follow-up post. Shortly after I chose the winners, the company rep offered a seemingly crazy proposition: the company wanted to provide samples for ALL of the people who entered.

And that’s exactly what happened: everyone who entered that contest was sent a few samples of Orbana to try, on the condition that they would send feedback for this review post. Unfortunately, I didn’t get 100% return on user feedback – on a related note, if you received samples and never sent me your review, shame and bad contest karma on you – but I still collected a fairly significant sample size, whose feedback makes up the remainder of this post. (Yes, it’s a long one).

The ground rules for this were very straightforward: Be honest. I wanted true feedback, good or bad. As you’ll see, the good feedback far outweighs the bad. Some users also posted reviews on their own websites, so in those cases I’ve included an excerpt here and a link to their sites for the full review.

Finally, if you need the original links, here’s my previous Orbana review, and here's the link to buy Orbana from Amazon.com. On with the user reviews:

From Chris:

I tested it at a 30-mile trail race on a 10-mile loop at McNaughton Park in Pekin, IL. I started with a 20oz water bottle mixed with Orbana. At the 5 mile mark, I'd be done with the drink and simply fill my bottle with pure water for the next 5 miles. At the start/finish area, I'd refill with water and mix in the Orbana. I used 3 packets for the three 10-mile loops. It would have been nice to have more Orbana at the mid-point aid station so I would be drinking it for the full 30 miles.

I did feel the drink worked better than just water and better than my typical Gatorade. It tasted fine, gave no energy highs/lows, and supplied a modest amount of electrolytes. I think the calories, and extra vitamins and amino acids, helped provide a bit more energy than I've had in recent runs and races. For what it's worth, I did feel better AFTER the race than I typically do.

My main complaint with this drink is that it's rather expensive and bulky to carry. I can find solutions to the bulkiness (loop courses, drop bags, friends/crew, etc). The cost is another issue, but if it really does make a positive difference, it would be worth the price. I'll buy a bigger supply and try it out on some fall and winter long runs (20+ milers). I'm willing to pay extra for a product that would get me through a long ultra marathon. For now, I think it's a good product with high potential for endurance athletes. I'd suggest other runners giving it a try.

See Chris’s full review here on his website.

From James:

I used a packet mid race at a 50k trail event this past weekend. My honest opinion is this... the taste is fine. Tangy, citrus like, not too sweet and so much more palatable than Vespa (not to mention more affordable). Dare I say even better tasting than the new Nuun flavor I was also using? Unfortunately, about a mile after filling my handheld bottle I wiped out on the trail, awesome spread eagle, face first type of action, and wasted a bunch my fluid in the process. I decided against putting the newly made puddle of mud in my mouth. However, I really did feel a boost in my energy level for maybe an hour. I had been struggling with fatigue for a few miles before that.

(My reply: obviously Orbana needs to include some balance-enhancing agents for their next formulation.)

From Andrew:

Overall I found the Orbana to be very beneficial. I find that the claims made are an accurate representation of what the product is capable of in both usage and performance. I liked it so much that I went ahead and ordered a whole tub to use in my daily fueling activities. I will not
hesitate to recommend Orbana to anyone looking to add a new fueling product or replace an old one. So glad that I got this opportunity to test out this great product.

See Andrew’s full review here on his website.

From Mike:

I am currently training for the Walt Disney World Half Marathon in January (my second Half), and right now I am running about 25-30 miles per week. I received two packets of the Orbana powder, and I used it in two different scenarios: (1) As a pre-run drink before a 10-mile race; and (2) As a replenishment drink instead of water during a 13-mile long run during training.

I had better experience using the Orbana as a pre-run drink. For the 10-mile race that I used it for, I felt very strong throughout the entire run and was able to keep a pace about 30-40 seconds per mile faster than my goal (this increased speed may have had as much to do with the course, but I feel that the Orbana definitely helped keep me well fueled). Normally for runs of 10 miles or more, I would carry and use an energy gel, and although the race I ran provided Hammer Gel, I felt fine and decided not to use it. I also felt fairly well hydrated throughout the race. Overall, I think the Orbana drink gave a nice boost without making me feel jittery or anxious.

For the 13-mile training run, the Orbana was fine as a replenishment drink, but it wasn't really to my liking. Although the Orbana has a pleasant taste, I still prefer just plain water for rehydration during a run.

As far as the taste of Orbana, it is pleasant and better than most sports drinks. It is considerably less sweet and sugary than other drinks, and doesn't have the "sweaty/salty" taste than some have. It doesn't taste great, but it has a somewhat pleasant citrus flavor that is easy enough to drink. The pre-run formulation was a bit strong and left an aftertaste in my mouth for awhile, but I think that is fairly typical of sports drinks.

I was impressed enough with Orbana that I plan on buying a box of it off Amazon and using it for my remaining long runs and my upcoming race, but only as the pre-run version.

From Tomislav:

I got it a couple of days before the Lagvitrek 16-mile mountain race, and my plan was to use one sachet before and one sachet after the race. I was really pleasantly surprised by taste. It was much better than other BCAA stuff I used before and on a scale from 1 to 10 I give it a high 8.

Performance wise I didn't had any spikes and/or crashes during the race and my energy level was quite good through the whole race. I recovered only two days after the race so I give it two thumbs up.

I will probably not use it as my training and racing drink cause there are cheaper options available. For a recovery drink the price is on par with other stuff I use but with much better taste (other drinks with BCAA are usually bitter).

From Stephanie:

I'm not exactly a fast runner, so I was hoping to finish the 10-mile race I did in under 2 hours.

The morning of, I drank a packet at about 6:30, because it was a pretty decent drive to get to the start of the finish line. To me it tastes like the little cans of Dole Pineapple Juice, which is fine except I don't really like pineapple juice. It went down just fine, though, and no GI problems. I was very well hydrated, actually, and just fine in regards to energy for almost the whole race. I finished in 1:51:52, which is (I think) 11 sec/mi faster than McMillan predicted. Was it the Orbana? Who knows.

I'm willing to say that it kept me hydrated at least a little longer than plain water or Gatorade or Nuun would have and that it provided more and more sustained energy than any of the previous. (To be fair, water and Nuun don't have any sugar in them, so it would be disingenuous to expect actual energy from either.) It did take a little more prep time than one of the fizzy tabs, I guess--I ended up stirring it with a butter knife in a pint glass half full of water for probably a full minute. On the other hand, it didn't taste chemical-y at all and there were no strange aftertastes from various kinds of non-standard sugars.

From Adam:

I started with dumping the Orbana mix in a 8-10 oz. glass of water. The mix made this strange looking blob in the water that would float for a bit, and when mixing it took a good while to get all of the product dissolved into the water. If anything that would have to be my biggest issue with the product, and definitely not a big deal.

Taste is awesome! I absolutely loved the citrus flavor of the mix, and had no issues downing the product once dissolved. The overall sensation of drinking it is that the drink is very refreshing. I do not like things overly sweet, and one thing I think Orbana succeeded at here is having an excellent balance of sweetness to citrus sourness.

Both times I used Orbana as directed before my activity. The first time I went out I had come home from work a little tired, and wasn't sure how I would feel on my run. I had planned a 5 mile trail run at a local trail system, and once I got out on the trail I felt a little sluggish. However, I seemed to get more energy as time went on, and by the middle to the end of the run I was feeling great. The second time I used the product I went for an 8 mile road run about a week and a half after getting a sinus infection. Once I started my longer run I again felt a little sluggish to start, but about 3 miles in I got into a groove that carried me to the end of the run. I had no expectations of what my pace might be like going into that longer run, but I maintained a pretty decent pace and felt very good at the end.

I would like to think Orbana helped me through those runs, but in all honesty I have no idea. I just can report that I seemed to have a pick-me-up a couple miles into each run I used the product for. That pick-me-up seemed to last the rest of my runs, and so leaves me wanting to purchase some more Orbana to try.

From Trinity:


1. It comes in powder form.
2. Small travel packets are available. Nice for race day.
3. It didn't taste like an energy drink i.e. Gatorade or Powerade
4. I was experiencing some cramping in my calves on some of my long runs during training. I tried Orbana for a long run and did not have cramping. Coincidence or not it made me a happy runner.


1. I know I should know my measurements better, but I don't know my metric very well and had to look it up. This would only be a problem the first time using.
2. I thought it took a lot of stirring and a little more time for the powder to dissolve.
3. The flavor was a little strong for me. I don't drink sodas, and find that sports drinks give me headaches on long runs. It had a reminiscent taste of my childhood i.e. Tang, and although it was reminiscent I don't care for the Tang flavor anymore.

Would I buy Orbana?

For the most part when running I enjoy just plain old water. But living in the hot Texas summers and running longer periods of time I know I need more. But I don't feel that my liquid intake needs to deceive me with overly sweetness to get me to drink. Just give me something that is mainly water with a few extra nutrients and I'm happy and my body's happy. I would probably not buy Orbana for this reason. If they could provide a product that would be less sweet and maybe provide a different flavor than yes. I appreciate their intention to provide the most nutritional sports drink out there on the market. And I wish them all the best.

From Jimi:

The first packet I drank before going to my cardio kickboxing class. It was a little clumpy, but that was my fault, as I don't think I mixed it well enough. Taste was good...subtle. I liked it.

Here's the kicker. I actually did notice something different after my kickboxing class. Every class before that one and every class since that one, I've always had to get a drink of water whenever the instructor gives us 45 seconds in between routines to relax. This was the only class that I didn't feel the need to stop and get water. It wasn't until after class that I was thinking about Orbana that I realized "Hey, I didn't have to drink any water during class".

The next packet I drank before going out on a mini brick (bike + run). To be honest, I didn't really notice anything special about the workout. It was a good workout and I wasn't extra thirsty or anything, but I still felt like I needed the same amount of fluids.

However, the experience I had with Orbana during my cardio kickboxing class makes me think that this is indeed a good product.

From Frazer:

As for flavor, the first time I had it, I loved the taste. I have basically been drinking Gatorade and recently switched to HEED, so Orbana was a nice break from the ordinary flavors. The second time I had it, the flavor was not nearly as tasty as I remembered, but it was not bad.

As for performance, the first time I had it, I had a good training run and no issues, but I did not notice anything especially wonderful or amazing and the recovery seemed normal also. On Thursday, I went out and PR'd a 10K, at a pace that was my second best among all races. I felt incredible during the run; I was pushing pretty hard and overall, it was probably the best feeling run I have ever had. Also, I was not especially sore considering the effort I put forth to make this happen. I am not sure that its the Orbana, but that was basically the only thing that was different.

I would get some more, but I would definitely need a sale or discount because, in the words of Cosmo Kramer, "retail is for suckers" unless I am supporting a local store or company I really like. All that to say, I liked it and would get more and use it regularly, depending on the cost.

From Lisa:

I was very interested to try Orbana because, on the recommendation of my nutritionist, I have been mixing a “home brew” BCAA drink that I use for muscle recovery after exercise. Honestly, my home brew tastes like crap. I was very curious about how Orbana would be able to mask the distinctive bitter taste of the BCAAs.

Orbana tastes predominately like citrus, with a distinctive pineapple flavor. I used two dilutions, and swished both around in my mouth and consciously searched for the bitter BCAA flavor. It just wasn’t there. Orbana has successfully masked the flavor of the BCAAs. However, my home brew has more than twice the amount of BCAAs as Orbana, and Orbana also has a lot more calories than my home brew.

I like Orbana a lot. I like that it is all natural, with no artificial colors, sweeteners, preservatives, or synthetic gunk. Orbana has succeeded beyond my expectations in masking the flavor of BCAAs. This energy drink was formulated for the hard-core endurance athlete, and I think Orbana’s status as a great-tasting natural drink can gain a footing in the endurance product market.

See Lisa’s full review here on her Facebook page.

From David:

The drink itself is quite palatable and does not give the sickly sugary feeling when the water is not cold. Somehow the taste and smell were vaguely reminiscent of the McDonald’s orange juice I so liked in ages past. The citrus-pineapple taste is free from the usual acidic feeling from citric acid - although the taste is subtle, it was a bit much for me since I’m not a pineapple fan.

I am not a big sports drink fan since I usually have problem digesting them and experience gastric weirdness on long runs from the caffeine and truck load of sugar, but Orbana mix is pretty easy to digest, no burps and no upset stomach … sweet “nada”.

Thanks to the nice mix of amino-acid and electrolytes, it is also a good hang-over remedy: drink one glass of water mixed with Orbana before going to bed after a big party, and the morrow is less painful by far …

Bottom line is, Orbana offers a great product. If they were to offer a different flavour (like one that does not taste like pineapple) I would definitely buy a box.


So there you have it: perhaps the most exhaustive, comprehensive review on any single product in the history of this blog. Obviously, I owe a very big thanks to the Orbana company for providing so many samples for review. You can purchase their product here from Amazon.com.

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