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February 29, 2012

Vibram FiveFingers Spyridon LS Review

Although it might seem strange thing to say about a line of footwear that’s just a handful of years old, one of my initial judgments about Vibram’s latest trail model is that it has quite an impressive heritage. Both its name and design symbolize achievement – and fortunately for the FiveFingers Spyridon LS, the finished product doesn’t disappoint on either count.


Vibram FiveFingers Spyridon LS

First, the name: the FiveFingers Spyridon is named after Spyridon Louis, victor of the first Olympic marathon in 1896. Vibram has gone this route before, naming its Bikila road shoe after the man who won the Olympic marathon barefoot, and the Spyridon is an equally fitting moniker for its new trail running model. In case you’re wondering, that first Olympic marathon wasn’t contested on pavement, but on dirt trading paths and dusty farm roads winding from Marathon to Athens - so the Spyridon implies that it’s made for running on dirt, and built for high performance.



And that’s the second element of heritage that the Spyridon embraces: it takes a lot of the design aspects of Vibram’s previous running models, and combines them with new innovations that are quite impressive considering the minimalist framework under which they’re constructed. You’ll see echoes of previous FiveFingers models here, but the Spyridon truly stands alone in the FiveFingers lineup – and with that, we’ll get to the review.


Bikila on left, Spyridon on right

It’s tempting to think of the Spyridon LS as the KSO Trek 2.0; after all, that model debuted in 2010 as Vibram’s dedicated trail runner, and it featured innovations such as a thin leather upper and a slightly knobby outsole for increased durability off-road. While the Spyridon boasts more upgrades to bolster its toughness, it’s actually a closer descendant of the Bikila’s design elements in terms of overall fit and comfort. Sounds like a great combination, doesn’t it?



The most noticeable upgrade is the outsole, which features the most aggressive tread that Vibram has ever offered on FiveFingers. As you would expect, the lugs are directional to improve push-off in the forefoot and braking in the heel, and they help maintain stability quite well even in thick, sloppy mud. Traction is also very stable on gravel and loose dirt, even on steep slopes.



Layered just behind the outsole – and visible through a small window on the instep portion - is a heavy duty molded polyester mesh layer that functions as a flexible rock plate, providing additional puncture resistance and dispersing sharp impact across a broader surface area. At 3.5mm thick, the outsole is one-half mm thinner than the outsoles of both the Bikila and KSO Trek.



What’s remarkable about these two innovations is that they provide a significant improvement in traction and impact protection without compromising any of the minimalist specs that Vibram is famous for. At 3.5mm thick, the Spyridon LS outsole is a half-mm thinner than the outsoles of both the Bikila and KSO Trek, and the overall weight of 6.8 oz is almost equal to the 6.7-oz Trek (but one ounce heavier than the Bikila). Best of all, the rock barrier doesn’t limit the shoe’s flexibility, and only marginally compromises its ground feel.



Above the outsole, the Spyridon has a non-removable 3mm EVA footbed, making a total standing height of less than 7mm. Fit of the shoe is comfortable all around the foot, with seamless interior construction, a soft interior lining, and just enough padding around the ankle collar – all taken straight from the Bikila blueprint. I frequently wear these sockless, but my preference is to use socks if the weather is cold or if I plan to be running for more than 90 minutes or so.



Fit is further dialed in with an elastic lacing system (first introduced on the Bikila LS) for customized tension across the midfoot. In my opinion, this is one of the best innovations Vibram has made in the past year, and I’m happy to see the “LS” tagged onto the name “Spyridon” with this shoe – one of those heritage points I mentioned at the top.



Like the Bikila, the Spyridon LS upper utilizes Coconut Active Carbon for breathability and odor control, but the fabric is slightly thicker than either the Bikila or the thin leather KSO Trek – making it a little better for warmth, but not as good for ventilation. Vibram’s fabric uppers have historically been more prone to punctures than the super-durable kangaroo leather, but in my testing I haven’t had any problems – although I should add a disclaimer that I haven’t done a whole lot of rugged bushwhacking in to give the uppers an extreme test.



What I have done is log about 150 miles on fire roads and single track, on groomed and technical trails, in dry or sloppy conditions, and I’ve had a hard time finding trails that the Spyridon LS can’t handle. It combines the best of Vibram's design and construction elements to date, and is a worthy successor to the ever-increasing Vibram heritage of minimalist running shoes.

The Vibram FiveFingers Spyridon LS retails for $120 from TravelCounty.com.


*Product provided by Vibram
**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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February 27, 2012

New CLIF Builder's Bar Flavors; CLIF Builder's Bar Giveaway

In some ways, today’s review and giveaway originated nearly a couple of years ago – so if you can do me a favor and imagine the screen reverbing for a few seconds, I’ll get right to my back story.

On my first visit to CLIF Bar headquarters, one of the many cool things the company reps allowed us to do was raid the in-house stash of CLIF products that are available to employees free of charge on an everyday basis (I know, right?). While stuffing my box like a maniac, my eye fell on a couple of Builder’s Bars I hadn’t seen before: Lemon and Vanilla Almond flavors. I packed a few of them home with me, and when my wife and I tried them, we were in love. (With the bars, I mean. But with each other too – I'd better clarify that. Basically there was a lot of love going around.)

CLIF geek heaven

Part of what we liked about them was that the flavors were pretty unique in the world of “10 variations of chocolate” that most brands pushed upon the market. I’ve documented how my wife in particular uses Builder’s Bars as breakfast quite often, and her favorite flavor was lemon, because she likes starting the day with a fruity taste as opposed to a chocolate one. I was partial to vanilla almond for basically the same reason – in general, I like my bar flavors more natural and less chocolatey. That’s not to say we don’t like chocolate – it’s just that when we get a craving for chocolate, we typically just, you know … eat some chocolate. Call us snobs, I guess.

(OK, end of back story – imagine the screen reverbing back to the present now.)

So both of us were understandably concerned when my wife called to me from the computer room several weeks ago, “Hey – the website won’t let me buy any more lemon Builder’s Bars. Is something going on with them?” Of course, I didn’t know – I’m close with CLIF, but not that close – so I fired off an e-mail to my rep.  Her reply contained the news my wife and I both feared: the lemon flavor is being phased out.

Her e-mail continued: “However, we’re introducing three new flavors very soon, so hopefully you and your wife will find a new favorite.” Which brings us to today’s giveaway.

New CLIF Builder's Bar flavors, Spring 2012

This spring CLIF introduced three new varieties of Builder’s Bars: Chocolate Chip, Crunchy Peanut Butter, and S’mores. The flavors themselves aren’t necessarily anything groundbreaking for the company, as chocolate chip and crunchy peanut butter are also original CLIF Bar flavors, and S’mores is already my kids’ favorite MOJO Bar flavor. Like all Builder’s Bars, each flavor provides 20 grams of protein and 23 vitamins and minerals to fuel you like a meal on the go or to assist in muscle recovery after intense workouts.

And for the most part, they taste exactly as you would anticipate: S’mores combines chocolate with a strong graham cracker flavor, Crunchy Peanut Butter is chock full of peanuts, and chocolate chip tastes remarkably like chomping down on a cookie. There isn’t a dud in the bunch, and if you have a soft spot for any of these flavors in particular, you’ll love the new Builder’s varieties. (In a related story, we’re locking the S’mores flavor away from our kids.)

Here’s the thing, though: even though the new flavors are wonderful, in our opinion they’re not in the same ballpark as our old favorite Lemon. It’s not a fair comparison, really – instead of apples to oranges, let's call it lemons to cookies – but unfortunately the fact that the new flavors are great doesn’t diminish our disappointment that the old ones are gone. Furthermore, if you look at the Builder’s lineup with the lemon flavor removed, here’s what you’re left with:

Chocolate
Chocolate Chip
Chocolate Mint
Chocolate Peanut Butter
Cookies and Cream
Crunchy Peanut Butter
S’mores
Vanilla Almond

In other words, something dangerously approaching “10 varieties of chocolate”, with the exception of Vanilla Almond – which, the way things seem headed, will probably be the next one to be axed.

But that’s enough griping for now, because this post is intended to end on an upbeat note: yes, we’re doing a giveaway! Maybe you’re not like my wife and me, and there’s no amount of chocolate flavors that’s too excessive. Maybe you’ll fall in love with one of these new flavors and it will be the best thing that ever happened to you. Or maybe you could care less what I think, just as long as you get to put your name in the hat at the end.

So here we go: leave a comment below this post to enter, and this weekend I’ll choose three winners at random to receive a sampler pack of the three new Builder’s Bars from CLIF. Despite my issues, I'm pretty sure you’ll love them. As always, thanks very much to CLIF for sponsoring this contest, and good luck to everybody!

*Products provided by CLIF Bar
**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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February 25, 2012

Vibram Fitness Portal; Yosemite Firefalls; Random Shots of Beauty

A couple of quick announcements before some pleasant weekend viewing before another announcement that took me completely by surprise … I know, it sounds confusing, but stick with me – it will makes sense by the time we’re done.

First, the announcements:

1. You’ve still got a few more days to get Patagonia Fall 2011 gear at 50% off from the company website. I’ve advertised this already, so I don’t need to say anything else on this one except that the sale ends on Feb 27th, so get going.



2. Yesterday I was contacted by a Vibram rep in hopes of promoting the company’s new fitness resource portal. Honestly, Vibram was kind of late to the game of providing comprehensive barefoot running instruction, as VIVOBAREFOOT and Merrell have long since been providing that service. However, Vibram’s portal is unique in that it provides information not just on running, but all varieties of barefoot fitness activities – and for what it’s worth, FiveFingers seem to be taking over the Crossfit / general fitness communities in the same manner that they’ve swept through the running community lately. And if that’s not enough to get you to click over, the site also features a pretty hardcore trainer who looks something like a female Tarzan.


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As for your weekend viewing: this time of year is part of a remarkably short window of opportunity to see one of the most unique and wondrous natural phenomena that Yosemite National Park has to offer: the illusion of fire tumbling down Horsetail Fall off of El Capitan. Of course, seeing it requires being in the park in the middle of the cold, snowy winter, which, um … isn’t really my thing. That’s why I’m happy that people make videos like the one that follows.

It’s part of the fantastic “Yosemite Nature Notes” series, and also makes reference to a discontinued man-made occurrence in the park that created a fall of fire – in this case, actual burning embers cascading down the granite cliff. It’s somewhat bizarre to think that the Fire Fall was one of the most popular attractions in the park, but a nice reassurance to think that smarter policies finally prevailed.


"Yosemite Nature Notes: Horsetail Fall" (click to play):





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Finally, this weekend’s Random Shot of Beauty is one that was absolutely unexpected:


A gymnasium that was the site of today’s Lyceum Spelling Bee, where my 5th-grade daughter prevailed over the champions from every elementary school in Monterey County. Newer readers might need a reminder that I’m something of a freak when it comes to spelling bees, so to say I was excited about this development is a bit of an understatement.



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February 22, 2012

VIVOBAREFOOT Breatho Trail Follow-Up Review

Back in January I offered a first look at the VIVOBAREFOOT Breatho Trail, running down the specs and offering my impressions of the shoe after all of 2 runs (long-ish runs, but still). At that time, the shoes weren’t available for purchase, but they are now – which seems like a good time to circle back for an updated review after giving them a much more thorough test of nearly 200 total miles.


VIVOBAREFOOT Breatho Trail

However, I’m not going to be super thorough in rehashing all the information I provided the first time around – for that, I’ll refer you to my original review from January. Rather, I’ll do a rundown of the specs and put together some observations of things that really stood out in my testing.

Here are your vital specs for the Breatho Trail:

* Weight: 9.6oz, or 9.1oz without insole
* Upper: thin breathable mesh
* Outsole construction: off-road, directional lugs
* Outsole thickness: 2.5mm base layer, with additional 4.5mm lugs
* Insole: removable, 3mm thick
* Eco: 100% vegan
* MSRP: $90

Of course, with VIVOBAREFOOT it goes without saying that the Breatho meets virtually every minimalist construction aspect that purists demand: it’s completely flat and flexible in all directions, allowing your foot to move in any way it wants to. Ground feel is surprisingly good considering the size of the lugs, especially if you take out the removable insole.



My preference is to keep the insoles in my pair, because with it removed the Breatho Trail feels a little loose and sloppy through the heel and toe box. I had this same issue with last fall’s Neo Trail as well several other minimalist shoes I’ve tested; functionally, removing the insole is like stepping up a half size in overall fit. I may consider requesting shoes a half-size smaller for reviews at some point, but for the time being I’m a pretty consistent “insole IN” kind of guy.

As the name implies, the uppers of the Breatho Trail are highly breathable and dry quite easily after immersion in water. They also appear to be quite durable as well, and very resistant to pokes and punctures while bushwhacking off trail. (Although I don’t do this terribly often; I’m also a “trail ON” kind of guy.)



Traction of the lugged outsole is really outstanding in most trail conditions including loose dirt and sloppy mud. The only issue I’ve noticed is that the rubber compound is somewhat slippery on wet rocks, so I find myself being extra careful when hopping across streams.



The outsole material has also worn down rather quickly in areas, as you can see here on my right heel – but to be fair, I destroy most shoes in this same area, so I don’t consider the breakdown to be a major concern in recommending them to others. (And before you ask: Yes, minimalist runners have heel impact – only it’s at the end of the footstrike instead of the beginning, and is more pronounced when running down steep hills.)



One quirk I can’t quite figure out is something I identified in my preview: that the laces don’t hold their tension during the course of a run, leading the upper to feel looser after a few miles. It’s weird, because the laces don’t actually come loose or untied – they just lose their grip on the neoprene liner on top of the midfoot. The laces also happen to be about twice as long as they need to be. If I had a magic wand - or if VIVOBAREFOOT listens to my feedback – I’d make the laces significantly shorter and use a different kind of material, perhaps something like New Balance’s “sausage link” laces to help them keep their grip.

The other point of feedback I mentioned in my earlier review is that the Breatho Trail weight is far higher than I like in a minimalist shoe. It’s nearly 50% heavier than equally rugged trail shoes from Vibram and Merrell – and when companies like New Balance are lowering the weight bar to amazing degrees (hint: Minimus Zero review coming soon!), it’s disappointing that VIVOBAREFOOT can’t get low, low, low, low like everybody else.



In the case of the Breatho Trail, it’s especially frustrating because in practically all other aspects, this is a fantastic shoe. Even with the weight as is, I would have no worries whatsoever about wearing these in any ultra I encounter, including distances of 100K or even 100 miles. If the shoe were a bit lighter, it would be at the head of the class in the increasingly crowded category of high-performance minimalist trail runners. As it is, the Breatho has become one of my favorite training shoes this winter.

The VIVOBAREFOOT Breatho Trail is now available for $90 from the company website.

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








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February 21, 2012

CamelBak Ultra LR Vest Review

Last summer CamelBak introduced the LR series of packs, featuring an all-new lumbar reservoir (thus the initials) that allows a more ergonomically efficient means of carrying fluid weight for extended outings.

I reviewed the Octane LR last summer, and it honestly didn’t blow me away compared to CamelBak’s standard running pack, the Octane XCT. The lumbar reservoir definitely feels comfortable against my back, but there were a couple of primary quirks I didn’t like: 1) the interface of the drink tube and reservoir wasn’t low enough to completely drain the container, and 2) the diagonal storage pockets made it somewhat difficult to access those compartments on the go.


CamelBak Ultra LR

This spring, CamelBak addressed one of those issues in the pack I’m reviewing, but not the other one. Consequently, my executive summary of the Ultra LR reads something like this: They significantly improved the cargo accessibility, but didn’t change the reservoir in the way I was hoping. If you didn’t like the LR system, this pack won’t do anything to change your mind – but if you’re a LR fan, this pack is a very nice improvement over the Octane LR.

To be sure, there are a lot of fans of lumbar packs out there. The design is a huge selling point for runners who get sore between the shoulder blades when using packs that carry the fluid weight up higher. From a biomechanical standpoint, having the fluid weight distributed horizontally across your back results in lower energy cost than having the same weight higher up the spine.


Photo from my Octane LR review, but the Ultra LR has the same issue - note the fluid level below the drink tube

From my experience, the theoretical benefits of carrying fluid lower were offset by difficulty in practical application. In addition to the quirks I mentioned above, I found the LR tricky to refill with gear in the side pockets, and difficult to clean and dry after use.


70-oz Antidote lumbar reservoir 

However, there’s no complaining about the quality of the 70-oz Antidote reservoir; if there’s one thing CamelBak does exceedingly well, it’s reservoir construction. This updated version has a new Quick Link system to detach the tube at the base for easier storage and cleaning. All the other features are standard-issue CamelBak innovations: a Big Bite valve for high-volume flow, a very easy and secure lock/unlock latch, a wide-mouth opening that seals easily with a quarter-turn, and an insulated drink tube with anti-microbial coating.

As for the storage, the Ultra LR presents something of a paradox: at 200 cubic inches, the overall capacity is less than on the Octane LR (335 cu. in.), but since it’s easily accessible, it seems like you actually have more functional space at your disposal. CamelBak went with a big structural change here, and completely took away the diagonal / vertical storage areas of the Octane LR. Instead, they expanded the diagonal side pockets and stretched a mesh pocket across the entire backside.


Patagonia Nine Trails jacket and Petzl Tikka XP2 headlamp in one pocket, with plenty of room to spare

The triangular belt pockets are similar to the ones CamelBak uses on its other running-specific packs – but on the Ultra LR, they’re enormous. There’s plenty of space to accommodate all the gels or energy bars you need, or give you a place to stuff your headlamp, gloves, arm warmers and hat when the sun comes up. You can easily scrunch a lightweight jacket into one of the side pockets; for most runs, you can have pretty much everything that you need within easy reach. Bulkier items such as midweight jackets are super easy to stuff in the mesh netting on the backside.

Dual water bottle holsters or cargo pockets; tube clips; safety whistle

Another big innovation with the Ultra LR pack is storage space on the front chest straps, similar to Nathan’s HPL 020 or the Ultimate Direction Wasp. The pockets are designed to accommodate a standard 20-oz bottle, but my preference is to use them for gear like a camera, cell phone, or map, because carrying bottles felt excessively bulky and bouncy. The pockets can be secured with a bungee drawstring to keep your cargo secure regardless of the size.


Air Channel construction in lumbar area

In addition to their exceptional reservoir construction, CamelBak also excels in creating packs that ride extremely comfortably, though fabric construction, design elements and plenty of adjustment points. The lightweight mesh of the Ultra LR feels soft and light against the back, and air channel construction (thicker on either side, thinner in the middle) allows air to circulate between the pack and your body. All of the straps are adjustable to provide a customized fit regardless of your body proportions.



As with any pack, there’s a tradeoff between cargo capacity and weight: the more room you have to carry stuff, the heavier the pack tends to be. In relation to other ultrarunning packs, the 1.15-lb Ultra LR is heavier than Nathan’s 10-oz HPL 020 but has twice the carrying capacity; in comparison to Ultimate Direction’s Wasp, it’s equal in weight with slightly less cargo space.

At an MSRP of $130, the price point of the Ultra LR is higher than similar packs, but if you like the lumbar setup and need a lot of storage space for long hours on the trail, this pack offers a unique combination of features to make the cost worthwhile. They’re also available at a slightly discounted price of $115 from Amazon.com.

*Product provided by CamelBak
**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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February 18, 2012

I Wanna Be A Slacker; Patagonia Blowout Sale; Running Water Book Winner; Random Shots of Beauty

Look what arrived just in time for the weekend …


It’s my very own Gibbon Slackline! I’m not sure what it says about me that I’m almost as excited about learning how to do this as I am to run Leadville this summer; maybe I’m tapping into a spirit of new adventures, or perhaps I’m subconsciously trying to distract myself from the anxiety of preparing for the Race Across the Sky. Whatever the case, I couldn’t wait to set this baby up and take it for a test spin as soon as it arrived.

Besides, I think there’s some element of destiny involved, because here’s a cool thing I learned: guess what term slack line practitioners often use to refer to themselves? Slackers. Hey - I’ve called myself a slacker for years! Maybe it’s all been in preparation for this activity that I didn’t even know existed not too long ago.

About that test spin, however … it turns out that I completely suck at slacklining. I’m still working on simply standing on the darn thing, let alone doing any sort of walking or other maneuvering. Who would have thought that being a slacker could be so much work? The good news, at least for the time being, is that my kids struggled with it just as much as I did, so I wasn’t completely embarrassed. The better news is that we all had fun and are all eager to keep practicing and improving. As soon as I make any progress, I’ll be sure to let you know. I’ve got a slacker reputation to maintain, you know.

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Sweet sale alert! Last month Patagonia discounted their Fall 2011 inventory to 30% off, and promptly experienced some website snafus that made it difficult for people to actually buy anything. This month, they’re determined to sell off their remaining inventory, and they’re blowing a lot of it out at 50% off through February 27.



The remaining stock isn’t quite as good as it was a few weeks ago, but it’s still pretty decent, and definitely worth a look. Even though it’s a fall/winter sale, there’s a lot of lightweight apparel that would be great for warmer months as well. Check out the sale here or by clicking the banner above. (If you happen to be a local reader, the sale is also good at our Patagonia shop in Santa Cruz - 415 River Street #C.)

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On to the Running Water book giveaway: Lecia Holley, e-mail me your address – you’re the winner! Thanks to everyone else who entered, and remember that you can find the book on Amazon.com. Thanks also to Abraham Clark for providing the contest prize.

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Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the Random Shot of Beauty; this week’s edition could be mistaken for a secluded cove on a tropical island somewhere …


… but it’s actually only a somewhat-secluded cove that’s reasonably accessible during a family hike along the Big Sur coastline. When the tide is out, you can walk around the rocks on the left to connect to a larger sandy beach area – but when the tide is high as pictured above, it becomes your own private cove. That’s my idea of wintertime fun in Monterey County.

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One last item for this extended weekend: in my last post I previewed a documentary by The Muir Project that was shot during a month-long trek along the John Muir Trail last summer.

There’s another video on their website that I found exceptionally cool - it’s basically a campfire jam like thousands of hikers have probably done in the past. The difference, however, is that most hiking groups aren’t comprised of exceptional musicians and professional filmmakers who just happen to have a full inventory of equipment with them.

When they are, moments of subtle magic can be created, such as the clip that follows below.

"JMT Campfire Performance" by The Muir Project (click to play):





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February 15, 2012

Muir Project Trailer; Running Water Book Review and Giveaway

Sure, the calendar says it’s winter, but it’s never a bad time to start thinking abut epic outdoor adventures for long sunny days ahead. On that note, today’s post offers two glimpses of the adventurous life – and in both cases, you have an opportunity to enjoy the stories in more detail for yourself at some point.

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A couple of months ago I embedded a trailer called “Almost There” by The Muir Project, which was a teaser for an upcoming feature-length documentary about a group of artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers who spent 25 days hiking 230 miles on the John Muir Trail. The clip managed to capture both the chill vibe of going off the grid for an extended period of time, as well as the epic beauty of the trail.

Their film now has an official name: Mile … Mile and A Half, and is currently in the finishing stages of editing. The filmmakers are looking to secure final funding, and have completed an official trailer to generate increased awareness of the project. The trailer follows below, and you can contact The Muir Project website to contribute and help the project get completed.

“Mile … Mile and a Half Official Trailer” by The Muir Project (click to play):



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“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him."
- John 7:38 (New International Version)

This next outdoor adventure has a very similar premise to another I recently reviewed: it’s the story of a guy who runs across America.

However, the manner of Abraham Louis Clark’s journey is about as fundamentally different than Marshall Ulrich’s as you can imagine. Abe didn’t have a support staff or film crew to keep him company, and didn’t have an RV for shelter and comfort (a relative term in this case, but you get the idea) along the way.

Abe and Ruby on the Atlantic coast

Instead, Abe took the solo approach, and in 2010 became just the 15th person to run across America alone and unsupported. His only companion was an amazingly durable running stroller named Ruby, although he did utilize the support of others at various points along the way to replenish his food supplies and borrow an occasional warm bed or hot shower.

He also had a higher purpose in mind, as described in his book Running Water: his intent was to raise money for Living Water International to support its relief efforts in the earthquake-ravaged nation of Haiti. Abe describes himself as a “Christian-focused endurance adventure athlete”, whose mission is to take on epic adventures that will “inspire people to dream more, give more, and be more.” As an encore to his cross-country run, in 2011 Abe led a group on a 9,200-mile bicycle tour circling the lower 48 states that raised $30,000 for the creation of wells in Ethiopia.

Two epic adventures

By the end of his solo run, Abe raised nearly $90,000 for Living Water International, and Running Water is a detailed account of Abe’s remarkable journey from nervously dipping his feet in the Pacific Ocean to joyously splashing in the Atlantic roughly four months later. Along the way, he demonstrated a somewhat contradictory combination of extreme self-reliance and extensive community outreach.

On most nights, Abe slung his tent hammock anyplace he could find a secluded patch of real estate. His exploits in finding a warm dry place to sleep often border on the heartbreaking, such as when he was rousted in the middle of the night by a policeman so that he’d move his setup about 20 feet, or when he was turned away at the door of a church by a pastor who told him, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to do for you.” (Seriously.) One of the most dramatic moments happens fairly early in the trek, when Abe is forced to dig himself a snow cave to wait out a long cold night in the Rockies.

However, in various small towns along the way Abe had set up host families who took him in for a night or two, and in those situations he shared his vision and objective with anyone who would listen. He booked guest spots on radio shows, spoke to school children, and visited church groups to spread the word about Living Water International and solicit donations. (If you’re wondering, whenever he was picked up off the road, he returned to the exact same spot before resuming his run – in many cases being driven in the opposite direction he needed to be heading.)


Running Water reads like a series of journal entries from nights spent along the road, which in essence it really is. It’s a self-published work, so you’ll find the occasional typo or odd grammatical arrangement – which will be a bigger issue to some (guilty!) than to others. I found that the story frequently gets too bogged down in details – what shoes he was wearing, how his stomach and bowels were functioning, what supplies he stocked up on - while too rarely describing the larger significance of the effort.

Living Water International is certainly a worthy organization, but Abe never really describes exactly how that organization or the plight of Haiti in particular weighed upon his heart. It’s unclear if he had some prior involvement with the organization, or some other personal experience that shaped his vision, and there’s very little discussion of the actual impact that water restoration will have on the impoverished community. I found myself wanting to sit in on one of his presentations to a church group so I could hear more details about the missionary aspect of his endeavor.

Another frustration I have is that the book is chock full of photos taken along the way, but they’re all black and white, and the quality is so bad at times that it’s hard to see what’s being described in the caption. Many of the scenes such as sweeping vistas, open landscapes, or characters he met would lend themselves very well to sharp color prints, but the shots in the book don’t do them nearly enough justice.

I guess my overall reaction is that Abe’s story deserves to be told in a bigger, grander way – but Running Water is still a fairly compelling account of a remarkable adventure that supported a noble cause. The book is available for $15 from Amazon.com, and Abe has graciously agreed to provide a signed copy to one reader of my website. Leave a comment below this post to enter, and I’ll announce the winner this Saturday night. Good luck to everybody, and thanks very much to Abe Louis Clark for sponsoring this contest.



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February 13, 2012

Kickstarted

“Whoa, yeah –
Kickstart my heart, hope it never stops –
Whoa, yeah, baby … “

- Motley Crue, “Kickstart My Heart” (video after post)


The question took me by surprise a few weeks ago during a bike ride with my 13-year-old son:

Dad, who is Motley Crue?

Although he caught me somewhat off-guard, I had a pretty good idea where the question came from. One of the best decisions I ever made was to keep my stash of favorite cartoon treasuries from my childhood; once my own kids discovered them, they became transfixed by wild imagination of Calvin and Hobbes*, the absurd lunacy of The Far Side, or the pure emotion of Peanuts.

(*This is the unanimous favorite, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Calvin and Hobbes actually inspired each of my children to learn how to read. The wonderful drawings and the zany antics were absolutely mesmerizing, and my kids wanted nothing more than to figure out the words so they could follow along. Each child read the books multiple times over, and I’d even say the collection has helped shape their own personalities and sense of humor. And they say nothing important comes from the funny pages.)

Since I was also aware that my son had been making his way through my Bloom County archive in recent months, it only took me a few seconds to connect the dots to recall the source of his inquiry:

(click to enlarge)

Knowing the reason for the question didn’t make the answer any easier, though. I mean … how much do you really want to tell your kid about Motley Crue? Yes, I was a huge fan of theirs – but I was also a complete idiot back then. And as far as the band goes, there are a lot of things better left unsaid. So I decided to keep it simple:

They were a metal band that was super popular in the 1980s. They were pretty hardcore and did all kinds of wild, inappropriate stuff both on and off stage. Oh, they also wore makeup, skin-tight leather, and a ton of hair spray …

… they made some pretty killer music, though.


And for all I knew, that was the end of it. The bike ride ended, we climbed in the car and returned home, and I didn’t hear any mention of Motley Crue again.

Until Super Bowl Sunday, that is.

During the fourth quarter of the game, Kia’s A Dream Car for Real Life commercial came on, and about 20 seconds later I heard my son exclaim, “Hey Dad – it’s Motley Crue!” And sure enough, it was.

Screngrab from Kia commercial

Even though the band is something of a relic now, I stand by my earlier assertion: they made some pretty killer music. And when he heard the riffs to “Kickstart My Heart”, my son immediately agreed – and later that evening I found myself downloading some Motley Crue songs for his iPod.

As typically happens, though, I got carried away with things, and before I knew it, a few songs tuned into an entire 80s rock playlist. In my humble opinion, it’s a thing of hair metal beauty*, so of course I had to put the list on my own iPod as well – which explains why I spent most of last week punching the steering wheel to Back in Black, Livin’ After Midnight, and We’re Not Gonna Take It, (pretty classic 80s video on that last link) among other gems.

(*If there’s interest, I’ll publish the list here; I’m not above some self-inflicted ridicule every now and then.)

Yes, this kind of behavior is nostalgic and juvenile, with no tangible benefit to suggest any redeeming quality at first glance. And yet, there’s this …

Last Thursday morning I woke up at 1AM and couldn’t for the life of me fall back asleep. I got out of bed and did some work, then returned to lie under the covers for another 30 minutes or so. Finally, with the full moon shining through my window, and with a Motley Crue song bouncing around my head, I climbed out of bed, threw on some clothes and a hydration pack, and headed out into the moonlight. By the time I returned home at 6:30, I had covered 23 miles of road and trail, giving me the first 20-miler of the season on my way to my first 70-mile week in several months.

I don’t know if it was the full moon, or the mojo of Motley Crue, or simply one more idiotic thing in a long list of them I do on a regular basis - but whatever the cause, my training had definitely been kickstarted. All of a sudden, I feel like I’m in training mode again.

*
And hey – it’s Valentine’s Day!   Kickstart someone’s heart tonight.

Motley Crue, “Kickstart My Heart”, (click to play):





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February 11, 2012

The Man Who Can Fly; Random Shots of Beauty

After a full week of fantastically sunny California weather, this weekend on the Monterey Peninsula decided to turn gray and drizzly, which made for a nice excuse to sleep in and make it a lazy Saturday.

So in the spirit of sloth, today’s post will be a quick one - but don’t worry, there’s a healthy dose of mojo waiting at the end. First, however, is the Random Shot of Beauty – this one taken from a recent morning on a trail along the Big Sur coastline:


It’s a bird of some sort. A rather large bird. And it looks kind of brown. Obviously I’m not much of a bird watcher, but if anyone out there wants to take a stab at an ID on this one, here’s a fuzzy-cropped closeup of the same pic, which was the only one I got before this guy bailed out and flew away:


Have at it, birders.

**
As for your inspiration: if you happen to receive the National Geographic channel, set your recorder for Sunday at 8PM EST to check out a documentary on the incomparable Dean Potter, who has become a living legend in three different adventure sports. Whether it’s rock climbing, slacklining (yes, I’ve got this on the brain lately), or BASE jumping, Potter is one of the people consistently pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

The National Geographic feature is called The Man Who Can Fly, and it centers on a record-setting free climb and base jump from Canada’s Mt Bute. However, it also provides a nice overview to many other Potter exploits, including a somewhat controversial “first free solo” on El Capitan in Yosemite.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to check whether I even get the National Geographic channel, and I'll look forward to watching the show. Maybe I can manage to find an inspiring end to an otherwise lazy weekend.

“The Man Who Can Fly” by National Geographic (click to play):





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February 8, 2012

Gibbon Slackline Sale; Let Your Runner Flag Fly

Before today’s post, another sale announcement that I swear I didn’t coordinate in advance. In my last post I embedded two videos featuring “Sketchy Andy” Lewis, and mentioned that I’ve been jonesing to take up slacklining myself for quite a while.

Well, guess what? Today I got a notice in my inbox that there’s a flash sale on Gibbon slacklines at The Clymb, with prices of their most popular setups now 50% off. Believe me, you have no idea how badly I’m itching to add one to my cart. I’ll keep you updated if it happens - and I’ll designate someone to report here in my place if I happen to sustain some kind of brain injury as a result.

Anyway, if you’re in the same boat as me, a super deal might be just the thing to push you into this weird and crazy new sport. The offer is good until February 13 at 9AM PST. The banner below will take you to The Clymb:



**
Today’s post comes largely thanks to my friend Mike, who wrote the first draft of what follows for our most recent Monterey Herald column. It explores the subject of runners’ nearly universal need to tell the world about their athletic exploits – and yes, Mike and I include ourselves in that assertion.


Running Life 02/09/12 “Running Pride”

The next time you’re bored behind the wheel of your car, here’s a little game you can play: count the number of cars you see that display an outward sign of Running Pride. If you’re observant and know what to look for, it’s easy to find vehicles whose owners are runners and want to make sure you know it.

The most obvious displays are bumper stickers from various marathons or other races. They’ll often include the word “finisher” or some other point of pride; in the case of our own Big Sur Marathon, they say “Hurricane Point Survivors’ Club”. These often compete for bumper space alongside stickers such as “My kid is an honor student” or “I love my Boston Terrier.”

More subtle are the small stickers you’ll see on the tailgate or sometimes in the rear window – a small round white oval with the numbers 13.1 or 26.2 in black print. This style of European descent is presumably more sophisticated, but equally reflective that running the indicated distance is an important aspect of one’s identity. And since they don’t name a specific race, they’re applicable to a wider range of races than your garden-variety bumper sticker.


Many runners have personalized license plates that proclaim their affinity to the sport they love. One local woman on the Big Sur Marathon board has the license RUNHER1, showing her pride to be a woman runner. Another friend who is a marathon maniac has the license 26.2X200, indicating he has run 200 marathons. The obvious downside of a plate like this is that it’s quickly outdated – if it were truly accurate, our friend’s license would now say 220, as that’s his current total. Oh, by the way, this indefatigable friend of ours is over 70 years old.

One of our training partners is a local physician who has some very impressive marathon times on his resume, thereby justifying his license FSTRNR. However, those PRs occurred a couple of decades ago, and our friend is quick to admit that he should now get a frame that says, “Used to be,” as his speed has diminished precipitously over the years.

Only the most knowledgeable observers would recognize another of our partners as a runner; his license on a VW Rabbit with almost 300,000 miles on it says simply JUMA. About 200,000 miles ago, our friend idolized Tanzanian distance runner Juma Ikangaa, who is perhaps most famous for his quote, “The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare.” Although Juma – the real one, not our friend – won several marathons, including New York City in 1989, he would have been much more famous with just a little more will at Boston, as he finished 2nd there for three years in a row from 1988 to 1990.


If the license doesn’t reveal the runner, check the frame. Both of us have license plate frames proclaiming our identity as runners; Mike’s says “Big Sur International Marathon” and Donald’s says “Headlands 100”. (Blog author’s side note: I distinctly remember putting that frame on, because the one I took down and replaced was from the Big Sur Marathon. As soon as I saw the new one in place, it seemed official: I was an ultrarunner. And yes, I wrote a post about it.) A friend of ours in Salinas has a custom frame listing all the years he did both the Boston and Big Sur Marathons, with writing on all 4 sides: “Boston Marathon 89 90 91 92, etc … Big Sur Marathon 90, 91, 94, 95 … ” It goes on like that for a while; our friend almost needs two frames.

If you’re tired of the car game, another easy way to pick a runner out of a crowd is e-mail addresses. Many of our friends have digital identities that peg them as runners or triathletes – here are a few of them (without the service provider) to give you a sampling: iggi26, flyin.brian, mickrunbike, runsophia, trigirlcali, whosrunning, runninglegz, idomarathons, getnfaster, draco26p2, 5kfred, rle26.2, calina.runnergirl, and so on. Some other runners have e-mail addresses that only “true” running friends know reveal their best time in various events, such as “pratt245” from a 2:45 marathoner or “jvalen1733” from a 17:33 5K racer, or “jruss836” indicating a world-class steeplechase time.

Of course, speed is not just measured in numbers; sometimes it’s described in adjectives, too. This reminds us of our favorite e-mail address from a two-time Olympian who trained on the Monterey Peninsula with the now-defunct Big Sur Distance Project. One day he asked for constructive feedback on his professional resume, as he was looking for “real” employment to supplement his running income. It only took one glance for us to find the first suggestion for change: his e-mail address at the top of the page was fastassh!# ... but with the last two letters uncensored. While it may have been a fantastic running moniker, it certainly seemed to prohibit him from landing any job offers.

In most cases, though, there’s absolutely no harm in letting your runner flag fly, so feel free to tell the world about the activity you love. Who knows, maybe you'll inspire somebody to train for a sticker of their own.



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February 6, 2012

VIVOBAREFOOT Flash Sale; Outdoor Inspiration From the Super Bowl (Yes, Really!)

Before today’s post, another quick sale announcement: for the next two days; you can grab some VIVOBAREFOOT shoes at great prices thanks to another flash sale at The Clymb. As typically happens, most of the men’s stuff has been spoken for, but as of this writing you can still get the Men’s Neo or Dharma for $38. Women, on the other hand, have a lot of great options, such as Evos for $45, Neos for $38, and Neo Trail for $58. The sale ends February 9th at 9AM PST or whenever inventory is gone – so check out the sale here or follow the banner below:



**
I promise, this won’t be your standard-issue Super Bowl commercial recap post.

I mean … it kind of will be, because, yes, our starting point is the commercial entertainment from yesterday’s big game. But fortunately, this year there were a few clips that kinda-sorta loosely tie into one of my favorite website themes: getting outside and indulging your sense of adventure. And when you get that kind of feeling from one of the most collectively sedentary evenings in America, there might be something worth sharing.

My rundown is also somewhat atypical in that I’m not showing any commercials that actually aired during the game. In fact, the first one didn’t even air during the broadcast – rather, it was Merrell’s so-called “Facebook Super Bowl commercial” that promotes its highly-diverse Barefoot line of footwear. It strikes the ideal combination of catchy tune, cool activity, and beautiful backdrops – and it also left me wondering how many weeks I have left until I can go hiking in the Sierras again.

"A Merrell Athlete in All of Us" by Merrell (click to play):



*
It’s not often that I can say I’m looking forward to a Super Bowl halftime show, but this year I was more than a little bit eager to see the festivities. I wasn’t especially interested in Madonna, M.I.A., LMFAO or CeeLo … but instead, I wanted to see the guy in the toga.

Here’s a brief back story: I’ve been lobbying for a little while to install a slackline somewhere in our yard, but for some reason the prospect of paying money to obtain something that might potentially break somebody’s limb is a tough sell for my wife (or as I sometimes think of her, the Committee of Common Sense). So when I heard rumors that a slackliner was going to perform onstage, it seemed like it might be a good conversation starter. However, in hindsight, I’m not certain whether the antics of a guy commonly known as “Sketchy Andy” did my case more harm than good.

"Super Bowl Halftime 2012" (click to play; Andy's only on for 30 seconds, so you can quit early if you're sick of Madonna):



*
If you didn’t happen to know who Andy Lewis was before the Super Bowl, here are two options for you: this quickie article in today’s Slate, and this somewhat heart-stopping video that I definitely shouldn’t publish if I ever stand a chance of winning my home slackline campaign.

"Sketchy Andy Official Teaser" by Sender Films (click to play):



*
And finally, transitioning from the newest athletic pastimes to the most established ones is this gem from NBC Sports that appeared immediately after the game, and touches on the notions of ambition and dedication through team sports or individual pursuits. I think it strikes a particular chord with me because at some point or another, I was nearly every single one of these kids while growing up – all except the part where they make it to the professional level, of course. Thank goodness I still have ultras to keep me dreaming.

"The Next Ones" by NBC Sports (click to play):





So there's my commercial recap ... did I miss anything that inspired you?


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February 4, 2012

Merrell Barefoot Gear Giveaway; The North Face Winter Sale; Random Shots of Beauty

Two brief items of interest before our regularly scheduled Random Shot of Beauty …

*
I’m a little bit late with this announcement, but to help celebrate their new spring Barefoot line, Merrell is having a month’s worth of free giveaways throughout February. All you need to do is register a name and e-mail address and you’re entered in each day’s drawing of a barefoot gear gift pack, valued at $170. Head over to this Merrell page to enter, and good luck!

*
I haven’t reviewed much apparel from The North Face, but their Apex ClimateBlock Jacket that I tested last year is still one of my favorite winter running garments. If you happen to be a big North Face fan and want to grab some discounted cold-weather items, Backcountry.com currently has their entire inventory of The North Face 2011 winter apparel on sale, in some cases up to 40% off. Check out the sale here or by clicking the banner below:





*
On to this weekend’s Random Shot of Beauty, from another beautiful winter’s day in Monterey:

(click to enlarge)

Sailboats on the bay, as seen from Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove during an outing this afternoon with the kids on the coastal recreation trail. There was a fair amount of exercise involved for me, but it wasn’t running, hiking, biking, or even geocaching; I’ll explain more in an upcoming review post sometime.

Until then, whether you prefer powdery slopes or sunny seascapes, may your groundhog-mandated six more weeks of winter be enjoyable.



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February 1, 2012

RunAmocs Across the Sky

One of the first e-mails I sent after signing up for Leadville was to Soft Star. I had a favor to ask … and I thought I knew what the answer would be, but for reasons I’ll explain shortly, I wasn’t 100% certain.

Last year, I hemmed and hawed and postponed making a decision about what footwear to use for my 100-mile trail run until virtually the last possible moment. This year, it’s one of the easiest decisions I’ve made; I want to run Leadville in Soft Star RunAmocs.

It’s only fitting to do the Race Across the Sky in a pair of minimalist shoes; after all, in many ways Leadville can be considered Ground Zero for the whole minimalist revolution. As chronicled in Born to Run, the Tarahumara dominated the race in the early 1990s wearing nothing more than old-school huarache sandals. An executive named Tony Post was at the 1994 race representing Rockport shoes, attempting an ill-fated sponsorship deal with the Tarahumara. That project fell through, but Post’s experience would ultimately lead to his joining a little company called Vibram, and eventually becoming its United States CEO.

Barefoot Ted at Leadville 2010; photo from Ted's website

Fast forward to the modern era, where Barefoot Ted McDonald – who figured prominently in the Born to Run story – debuted Vibram’s FiveFingers KSO Trek at the Leadville 100 in 2009. The following year he ran large portions of the course completely barefoot, and when he used footwear, it was his homemade Luna sandals. (He now markets Luna sandals to the public, and I have a pair I’m testing for review this spring.) One of his pacers was none other than Born to Run author Christopher McDougall, who wore his own pair of Lunas for his entire 4-hour night shift on the trails. Last summer Barefoot Ted and his pacers all completed the race again in Lunas.

Leadville is also the favorite proving ground of one Anton Krupicka, an ultrarunner of distinction who is known for his blazing speed and his minimalist lifestyle. He also has a longstanding habit of carving and slicing his running shoes until the platform is flattened and every ounce of unnecessary material is eliminated. Krupicka (as well as a roster of ultra studs) recently joined forces with New Balance, resulting in the most impressive lineup of reduced and minimalist high-performance trail shoes on the market today. (Before you ask: yes, I have the Minimus Trail Zero, and a review is coming soon.)

Leadville champion Anton Krupicka: minimalist style, maximal performance; photo from Leadville race website

The point of all this is to say that unlike some other ultras, showing up at Leadville in minimalist footwear isn’t going to strike anyone as particularly unusual. But it’s one thing for Anton Krupicka, Barefoot Ted, and the legendary Tarahumara to demonstrate that less is more … and completely another for some idiot from California to try doing the same. I have a few 100-milers under my belt, but I’m by no means an expert at this distance. I don’t have any experience at high altitude, and my prospects of getting any before race day are exceedingly slim. In other words, there’s a very real possibility that the whole thing could end badly.

That’s why I decided to e-mail Soft Star and run the sponsorship idea by them again. I figured that if I somehow ended up battered, broken, and passed out on a mountain trail somewhere, it wouldn’t exactly be a soaring endorsement of the company whose gear and logo I was wearing at the time of my demise.

But as I said at the top, I had a feeling about what their answer would be. Part of the Chief Elf’s reply to me went something like this: Leadville?!! That is a really exciting goal – it sounds just … well … COOL.  And CRAZY.  And if you want to run in RunAmocs, we would be honored to sponsor you.

Tahoe Rim Trail, summer 2011

So with that, Team Soft Star rides again in 2012! And if I manage to make it to the finish line in Leadville this August, it will be a privilege to add one more footnote to the ongoing saga of minimalist runners at one of the most challenging courses in the world. Between now and then, I’ve got a lot of training miles ahead of me – so if you happen to encounter a crazy-looking dude running down some remote trail in moccasins and a Soft Star shirt this spring or summer, feel free to say hi.

*
One more note on Soft Star: effective tonight, they have a brand new website for your shopping enjoyment. It has a cleaner, more modern look to it, and is supposed to be faster to navigate. There are also some cool features like shoe comparisons (especially with their collection of RunAmocs), an easier Design Your Own interface (many Soft Star customers get pretty creative with colors), and lots of product details for every model.

The only bad news was that I had to re-do all of my links to their product pages – so please make it worth my while by heading over to the new Soft Star website to take a look around.




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