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March 31, 2012

Random Shots of Beauty

Kind of a slow weekend around Running and Rambling HQ, where it was yet another "curl up on the couch and read a book" afternoon - because for the third Saturday in a row, rainy and windy weather have foiled my plans at slacklining.

On the other hand, weekdays have remained relatively clear lately, so I've been able to spend plenty of early mornings and late afternoons on the trails - and one of those afternoons gave me this weekend's Random Shot of Beauty. Apologies for the poor quality from my crummy camera phone, but you'll get the general gist of this one:

The return of sheep to Fort Ord, officially marking the beginning of spring in Monterey County - as well as the time for me to officially get serious about training.

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March 28, 2012

New Balance Minimus Zero Road Review and Giveaway

New Balance was the first major player in the running shoe industry to embrace the minimalist movement - and thanks to their slow-boil marketing campaign (aided at times by this website), their Minimus Road and Trail models were perhaps the highest-profile releases of 2011.

Unfortunately for purists like me, the shoes were just a’ight; they had some compelling features - especially the trail model, with one of the most comfortable upper materials ever – but also some fatal flaws such as a higher stack height than I’d like, and a 4mm heel to toe drop that I wasn’t wild about. From my standpoint, they were more properly categorized as transitional shoes than minimal – but apparently the name “Transitionus” isn’t as sexy as the one they already had.

To their credit, New Balance took all of that feedback and gave both their road and trail models a significant makeover – and I’m happy to report that they’ve addressed pretty much all of the drawbacks from last year’s models. The new versions aren’t entirely perfect, but they’re certainly minimalist in virtually every way that matters. New Balance even refined the name a bit, to Minimus Zero, with the “Zero” part reflecting that they’ve fixed that heel to toe drop that bothered me the first time around.

And now for the big news: four of my readers will have a chance to try a pair for free. I’m picking one male and one female winner to win a pair of New Balance Minimus Zero Roads after this review, and when we get to the Zero Trail review soon, we’ll do the same thing there as well. Yahoo!

New Balance Minimus Zero Road

So let’s get to today’s review, featuring the New Balance Minimus Zero Road shoe. It weighs in at 6.4 oz and has a similar fit and last as 2011’s Minimus Trail, which was definitely the more comfortable of New Balance’s two offerings last year.

New Balance even adopted the same dual-density mesh from last year’s Minimus Trail to this year’s Minimus Zero Road. This upper is extremely comfortable against the skin, breathes very well in warm weather, and sheds water quickly after becoming wet. The toe box is roomy enough for your toes to splay naturally on footstrike, and the length runs true to size.

The upper is most distinctive for its burrito-wrap closure in place of a standard tongue. A few other companies have tried this in the past (such as the Brooks Green Silence), and it typically involves a bit of a tradeoff between comfort and stability.

There’s no question that the burrito style is comfortable, and with one less seam running along the top of your foot, there’s less potential for skin irritation while running sockless. Between the material and the design, the Zero Road has one of the most comfortable uppers I’ve felt on a road shoe.

The downside of this design is that overall stability can be compromised, and in my testing I did note some movement of my foot inside the upper, especially when running at high speed (well … relatively high. You know what I mean.). The Zero Road uses varied fasteners to help customize the fit – standard oval-shaped eyelets on one side, and fabric loops on the other – but even with the laces cinched tightly I had a bit of lateral displacement while running, particularly in the forefoot area.

Another factor in the stability issue is the lack of significant overlays on the upper, which is great for decreasing weight and improving ventilation, but not so good for keeping the foot in place on top of the insole. Overall, the amount of movement wasn’t terrible, but it’s consistent enough and noticeable enough to be worth a caveat here.

As mentioned, most of my movement was in the forefoot; in contrast, the heel region of the Minimus Zero is dialed in for a great fit, with a thinly padded ankle collar and a low profile around the ankle bones. The lining of the heel and the entire interior surface is very comfortable against the skin, and I’ve had no problem at all in going sockless.

Midsole height of the Zero Road is a uniform 10mm from heel to toe, which combines with the outsole for a total standing height of roughly 12mm; this is comparable to Merrell’s Barefoot line, and much lower than Altra’s Instinct (and women’s Intuition) as well as recent releases from SKORA (reviews coming soon). Ground feel is noticeably better with the New Balance than with Merrell, because …

… outsole rubber is used very sparingly, similar to what Vibram does with its Bikila models. The red portions above are EVA foam which runs the length of the shoe, and the white is Vibram rubber. This particular rubber compound is softer than the Vibram outsole on Merrell shoes, so durability may be an issue after a few hundred miles (I currently have about 150 on mine, and there’s no problem yet). The outsole tread is fine for standard road use, but I’ve found that traction is somewhat lacking on slick asphalt, and especially on fire roads or gravel.

The predominance of EVA in the midsole also makes the shoe extremely flexible, as does the entire overall construction. From a natural running standpoint, New Balance has all the boxes checked: light weight, roomy toe box, flat and low platform, and freedom of foot movement in all directions.

Finally, if you’re scoring at home for a comparison between Merrell’s Road Glove and New Balance’s Minimus Zero Road, here’s a quick tale of the tape: the Road Glove is slightly heavier, with a better forefoot fit, and better for hybrid road/trail use; the Minimus Zero Road is lighter, with better ground feel on roads but worse traction overall. Both are very comfortable for extended mileage with or without socks. I tend to reach for the Zero Road when I’m doing a tempo run or other speed work, and the Road Glove when I’m looking to bang out a high-mileage morning while keeping the option of going off-road if the spirit leads me.

The New Balance Minimus Zero Road retails for $109 from TravelCountry.com. However …

… it’s giveaway time! New Balance has agreed to give away one pair of men’s shoes and one pair of women’s shoes to winners chosen randomly from the comments below. We’re doing our “major” contest rules here: you get one entry for any comment in the box, plus another for a link to this post from your blog, and a third for a link from Facebook or Twitter. When you enter, let me know how many entries you get, and please leave URLs so I can verify. Winners will be announced Saturday night, April 7th.

One more ground rule to keep things simple: if you’re a guy, you’re in the contest for the men’s shoes, and if you’re a girl, you’re in the contest for the women’s shoes. In other words, no “I’m entering for my spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend” on this one – you’re entering for YOURSELF. Also, please do me a favor if you have an androgynous name and let me know which contest I should drop you in.

Very big thanks to New Balance for sponsoring this contest, and good luck to everybody!

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

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March 24, 2012

Random Shots of Beauty; CLIF Ultrarunning Mojo

Spring is a special time of year in Monterey County, so you can appreciate why I feel a bit more, uh … spring in my step lately. Knowing that, and recognizing my borderline phobia of winter, it might also seem odd that today’s post has a distinctively snowy theme.

We’ll kick things off with our Random Shots of Beauty:

Fremont Peak in the Gabilan Mountains – they’re only about 3000’ tall, but that’s what we call them - with a dusting of snow after a freak late-season storm last weekend.  Fremont Peak is the eastern sentinel of the Salinas Valley, and to the west …

… would be Mount Toro, also covered in snow. Fortunately, the snow never quite made it down to the valley floor (it almost never does), which is precisely the way I like my winters: as a postcard view rather than something I actually have to deal with.

And now for a snow-related helping of mojo: because I write so often and generally so glowingly about the CLIF Company, every now and then someone makes a comment to me like, “You know, CLIF Bar should sponsor you.”

Well, here’s the main reason they don’t: they’ve already got real ultrarunners onboard. One of whom, Geoff Roes, happens to be among the very best in the world. Roes is also noteworthy in that he doesn’t have nearly the same issues with snow that I do – in fact, he seems to relish pushing himself in extreme winter conditions, as this mind-boggling report should make clear.

Recently CLIF Bar released a video of Roes explaining his love of exploration and adventure, and how he completely loses himself by becoming one with the wilderness in the midst of a long training run. Those points I can relate to. It’s the fact that half of this video is filmed in conditions that would have me curled up under an electric blanket that makes me appreciate just how large the “toughness” gap is between guys like him, and everyday slacker ultrarunners like me.

“Team CLIF Bar Ultrarunner Geoff Roes” by CLIF Bar (click to play):

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March 21, 2012

Signs of Trouble?

"You don't know what it's like, you don't have a clue -
If you did you'd find yourself doing the same thing too -
Breaking the law, breaking the law -
Breaking the law, breaking the law ... "

- Judas Priest, "Breaking the Law" (video after post):

*On the very remote chance that this post is read by somebody who is influential and bored enough to hold me accountable for what I’m going to describe, I’m gonna go ahead and slap a disclaimer here to say the following post is a work of fiction. At least as far as you can prove.


For the overwhelming majority of my day to day life, I try to be an upstanding member of society; it’s only when I’m running that I have a tendency to skirt around the rules.

(OK, maybe when driving also – but that’s a separate story.)

My disobedience is typically justified – to me, anyway – for one of two reasons: 1) the rule simply doesn’t make any sense, or 2) I’m too senseless to care. (Additionally, it’s worth noting that my wife recently described me as a “screw the establishment” guy, which probably factors into this little story as well. But that’s as far as I’m going with the psychoanalysis.) During any given run I embark on, it’s quite likely that I’ll break the rules for at least one of the reasons I mentioned above – and if the run is long enough, both of those reasons can easily come into play. Allow me to explain – and who knows? Maybe in a similar situation, you’d find yourself doing the same thing too.

Here’s an example of reason #1: a signpost at a trail entrance to the Fort Ord open space in Salinas - as seen at 3:30AM. A handful of these prohibitions were installed over the past several months, to crack down on … I’m not exactly sure. I’ve done pre-dawn runs here for at least 10 years prior to the existence of these signs, but apparently this year it’s against the rules. I’m not quite sure what happened in the off-season, but now my activity presumably makes me some kind of menace.

At first I thought it was a liability thing – like if someone happened to be mauled by a mountain lion in the middle of the night, he (or his surviving family) might turn around and sue the Bureau of Land Management who oversees the open space. However, you’re equally likely to suffer an animal-related trauma at midday – and for the record, my running group’s most recent mountain lion sightings out here have been around lunchtime - especially when you consider that rattlesnakes are generally still sleeping at 4AM. So you can’t really use liability as a rationale.

Then I thought perhaps the neighbors had an issue with people scurrying around behind their houses in the dark. This one seems a little shaky as well, because there’s really only a couple of streets that border access points to the public trails, and it’s not like I’m making a whole lot of noise when I’m shuffling by their homes. If someone happens to hear me, I’m almost positive that they were already awake when I got there. And once I’m past the houses, there are literally thousands of undeveloped acres where I can’t bother a soul; I could lead a marching band out there at 4AM without being noticed.

(The whole idea begs another question, of course: who’s going to enforce a “no running in the dark” rule? Will there be a graveyard patrol roaming the trails throughout the night? Will someone chase me if I run past an entry point one morning? Come to think of it, that might be kind of nice – I wouldn’t mind some company out there every now and then.)

Most of the time I’m not even using my headlamp when I pass the homes, which speaks to the appeal of running in Fort Ord in the dark; the trails are so wide and the landscape so open that I can run almost exclusively by moonlight. I wear a lamp just in case I wander into some heavy tree cover or tricky single track, but for the most part it stays off – and as soon as the first sliver of daylight peeks over the Gabilan mountains on the far side of the Salinas Valley, I tuck the lamp in my pocket for good.

A few hours and several miles later, I often encounter another type of sign that I disregard:

It says, “DANGER.  DO NOT ENTER. This site is being investigated for ordinance and explosives.” Sounds pretty convincing, huh? I’ve written before about how Fort Ord is one giant munitions dump, with shells and casings lying around pretty much everywhere you look. The great fear, of course, is that some of the ammo on the ground is still live, which could obviously create a huge bummer for anyone unlucky enough to trip a landmine or step on a grenade somewhere.

The Army is gradually going through and clearing every square mile, but it’s an extremely laborious and time-consuming process that could take 20 years or more to complete. In the meantime, it’s not uncommon to find one of these signs on a seldom-used trail, basically warning you that there’s no guarantee you’ll make it through the next section in one piece.

Under normal circumstances, that’s enough reason for me to find another trail – but sometimes at the end of a long run I’m just looking for the most direct route to my end point, and my glycogen-depleted brain dismisses whatever risk might be involved. Last week, I found myself here at roughly mile 24, knew I was at least 7 miles away from my car, then looked at my watch and calculated that I had to be at work in about an hour and a half. Taking the long way around wasn’t an option, so I headed directly past the sign and into the unknown; I figured that if I blew up, at least I’d have an excuse for not showing up at work. At the time, that reasoning made perfect sense.

By the time I return to my car, I’m a law-abiding citizen again: the sun has come up to officially “open” the trails, and the paths that guide me home have long since been cleared of any danger underfoot. And if anyone official-looking should happen to ask me where I’ve been, I’ll probably just reply that I’ve enjoyed another beautiful morning on some of my favorite trails.

But as far as I’ll officially say on the record, this whole story has merely been a sleepy dream.

Although I haven't technically broken any laws, this song seemed appropriate considering that I haven't gotten around to posting my 80s metal playlist yet. I'll still try to get to it sometime - but until then, rest assured that this one made the cut.

Judas Priest, "Breaking the Law" (click to play):

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March 19, 2012

Vibram FiveFingers SeeYa Review

Recognizing that I’m often quick to criticize some minimalist shoes for being heavier than they should be, I should also point out that the opposite end of the spectrum isn’t necessarily perfect, either. Each ounce and every tiny bit of structure that is removed will have a resulting impact on the shoe’s function and performance – and whether or not this is a good thing depends on what you’re looking for in a particular type of footwear.

Vibram FiveFingers SeeYa

Case in point is the Vibram FiveFingers SeeYa, which is new for Spring 2012. You’ve heard of a man’s man? The SeeYa is a minimalist’s minimalist shoe. It’s the lightest FiveFingers model Vibram has ever created, with a lower profile and bare-bones structure that make them the next best thing to having nothing at all on your feet. However, that doesn’t automatically make them my favorite shoe, because the SeeYa’s stripped-down design does limit the types of activity it is best suited for, especially in comparison to other Vibram models.

From a performance standpoint, the SeeYa was designed as a one-trick pony: it’s intended for experienced minimalist runners who do the majority of their running on roads. Although you could probably use it as a casual walking around shoe, the simplest description is that this shoe was built for road running and not much else. And since I’ve previously described a previous Vibram model, the Bikila LS, as the ultimate minimalist road shoe, it’s helpful to describe the SeeYa in terms of how it compares to the Bikila.

Bikila on left, SeeYa on right

As mentioned earlier, the most significant spec on the SeeYa is its weight – at a mere 4.8oz per shoe, it’s more than a full ounce lighter than the 6.0-oz Bikila. If you want to know where the difference lies, look everywhere: the upper material, outsole material, and overall construction are all aspects where the Seeya comes in lighter (or lesser, as the case may be) than its predecessor.

On the upper, the SeeYa uses a super-thin and lightweight polyester stretch fabric. It’s about as thick as a pair of dress socks, and just about as flexible. The material is so stretchy that it’s very easy to slide your toes in the boxes quickly, which is a very nice improvement over the original Bikila, whose upper was restrictive for folks with high arches or other foot-shape oddities. Trust me, you won’t have any difficulty getting your feet in to the SeeYas.

Like the rest of the upper, the top strap of the SeeYa is much lighter and leaner than the Bikila strap. Truthfully, I find this strap pretty much ineffectual when it comes to tightening the fit, and Vibram probably could have just shaved more overall weight by eliminating the top strap altogether – especially because …

… when I tried to tighten the strap too much, the result was usually a small blister on my instep, like this one after a 7-mile track workout. You have to click/enlarge the photo above to see it, but the spot where the strap pulls the instep material tight becomes a point of irritation with a tight strap.

In addition to being thin and stretchy, the upper is basically bereft of any supportive structure; there’s practically no heel counter, no stability overlays, and very little material (like the leather and padding around the ankle on the Bikila) that isn’t completely collapsible.

The good news with this minimal upper design is that it makes the entire shoe light and flexible; the bad news is that if the fit is bad, there’s not much you can do to adjust it. Unfortunately, the fit of the SeeYas is not ideal for me; most notably, the heel area feels loose, and if I’m doing any sort of lateral movement – even just running around the curve of a track – I can feel my heel sliding a bit inside the upper. Probably my biggest criticism of the SeeYa is that the material in the heel area should be a lot more snug, or there should be a bit more structure in place there like a sturdier heel counter.

Vibram also modified the SeeYa outsole to shave weight, although the blueprint remains very similar to the pattern used on the Bikila. The same TC1 rubber from other FiveFingers models is used for the gray pods, with blue TPU running the length of the shoe underneath the pods.  In my testing it felt like the outsole of the SeeYa isn’t quite as grippy as other Vibram running models - in particular, I noticed a small amount of slipping on an all-weather track, and on a couple of occasions where the road or track surface was wet, I had noticeably less traction in the SeeYa than I normally do in Bikilas.

The outsole of the SeeYa also seems thinner than on other models – but curiously, Vibram doesn’t list the thickness of the SeeYa outsole on its official specs. I’d estimate it to be in the 2-3mm range compared to the Bikila’s 4mm podded areas; combined with a 3mm insole, you’re looking at a total standing height of approximately 5-6mm, which is among the lowest Vibram has created.  (*UPDATED: per my Vibram rep, the standing height is probably 6.2mm: 1mm for the TPU, 2.2mm for the TC1 rubber areas, and 3mm for the insole. I was pretty close.)

Everything you see in blue on the outsole is TPU, which is unique to the SeeYa, and is lighter and more flexible than rubber, contributing even more to the SeeYa’s decreased weight and improved flexibility. The net result of thinner and more flexible construction is that ground feel of the Seeyas is unquestionably the best of any FiveFingers model I’ve tested. The tradeoff is that you lose a bit of the protective feel the Bikilas had, but for the intended audience of experienced minimalist road runners, this shouldn’t be such a big deal.

So let’s review the pros and cons in a nutshell …

Good SeeYa: super light, flexible, easy to put on, amazing ground feel

Bad SeeYa: insecure heel fit, ineffective top strap, diminished traction

Like I mentioned at the top, the question of whether or not the spec distinctions of the SeeYa are an advantage is up to you. My preference is to stick with the overall comfort and fit of the Bikila for long (>10 mile) outings, but for shorter runs I really enjoy the improved ground feel of the SeeYa. Although it’s somewhat one-dimensional, Vibram’s stated goal of creating a shoe for dedicated minimalist runners – the minimalist’s minimalist shoe – is fairly well fulfilled with the SeeYa.

Vibram’s FiveFingers SeeYa is available for $100 from TravelCountry.com.

*Product provided by Vibram. 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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March 17, 2012

Bear Naked Trail Mix Winners; Random Shots of Beauty

"What a cold and rainy day -
Where on Earth is the sun hid away?"
- 10,000 Maniacs, "Like the Weather" (video after post)

Keeping things short and sweet on a cold and rainy California weekend - but we do have a giveaway to wrap up, so here goes ... *~*~*Tracy and gregoryboytos, e-mail me your contact info - you've won the Bear Naked trail mix giveaway! Thanks to everyone else who entered, and to Bear Naked for sponsoring the contest.


Today's Random Shot of Beauty also doubles as a not-so-random reason why my family wasn't practicing on our slackline today:

The ridge line looking across Carmel Valley from my house - where the color of the sky as far as we could see was cold gray, bringing a steady downpour of much needed rain as well as a welcome reason to enjoy a lazy day indoors.

My girlfriend got me into this band when we were dating, and they became one of the first "bands with a conscience" that I fell really hard for back in the late 80s and early 90s. Combine that with the fact that the girlfriend became my wife, and there will always be a soft spot in my heart for Natalie Merchant and company.

10,000 Maniacs, "Like the Weather" (click to play):

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March 15, 2012

Jabra SPORT and Jabra CLIPPER Review

Before diving into this review, keep in mind my standard disclaimer: I know practically nothing about tech stuff. I use gadgets like I use my car: I know how to turn them on and operate them, but I really have no idea how they function, or what distinguishes good components from bad ones. And honestly, I kind of prefer it that way.

So when I was contacted about testing a couple of Bluetooth devices, obviously I was a little bit intimidated. Under normal circumstances I would have declined, but then fate intervened – unfortunately, it was in the form of a California Highway Patrolman.

Here’s the short version: I formerly had a small flip phone that I used to put in my lap and use on the speaker setting while driving. Then I got a company-issued smart phone, but the speaker volume was horribly low, and its reception with my old Bluetooth was terrible. Consequently, I couldn’t use the speaker setting or my Bluetooth while driving. More consequently, one day I got a ticket for talking on my phone. Arrrrgh.

Suddenly I was in the market for a Bluetooth, and the e-mail from Jabra just happened to fall in my inbox. I took it as some sort of outlaw karma, and agreed to test two devices: the Jabra SPORT and Jabra CLIPPER. They both work far better than my old Bluetooth – the difference is like day and night, really – and are quite easy to use. They’re also geared toward active use as well as just driving around town - as evidenced by their recently signing Ironman champion Craig Alexander as a spokesman – and are especially suited for combining music and phone access during long workouts.

They won't make you as fast as Crowie, though

Here’s some techy info on the devices: both the SPORT and CLIPPER are compatible with Apple, Android, and Blackberry devices. They use Bluetooth wireless technology with an A2DP profile (don’t worry, I had to look up what that means too), and have U.S. military grade rain, dust, and shock protection. They both have Advance Multi-use capability that allows them to connect to 2 devices simultaneously.


Jabra SPORT is a wireless Bluetooth and stereo headset for streaming music and phone calls. It’s a dual-ear system connected by a slim wire that you wear behind your neck. If you don’t have a music player nearby, the SPORT has an integrated FM radio receiver so you can scroll the dial for your favorite station. The sound quality for music is quite good, with surround sound technology and something called an AM3D Power Bass Boost for the lower ranges. All of the controls for answer/end call, play/pause, volume up/down, skip track, and workout pause are on the headset and easy to reach during activity. A single charge will last for 4.5 hours of talk time or 3 hours of music.

The SPORT has a wind-shielded microphone that protects your voice quality while on the go; I’ve used it on my mountain bike and in my car with the sunroof open, and been able to carry on conversations in both situations without the person on the other end griping about not being able to understand me. There are three different shapes of eargels to help you get your best individual fit on the receiving end.

If you really want to geek out with this, the SPORT also comes with a free download of the Endomondo Sports Tracker app, allowing you to track your workouts online – speed, distance, route mapping, all that jazz - once you’re finished. As you might have guessed, I didn’t use this, but it sounds kind of cool if that’s your thing.


Jabra’s CLIPPER is somewhat different in that it’s a small clip-on device that attaches to your shirt or jacket. It has noise-blocking in-ear headphones to enhance sound quality, with 3 different size gels for optimum fit. It can also be used with alternate headphones through a 3.5mm jack. Battery life is better than the SPORT, with a single charge lasting for 6 hours of talk time or 4 hours of music.

All of the controls for phone and music are on the clip, and the CLIPPER can automatically switch between your music and incoming calls to your phone. It also has a mobile distance alert to warn you if you’re fading out of range (approximately 10m) of your device while getting lost in the music. When using the phone, voice quality is fairly good, but from my testing not quite as clear as the SPORT.

Comparing the two, I’d say that the SPORT works better as an active phone device, and the CLIPPER has the edge as a music player. The CLIPPER doesn’t have any uploading capability, so if you’re looking for workout tracking, the SPORT is the way to go. The Jabra SPORT normally retails for $99 but is discounted to $87 at Amazon.com, and the CLIPPER retails for $60 but is significantly discounted to $40 at Amazon.com.

*Products provided by Jabra. Affiliate sales support Running and Rambling.
**If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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March 13, 2012

Bear Naked Trail Mix Review and Giveaway

It’s always fun when you can talk about getting naked in polite company, so I have a feeling today’s review and giveaway will be rather enjoyable.

That’s because the company in question is Bear Naked, whose name is officially written like the animal on the California state flag, (a naked bear, of course) but when you say it out loud, it’s a little bit racy. Go ahead, say it with me: Bear Naked. Kind of fun, right? Even better, at the end of the post you’ll have a chance to get Bear Naked yourself – but first let’s do a quick rundown of the company and the goods. (The Naked goods, that is.)

Bear Naked has been around for roughly 10 years, beginning as a shoestring operation in Connecticut before gradually expanding and migrating through health food and grocery stores nationwide. The name doesn’t actually have any sexual connotation – rather, it signifies that only pure and natural ingredients are used in their kitchen. All Bear Naked products are made with whole grains and contain no artificial flavors or preservatives, trans fat, cholesterol, hydrated oils, or high fructose corn syrup. In other words, getting Naked is extremely good for you.

Bear Naked love!  It only sounds dirty ...

The company started with a single granola mix, but has expanded to include a variety of granola-based health food products, including bars, trail mixes, cereals and cookies. My family and I enjoyed a sampling of them over the past few weeks – or more accurately, my kids enjoyed them a lot, and I ended up testing the scraps. There weren’t even that many left behind for me; it occurs to me that I need to set some ground rules for these family tasting projects sometime soon.

For example, these are Bear Naked’s new Cluster Crunch cereal flavors, Honey Almond and Maple Nut. They arrived on a Friday afternoon at my house, and didn’t survive through the weekend. I managed to sneak a small bowl of each before my kids completely devoured them; my preference is the Maple Nut flavor, but both varieties are pretty good (and to my palate, somewhat similar-tasting – but maybe I didn’t get enough to properly test,  Yes, I'm griping).

Each Bear Naked cereal has at least 18g of whole grains, 3g of fiber, and 4g of protein per serving. They’re sold exclusively at Target stores nationwide for $3.99 per box – just be sure you store them in a cupboard that’s high enough to keep them from little arms.

Next up were two bags of Bear Naked granola; the original Fruit and Nut flavor that started it all, and a new Bear Naked Fit granola that has less sugar and fat than the traditional formula. Our Fit flavor was Triple Berry Crunch, and it was chock full of large berries – not the small shriveled up kind that you find in most granolas.

My kids took to these bags as soon as the cereal ran out, and while it’s not quite as good to eat plain as the cereal, I discovered another cool use for it: mixing the granola in pancake batter. I’m the weekend pancake cook at home, and my kids were delighted to have berry granola pancakes (with the Fit variety) or banana granola pancakes (the original variety plus a chopped banana). Anything that improves my culinary skills is welcome indeed; maybe I should start calling myself the Naked Pancake Chef. Most of Bear Naked’s granola flavors are available from Amazon.com (the berry flavor is linked) if you can’t find them in local stores.

We also got to test Bear Naked’s new Pure and Natural trail mix flavors, which ended up in the snack bags of my kids’ lunch boxes on a regular basis until they were depleted. The new flavors are all awesome: Cranberry Almond, Pecan Apple Flax (fortified with Omega-3 goodness), and Chocolate Cherry. My favorite was Cranberry Almond, and my kids predictably went wild for the Chocolate Cherry. Like the granola, Bear Naked trail mixes are also available for purchase from Amazon.com (cranberry almond flavor linked).

Bear Naked calls itself the natural food company for the everyday adventurer, and I found all of their products (the ones I got my hands on, anyway) to taste very wholesome, but with great flavor that’s lacking in some other brands in this category. They’re great for taking on the go, and the granola and trail mix packs are resealable and easy to stash in a workout bag or car for an easy post-run hunger craving.  The Cranberry Almond trail mix will almost certainly be in my backpack once I start doing some longer hikes this summer.

Fortunately, the Bear Naked company also happens to be generous, which brings us to today’s contest. In conjunction with this post, Bear Naked is offering a sampling of each of the new trail mixes (pictured in the last photo) to two winners selected at random from the comments below. You know the drill here: leave a comment to enter, and I’ll pick two readers to get Naked on Saturday night, March 17th.

Thanks very much to Bear Naked for sponsoring this contest, and good luck to everyone!

*Products provided by Bear Naked
**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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March 12, 2012

Rollerblade Tempest 100 Skate Review

One of the coolest things – or perhaps it’s the only cool thing – about waiting 20 years to replace my Rollerblades is that I have a dramatic sense of just how far the technology has evolved. Whether it’s lighter material construction, enhanced comfort, improved durability, or high performance features, the skate industry is just one notch behind cycling when it comes to the speed and scope of advancement.

Accordingly, the “one boot serves all” days I knew back in the 1990s are gone forever – and instead of using the same pair of skates for every conceivable activity, there’s a large degree of specialization based on your specific needs as a skater. It makes sense, really; our shoes and bikes are built for specific uses, so why not skates? And if I want to rack up a lot of miles by skating long and fast, I want a boot that’s built in a manner suitable to the task.

Pushing max HR in Pebble Beach

That’s exactly what I have in Rollerblade’s Tempest 100 skate, which is designed for the fitness skater who wants an intense cardio challenge that will also strengthen his legs and improve his overall skate technique. It’s perfect for a long tour along the coastline, or for cruising on paved bike paths or quiet neighborhood streets. Performance features are built into the boot as well as the wheel set to maximize your ability while maintaining comfort very nicely during a long skate.

Rollerblade Tempest 100

When talking about inline skates, it’s usually easiest to start with the wheels. On the Tempest 100, Rollerblade does something it’s been experimenting with for the last couple of years: having variable wheel heights in sequence from front to back. Sometimes the middle two wheels are smaller; in this case, it’s only the second wheel from the front that has a 10mm shorter diameter – 90mm instead of 100mm for the others.

Here’s the deal with skate wheels: as a general rule, larger wheels help you roll faster and more efficiently, but smaller ones start more easily and have improved maneuverability. If you put smaller wheels in the middle of the skate, it also places the foot slightly lower to the ground, which provides a more stable platform (think of minimalist running shoes). With only the second wheel lower, the foot is angled slightly downward – and while I hate this in running shoes, it’s a nice comfort feature of inline skates.

Second wheel from front is smaller

The primary downside of having irregular sizes is that when it’s time to replace the wheels, you can’t just buy a single 100mm 8-pack – you also need to buy some 90mm wheels to replace the original setup. However, the factory wheels on the Tempest have a durometer rating of 84A, which is among the hardest Rollerblade offers, so it might take you several hundred miles before you grind these down enough to require replacement.

Inside each wheel are Rollerblade’s top of the line SG9 bearings which provide the fastest and smoothest ride possible. Bearings allow the wheel to rotate free and smooth, so higher quality bearings improve your ability to reach higher speeds with less effort, and create a longer roll with each push-off.

Fiberglass boot above aluminum frame

The wheels are held in place by an extruded aluminum frame with aircraft-quality strength, creating very effective transfer of energy between the boot and the wheels. One feature I particularly like is that the frame is laterally adjustable, so you can move the whole thing slightly medial (as I do) or lateral based on your individual biomechanics for maximal efficiency.

Fiberglass material in rear foot area

Above the wheel set, the boot is shaped by a fiberglass material that is super lightweight but highly stiff and durable. This is one of the advantages of the Tempest line over the next-step down Crossfires: thanks to the lightweight fiberglass, the 6-lb, 7-oz Tempest skates weigh roughly one pound less than Crossfires of the same size, without any performance tradeoff. As any distance runner knows, less weight means less fatigue over long miles.

There are several other design features in the Tempest boot to optimize efficiency over a long skate as well. The overall shape is narrower than most others in the Rollerblade lineup, which decreases lateral foot movement inside the boot and enhances power transfer to the wheels. Energy is also conserved with the asymmetric lacing system, which shifts the weakest (open) section of the upper to the side of the foot, leaving a solid piece of leather directly over the medial midfoot area that experiences the most tension during push-off, thus limiting excess stretching of the boot.

A Velcro power strap over the top of the midfoot helps to keep the midfoot area even more secure, and the ratchet cuff buckle at the top of the cuff can be adjusted to your comfort as well.

On the inside of the boot, Rollerblade uses a lining material called Precision 5-Star Fit, along with memory foam that gradually adapts to your foot shape for a customized fit. (Before you ask: yes, I appreciate the irony that any sort of foam and cushioning is normally anathema for my feet - but with skates, it makes a big difference. I don’t think I’m eager to try a five-fingered skate anytime soon.) Comfort is further enhanced by small front vents built into the toe bumper area to provide some ventilation and keep your foot a bit cooler while moving forward.

Cuff height of the Tempest is lower than Rollerblade’s standard boot height. This will initially make them feel unstable if you’re used to standard boots, but will eventually serve to strengthen your ankles and lower leg musculature – and that’s something a minimalist runner loves. Range of motion is further enhanced by a v-cut notch at the top of the cuff, and a dynamic construction where the entire cuff shifts slightly forward like a pair of ski boots.

Oh, one more thing: in case you’re wondering how to stop these things, the Tempest 100 does come with a brake, which you can install on either heel. It’s definitely a must-have if you’re moving across intersections or weaving through pedestrians at the Wharf, and for fitness skating it’s kind of a no-brainer to attach it. For urban skating, maybe not so much – which is where I’ll continue the Rollerblade series in another month or so. Until then, we’ll wrap up our overview of the Tempest by discussing who would benefit from it the most.

Small front vents for cooling

From top to bottom, the Tempest is built for speed, and most suitable for long aerobic workouts without a whole lot of variation in skate technique or terrain. And because the low profile and increased range of motion cause some initial instability, the Tempest may not be the best choice for a newbie skater.

However, there’s a well-known bike-shopping rule of thumb that says you should buy the highest-performance bike you can afford, and with dedicated riding your skills will eventually become suitable for the bike. I think there’s an element of that axiom in purchasing inline skates as well – and on that note, the Tempest would be a great choice for someone with basic skating experience who is looking to further develop his overall strength and skill through a consistent workout regimen. It’s got a wonderful combination of high comfort and high performance that will allow you to perform workouts of any length, intensity, and eventually skill level – in other words, it will allow you to skate to your heart’s (and legs’) content.

The Rollerblade Tempest 100 retails for $329 from Amazon.com as well as other online vendors.

Photo from Rollerblade website

*Product provided by Rollerblade
**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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Check out the Running Life book for a collection of our most popular columns.


March 10, 2012

Merrell Dash Glove Winner; Random Shots of Beauty

Keeping things short and sweet this weekend - but we've got a contest winner to announce before getting to the Random Shot of Beauty.

Before giving away a pair of Merrell Dash Gloves, though, allow me to share one curious observation from last week's contest: despite over 100 entries, not a single person guessed that the location of Merrell's Pretty Strong video was the hills above San Diego, CA. I'm thinking perhaps people were thrown off by the fact that I live in Monterey County, because there were a lot of guesses for Big Sur, Carmel, and other locations on the central coast. Of course, the other (and sadder) explanation is that nobody in Southern California reads my blog.

Regardless, we still managed to come up with a winner: Trisha Reeves, e-mail me your contact info - you've won! To everyone else, thanks very much for entering, and the Dash Gloves are available for purchase on Amazon.com as well as other online retailers.

On to our Random Shot of Beauty:

A full moon over Fort Ord, as seen at approximately 6:30 AM ... and approximately mile 18 of my morning run.  Have I mentioned that I'm in training mode again?  I can't honestly say that my first 30-miler of the season felt good - but it does feel good to say that I've done my first 30-miler of the season. Because August already seems like it's creeping up on me.

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March 8, 2012

Welcome to the Slack Life; Gibbon Slackline Sale at The Clymb

I'm bumping the previously scheduled Rollerblade review until next week so I can present another confluence of announcements around recent activities of mine. Honestly, I have no idea how this stuff happens sometimes.

You may recall that I've developed something of an infatuation with slacklining - and the last time I embedded a slackline video here, that same week there was a flash sale on Gibbon slacklines at The Clymb. My line came in the mail the following week, and it's been a favorite activity for the kids and me (which, really, I could have just described as "all the kids") ever since.

Well, guess what? Slacklines are on sale again at The Clymb right now. Most of the stuff is 50% off, and you can get not only the line itself, but accessories like tree protectors (I picked up a set for myself) and even instructional DVDs. This sale ends on Sunday, and supplies are limited, so get a move on if you want in on the action.

And since we're on the subject, I may as well report a few updates ...

This is me on my front yard slackline:

Last time I checked in here, I couldn't even stand on the line - but a few weeks into this little endeavor, I can take about 3 or 4 steps. It's not such a terrible rate of progress, until I show you this:

That would be my 8-year-old daughter, who can now take about 10 steps. Not that I'm keeping track or anything. And so the humiliation begins.

One other noteworthy point on this activity: remember how I said that slackliners often refer to themselves as slackers? As I finished that report, I realized that I needed to create a new label for this series of posts, because I already use "slacker" for posts which illustrate the fact that, you know ... I'm a compete slacker sometimes. So from now on I'm referring to this whole project as "slack life" - which has kind of a sweet sound to it, don't you think?

I'll continue to report back on my slack life as events warrant, including a separate post about just how easy (but potentially tricky) it is to get one of these things set up in a yard or park near you. In the meantime, I submit to you the following brilliant video that was brought to my attention by a loyal reader: it's a promotional trailer for an upcoming feature length documentary about slacklining (yes, you read that correctly).

The clip features captivating video from a variety of spectacular locations - one of which happens to be the Bixby Bridge just down the road from me in Big Sur. Apparently I'm not the only one enjoying the slack life in Monterey County, which strikes me as an incredibly cool thing indeed.

"Cherish Your Stoke" by Grant Thompson (click to play):

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