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May 29, 2012

VIVOBAREFOOT Ultra and Ultra Pure Review

Although I've reviewed a lot of VIVOBAREFOOT shoes in the past, one notable model flew under my radar - perhaps because I never knew what to make of it.

The company's Ultra is the shoe equivalent of a Rorschach test: whatever you want to see in it, that's what it can be.  It was originally released in 2011 as a beach or travel shoe, but it's equally suitable as a casual shoe or a super-lightweight running shoe.  Its modular construction allows you to use the same pair for a variety of uses - and with a kids version released this year, it can also be a very cool schoolyard shoe: bright and fashionable for wearing in class, but athletic enough to sprint around the playground at recess.

In hindsight, I'm sort of embarrassed that it took me so long to get around to reviewing them - so to make up for it, this is a double review: I've been testing the modular men's Ultra as a running shoe, and my daughter has been wearing the non-modular (I'll explain shortly) Ultra Pure as an everyday kids shoe.   There's also an Ultra Kids model which is basically a scaled-down Ultra Pure with a Velcro strap.  All of the shoes are 100% vegan, and are constructed with the same injection molding technique which creates the entire outer shell from EVA.


Or, as my daughter put it, "They're like fancy Crocs!" - which is the primary comparison people make when they see or feel the Ultra for the first time.  However, in my opinion they're WAY better than crocs ...

... because they have all the features we love about VIVOBAREFOOT: completely flat, completely flexible, and completely suitable for pretty much any activity you can think of.   

They're also very impressively light: the standard Ultra weighs in at 5.5 oz, and the Ultra Pure weighs a mere 3.7 oz.  The difference between the two models is the presence of a sock liner that snaps into place at the heel and at the base of the lace area: the Ultra comes with the liner, the Ultra Pure doesn't.

If you remove the sock liner, there's a small pad that can snap into place underneath the laces on top of the midfoot.  All of this snapping back and forth can be done in a matter of seconds. 

One minor drawback I found with the lacing system is that the clasp that holds the laces in place can be very stiff when switching to the "unlock" position.  Fortunately, you don't really need to adjust the tension through the laces very much, and the shoe essentially functions like a slip-on once you get the proper setting established the first time.

Since the primary difference between the Ultra and the Ultra Pure is the presence of a sock liner, if you happen to be mathematically gifted, you can deduce that the liner itself weighs 1.8 oz.  If you remove the liner from the Ultra, it weighs the same as the Ultra Pure.  Some users wear just the liner without the shell as a protective second-skin sock, similar to a Sockwa or Moc3; the advantage of VIVOBAREFOOT's sock over those others is that it has full puncture protection underfoot.

This brings up another distinction between the Ultra and the Ultra Pure: on the Ultra, the puncture-resistant layer resides on the bottom of the sock liner - so if you take the lining out and wear just the shell, you don't have the same resistance that other VIVOBAREFOOT shoes provide.  However, on the Ultra Pure, the inner lining on the footbed is fully puncture-resistant.

The interior of the sock liner is very soft and comfortable against bare skin.  I run in mine sockless for all road mileage, but use a thin layer of socks for long trail outings. 

With the liner removed, the insole surface is lightly pebbled, which feels a bit odd at first but quickly gets accommodated by a bare foot.  This is the same insole pattern featured on the Ultra Pure, which doesn't have the sock liner. 

I tend to keep the lining in my Ultra for road running for a couple of reasons: 1) I'm usually running in the early morning when my toes get cold, so I like the insulation of the sock to keep my bare toes warmer, and 2) when your feet start sweating, if you're not wearing the liner there can be a bit of movement inside the upper as the EVA insole surface gets a little bit slick. 

Back to the shell construction: all Ultra shoes employ a modern EVA injection molding technique which combines a softer density (and more flexible) EVA in the uppers and a higher density (and more protective) EVA on the outsole.  The high-abrasion EVA upper is highly durable but very soft, allowing the foot to flex and move naturally.  The outsole portion is 7mm thick, but according to the company specs can compress down to as much as 3mm with long-term use.

The outsole EVA is also firmer than the upper to enhance ground feedback.  Obviously, the primary drawback of an EVA outsole is the rate of deterioration; my pair came with a disclaimer slip stating that with proper running technique, they should last for up to 300 road miles.  However, since I'm primarily running on trails, I anticipate that they'll last significantly longer.

Traction isn't outstanding - in fact, it's probably the worst of any VIVOBAREFOOT running shoe.  On steep hills or gravel fire roads it's definitely a limitation compared to something aggressive like the Breatho Trail outsole.   And interestingly, considering its original marketing as a aqua shoe, I've found that traction on wet, rocky stream crossings is pretty shaky.  However, the grip is perfectly adequate for road running in all but the slickest conditions, as well as for groomed trails that aren't obnoxiously technical.

It also makes a great hybrid shoe for high-mileage runs that shift from roads to trails, which is why they were on my feet during my 20-mile Pebble Beach adventure a few weeks ago.  You may recall that run had significant stretches of running in deep sand, and since the Ultra's outer shell is completely porous, I was curious to see how the sock liner protected my feet from sand intrusion over the long haul.

I was pleasantly surprised, as this picture (click to enlarge for a better view) taken after a long sandy stretch illustrates.  Very little sand made it through to my socks (Drymax hyper thin, if you're interested), and most of the debris was either trapped by the sock liner or fell to the bottom of the shell for easy removal.

Overall, the Ultra and Ultra Pure turned out to be highly functional for both my daughter's and my needs.  She loves the open look and summertime feel of the Pure without a sock liner, and I'm impressed with the Ultra's performance as a hybrid running shoe.  (Of course, for me or any other ultrarunners out there, the name of this shoe conjures something that's better equipped for rugged trails than for tame roads, but that's just semantics.)  They're also very suitable for a lot of cross-training activities, or simply as a funky-looking warm weather casual shoe.

All of VIVOBAREFOOT's Ultra shoes are quite affordably priced, and available from the company website at the links below:

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

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May 27, 2012

Weekend Ramblings

"Down, down, down, down, it gets me so -

Down, down, down, down ..."
- Blink 182, "Down"  (video after post)

You could say it's been something of a down week around this little corner of the Internet.

I guess that's what you get when you combine the height of training season, a frenzied end of the school year, exciting new work opportunities, and a laptop-shaped void where my most familiar writing tool used to reside.  (That last one's a long story I'd rather not re-tell.)

To top it all off, I got knocked on my tail by a nasty illness this week - the kind that makes you want to crawl in a hole so the world won't be bothered by your whimpering.

Consequently, I'm spending much of my holiday weekend passively taking in the world around me - and over the past several days, a few items seemed interesting enough to pass along.  I hope you appreciate them, as I'm probably infecting my wife's keyboard in order to publish them here.

Coincidentally, the first item comes from my wife, who had the privilege opportunity obligation to chaperone the final 8th grade dance that doubled as a "So long, middle school!" party for all the kids heading off to high school in the fall - one of who happens to be our son.

This story isn't about our son, though - it's about the girls at the dance, about whom my wife commented afterward, You should have seen the heels these girls were all wearing, before demonstrating by holding her thumb and forefinger about 5 inches apart.  Considering that one of my top-5 father goals is to prevent my daughters from ever wearing high heels, this was certainly a discouraging report. 

However, the next part of my wife's account cheered me up immensely:

The funny thing was, right after the dance started, almost all of them just took their shoes off and spent the whole night barefoot.  The ones who didn't were walking around in pain by the end of the night.

So maybe there's hope for me after all - and one day, females of the world will come to their senses and outlaw those foolish contraptions once and forever.  For my part, I'll raise two girls who are ready to join the crusade.

This one's a quick link, but a lengthy must-read: Caballo Blanco's Last Run, as seen in this week's New York Times.  It's wonderfully written, and a fitting tribute to a reluctant ultrarunning legend.

This one took me by surprise, as I initially dismissed it as just another skater/shredder clip.  However, the piece stands out for a few reasons:

- It features Jeff Ament, who until this week I only knew as the bass player for Pearl Jam. 

- In the piece, he speaks about the ways that skating satisfies his soul in much the same way I often talk to people about trail running.

- It portrays how Ament was able to spread his passion in a heartfelt act of generosity that could have positive ramifications on an entire community.

The clip is a bit on the long side, but you'll be glad you watched.

"Pass the Bucket With Jeff Ament" (click to play):

And hopefully we'll resume regular programming in the next few days, assuming I can get myself up from being so down.       

Blink 182, "Down" (click to play):

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May 22, 2012

Train Like a Champion

In the first 24 years of the Big Sur Marathon, no Monterey County resident won the men's race*.  In the past three years, Monterey men have won three in a row.

(*That statement is sometimes disputed in that 6-time winner and course record holder Brad Hawthorne, whom the men's trophy is now named after, actually lived in Monterey County for a brief period - but when he sent in his race applications, his primary residence was listed as Danville.  It's one of those local runner-geek arguments around here.)

Big Sur isn't some podunk race that any random slacker can win just by showing up on the right day; it usually attracts a decent crowd of high-caliber runners, and racing successfully there requires sound strategy and strong mental fortitude.  So when we suddenly found ourselves awash in recent winners, my friend Mike decided to hit one of them up for training advice that he could pass along to the rest of our running community.

The result is the Monterey Herald column that follows below, which is just as applicable to the greater marathon community outside Monterey County.


Running Life 05/17/12                                            "Train Like a Champion"

Champions are made when no one is watching."   - Author unknown.

When Adam Roach of Pacific Grove crossed the finish line first at this year's Big Sur Marathon, the entire community shared and celebrated his accomplishment.  What none of us saw, however, were the months of hard work he put in while no one was watching in order to make his triumphant day possible.

Adam Roach winning the BSIM; photo from Monterey Herald

We spoke with Adam recently to ask about his training for this year's race.  His responses highlighted some lessons that anyone can benefit from - even those of us who finish many minutes (or hours) behind him. 
Adam is 28 and works full time, so he fits running around his work schedule and family time just like the rest of us. He usually runs after work each week day and on weekend mornings, averaging about 80 miles per week in the springtime - a volume that is far lower than the 100-120 miles that many professional runners log.  

A typical week includes a Sunday 20-miler in the Fort Ord/Toro Park area with Daniel Tapia (2010 Big Sur Marathon winner) at about 6:00 per mile pace. Mondays are 10 miles at a "comfortably fast" pace of 6:15-7:00/mile.  Tuesdays include 10 miles of trails in Garland Ranch or Del Monte Forest

On Wednesdays, Adam hits the Pacific Grove High School track to run intervals at race pace.  Sometimes the intervals are long, such as 4 x 2 miles at marathon pace, and other times they're short, such as his favorite workout of fifty 400-meter repeats at half marathon speed.  Thursday is another "comfortably fast" run, Friday is a 10-mile tempo (slightly slower than race pace) run, and Sunday has 12 more "comfortably fast" miles.

What did we learn from all this?  Here are some key themes:

Consistent long runs are critical:  Adam didn't have any runs over 20 miles, but he did a 20-miler nearly every week from February through April.  He calls these, "The bread and butter of my training ... and the long runs over hilly terrain gave me endurance to be able to run hard for a full 26 miles on race day."  These runs were bolstered by the long interval and tempo run workouts, which helped him to stay comfortable while running at race pace.

Discipline and toughness:  Did any of those track workouts sound difficult to anyone?  How about a weekly 20-miler?  Or running every day for a minimum of 10 miles? You can't do these things without enormous self-discipline - and each progressive session builds increased confidence, toughness, and mental strength that will be needed to race off the front of the pack on race day.

Focus on the goal: Adam's race schedule was minimal, and his entire training program was designed solely to prepare him for Big Sur.  He ran the Mission 10-Miler in San Juan Bautista in January and the Santa Cruz Half-Marathon in March, and otherwise stayed focused on his one major goal race.

Just run, baby: Adam does minimal cross training, weights, or stretching, because he'd rather spend his limited workout time exclusively running.  Once a week he'll do a short abs/core workout, "But nothing too crazy."  Specificity of training pays enormous benefits in learning to run more efficiently.

Obviously, successful training plans differ for everybody, but Adam has clearly found a system that works well for him.  If you take some cues from his training regimen, you still might not win the Big Sur Marathon, but you'll almost certainly become a better runner.

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May 19, 2012

Monkey Shake Winner; GoLite Spring Blowout Sale; Soft Star "Princess" RunAmocs; Random Shots of Beauty

A few business notes of interest before our customary weekend RSOB ..

First, let's announce our Monkey Shake winner!  Mike Dixon: e-mail me your contact info - you've won!  In case anyone's curious, Mike's winning entry was the famous "I'll stir fry you in my wok!" line from the classic "Intergalactic" - which, just as a final MCA tribute, I've decide to embed below.  Interestingly, considering that this is a running blog, nobody picked the "I run the marathon to the very last mile" line from the same song.  Anyway, congrats to Mike, and thanks to everyone else who entered - that one was kind of fun.

I used to do a number of product reviews for GoLite - but that stopped roughly one year ago as the company laid the groundwork for a somewhat radical new business model.  Basically, they're dramatically downsizing their marketing and completely eliminating their relationships with third party outdoor retailers.

The upside of this from a customer's standpoint is that their product margins aren't impacted by those additional costs, so they pass the savings - in many cases, up to 50% of the previous MSRP - on to customers via direct website sales at GoLite.com.  It's a model that's driven by discounts and word of mouth marketing, and depends upon returning customers who have strong loyalty for the brand.

Of course, the model won't work unless the products are high quality - and in the case of GoLite, that's exactly what they offer.  Their Rush pack is still my favorite for day hiking, and their 9" Mesa Trail shorts are a top choice for chilly winter mornings that aren't quite cold enough for tights.   And right now you can get those items as well as anything else at the GoLite site at deep discounts while the company blows out their Spring 2012 inventory - for example, the Rush pack I linked above is only $45, and the Mesa shorts are $22.50.  Click here to check out the sale, and it will be interesting to see how GoLite's new business model fares in the months and years to come.

I'm not exactly sure whether this next item pertains to any of my readers, but you never know, so here goes: Soft Star shoes is now able to make shiny, starry varieties of your running moccasins if that's something you're into.

Black suede with white stars (middle), cream leather with gold stars (right); photo from Soft Star website

The company has recently sourced some decorative suede hides with star patterns that can be used for adult RunAmocs.  They also have a cream and gold star leather that can be used for decorative accents.  So if you want to get carried away with shiny leather and starry accents, you could potentially create a spectacularly princess-y version of the RunAmoc Dash like this one:

Like I said, I'm not sure who might bite on this one, but hey - feel free to go wild.

Finally, out Random Shot of Beauty is leftover from my Pebble Beach trail run report.  It's hard to see at first, because the subject is camouflaged so well among the trees and brush - but if you click to enlarge, you'll see her in there:

That's another thing Pebble Beach is known for: a whole lot of native deer.  Sometimes I wonder if they realize what a remarkable place they happen to inhabit -  or at least on some level understand that they contribute to making the place more remarkable for me.  I doubt it, but I hope I'm wrong.

Beastie Boys, "Intergalactic" (click to play):

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May 16, 2012

Backyard Adventures: Pebble Beach / Del Monte Forest Trail Running

*Before today's post, a reminder to give me your best Beastie Boys lyric for a chance to win a 30-serving bag of Monkey Shakes.  The winner will be announced Saturday, so get going!

When most people hear the name Pebble Beach, they most likely conjure up the following things:

3) Luxury cars, or

What they don't think of very often is "trail running adventure", but that's part of the beauty of running in Pebble Beach: almost nobody knows how to do it.

Even longtime residents sometimes struggle with running in Pebble Beach - often shortened to "Pebble" by locals - as many trails are unmarked, unmapped, or oftentimes both.  Paths are frequently interrupted by a road or house or fairway without any clue as to where they continue - if they indeed continue at all.  Even though the Del Monte Forest that dominates the region is only 10 square miles, it's easy to get disoriented, causing planned 5-mile runs to become 2-hour explorations.

I've lived in this area for almost 20 years, and I still get turned around in the forest sometimes ... but the more miles I spend there, the more amazed I am that this place exists, and the more awestruck I am at the glory of creation.  Which sounds like enough reason to do a photo tour, right?  I thought so ... and took my camera with me one day for a 20-miler that highlights the best (and strangest) of what the area has to offer.

(As usual, click any photo to enlarge ...)

For most locals, a run into Pebble Beach actually starts outside the area, in the parking lot at Carmel Beach - which is a natural wonder in its own right.  The reason we park here instead of going into Pebble Beach proper ...

... is this gated entrance.  All road access points into Pebble Beach pass by manned gatehouses, where visiting cars - classified as anything without a resident medallion on the front grill - are charged $9.75 to enter.  On the other hand, if you pass through on foot, bike, or rollerblades, there's no charge.  Running in Pebble is wonderful, but it's not 10-dollars-a-pop wonderful - so adding an extra mile or two onto either side of your run to avoid the fee is pretty much a no-brainer.

You encounter your first trail less than a quarter mile past the gate - a restored remnant of a historic horse path that used to circle the perimeter of Del Monte Forest.  Many of the trails here were built or maintained by the local equestrian community; in a related story, mountain bikes are pretty much outlawed in Pebble Beach - but that's a discussion for another time.

Trails also pass remarkably close to multi-million-dollar homes, many of which sit vacant for most of the year, because they're the vacation homes of people who have an equally (or more) expensive house somewhere else.  To say Pebble belongs to people with money is quite the understatement.

Here's the most remarkable thing about Pebble Beach, though: for long stretches of trail, there's no sign of any civilization or development, and it looks and feels almost exactly like running through the Sierra Nevadas.  It would be easy to completely forget where you are ...

... except that every now and then you skirt a lush green fairway, which reminds you that no matter what the surroundings look like, in these parts, golf is king.

Many of the trails are marked by signposts with colored stripes to distinguish one from another.  The green posts mark a popular route that climbs towards the top of the forest ...

... and back down to another swanky fairway near the Pebble Beach lodge.

This is a polo field near the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center.  It's nothing special, really - probably just like the polo fields in your own neighborhood.  Let's move on.

One long stretch of the green trail turns into a deep sandy path that rises up and over a large dune ...

... before cresting the dune to get your first breathtaking glimpse of the coastline below.

Remember that multi-million-dollar home earlier?  This futuristic one with beach access would be in the multi-multi-million dollar range.

This is Bird Rock - a name that become obvious if you click to enlarge and check out all the little black dots on top of the white surface in the distance.   It's a popular stopping point for auto tourists on 17-Mile Drive, and a popular rest stop for cyclists and runners ...

... mainly because it's got one of the only public restrooms and drinking fountains in Pebble Beach.  You can refill your bottles, catch your breath ...

... and gaze down the coastline at the flat stretch of trail ahead.  You know - just like the view at the public bathroom near your house, I'm sure.

The trail continues for about two flat miles along the coast, where the sound of crashing waves and the sight of rocks and surf is almost mesmerizing.  Not coincidentally, this is the section where you're most likely to see fellow runners or cyclists who are lucky enough to be there too.

Soon enough you leave the beach behind and start back up the hill, crossing over more sand dunes until you re-enter the heart of Del Monte Forest.

Here's one of the challenges I mentioned at the top: occasionally, trails just emerge upon a road or intersection, and unless you happen to know which way to go from here, it's very tough to figure out where they continue on the other side.  In many cases, the continuation is a quarter-mile or more down the road from where you first hit the asphalt.

Sometimes the trail is marked on the trunks of trees on the periphery of a golf course, and you know if you stay to one side of the fairway you're in the general vicinity of the trail ...

... and other times the golf course IS the trail as you make your way along cart paths down the length of one fairway and up another.  If you thought it was easy to get turned around on trails, try telling one immaculately groomed fairway from another sometime.  I've gone back and forth on golf courses more than a few times ...

 ... before popping out on the road somewhere and thinking, "Wait - how did I end up at the Poppy Hills clubhouse?".  Fortunately, if you know the road system here - which is no small challenge either - you can at least point yourself back in the right direction back into the forest ...

... where the trails eventually turn back into secluded Sierra-like fire roads ...

... and quiet single track as you climb to the apex of the forest.

The trails stay quiet all the way down a long descent back toward sea level ...

... and within a couple more miles you exit the Pebble gate and return to Carmel Beach.  In the space of a few hours, you've gone from seascape to forest and back, from sea level to hilltop, from civilization to seclusion, from the gaudy excesses of humanity to the simplest joys of natural existence.  It probably offers the largest environmental variability of any run I know of - and the more time I spend here, the more thankful I am for every opportunity to explore it.

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

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May 14, 2012

The MCA Memorial Monkey Shake Promotion and 30-Bag Giveaway!

"Monkey tastes def when you pour it on ice -

Come on y'all it's time to get nice ... "
- Beastie Boys, "Brass Monkey" (video after post)

Two quite unrelated topics today - one sad, one happy - that I'll try to combine in some sensible manner by the time we're done ...

First, the sad part, which is belated news from earlier his month:  RIP, Adam Yauch.  And most likely, RIP Beastie Boys.  I'm almost ashamed to admit how profoundly sorrowful I was to hear about MCA's passing, but I can't tell you how many hours I spent memorizing lyrics from Licensed To Ill, or how many times the Beasties' distinctive combination of humor and hip-hop brought a smile to my face in the years since their debut album.

Anybody remember the flip side of this cover?

Intellectually, it doesn't make sense that I'd be sad about a rap singer who died too soon - an occurrence that happens so often as to be cliché.  Perhaps there's something about being obsessed with a band at a formative age that makes the attachment more heartfelt than it would later in life; if that's the case, my 15-year-old self spinning Licensed to Ill over and over again would make me the perfect candidate. 

However, I think there's another element of Yauch's death that hits closer to home: mainly, he had become just a regular guy.  As he grew older, Yauch left the insane hip-hop miscreant persona of his youth behind, and became a family man concerned with providing for his loved ones and doing his part to serve the greater societal good.   And it wasn't a rap squabble that brought him down - it was cancer, which cuts the lives of most victims far too short, usually for no reason at all.  So maybe there was something in his transformation from basic idiot to respectable, vulnerable person that I identified with. 

Whatever the case, he'll definitely be missed.  Like a lemon without a lime, a lime without a lemon.

On to our good news for the day, which is courtesy of the Monkey Shake company I've endorsed a few times in the past.  They have a cool promotion going on this month, and they're also offering a killer contest prize for one of my readers.

Here's the promotion, which we'll call the Tuesday Special: for the rest of the month May, if you buy any two items in the Monkey Shake store on a Tuesday, you'll get a third item for free.  All you have to do is put three items in your shopping cart, and if it's a Tuesday, the discount will automatically be applied.  

And if you'd rather take your chances with a contest entry, we've got a tempting one: this weekend, I'll award a huge 30-serving bag of Monkey Shake original mix to one lucky reader chosen from the comments section below. 

Monkey love!

The company was kind enough to provide me with one of these bags a few weeks back, and it's been one of my key refueling strategies during the high-volume training weeks of my early season ultras.  If there's a better post-20-miler recovery drink than Monkey Shake with yogurt, banana, frozen berries, honey, and orange juice, I haven't tasted it.  Like the Beasties said, Monkey tastes def when you pour it on ice ... or on frozen berries, as the case may be.

The ground rules for this one are that I'm making the contest entry process a Beastie Boys / MCA memorial.  To enter, leave your favorite Beastie Boys lyric in the box below - and you'll get two entries if it's a line by MCA.  I'll announce the winner next Saturday, May 19th - but remember to shop at the Monkey Shake store on Tuesdays throughout the month as well, because there's only one winner for this thing.

Special thanks to the Monkey Shake company for this contest, and good luck to everybody.  I think you know what time it is - it's time to get ill in the comments!

Beastie Boys, "Brass Monkey" (click to play):

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