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June 27, 2012

Inside Trail Racing - Marin Ultra Challenge Preview

A few weeks ago when I passed along news of the demise of Pacific Coast Trail Runs, I also mentioned that there was a new company who was moving into the void left by PCTR’s abandoned race calendar – and this weekend, I’ll get a chance to see the operation firsthand.

If you happen to like birth analogies, think of Inside Trail Racing as being born in the combustible engine room of a freight train just as the whole thing is veering off the rails and crashing in a fiery heap.  The company’s two co-owners, Tim Long and Tim Stahler – who both also happen to be outstanding ultrarunners - relocated to the Bay Area last fall in an attempt to help PCTR avoid their looming train wreck, but the partnership didn’t work out as planned, so “The Tims” parted ways with PCTR to form their own company just a few months before PCTR officially went over the cliff.

Obviously it wasn’t the most auspicious way to launch a trail racing company, but fortunately for Northern Californians, The Tims are extremely industrious and dedicated to the trail running community.  They ended up taking over a handful of PCTR’s old courses, but have also developed some cool new locations and events all their own.  As of this writing, they have 24 events on the calendar for 2012, varying in distance from 10K to 50 miles.  They even took over supporting a racing team comprised of many previous PCTR teammates.

I had the opportunity to speak with Tim Stahler while he was scouting out a course in one of my favorite hometown stomping grounds, and it’s clear that his vision for Inside Trail Racing is something pretty extraordinary.  He also extended an invitation to ITR’s most ambitious race offering to date: the Marin Ultra Challenge, taking place this Saturday in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco.  

In addition to doing grassroots outreach with idiot bloggers, Inside Trail Racing has also established solid partnerships with some of the most prominent companies in trail running, such as CLIF Bar, Hydrapak and La Sportiva (not coincidentally, both Hydrapak and La Sportiva sponsor Tim Long in his own racing exploits).  All these figure prominently in the Marin Ultra Challenge, with CLIF stocking the aid stations, La Sportiva providing race shirts and sponsoring shoe giveaways, and Hydrapak offering free swag and even designing the course.

Pirate's Cove, part of the Marin Endurance Challenge 50-Mile course

Hydrapak Brand Manager Jim Vernon is a member of the Bay Area’s Endurables trail running club, and was the point person for developing the 50-mile course, which features 10,000’ of climbing, and utilizes many trails that haven’t been used on other Marin County ultra courses.  It promises to be a day of challenge and adventure – which, in the final weeks of my countdown to Leadville, happens to be the best possible thing I could ask for.

There’s an old saying that when a door closes, a window opens – and for California trail runners, the window that opened in the wake of PCTR’s doors closing is certainly worth looking into.  Check out Inside Trail Racing’s event calendar, and check back here later next week for a race report from the Marin Endurance Challenge.

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June 25, 2012

Soft Star Vegan Moc3 Review

When I was younger and more idealistic, I experimented a bit with vegetarianism.  I’ll save you a long backstory by just saying that ultimately the experiment failed.

Perhaps my biggest obstacle was that no matter how many “meat substitute” foods I tried, nothing hit the spot quite like a good old fashioned burger.  I suppose the lesson could be made that if you want to replace an ingrained habit, you had better do it with something that looks and feels like the real thing.

A similar argument could be made for veganism, which until recently I had associated much more with diet than with footwear.  Some of my increased awareness came courtesy of a training partner of mine who has developed a passion for animal activism – and when he recently asked me about what kind of vegan footwear I’d recommend, I knew this was an angle I should probably look into.

Soft Star Vegan Moc3

Coincidentally, Soft Star had been looking into the same issue recently, and earlier this year released the Vegan Moc3, which I’ve been testing for the past couple of months.  It’s an interesting move from a company who trades almost exclusively in leather products, and presents a notable corollary to the premise I mentioned above.  In this case, if you want to offer a realistic vegan alternative to a well-established product, you better do it with something that’s comparable from a quality standpoint.

In that regard, the Vegan Moc3 is a resounding success: it’s a 100% vegan version of one of Soft Star’s most uniquely dynamic shoes, and doesn’t sacrifice any of the comfort or performance features of the original.   

Vegan on L, leather on R

For more detailed background on its predecessor, you can check out my original Moc3 review.  A synopsis would read like this: the Moc3 is a super lightweight form-fitting sock / moccasin hybrid that fits like a glove and has the best ground feel of practically any minimalist shoe I’ve tested.  It’s ideal for anything from casual activity to running on roads or groomed trails, with extreme flexibility to let your foot function absolutely naturally.  

In design and function, the vegan version is exactly the same thing.  My preference is to wear them for general outdoor use or for road running, but on technical trails I like the increased protection of my RunAmocs

The slip-on design makes it ideal for stashing somewhere handy if you’re going primarily barefoot but might need to throw something on your feet every now and then.  I keep a pair in my car in case I need to stop at the local market - or in case I want to grab a quick pic at a scenic overlook somewhere in Yosemite - and they’d be great for barefoot hikers to tuck in a pack in case they encounter rougher than expected trail conditions.

Both the vegan and regular Moc3 are constructed of a 4-way stretch material called Breathe-o-prene, an odor-resistant fabric that pulls moisture away from the skin to help keep your foot dry.  The difference is that instead of a ventilated leather outer layer, the Breathe-o-prene is layered twice on the vegan model.

Another material difference is present on the interior: for the regular Moc3, Soft Star uses a thin leather insole, but on the vegan version it’s a soft synthetic fabric.  Both versions are equally comfortable for wearing sockless, with minimal irritation from seams or any points of surface pressure.

Otherwise, the two models are exactly the same: they are low cut around the ankle to maximize comfort and range of motion …

… and have an extremely thin 2mm Vibram rubber outsole welded onto a flexible bottom fabric.

Because it’s a virtual equivalent of the original, the vegan Moc3 has the same potential drawbacks: the Breathe-o-prene is prone to running a bit warm, and there’s no adjusting the fit if you happen to be between natural sizes.  The only subtle performance difference I would anticipate is that without a leather outer layer, you give up a bit of upper durability with the vegan version – but unless you’re doing some extreme bushwhacking or similar off-trail excursions, this shouldn’t be a major deterrent.  

More importantly, the vegan Moc3 wasn’t intended to be an upgrade – it was meant to provide an attractive option for vegan consumers to shop with a clear conscience, and without compromising anything in terms of quality.  When there’s no dropoff in value or utility, the decision to choose an alternative product becomes quite easy.  What’s even better news for vegan fans is that in this case, exercising your morals doesn’t come with a higher price tag. 

The Vegan Moc3 retails for $94 from the Soft Star website, which is the exact same price as the Original Moc3.  

*Product provided by Soft Star.
**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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June 23, 2012

Random Shots of Beauty (and Bunny)

Two completely different topics this weekend – and as often happens around these parts, they have nothing whatsoever to do with each other.

This weekend’s Random Shots of Beauty are a couple of leftover shots from my recent Clouds Rest hike with my son.  The first one was a somewhat unexpected surprise, in that I’m far more accustomed to looking up at the towering sights in Yosemite rather than down at the ground underfoot:

But there’s just as much beauty to be found down there sometimes, as this field of wildflowers demonstrates.

The next one just struck me as one of those “I can’t imagine how that happened” scenes that are seemingly everywhere you look around Yosemite …

… such as this twisted tree trunk that, if it could talk, would probably have some wild story to tell.

The remainder of today’s post is for my friend Brian, who accompanied me on a large portion of an early morning 30-miler today.  After one of the many times he had to wait for me to catch up, I commented that my stiff and creaky legs felt “like that little squeaky camel in the cartoon where Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck find the treasure.”  Of course, he had no idea what I was talking about.

Admittedly, you’d have to be a pretty major Bugs Bunny junkie to get the reference – not to mention an even bigger geek to make it.  So there you go.  The clip below is for his benefit, but consider it yours as well.  The camel’s gone by the one-minute mark, but do yourself a favor and watch the whole thing; it’s truly one of the classics.

“Ali Baba Bunny” (click to play):

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June 20, 2012

Yosemite: Clouds Rest Hike Report

“I want to take you higher …
BOOM laka-laka-laka BOOM laka-laka-laka.”
-      Sly and the Family Stone, “I Want to Take You Higher” (video after post)

Unlike our last trip to Yosemite, the hike my son and I took last weekend wasn’t about anything particularly symbolic or epic.  Instead, the whole point this time around was simply to go higher – and perhaps to mimic the Family Stone and have a little bit of fun in the process.

The idea was hatched shortly after starting our descent from Half Dome last year, when I pointed out Clouds Rest on the nearby horizon and told my son that it is usually recognized as the highest point in Yosemite Valley.*   It was an intriguing enough notion – there’s someplace higher than Half Dome? – that hiking to Clouds Rest shot to the top of his list for our next Yosemite adventure.

(*This distinction is sometimes debated, on the argument that Clouds Rest isn’t really part of the Valley, but more properly belongs to the High Sierra region to the north.   You can access it from both sides, but the northern route we took is the shortest and most common access point.  Either way, at 9930’, it’s definitely taller than the more iconic Half Dome by more than 1000 feet.)

So the objective for the day was simple: this year, I wanted to take my son higher – and with that, we’ll get to the report. 

(As usual, click any photo to enlarge.)

In terms of pure elevation, our hike brought us higher than Half Dome almost from the very beginning.  Our starting point was on the shore of Tenaya Lake at 8,150 feet – and since it was just barely daybreak, it seemed fitting that the trailhead was called Sunrise.

Before you set foot on the main trail, you cross an outlet stream from the lake.  Depending on the time of year and the amount of snowfall the previous winter, this can sometimes be a thigh-deep crossing; thanks to a light snow year, we didn’t have any problem keeping our feet dry.

Once you’re on the official trail, it’s just over 7 miles to the summit, making the entire hike a nearly 15-mile day.  At first the distance comes easy …

… because the trail is generally flat and rolling for the first mile and a half or so …

… before you start slowly gaining altitude on some early switchbacks.

The elevation gain is hard to appreciate at first, until you get brief glimpses of neighboring summits such as this one of Tuolumne Peak in the distance.

Before long, however, the climbing is a serious kick in the teeth; over the next mile, a series of super-technical switchbacks lift you more than 1000 vertical feet; in both directions, this is definitely the most challenging part of the hike.

After the switchbacks, the trail levels off at a crossroads at nearly 9100’.  From here, you have the option of turning towards an area called Sunrise Lakes …  

… or giving some of your elevation back to follow the trail downward on the path to Clouds Rest.

After descending for about a half-mile, the trail levels off and meanders through a pleasant High Sierra valley, complete with a tranquil little mountain pond …

… but soon enough, the trail turns upward again for the last 2-mile stretch to the summit.

The interesting thing about hiking to Clouds Rest is that for the vast majority of your time on the trail, you can’t really see your destination.  Even when you finally glimpse it, it’s little more than a sliver rising above the tree line.

On the other hand, the views of nearby peaks get better and better, such as this one of Mount Clark to the south.

Continuing upward, the trees get a bit thinner …

… and the views get a bit more amazing.  If you look closely, our starting point of Tenaya Lake is a blue dot at right-center in the photo above.

 A few hundred feet below the summit, there’s one last level stretch to catch your breath a bit …

… before venturing up the final foot path to the top of Clouds Rest.  The final ridge is one of those mind over matter things; it’s roughly as wide as a single-lane road, which would normally be plenty of space to maneuver …

… if it weren’t for the fact that the ridge is completely exposed on both sides, as this view from the top illustrates.

In other words, if you have issues with heights, this might not be the place for you.  My son wasn’t quite as skittish on this climb as he was on the Half Dome cables, but on more than a few occasions he dropped into a crab walk for the reassurance of two more points of contact on the rock.

Clouds Rest has something of a false summit – and after cresting the first one, a very familiar sight emerges.  Or as my son discovered, Hey – that’s Half Dome down there!  Notice that he wasn’t excited enough to completely let go of the rock, however.

At that point, it’s just a short scramble to the true summit of Clouds Rest, where even more spectacular sights awaited us.

The most compelling one, of course, is looking down into the entire Yosemite Valley, with its massive granite icons appearing as if in miniature from our lofty vantage point.

However, the views were almost equally impressive in all directions, such as this one to the south …

… or this one to the east …

… or this one to the north, where it seemed like an ideal spot to have a little bit of fun.  Boom laka-laka-laka.

The two of us spent about 45 minutes alone on top of the rock, snacking on trail mix (and feeding some local fauna) and wondering if there was anyplace else with a view as awesome as this one.  Between the two of us, we couldn’t come up with many possibilities.  Even though they’re not especially instructional, these are usually my favorite kinds of conversations with my son.

However, we still had half of our hiking to go, and the day was getting warm, so we took in one last glance of the iconic mountain behind us …

… and made our way back down the narrow ridge in front of us.  To this point, we hadn’t seen a single soul on the trail – but after we descended from the summit, we finally started encountering hikers coming up behind us.

And then a funny thing happened – or as I told my son, Hey, I know this girl! 

It was Catra, a sweet-as-pie and tough-as-nails (and honestly, a pretty easy to spot) ultrarunner who was getting in some last minute preparation for Western States this weekend.  Seriously.   She was making great time, but paused for long enough to take a picture before powering her way to the top.

Meanwhile, my son and I made our way back down the hill, plodding through steep switchbacks, sweltering heat, and the increasing leg soreness of a long day, until finally …

… we returned to our starting point at Tenaya Lake.  Speaking of which: can you think of anything more inviting at the end of a long, hot day on the trail than plunging into a beautiful alpine lake?

Me neither.  One thing about these mountain bathtubs, though: the faucet’s always stuck on cold. 

After a few minutes of rinsing, all that was left to do was dry off on a nearby rock before climbing into the car to head home.  A few miles down the road, we found a cool spot to pull over and see exactly where we had been …

… and to appreciate just how high we had gone.  Perhaps the most telling thing I can say about Yosemite is that every time my son and I come here, I wonder if our experience will be as impressive or rewarding as the time before – and every single time, Yosemite delivers.

Sly and the Family Stone, “I Want to Take You Higher” (click to play):

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

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June 18, 2012


“Don't think you're gonna win this time –

‘Cause you better believe I'm gonna drop a dime on you …

You're gonna be busted –
I don't wanna put the hurt on you –
But you better believe me when I tell you –
That I finally got the dirt on you -

You’re BUSTED!”
-      “Busted”, from Phineas and Ferb (video after post)

Two drug scandals – one large, the other relatively small – converged on the sports page of our local newspaper on the same day last week.

The primary headline was the one everybody heard about: Lance Armstrong being officially charged with blood doping by the USADA.  However, to residents of Monterey County, the story that hit closest to home was news that a winner of one of our premier local races has also proven to be a cheat. 

In my mind, the impact of a drug scandal on a small race with relatively anonymous runners was an interesting one to consider; although the prize purses and sponsorship opportunities are significantly less than those involved with marquis races, it’s easier to identify with the people involved.  For example, the difference in prize money for each runner in the top ten at our local event was several hundred dollars – and if I were the one who lost out on that amount due to a dishonest runner, you can bet I’d be upset.

It was the smaller story that my friend Mike and I wrote for the Monterey Herald; the article follows below.

Running Life 06/14/12                       “Busted”

Like any other competitive activity, the sport of distance running has an ugly side – and unfortunately, our local running community was recently impacted by it. 

Last fall’s Big Sur Half Marathon on Monterey Bay was one of the most exciting races we’ve ever seen, with 23-year-old Ethiopian Ezkyas Sisay outsprinting Josphat Boit of Kenya to win by less than 2 seconds.  Sisay’s winning time of 63 minutes was even more amazing when you consider that he finished 9th in the New York City Marathon (with a time of 2:11) just two weeks before our half marathon.  For his effort, Sisay was applauded by race participants, recognized by the race’s Board of Directors, and awarded a winner’s purse of $3,000.

Ezkyas Sisay at the 2011 BSIM Half-Marathon; photo from Monterey Herald

In hindsight it appears that Sisay’s victory was too good to be true: last week the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced that Sisay tested positive for synthetic erythropoietin (EPO) after his drug test for the New York Marathon.  Coincidentally, two other runners who train with Sisay have also tested positive for synthetic EPO use in the past.  Sisay now faces a two-year suspension from competitive running as well as “forfeiture of medals, points, and prizes.”  

Erythropoietin is a natural hormone that controls red blood cell creation. Increased EPO creates a higher red blood cell count, which improves oxygen delivery to muscles and improves endurance.  Synthetic EPO has a legitimate medical use for treatment of anemia, but it’s also very popular among dishonest athletes looking for a competitive advantage.   Because synthetic EPO thickens the blood and increases the risk of stroke, it’s a very dangerous game for athletes to play, and its use is illegal in every sport.

The New York Marathon delays awarding prize money until drug test results are published and verified, so they never paid Sisay his $2,000 for finishing ninth.  Sadly, smaller races don’t have the resources to pay for drug testing, so they’re more vulnerable to being taken advantage of by drug cheats.  Neither the Big Sur Marathon or Half Marathon performs testing, nor does the Carlsbad Half Marathon, where Sisay won another $1500 last January. 

Obvioiusly there are large monetary incentives for aspiring world-class runners to enhance their performance by any means necessary, but this sort of misbehavior typically ends in either shame or tragedy.  Sisay didn’t just steal money from the Big Sur Marathon board – an organization that has donated millions of dollars to many well-deserving agencies in our community - but he cheated all of the runners who deserved to finish one place higher in the race standings. 

The Big Sur Half Marathon awarded money to the first nine runners, all of whom rightfully deserved a larger prize.  For example Josphat Boit lost an extra $1200 by finishing in second instead of first, and all of the top runners deserved several hundred more dollars than they went home with.

The BSIM Board is doing the right thing by officially declaring Josphat Boit to be the 2011 winner, and providing additional money to each of the first 9 men based on moving them up one place in the standings.  All future race promotions, programs, and result listings will eliminate Sisay’s name. 

As far as getting money back from Sisay, that’s a less certain scenario.  The race committee is following USADA procedures and sending a letter to Sisay officially asking for reimbursement of the $3,000.  He’s not forced to comply – but whether he does or doesn’t, there’s no escaping the shame he has cast upon himself, and the stigma he has brought upon our entire sport.

And if you’re wondering about the source of this song, it happens to be from one my kids’ favorite TV shows.  OK ... make that one of my favorite shows as well.

“Busted”, from Phineas and Ferb (click to play):

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June 17, 2012

Random Shots of Beauty (and Fatherhood)

A couple of quick notes after a late return from Yosemite National Park last night ...

First, our customary Random Shot of Beauty:

The Yosemite Valley as seen from the top of Clouds Rest at 9,900'.  Full report to follow this week, I hope.

My companion for this hike was my 14-year-old son - which, considering the weekend occasion and that fact that he's now firmly entrenched in his teenage years, led me to think about my own awkwardly chaotic teenage experience.  It also leads us to a Random Shot of Fatherhood:

I'm the one with the skater haircut and slacker affect; my dad's the one next to me clinging to the humor of the whole scenario.  (The others are my grandfather and uncle.)  All things considered, I think I've had things much easier in the parenthood arena than I gave it out while growing up.

Happy Father's Day, Dad.

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