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July 31, 2012

Honey Stinger Lemon Waffle and Organic Gel Review and Giveaway (With an Olympic Twist)


When I had the chance to introduce Honey Stinger energy products here about 6 months ago, I pointed out that of the four products I sampled, only three of them were worth recommending. 

One of them in particular – the stroopwafel-inspired Stinger Waffle – was through the roof awesome, both from a taste standpoint, and for being unlike pretty much any other energy product on the market. They came in three flavors, and they were clearly the favorite of my family on a long day of hiking and taste testing.   

At the other end of the spectrum was the company’s energy gels, which were so bad that I couldn’t even finish a single pack: every flavor that I tested ended up squeezed out onto the ground.  Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly a high point of my product testing career.


On that note, this summer I have a few points of good news.  The first is that Honey Stinger has reinvented its gel formula to debut a product line of organic energy gels in three new flavors.  The better news is that they’ve recently introduced a new flavor of the delicious waffles that my kids and I got to sample.

And the best news is that a few readers will get to try each of these new products for themselves.  That’s right – it’s giveaway time again!  But before we get to that, we should probably promote the products a little more.


Like last time, the standout in this product bunch is the Stinger Waffle, this time in a new lemon flavor.  In my previous review post I explained how the classic stroopwafel originated in the Netherlands over 200 years ago, and are popular with European cyclists looking for a quick burst of energy on long bike rides.

It even looks like a waffle

The old-school version is made with syrup filling between two layers of baked batter, but Honey Stinger’s version is a certified USADA organic product, using organic honey and other organic ingredients for a 160-calorie energy shot that’s easy to carry with you for a long day on the road or trail. 

The new lemon flavor is quite mild, and not nearly as tart as I anticipated.  It joins the existing Honey Stinger lineup of original (honey), vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate – and from a taste standpoint, I’d rank them somewhere in the middle: just behind strawberry and vanilla, and better than the original or chocolate.  Of course, that’s my personal preference, and yours may vary – which is why it would be cool to try them, right?

*
Our other giveaway product represents something of an improvement, but I have to say I’m not completely fired up about them yet.  Honey Stinger’s new organic energy gels are certainly better tasting than the previous gel products – which, incidentally, are still available if you’re one who happened to like them – but to my liking, they’re not quite on par with my favorites from GU and CLIF Shot.


The new gels are each USADA certified organic (as are CLIF’s), and are available in Vanilla, Fruit Smoothie and Acai Pomegranate flavors.  They combine organic tapioca syrup, organic honey and electrolytes, and each packet provides 100 calories of quick energy. 

Honey Stinger’s gels have a very thin consistency to begin with, and the new organic varieties seem even thinner than the others – they’re so thin as to drip out of the pack almost like a liquid.  My favorite flavor of this bunch is the acai pomegranate, possibly because it’s such a unique offering in the gel category.  The vanilla flavor is extremely sweet, and I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the vanilla flavors from … honestly, from pretty much everybody else.   

When I complained about the taste of honey-based gels last time, a number of readers responded with comments about how much they like them, so I’m open to the possibility that this is just an individual aversion of mine.  Which is yet another reason that it’s good to have other opinions involved … and have I mentioned that we’re doing a giveaway? 

So here we go: three winners selected at random below will receive the same sample packet of lemon waffles and organic energy gels that I tested.  But since I’m in the midst of Olympic mania, I’m adding an additional twist to earn extra entries.

Remember yesterday when I suggested that slacklining might be considered an Olympic sport someday?  If you come up with another suggested sport, you get an additional entry in the hat.  Be creative.  Be funny.  And who knows, you may prove to be clairvoyant someday.  However, you can’t use a sport that someone else has suggested, so enter early, or scroll through the previous entries so you don’t disqualify yourself.

Winners will be announced this Sunday night, August 5th.  Special thanks to Honey Stinger for sponsoring this contest, and good luck to everybody!



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July 30, 2012

Altra Zero Drop Sale; The Muir Project Kickstarter Campaign

A couple of quick notes as I while away the hours thinking about how if trampolining is an Olympic sport, slacklining can't be far behind … and also putting together finishing touches on a new contest for tomorrow night.  Stay tuned.


In the meantime, I’ve made reference to Altra shoe sales in the past, and there’s another good one going on at The Clymb right now.   Get the Instinct or Intuition shoes for $60, and the Adam or Eve for $50 – but only if you hurry.  The sale ends August 2 at 8AM PST, so check it out here.


**
I’ve written promotional posts soliciting assistance for The Muir Project’s upcoming documentary film Mile … Mile and A Half, but up until this point their official fundraising efforts were what you might call loosely organized.  Now it appears that they’re getting serious, and soliciting donations to a Kickstarter campaign for the final push toward completion.

There’s also a new video for your enjoyment on the fundraising page, but since I can’t find it in an embeddable version yet, I’ll paste an early favorite of theirs below, and send you to the fundraising page again afterward.  Summer’s the time for chasing big dreams – so if you’re able to help the filmmakers accomplish theirs, that would be awesome.

“Almost There” by The Muir Project (click to play):




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July 29, 2012

Random Shots of Beauty

I'm making things quick tonight so I can get back to completely geeking out on Olympic coverage.  On a related note, thanks to NBC's tape delayed coverage airing until midnight PST, it's going to be hard for me to get a good night's sleep for the next 14 days.  Good thing I'm not tapering for a big race or anything.  Oh, wait ...

So let's knock out a couple Random Shots of Beauty, taken from my most recent excursions into the mountains.  First, from Lake Alpine, CA:

My 11-year-old daughter striking a Pocahontas pose from a small island she and I kayaked to in search of perfect rock jumping spots - one of those excursions where the journey is as rewarding as the destination.

The next is left over from my Tahoe Rim Trail photos:

A small alpine meadow as seen from the trail between Marlette Peak and the Tunnel Creek aid station.  Sometimes the hardest part of writing race reports is deciding which pictures to leave out; that's when you know you've completed an awesome race.


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July 26, 2012

Knockin' On Heaven's Door: Tahoe Rim Trail 50-Mile Race Report


“Feels like I'm knockin' on Heaven's door -
Knock-knock-knockin' on Heaven's door … “
 -Guns ‘n’ Roses, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (video after post)

At the Tahoe Rim Trail ultras, you can spend a lot of time contemplating Heaven and Hell.

The two poles are right there in the race’s motto - “A Glimpse of Heaven, A Taste of Hell” – but more than simple words can express, it’s the feelings you go through while making your way through the course.  Hellish climbs and occasionally infernal heat.  Celestial scenery and lofty elevations that make Heaven seem just a reach away.  And if you’re having a good race there, the whole experience can feel like knocking on Heaven’s door.

This was the third straight year I’ve participated at TRT in some form or another, and each time has been rewarding in its own unique way.  During last weekend’s 50-miler, the vast majority of my time was simply heavenly – and the good vibes seemed to be shared with many kindred spirits along the way.  And with that, we’ll get to the report

(As always, click any picture to enlarge.)


There’s certainly a more lighthearted vibe to the 50K and 50M crowds at Tahoe.  Part of it could be due to the fact that unlike the earlier racers, we’re not starting in the dark; the other part is probably because we know how far those lunatics who started an hour ahead of us will be running.  When other people are running 100 miles, it’s hard for the rest of us to find anything to complain about.


One runner was even nice enough to take my picture.  The conversation went like this: She said I looked familiar and asked if I had a running blog.  I replied that I did have a website and introduced myself – at which point she said, “Oh, right – you paced Gretchen here, didn’t you?”

It wouldn’t be the last time I heard about Gretchen; no fewer than three more times, someone recognized me as Gretchen’s friend, the guy who paced Gretchen, or the guy who Gretchen was nice enough to pace one time.  You know … just in case I forgot whose neighborhood I was in.

And since I seem to have so many Gretchen fans reading my blog, I can offer two things:  1) She’ll make an appearance in this report, and 2) Bookmark her Hardrock report and read it anytime you want to get blown away with inspiration.  Trust me, it’s that good.  Then again, most of you probably know that already.

(What was I writing about again?  Oh, right – the race report.)


One of the only downsides of running the 50M event is that the trail is very crowded for the first 5 miles or so – in fact, this year had more 50M and 50K entrants than any time in the race’s history.  Fortunately, most of those early miles are uphill, which forces you to start conservatively …


 … and by the time we enjoyed the first descent to Marlette Lake at mile 5, there was plenty of room to stretch our legs and cruise at a comfortable pace.


Just before the Hobart aid station at mile 6, we were greeted by an angel and a devil.  One was shouting things like “Looking good!”, and the other yelled “Embrace the suck!”  You can guess which was which.  It was evidently some sort of battle for our minds …


… and on this side of the Hobart station, the devil appeared to be winning – at least if the “Hell” sign (lower right) pointing the way was any indication.


And in case we didn’t get the message, the flames on the “Hell’s Gate” sign eliminated any doubt.

It was hard for me to feel discouraged, though, because I knew what was coming up next: the climb over the shoulder of Marlette Peak, which is one of the prettiest trails I’ve ever run …


 … with one of the coolest views you can ask for above Marlette Lake and Lake Tahoe.


I was especially happy to run this trail for another reason: one year ago, large stretches of this segment were buried under several inches of snow.  I soaked in the scenery and cruised along blissfully …


… and before I knew it, I was at one of the friendliest aid stations on Earth: Tunnel Creek, which I passed through six times during my 100-mile odyssey last year, and where it’s impossible not to feel the outpouring of love from the volunteers …


… one of whom was Gretchen, sporting her new pink Hardrock 100 shirt.  Remember what I said about the vibe at the start line?  It’s also hard to complain to a girl who finished Hardrock one week earlier – and each time I passed through here, I left with a genuine “no worries” feeling.   That’s how you know you’ve been in an awesome aid station.


The Red House Loop gets a lot of pre-race chatter: it’s often identified as the “Taste of Hell” the race motto refers to.  It’s essentially a long downhill plunge followed by an uphill loop to bring you back to the same trail, and can often get scorching hot in the midday heat.  I’ve never had much difficulty with it, though, because there’s an aid station at the bottom of the loop …


… where a group of clowns are waiting to fill your bottles.  Whether this is heavenly or hellish depends on how you feel about clowns, I guess.


The majority of the climb out of the loop is runnable …


… until it isn’t.  I’ve learned not to get discouraged by the steep slog in this section, though; I just consider it practice for the legitimately monstrous slog that’s waiting for you about 13 miles later.


True story about this photo: as I was trudging back into Tunnel Creek, a spectator saw my camera and offered to take a picture of me.  Apparently the still photo didn’t look too good, because the next thing he told me was to go back down the hill so he could get an action shot.  So I actually deserve credit for 50.005 miles on the day, if you want to get technical about it.


Leaving Tunnel Creek, the 50-milers have the course to themselves as the 50K runners head back toward the finish.  I felt kind of bad for them, because this is definitely one of the prettiest sections of the course …


… with views of Lake Washoe to the west …


… large boulder-strewn footpaths on the Rim Trail ahead …


… and more spectacular visions of Lake Tahoe to the east.


Just when you’ve gotten your fill of amazing views, you embark on a 5-mile downhill path that’s simply perfect for inflicting pain upon your quads.  Coincidentally, the sun was positioning itself directly overhead, in ideal position for generating hellish heat on the exposed sections of the course.


So by the time I reached Diamond Peak aid station at mile 30, I felt a bit like I was approaching the fringes of Hell.  A curious quote sprang to mind: it was from Winston Churchill, who once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going”; under the circumstances, that seemed like as good advice as anything.


To be sure, there was more hell to come: namely, the 2-mile, almost 2000’ climb to the top of Diamond Peak ski area.  This was a slow, miserable trudge for me, and the steps seemed to happen in slow motion – actually, that’s not an exaggeration.  It took me almost an hour to cover two miles.


In the midst of my misery, it was slightly encouraging to see that the race directors at least had a sense of humor about the whole thing.  Honestly, it really wasn’t much encouragement at all – but by that point I was basically grasping at straws.


Finally reaching the top of the hill was a strange moment of duality for me: I appreciated the wondrous sights from my lofty perch close to heaven again … but I had pretty much cooked myself in order to get there.  On one of the highest points of the course, I felt the lowest – and in hindsight, it turned out to be the closest I came to hell all day long.


I knew the course became friendly again on the smooth, mostly downhill singletrack back to Tunnel Creek, but all I could muster was to walk long stretches of this section, while getting passed by what seemed like a parade of runners.

However, here’s what I mean when I say I’ve “managed” a race well: I’ve been in these hard situations enough times to know that they eventually get better.  In the moment, there’s always the potential of going into a downward mental spiral - but if you can resist those demons for a while, they eventually get tired and leave you alone.   On the Tahoe Rim Trail, I felt far too close to heaven to let some pesky demons drag me down – and before I knew it, I was jogging again.


And if I needed any more encouragement to keep going, I got it from my favorite aid station angel when I finally made it back to Tunnel Creek.


With 15 miles to go, it’s time to retrace your steps back over Marlette Peak …


… before returning to the opposite side of Hobart aid station – where coincidentally, the sign (lower left) that greets you this time says “Heaven” ...


... and you can get some cookies and energy gels from yet another friendly angel.  With less than 10 miles to go at this point, nothing was going to stop me anymore …


… not even one final encounter with the devil, whom I found shortly after leaving the station.  I stopped to talk to him for a few minutes; he turned out to be remarkably friendly, and gave me some information about the course before rushing off to help another runner who needed help.  When you can make peace with your demons during an ultra, you know you’re having a good day.


The final climb of the day begins gradually, but ratchets up the steepness as you pop above the tree line on the climb to Snow Valley, the highest point of the run at nearly 9000'.


The top of the ridge is also a great place to enjoy some more wonderful views …


… and in this case, to be taken completely by surprise.  This winged-and-haloed angel was strangely unexpected: she was running in the opposite direction (so she wasn’t a race participant), was more than a mile from the aid station (so she didn’t seem to be a volunteer), and had a hydration pack indicating she was covering a long distance on the top of the mountain.  Despite this, she floated gracefully down the trail straight towards me, only stopping briefly when I asked to take her picture.  If she had told me she had fallen directly out of the sky, I probably would have believed her.  I swear, ultras do weird things to your head sometimes.


Once you leave the Snow Valley aid station, you traverse a rocky but gently-sloping ridge on the shoulder of the peak …


… before dropping below the tree line for one long final plunge, about 5 miles down toward the finish line at Spooner Lake.


When you finally reach the lake, the finish line seems like a speck in the distance, and as the trail takes you around the lake, it actually seems to get farther away at times.  But at this point, there’s no devil in the world that can keep you from the finish line …


… and when you get there, you know you’ve just participated in something beautiful.

As my final tune-up for Leadville, I was particularly concerned about how I would feel at the end of this race – and afterward, I couldn’t have asked for a better test run. 


For one thing, my RunAmoc Dashes cemented their status as my race day moccasins – but that’s really a minor point in the bigger scope of things.  My training has been pretty lousy this year – I keep meaning to write about this separately, I promise – so I’ve replied upon buildup races more than ever to bolster my confidence before the big test next month.

Without going into too much detail (or lengthening this report any further), I think that most of the pieces are falling into place for me to successfully finish Leadville in a few weeks.  The TRT carried me to that final threshold, and I feel like I’m on the verge of something truly magnificent … like I’m ready to knock right on heaven’s door, and have it open wide to welcome me in.

**
Obviously I had a handful of artist options for this tune … but since I’m a child of the metal 80s, there was really only one choice: the incomparable Guns ‘n’ Roses.  The clip is from the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, and is a great reminder of just how impressive GNR was when they were on their game – as well as how disappointing it is that they wasted it all away so fast.

Guns ‘n’ Roses, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (click to play):


*See other race reports under tab at top of page.


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July 23, 2012

Black Diamond Sprinter and Spot 2012 Headlamp Reviews

One sure sign that you’re an ultrarunner is that even in the middle of summer, when the sun rises early and daylight stretches well past dinnertime, you still use headlamps on a regular basis for your training runs.

That’s been the case for me this spring and summer, when I've had lots of opportunity to test two updated Black Diamond favorites: the Sprinter rechargeable headlamp, and the Spot compact headlamp.  I typically use the Spot when heading to the trails before sunrise, and the Sprinter when I’m running on dark roads – for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

Truthfully, the new lamps don’t represent significant changes from the previous models; rather, they are mainly refinements of products that were already pretty darn good.  There are still a few recommendations I have for improvement, but overall they provide a very strong feature profile for a great price, which has always been Black Diamond’s forte in lighting systems.

2011 Sprinter on L, 2012 Sprinter on R

The Sprinter is Black Diamond’s green marvel: it’s a super lightweight, rechargeable lamp that is versatile enough to handle any number of conditions.  This year’s model burns a bit brighter – 75 lumens compared to 68 on the previous version – but otherwise has virtually identical specs.  It weighs 3.7 oz (105g), with 5 hours of burn time at the highest setting, and has a water resistance rating of IPX7 (immersion in up to 1m of water for 30 minutes).



A double power LED beam projects a very nice, even oval flood beam through a wide perimeter, and illumination stays constant throughout the battery life.   There’s a red taillight strobe to improve your visibility from behind, which is the reason this is my #1 choice for road running.  The rear strobe can be turned off with a simple push button if necessary. 


AC charger (last year) on L, USB (this year) on R

Another difference between last year’s model and the current version is that instead of recharging from a standard outlet, the new Sprinter charges with a USB cable.  This is great if you charge everything from your computer, but I ended up using a cheap AC-to-USB adapter so I can recharge the lamp in my bedroom and  grab it when I roll out of bed on dark mornings.



One change I wanted to see was a more stable interface between lamp and charger; the lamp doesn’t always lock into place real firmly, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell from the LED indicator if you’re getting the charge you think you are.  The only other downside of the new Sprinter is the same as the original version: you only get one type of beam, so if you like to flip back and forth between spot and flood mode, the Sprinter can’t help you there.

**
If spot mode is what you like, Black Diamond’s Spot is one of the most powerfully compact lamps you’ll find.  A triple-power LED increases the brightness of last year’s model from 75 to 90 lumens, without changing the battery requirement (three AAA) or overall weight of 3.17 oz  (90g).


2011 Spot on L, 2012 Spot on R

Its overall shape and dimensions are unchanged as well, so the light is still perfect for tucking in a waist pack after sunrise.  90 lumens is more than bright enough to illuminate the trails, and the variable dimmer function can customize the level to whatever your needs may be, whether running under moonlight or reading in your sleeping bag.  Burn time is 50 hours on the high setting, or 200 hours with the dimmer LEDs



The Spot is chock full of other cool features as well: two red night vision bulbs, a three-level battery life indicator, a strobe setting, and a lock mode to prevent accidental battery drain.  Water resistance is IPX4, so it’s no problem to run through a storm.

Like with the Sprinter, my downsides to the new Spot are unchanged from the old version to the updated one.  If you prefer the flood setting (which I do), you have to use the single power LEDs which only shine at 16 lumens.  Also, even though the Spot is compatible with rechargeable batteries, I’ve been hoping that Black Diamond would develop a version of this lamp that can be recharged by a plug-in like the Sprinter (or like Petzl’s CORE battery pack).

I happened to mention this point in an e-mail to my BD rep, who gave me the following reply: We will be showing something at Summer OR [Outdoor Retailer convention] that will be of interest to you.  That's all I can say for now.  So keep your eyes peeled for some kind of announcement in the next few weeks – and I’ll let you know as soon as I’m in the loop as well.

[**UPDATED: See the bottom of this post for a sneak peek at Black Diamond's upcoming rechargeable lamp, called the ReVolt.  Big thanks to my reader Luke for passing this along.]

In the meantime, Black Diamond’s 2012 lamps provide an outstanding combination of performance and value, especially as the days start to grow shorter again this fall.  Here are your product links:

Black Diamond Sprinter headlamp retails for $70, but is discounted to $56 at Amazon.com.

Black Diamond Spot headlamp retails for $40 from Amazon.com.


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

**Here's the sneak peek video of Black Diamond's ReVolt compact headlamp, available in Spring 2013 (click to play):



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