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September 30, 2012

Llamas and Moccasins and Masculine Fairies: Leadville 100 Post-Race Q&A

Shortly after returning to the Internet after my post-Leadville hiatus, I mentioned that I would do some sort of recap post to answer a few questions and other points that were raised in the comments section or in my e-mail inbox afterward – and then in classic slacker fashion, I proceeded to put that idea on the back shelf for a few more weeks.

So maybe I haven’t fully put Leadville behind me – and perhaps finally getting around to the post I promised will help close the book and move on.  Or not … I really have no idea.  But I do owe you a post.

However, before we get to it: if for some reason you missed either this Salomon Running Leadville video that I embedded in August, or my almost embarrassingly long race report, check them out for the background to this post.  We’ll do this in Q&A fashion, starting with an easy one:

Q: Is this a new thing: every time you come across a llama, it’s going to make the race report?

A: Absolutely.  Longtime readers may recall an earlier proviso to my personal race report manifesto: if there are cows on the course, they’re making the report.  It seems only proper that the same recognition should be given to llamas.  I’ll call this the Leadville Proviso.

And if you can get your picture taken WITH a llama, that's a no-brainer.

Q: Do you win the award for most minimal footwear that day?

A: I’m not sure.  In the first half of the race, I yo-yoed back and forth with a couple of guys wearing Luna sandals, which are significantly thicker underfoot than my Soft Star RunAmoc Dash Lites 10mm to 5mm, respectively), but the huarache-style upper leaves your foot a lot more exposed.  I also saw a couple of people in Vibrams; I couldn’t tell what model, but I think one was KSO Treks and the other might have been Spyridon LS

The problem is, I have no idea if any of these people finished.  I lost track of the Luna guys somewhere on Hope Pass, and I didn’t catch either of their names to check the results.  Both Vibram guys were inbound toward Winfield quite a while after I had started making my way back, so I have a feeling they didn’t make the halfway cutoff.   If anyone can fill me in on this one, I’d love to hear about it.

Q: What kind of hydration system do you use?  How do you carry food / gels / gear, etc?

A: My normal preference for ultras is to wear an Ultimate Direction Uno on my waist and a Nathan Quickdraw Elite on my hand, and that’s what I ended up using at Leadville as well.  However, I gave this one a lot of thought beforehand, because Leadville has longer than usual distances between aid – up to 13 miles in some cases – and some stretches that are shorter but can take in excess of a few hours due to the terrain (see: Hope Pass).  I considered wearing a hydration pack instead, but ultimately I decided to trade weight (or lack thereof) for fluid capacity.  It worked well for me, but I also saw a ton of people with hydration packs, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest that was the wrong choice.

Outside Fish Hatchery at mile 25

For food and gear storage, the Uno is really ideal, as I can zip 5 gel packs into one pocket and a compact headlamp into the other.  I also carry food in my hands a lot – in particular when walking away from aid stations with a few PB&;J squares in tow.

Q: That is no “her” with the wings.

A: OK … this isn’t exactly a question, but a remark that hit me like a hammer when I saw it in the comments section.  The reader was referring to this picture of someone’s pacer that was forced to dress as a fairy with angel wings while running for 50 miles.  In my race report I (understandably) called the fairy a girl, but a reader in the know corrected me.

Here’s the funny part: when I passed the fairy in person, I seriously thought it was a guy.  But I was above 12,000’, with more than 45 miles on my legs, and as I’ve mentioned several times before, ultras do bizarre things to your head.  So when I looked at the photo afterward and realized that I only had a couple of seconds to make sense of what I saw on the trail that day … it definitely wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that I had things mixed up.  I mean, the dude is wearing women’s shorts … and upon closer inspection, appears to have shaved legs.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.*  But I’m certainly happy to have some closure on this topic, which was starting to develop a creepy Crying Game element to it.  I think for everyone’s sake, it’s best that we never speak of this again.

(*Coincidentally, taken from another post-race Q&A from several years ago, after one of my very first race reports.)

Q: What will you remember the most?

A: This one’s pretty much impossible to answer, because I brought home a ton of memories that will stay with me forever – or at least for as long as my website remains live and Google’s web storage remains intact.  Most of them were described in the report, but there is one small moment that wasn’t included there but is growing more memorable in hindsight.

In the Salomon video I posted a while ago, Leadville’s race director comments, “It’s going to get to a point … no matter how good a athlete you are, it’s going to really hurt, and it’s going to transcend the physical, and become about the mental.”  His quote was bouncing around my head off and on early in the race, but hit me like a bolt of lightning when I saw this sign in a meadow at the base of Hope Pass:

(click to enlarge)

It says “Transcend the Physical,” and more than anything else I saw or heard on the course, drove home the fact that You’re here – and this is The Moment. There are very few points in life when there’s so much clarity about preparation (and anticipation) meeting opportunity, and very few experiences where I’ve been as completely at one with the moment as I was when going back and forth over Hope Pass.  And if that sounds bizarrely spiritual … well, it was just that kind of race.

But now it’s probably time to leave it behind – and on that subject, one more question …

Q:  What’s next?

A: I truly, honestly, sincerely have absolutely no idea.  There are plenty of adventures out there, but I’m simply not at the point of giving any of them an ounce of consideration.  I feel like I might run another 100 next year, or I may never race again – at this point, both scenarios seem equally likely.  I’m sure I'll settle in some sort of middle ground, and that something will capture my imagination someday … I’m just not in a hurry to actively seek it out on my own. 

And trust me: that feeling’s not a bad thing at all. 

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September 25, 2012

Patagonia Nano Puff Pullover Review

In recent years a new category has become popular in outdoor active wear: ultralight down jackets that are thin enough to be layered and compressible enough to be stowed into a day pack.  Patagonia was at the forefront of this development with their nano puff technology, a synthetic insulation that blocks wind and traps heat without excess weight or bulk.

Patagonia Nano Puff pullover; photo from Patagonia.com

Patagonia has a variety of nano puff options to choose from, including a zippered jacket, a hooded jacket, a vest, and a hybrid fleece/nano puff jacket.  This summer I’ve been testing the original of the series: the men’s nano puff pullover, and it has become one of those items that is a must-have for any outdoor excursion.

At Yosemite High Sierra camp

Although I tested the jacket during the summer, I had several opportunities to test its insulating capacity in cold weather, particularly in trips to Yosemite, the High Sierra, and the Colorado Rockies where temperatures routinely dropped into the 30s at night.   I’ve worn it in active and casual settings, and it has proven much more durable than its lightweight construction appears.

Here’s a quick rundown of some features: the entire pullover weighs just over 10 oz (10.2, to be exact), and the insulating material is called PrimaLoft One, a microfiber material that is hydrophobic and highly compressible.  The fabric maintains thermoregulation even when wet, but since the external polyester ripstop shell and interior lining are both coated with Durable Water Repellent (DWR), you have significant water resistance in a sudden storm before getting soaked. 

True to its green construction principles, the shell is made from 100% recycled materials such as soda bottles, old carpets, and worn out clothing.  There’s a single vertical zip chest pocket to store something light like sunglasses or a trail map – and when you need to store the jacket …

… the entire thing compresses into the aforementioned pocket and zips closed into a hand-sized pack that can easily be crammed into a duffel bag or backpack.  And if for some reason you can't fit it in your pack, there also a carabiner loop if you want to clip it on the outside.

All of Patagonia’s nano puff tops have elasticized cuffs and hemlines to further trap warmth, and the pullover version I’ve tested has a deep collar zipper to help ventilate when the weather gets warmer.  Considering that it’s essentially a down jacket, I’ve been impressed with the nano puff’s comfort across a wide temperature range; it breathes reasonably well during light aerobic activity like hiking or slacklining, and it traps body heat quite well after the sun goes down.

Early morning hiking in Yosemite; nano puff sitting comfortably under backpack

Without question, the most attractive aspect of the nano puff is its versatility as stand-alone outerwear, or as a middle layer for seriously cold outings.  The jacket is thin enough and straight enough that you shouldn’t have to size up on your outer jacket, and it fits very easily under a backpack.  The exterior surface is pleasantly slick, allowing the sleeves to slide underneath an outer layer very easily.

The only minor tweak I’d suggest for my own preference – not to mention my 6’2” height - is to make the trunk length slightly longer.  It falls just above my waist line, which is ideal if used for layering under a jacket - but since I’ll probably use mine as an external layer for the vast majority of my use, I’d prefer a couple more inches of length in the trunk.

I wouldn’t use the nano puff for running, because its ventilation is relatively limited compared to Patagonia’s outstanding fleece and lightweight breatheable shells.  However, for pretty much all other activities, and for all-purpose outdoor recreational use, the nano puff pullover has become the first thing I grab, whether I’m headed up to the mountains, or just out into the neighborhood.

Patagonia’s nano puff pullover retails for $169 from the company website – and here are the other varieties the company has available for both men and women:

*Product provided by Patagonia
**If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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September 22, 2012

Random Shots of Beauty

What my running has lacked in quantity lately - and believe me - there's a lot lacking - it has more than made up in quality; case in point is this weekend's Random Shot of Beauty:

A scene from a sunset 5-miler I took with my 11-year old daughter in Point Lobos State Reserve this week.  It occurs to me that I've never done a photo tour of this area, which is one of the most spectacular in all of  the Monterey Peninsula.  Perhaps some day I will ... but in the meantime, to make up for the past few weekends of Internet silence, here are some bonus shots from the same run.

Low mileage, beautiful scenery, and magic moments with my daughter - this is the kind of training I could really get used to.

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September 19, 2012

Newton Distance Performance Trainer Review; Newton 60 Days of Better Campaign

My original plan for today was to take a look back at my epic race last month, but in light of a recent promotional opportunity, I decided it might be better to move ahead for the time being and let folks know about a pretty interesting offer going on at Newton Running.

Even with all the newcomers to the natural running market over the last few years, Newton’s unique design stands alone.  They also enjoy one of the most loyal and rabid fan bases out there, whom I’ve fondly taken to calling the Newton Army for the way they’ve descended upon product reviews I’ve posted here (in a good way, of course), as well as for their willingness to engage in verbal battle with anyone who questions the performance benefits of the distinctive shoes.

Although their footwear is by no means minimalist, Newton has been one of the leading proponents of natural running technique for the past several years, offering instructional seminars and videos about proper running form to anyone and everyone who would listen.  Much of that knowledge was downloaded into company co-founder Danny Abshire’s outstanding book Natural Running: The Simple Path to Stronger, Healthier Running (see my review here), which has enjoyed ongoing success since its release in early 2011.

So Newton clearly is a prime mover in the natural running Renaissance, and many of their new customers quickly become customers for life.  However, one of the largest barriers to entry for many potential Newton recruits has been the steep price tag for most of their models.  To entice those folks to finally take the plunge and try their product, Newton has launched the 60 Days of Better campaign.

The deal is this: you can buy a pair of Newton shoes between September 1 and October 31, and try them risk-free for up to 60 days.  If you don’t like them or aren’t entirely converted to the Newton Way, you can return the shoes for a refund.  There’s a little bit of fine print - the shoes have to be purchased through the website, and you have to live in the US or Canada – but for the most part the deal is pretty straightforward, and could be your best chance to test the shoes if you’ve been on the fence about trying them.

Newton Distance performance trainer
To pique my interest in promoting the campaign, Newton offered a pair of Distancia (or Distance; newton uses the names interchangeably) neutral trainers, which I’ve been looking to test for a while, mainly because they’re the lightest shoe Newton offers. 

Newton's calling card: Action/reaction forefoot lugs

Although I fully embrace the biomechanics and endorse the design of Newton shoes*, one of my biggest complaints about the company’s lineup is how heavy they are.  When you’re used to running in 5-oz moccasins or Vibrams, strapping on the 9-oz Gravity or especially the 11-oz Terra Momentus feels something like affixing a brick to your feet.

(*the details of which I'm not going into here, because I've previously done so in my original Gravity review)

Therefore, with a weight of 7.8 oz, the Distancia seemed destined to be my favorite Newton model, and my testing (albeit with relatively limited mileage compared to my normal standards, thanks to my post-Leadville lethargy) has confirmed it.  All of the biomechanics are the same, and all of the comfort is there – in fact, I’ve exclusively worn these sockless without any blisters or hot spots.

All of the Newton flair for color is there as well; the Distancia comes in day-glo yellow for men or bright powder blue for women.  This is one of those “love it or hate it” things about Newton shoes, and I, um … probably shouldn’t say what side of the argument I fall on.

The Distancia’s upper is definitely the most breatheable of any Newton shoe I’ve worn, and would be great for staying ventilated during warm summer months or drying quickly during long foul-weather outings.

Aside from the weight, here’s my other complaint about Newtons: there’s extremely little heel to toe flexibility in the midsole area.  I’m not exactly sure how Newton could accomplish this without compromising the action/reaction forefoot lugs, but I do feel that there’s more foot constriction in these than any other footwear I use.

The Distance next to two other shoes I'm currently testing from B2R and Adidas, along with the moccasins I wore at Leadville

It’s also odd for me to wear a shoe with such a large standing height, at 24mm in the heel and 21mm in the forefoot (which results in a 3mm drop, for all you math-challenged folks out there).  As I’ve already mentioned, Newton isn’t anything close to a minimalist shoe – but to their credit, they’ve never claimed to be.  Rather, the shoe is all about the biomechanics, and about a natural running alternative to break the standard running shoe mold.

The Newton Distance retails for $155 from the company website, and remember that you can test them yourself for up to 60 days during the company’s 60 Days of Better campaign from now until October 31.

*Product provided by Newton Running
**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.


September 17, 2012

Cool Hand Donald

“Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.”

-      Luke (Paul Newman), from Cool Hand Luke (video clip after post)

For the past few weeks, doing nothing has been a very cool hand indeed.

I make it a habit to take a pretty extended training break after running a 100-miler, and sometimes that promise of extreme laziness is the only thing that motivates me through periods of extreme fatigue during the training and racing season.

No writing.  Hardly any running.  No ridiculously early alarm clocks or constantly aching legs or falling asleep at the dinner table.  You get the idea.  It’s the kind of thing I could get used to – you know, if I didn’t also happen to gain about 5 pounds per week while doing so.

It’s actually kind of a good thing that I’m not in training mode, because here’s where I’m spending the vast majority of my leisure time lately:

This fall, my wife and I have become bona fide water polo parents - a distinction that isn’t quite as popular as soccer moms or NASCAR dads, and one that requires a remarkably high threshold for watching your kid get pounded. 

The good news is that I’m really becoming a fan of the sport, and don’t really mind spending all day watching consecutive games at a tournament somewhere.  The bad news is that with all the time he’s spent in the pool, my son has developed a much better tan than me.  I thought I’d be OK with this … but apparently I’m not exactly there yet. 

With the number of workouts he’s doing, it may not be long until he’s a faster swimmer than me as well – so it's probably time for me to start getting in the water or hitting the trails at least every now and then.   Which means it’s also time to get the blog rolling again as well. 

I’ve got some product review posts that are piling up, as well as the other assorted odds and ends you’re accustomed to finding around here.  I’ll also indulge a couple more backward glances at last month’s Leadville 100 – starting with my next post, which will be a responsive effort to answer a variety of questions and comments I received after my superlong race report.

In between, there may be also be some prolonged periods of nothing … but rest assured I’m still out there doing something pretty cool.

"A Real Cool Hand," scene from Cool Hand Luke (click to play):

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