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October 28, 2012

CLIF Chocolate Cherry BLOK Contest; CLIF Holiday Bar Winners; Random Shots of Beauty

“Three is a magic number, yes it is ... “

-      - From Schoolhouse Rock

This is the third straight weekend that I’m offering up a new CLIF Bar contest, and I’m also announcing three winners of last week’s CLIF holiday bar contest – so we'll ahead and have some fun with the theme of three on this one.  But first, let’s get to this weekend’s Random Shot of Beauty:

As seen in Carmel Valley, three days before Halloween.  Incidentally, if it weren’t for decorations like this, it would be hard to tell that it’s fall around here lately with the 80-degree weekend we just enjoyed.  Have I mentioned that I love living in California?

Now it's time to announce the three winners of last week’s CLIF Bar holiday flavor giveaway contest.  Grimzeak, Southern Tim, and MittenKim: e-mail me your contact info – you’ve won!  Thanks to everyone who entered, and remember to get your holiday flavors while they last, so you don’t have to wait until 2013.

(P.S.  Remember how many holiday flavors there are?  Three, of course!)

So it’s time for the new contest, which features a brand new CLIF product.

Shortly before our family trip to Zion, we received a sampler box that contained three (yes, really) packs of CLIF’s brand new Chocolate Cherry flavor BLOKS.  In the midst of our three days of hiking, each of my three kids got to sample the new flavor – and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

CLIF offers this same flavor in their SHOT gel, but it’s somewhat unique among energy chews, which generally seems dominated by strictly fruit flavors.  Evidently it’s hard to mimic the taste of chocolate in this category of energy food, but CLIF does a pretty good job of it with the Chocolate Cherry BLOKS. 

The chocolate flavor is subtle but unmistakable; I thought of it like someone had poured chocolate syrup on CLIF’s black cherry BLOK flavor.  However, my 11-year-old daughter came up with an even better description: “It tastes like an ice cream sundae.” 

With the addition of this new flavor, CLIF now has nine (or, stated another way, three times three) BLOK flavors to choose from.  Like other BLOKS, the Chocolate Cherry flavor is made with 95 percent organic ingredients, with a balance of carbohydrates and electrolytes for quick energy and proper muscle function during athletic activity.  This variety will give you a caffeine boost as well, as each pack features 50mg worth, which is the equivalent of one shot of coffee.

Sound interesting?  The new BLOKS are now available in stores, but a few of my readers will get to try a sampler pack for themselves.  And in case you didn’t guess … the number of winners will be three.  However, I’m making it slightly more challenging than just leaving a comment.  This time, you have to name something that comes in threes, or name a group of three things that go together: for example, the past, present and future, or faith and hope and charity, or the heart and brain and body … you get the idea.  If your item(s) are the same as one that’s already listed, your entry doesn’t count.

And if those three examples I just mentioned seem obscure, it’s because I didn’t really make them up: they’re from one of my favorite childhood songs that has become something of a pop culture classic.  That Schoolhouse Rock video is below, and I’ll announce the winners of this contest on – you guessed it, November 3!

Special thanks to CLIF Bar for sponsoring this contest, and good luck to everybody!

“Three Is A Magic Number” from Schoolhouse Rock (click to play):

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October 26, 2012

Zion Adventures: Hiking the Narrows

It’s hard to spend any time in Zion National Park and not start thinking about the Narrows.

You’ll see images and read descriptions of it from pretty much any informational resource you choose.  You’ll overhear people in the nearby lodges and restaurants talking about it.  And you’ll see passengers on the Zion Valley bus wearing waders and carrying walking sticks (more on those later) and automatically know how they’re spending the day.

Zion Narrows; click any photo to enlarge

The Narrows are as iconic to Zion as Half Dome is to Yosemite – but with practically zero elevation gain and the flexibility of doing as much or as little mileage you want, it’s far more accessible to the average Joe Hiker than climbing up some massive bald rock.  Unfortunately, it was also one of the areas I missed on my first pass through the park a couple of years ago – so this time around, with a family full of kindred souls looking for adventure, I knew which hike would be at the top of our list.

And just because the adventure is accessible, that doesn’t mean it’s easy; the challenges of hiking in the Narrows are still formidable, but in a more unique way than most hikers are typically accustomed to.  By the end of the day, your legs will be just as tired as if you spent a long day climbing and descending on regular trails – but the memories you keep with you afterwards will be far more distinctive.

But before we talk about the end, we should talk about the beginning – and at Zion, the starting point for a day hike of the Narrows is a paved trailhead at the last stop off the public bus line that runs through Zion Valley.

The paved portion is only one mile long, and is gently rolling, without anything that really deserves to be called a hill.  Basically, it’s an extended warmup walk to enjoy some nervous chatter, and to take the measure of the river you’ll be spending the rest of your day wading through.

Before getting to that part, there’s a transition zone of sorts where you can gear up for entering the river.  Prior to our arrival, it was this aspect of the trip that caused the most uncertainty (and occasional anxiety) for my wife and me, in that we had no way of knowing what exactly we might need.

Here’s the deal with the Narrows: the hiking route essentially goes straight through the Virgin River.  Not adjacent, not criss-crossing … but literally walking in the river.  Therefore, you’re guaranteed to spend the day wet – the only question is how much of your body is going to be submerged at any given time.  And when you talk to people or read reports about the Narrows, you’ll hear about the possibility of waist-deep currents or hidden sinkholes where you risk being completely submerged.

Accordingly, pretty much every guide to hiking the Narrows – especially those that are affiliated with one of the local rental shops - will tell you that you shouldn’t attempt the hike without canyoneering shoes, thick neoprene socks, drysuit wading pants, and a sturdy walking stick.  However, since I’m 1) a minimalist at heart, and 2) cheap, I wasn’t convinced that shelling out big bucks to outfit everybody was really necessary.

Truthfully, this assessment wasn’t a complete shot in the dark; with some advance research, I was able to make a reasonable guess as to what the water conditions might be like.  Zion uses a USGS water volume measurement of cubic feet per second (CFS) to gauge how much water the river is carrying on any given day.  If the flow is above 120 CFS, the park won’t issue through-hike permits, and any day under 75 CFS is considered reasonably safe for hiking.  On the mid-October day that we targeted for our outing, the river was a measly 35 CFS.

So we took our chances.  Instead of renting shoes and socks and pants, we wore … something else, which I’ll indicate shortly.  The only essential piece of gear you need is a walking stick …

… and you can most likely save yourself the rental cost and just grab one from the “take a stick, leave a stick” rack that’s just beyond the transition area.  Once you select the size and style you like …

… it’s time to make your way into the river.

When water levels are low, there are portions of the hike where you can avoid the river via rocky paths along the bank …

… but it won’t be long before your side trails disappear, and you’ve got nowhere to hide from the water.

Here’s what NOT to use for footwear: a pair of princessy high-heeled sandals, as the owner of this abandoned pair at river’s edge can attest to.  As for me …

… I went with VIVOBAREFOOT Ultras, which were designed as a hybrid aqua / land shoe – in other words, exactly the conditions you find in the Narrows.  Eschewing my traditional Vibram hiking shoes also allowed me to wear merino wool socks, which provide effective insulation even when wet.   Water temperature in the Virgin River was in the 55 to 60 degree range, so keeping your toes warm is definitely a priority for this hike.

(As a family, we were evenly split between Merrell Barefoot and VIVOBAREFOOT – and there’s one more note on footwear coming soon.)

On the subject of keeping warm: as you journey into the Narrows, you’re not only spending the majority of your time in frigid water, but the high canyon walls on either side effectively block the sun and keep the entire route cold …

… so anytime you find a narrow sliver of space where daylight actually reaches the ground, that’s occasion to stop and soak in some rays to bring your body temp up just a bit.

The further you go into the canyon, the more the walls seem to close in on either side of you, and the more surreal the entire scene becomes.  You also gain a heightened appreciation for the park service’s regulation of this route – because if there are heavy rains or flash flooding, you’ve got absolutely no place to hide.

Approximately 1.5 miles upriver is a junction for a side canyon called Orderville; this also marks the beginning of the most famous section of the Narrows, known as Wall Street.

Also, one final footwear note: if you click to enlarge the photo above, you’ll notice that the two people pictured are barefoot.  They weren’t the only ones we saw with naked feet, and I also found some people wearing Vibrams.  Obviously this was encouraging for me to witness, and it also completely dispels the notion that you need specialized shoes to navigate the Narrows. 

There are some precautions, however.  The slick river rocks cause your footing to constantly be unsteady, and you often slide unexpectedly from the surface of one rock to another.  Even with a walking stick, bashed toes are probably inevitable if you go the barefoot or Vibram route.  Also, a full day of this kind of unsteady walking on rocks is a pretty high-demand activity for your feet and especially your ankles, so if you’re a newbie minimalist, you’re going to have some soreness afterwards.

Inside Wall Street, the river is less than 25 feet wide in places, and the vertical sandstone walls on either side rise up to 1500 feet overhead.  If you’re a Star Wars freak like me, you’ll have flashbacks to the trash compactor scene in Episode IV – and if you’re a normal person, you’ll probably have an overwhelming feeling of smallness when staring up at the cliffs looming overhead.

When you’re day hiking* the Narrows, the turnaround point is wherever you make it; a popular turning point is the far end of Wall Street when the canyon opens up slightly again. 

(*As opposed to through-hiking, where you can start at the far upstream end and hike the entire 12 miles down to the transition area where my family’s hike started.  You need a permit for through-hiking, but not for day hiking as I’m describing here.)

You also want to budget some extra time on the way back …

… to make a side trip up Orderville Canyon, which is narrower and has less water flow than the main canyon …

… but has some distinctive features all its own, such as a couple of low scrambles over logs or rock piles.  You can go about a half-mile into Orderville before day hiking is prohibited (but through-hiking with a permit is OK) …

… and it’s time to turn around and head back through the main canyon towards the transition area.

By the time you finish the day, your vital stats won’t be very impressive; the trip described here is probably only 7 miles round trip, and took us the better part of 6 hours to complete with a few rest and meal breaks.  However, this hike isn’t about the numbers – it’s about venturing into surroundings that are unlike almost any other hike you’ll ever do, and taking in one of the best experiences that Zion National Park has to offer.

There’s a reason people talk about the Narrows so much – and if you ever get the opportunity, it’s definitely worth spending a day to see what all the talk is about.

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

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October 23, 2012

VIVOBAREFOOT Gobi Boot Review (And Discount Offer)

Beginning in the summer of 1940, Allied and Axis troops pushed each other back and forth across North Africa for three long years, in battles whose outcomes were largely determined by the ability of either side to mobilize troops and supplies more effectively than the opponent in the harsh desert conditions.

In November of 1942 the British Eighth Army secured a key victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein, a coastal Egyptian city, and ultimately drove Erwin Rommel’s Panzer Army westward all the way to Tunisia. By the end of the year, thousands of American and British troops joined the attack, and the North African Campaign ended with the surrender of all remaining Axis troops in May of 1943.

British 8th Army in WWII; photo from ww2incolor.com

So what does any of this have to do with a product review?  Well, one of the smallest historical footnotes from the North African theater was the popularization of what came to be known as the desert boot, also sometimes called a chukka boot.  With high leather siding and rubberized soles, the British Army’s footwear of choice was highly durable, effective at keeping sand away from the feet, and comfortable enough for seemingly endless hours of use.


While the desert boot has become a modern fashion staple, it wasn’t until VIVOBAREFOOT (coincidentally and perhaps fittingly, a company of British origin) introduced its Fall 2012 lineup that a suitable barefoot equivalent existed.  The company now offers the Gobi, a low profile boot that echoes the styling of classic desert boots and maintains all of the biomechanical benefits of modern minimalist footwear.  It’s available in three different styles, and is also available for a short time at a 20% discount.  More on that later – for now, let’s march (get it?) through a review.

The Gobi’s uppers are composed of full grain leather on the black version, and suede for either the dark or light brown models.  My suede version is quite comfortable against the skin, making it suitable for use without socks – however, there isn’t any sort of liner against the foot, so you may develop some odor issues with prolonged barefoot use.  I wear thin socks with mine just to be on the safe side.

Otherwise, the uppers are fairly simple and nondescript, with three large panels enveloping the foot, and a heel pull in the back to help get them on.

Three eyelets and traditional cotton laces in the front help secure the fit.

Considering that this is technically a boot, the Gobi is impressively light at only 8.2oz for the suede versions, with the leather version slightly heavier at 8.6 oz.  By comparison, two pairs of VIVOBAREFOOT boots I reviewed a couple of years ago weighed in at 11oz and 13oz, so the Gobi is a huge improvement from a minimal standpoint.  When reviewing their running models, I’ve often been critical of VIVOBAREFOOT for not making their shoes lighter, so I owe it to them to make this a high point of praise for the Gobi.

Like all VIVOBAREFOOT shoes, the Gobi comes with a removable insole that expands the toebox and lowers your standing height by 3mm when absent.  Removing the insole leaves you practically touching the ground …

… because the Gobi outsole is a mere 3mm thick, using one of VIVOBAREFOOT’s original high-abrasion puncture-resistant TPU materials that I also tested on the Dharma a few years ago.  This is the company’s thinnest outsole, so it’s unbeatable from a ground feel and proprioception standpoint, but it definitely lacks some traction on slick or wet surfaces.

For that matter, the entire Gobi has minimal water resistance – although the leather would be a little more effective than the suede - and isn’t well suited for harsh winter conditions in general.  This shouldn’t be surprising for a boot that was made with the desert in mind, but it’s worth noting that you’re buying these more for fashion than for true winter weather protection.  However, with its above-ankle height and classic styling, the Gobi easily complements a pair of jeans or dress pants in your fall wardrobe.

VIVOBAREFOOT’s Gobi retails for $150 from the company website, but for the remainder of the month you can get them for 20% discount by using coupon code RUNNINGANDRAMBLING20 when you check out.  The discount applies to all styles of VIVOBAREFOOT footwear, including their running and dress models.

*Product provided by VIVOBAREFOOT.  Affiliate sales support Running and Rambling.

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Check out the Running Life book for a collection of our most popular columns.


October 21, 2012

CLIF Bar Seasonal Flavors Giveaway Contest; Random Shots of Beauty

Remember last weekend, when I did a combination Random Shot of Beauty and CLIF contest post?  And remember how I said that it would be the first of three CLIF contests here?  Well, this is Part II of the Great CLIF Giveaway Bonanza, as I’m now calling it.  Accordingly, we may as well do this in similar fashion as last weekend, and throw an RSOB in at the top for good measure.

Before getting to that, however, remember that you’ve got until October 31 to enter last weekend’s contest by pasting a link to your Meet the Moment entry on my contest page.  There are some strong entries so far, but I wouldn’t say there’s no possibility of someone topping it. 

But that was last week, and this is this week – so let’s jump into our Random Shot of Beauty:

A scene from the Zion Narrows, during a family hike that I'll report on later in the week (um ... hopefully).  Fuel for the all-day outing included three flavors of CLIF Builder’s Bars, three flavors of MOJO Bars, two flavors of regular CLIF Bars, and a multi-flavored stash of CLIF Bloks for everyone.  We must have built up some great CLIF karma, because when we got home …

… this box was waiting for us.  It was our annual sampling of CLIF’s seasonal flavors, most of which have already vanished since the time of this photo.  We’ll remember them fondly, though.

For the uninitiated, here’s the scoop: CLIF gets in the holiday spirit every year by releasing holiday-themed CLIF Bar flavors alongside the regular versions on most store shelves.  Since this is the 10th consecutive year of CLIF’s holiday flavors, the annual release is moving right up there with pumpkin carving and Christmas tree cutting on our family’s list of fun holiday traditions.

The new flavors are made with 70 percent organic ingredients, and have the same blend of carbohydrates, protein and fiber as the regular bars.  Oh, there’s one more thing: they taste absolutely fantastic.  My favorite bar is a dead heat between the pumpkin pie and iced gingerbread flavors, and my kids are crazy about the peppermint stick flavor that was first introduced last year.  (And we all collectively miss the cranberry orange nut bread flavor that was discontinued two years ago.  Seriously – this is the kind of thing we talk about.)  My wife also found these bars on the right side of this list of the healthiest and unhealthiest pumpkin-flavored goodies you can indulge in over the holidays.

Winter athletes – I’m not one, but I’m pretty sure I’ve talked to some – often see the seasonal bar release as the beginning of winter sports season, and for those folks, CLIF’s holiday promotion benefits them even further.  This year the company is donating one percent of their seasonal bar sales to Protect Our Winters, an organization committed to engaging and mobilizing the winter sports community to lead the fight against climate change.

Another cool thing that came in our package this year was a recipe book of favorite holiday recipes from CLIF’s family of employees and sponsored athletes.  Rest assured that by the time the holidays have come and gone, we’ll have tested each of these recipes a few times, so maybe I can report back here at some point with an update.  In the meantime, this one for "Zingerbread" is catching my eye as the first one we’ll try:

Click to enlarge for easier reading

There’s only one downside to the seasonal flavors:  once they’re gone, you have to wait another year before you see them again.  So consider this your rallying cry to look for the seasonal bars in stores, and stock up on your favorites to keep the taste of the holidays rolling as long as possible.  And let’s go ahead and roll into our contest as well.

To help a few of my readers celebrate the holidays, CLIF is providing one of the sample boxes pictured above to three lucky winners.  For this contest, you don’t have to upload a picture or paste a link – all you have to do is leave a comment in the box below, and hope that CLIF karma is on your side.  I’ll announce the winners here next Sunday.

As always, thanks very much to CLIF Bar for sponsoring this contest, and good luck to everybody!

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October 18, 2012

SKORA Women's FORM Running Shoe Review

Last spring I had the opportunity to test a shoe that had been perhaps the most long-anticipated of the entire natural running movement: the SKORA FORM.  The company set a pretty tall standard for itself with high-quality material construction, along with a high-end price tag of $185 that proved to be a hurdle for many users.

I had some frustration in my testing due to SKORA’s sizing for both its BASE and FORM models, which were at least a half size too large.  Even without removing the insole (creating a lower stack height which I usually prefer), the shoe was difficult to fasten properly, and my foot moved around inside the shoe too much for me to do any serious high-mileage testing. 

SKORA women's FORM

At the time, the FORM was only available in men’s sizes, but this fall the company introduced a women’s FORM, which is now available in two colors.  Most of the design features and construction elements are the same as the men’s version, with a few tweaks to make it better suited for female runners.  It’s a zero-drop, medium midsole shoe, placing it in the same category as Altra’s Intuition or Merrell’s Dash Glove and Bare Access (review coming soon) – and since I happen to be married to a runner who has reviewed all of those models, I figured I had the perfect person to test the women’s FORM as well.

Prior to the release, SKORA also offered me a mulligan of sorts, and provided a smaller size men's shoe for my own testing.  I happened to receive them in the midst of my high mileage (relatively, at least) weeks of preparation for Leadville, and wore them almost straight out of the box on a 31-mile road run, the last 13 miles of which consisted of leading a 1:45 pace group at a local half-marathon.  I’ve put a couple hundred miles on them since then, and I’m really impressed with their durability in every way except for one, which I’ll explain shortly.

In the meantime, let’s run through a quick recap of the whole SKORA concept.  The company’s slogan is “Run Real”, and they don’t want to be considered a minimalist shoe – rather, their primary intention is to promote natural running form and to create the best possible shoes to accommodate it.  They believe that the best running shoes let your feet function naturally, while providing protection and comfort that allow you to extend your run as far as your body will take you.

The vast majority of technical specifications on the women’s FORM are identical to the men’s version – so I’ll refer you to my earlier review, and briefly run down the specs here:

Uppers are made from Pittards Armor-Tan goat leather, with Pittards WR100X sheepskin lining.  In other words … very UN-vegan.

Standing height is 13mm with the removable insole in place, and 9mm if you remove the insole.  

Removing the insole also expands the toe box somewhat, giving the effect of sizing up roughly one-half size.

Lacing is asymmetrical, and eschews a traditional tongue in favor of the burrito-wrap style that seems to be appearing more frequently from various manufacturers.  In my initial testing I commented that the shoelaces were way too long, but this was corrected between the prototype I reviewed and the final release version.

Sizing can be adjusted around the heel and ankle with an elastic Velcro strap, and the ankle collar has soft padding for improved comfort.

Weight of the women’s version is 7.4oz, compared to 8.2 for the larger men’s version.  Again, this isn’t super-minimal, but it’s light enough so that your feet don’t feel burdened.  And of course …

… flexibility of the women’s version is the same as the men’s.  (Although to be biologically accurate, perhaps they should make the woman way more flexible than the man.  Or maybe that’s just my wife and me.) 

The outsole consists of high-abrasion rubber that has held up extremely well after 200 miles.  It performs equally well on roads and trails, only losing traction on loose gravel or sloppy, muddy terrain.

One design feature that doesn’t work for me is evident in the heels, which are rounded on both sides.  Because I tend to make heel contact with the inside of my heel, with increased mileage I’ve slightly worn down the inside of my right heel, which inclines me to land even further over to the side than I do naturally.  If you have neutral alignment, this won’t be an issue, but if your biomechanics are skewed to one side or another, you may have similar problems with the FORM.

Sizing is similar for the women’s version, meaning that you should size down at least a half-size when ordering, and even consider a full size down if you’re intending to remove the insole.  SKORA’s RealFit last for women accommodates a wider fit spectrum than the men’s version; I’ve heard criticism that FORMs are too narrow, but that wasn’t a problem for me or my wife throughout or testing.

Both of us found the FORM slightly warmer than conventional mesh running shoes, but not nearly as much as you might think.  As I mentioned, I ran in mine through much of the summer and didn’t have any problem with overheating, although it’s worth pointing out that Monterey County summers can be fairly mild.

I also typically wear my FORMs without socks, and even during my 31-miler, comfort was great without any hot spots or other problems.

I’m definitely more impressed with the FORM now that I’ve had a chance to put significant mileage on a pair, and I anticipate that a biomechanically neutral runner with proper natural form could log many hundreds of miles on a pair.  The prolonged lifespan may justify the lofty price tag, but I’m still inclined to consider the FORM a luxury item in similar fashion as a Lexus is to a Toyota; both will help you rack up a lot of miles, but one will get you there in much finer style.

SKORA’s men’s and women’s FORM models retail for $185 from the SKORA website, or from the following Amazon.com links:

*Products provided by SKORA.  Amazon Affiliate sales support Running and Rambling.

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