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November 29, 2012

Rambling On

“Leaves are falling all around, it's time I was on my way –

Thanks to you I'm much obliged, for such a pleasant stay … “
-     -   Led Zeppelin, “Ramble On” (video after post)

At Thanksgiving I posted an old Bloom County comic strip that referenced the notion of permanence – which, ironically, was published in the summer of 1989, just a handful of weeks before author Berke Breathed officially brought that chapter of his career to a close.  I remember feeling quite melancholy about the departure of Bloom County from the daily comics*, even though I recognized that the strip had morphed and changed and played out so many crazy story lines that it must have been practically impossible to keep things fresh and exciting anymore. 

(*Coincidentally, in the summer of 1989 I had a lot of things going for me: I had finished my freshman year at the college I had dreamed of attending since I was a little kid, spent one of the most exhilarating seasons I could remember as part of the UCLA rowing team, and wasted more days than I can remember bumming around the beaches of southern California.  And although I didn’t realize it at the time, I had met the girl who would eventually become my wife.  Yet I was still legitimately sad about this nutty comic strip coming to an end – which should tell you all you need to know about my maturity level in the late 1980s.)

I couldn’t even honestly say that Bloom County was my favorite strip anymore; at the time, both Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side were at the top of their games, proving themselves far more endearing and universally funny - and in hindsight, they would hold up much better over the ensuing two decades.  Yet there was something special about Bloom County for me.  Perhaps it was the lovably quirky characters, or the absurdly fantastic adventures they set out on, or the often embarrassingly candid expressions of introspection and insecurity they displayed – whatever it was, I simply identified with this cartoon more than all the others.

Click to enlarge

The final story line of the strip described how the characters eventually found work at other comic strips; among my favorites was African-American computer wiz Oliver Wendell Jones being bused in to join the cast of Family Circus.  Ultimately Opus, the character who had become the heart and soul of the strip, walked off into the sunset with the promise of more crazy experiences awaiting him at some nondescript destination - later revealed to be Outland, a Sunday-only spinoff that was relatively short-lived and never remotely established the same emotional connection as the original.

Click to enlarge

The reason I’m telling you all this is because it wasn’t a coincidence that I ran that strip here last week.  It’s time to bring a chapter of my own life to a close … and we’re entering the final weeks of Running and Rambling.

It’s a decision that’s been percolating in my head for the better part of a year, and finally reached critical mass over the past couple of months.  This website has always been a labor of love, but the “labor” side of that equation has been overwhelming the “love” side with increasing frequency, and I’ve long since reached the point of diminishing returns in regards to how much time I want to invest on this pet hobby of mine.

Lest anyone be concerned, rest assured that everything is fine with me.  Longtime readers will recall that I tried to quit once before, a decision that was precipitated by a family crisis, under circumstances that seemed abrupt and beyond my control.  (And no, I’m not linking to those posts – it’s not exactly a period of time I’m eager to revisit.)  This time around, things couldn’t be more different: I’ve had a ton of time to mull it over, and it’s a decision that I’m making completely on my own, without any external drivers influencing me one way or the other.

"Goodbye, me" - click to enlarge

In fact, it’s precisely because I find myself so richly blessed that the day to day machinations of maintaining a website seem extremely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.  Life is morphing and changing and inserting me into a hundred crazy story lines, and I want to give all of them my full attention without worrying about how much time I need to be spending on my laptop in order to get the next post published.  Or, to paraphrase the immortal philosopher Ferris Bueller: life is moving pretty fast, and if I don’t stop and look around, I’m afraid I might miss it.

However, none of this implies that you’ve seen the last of me.  Like the Bloom County characters of 1989, many aspects of this blog will carry on elsewhere.  I’ll continue to be a gear guru, with minimalist footwear reviews posted on Gear Institute, and all other manner of products reviewed on Feed the Habit (I’ve contributed to each of these sites for a number of years now).  Team Soft Star will continue to race at ultras - although which ones and when, I have no idea yet – with race reports published on Soft Star’s Live Bare blog.  And if things go according to plan, you'll occasionally see my name pop up on freelance writing gigs for various outdoor or health-related magazines.  None of these will have quite the same emotional connection for me as my original website, but they're exactly the type of outlets I need right now.

Same idiot, different websites

I’m tentatively planning to publish my final post on December 31 – that seems like a fitting date to bring things to a close – so think of the next four weeks around here as one final adventure.  I honestly have no idea how things will play out; maybe I’ll run some favorite posts, maybe I’ll try some crazy things I've never gotten around to, or maybe I’ll just continue business as usual and then play "Freebird" on my way out of the building.  All I know for now is that I have a few product reviews to post and at least one more contest giveaway to offer, which you’ll see for yourself next week.

In the meantime, I’m overwhelmingly obliged to everyone who helped make Running and Rambling a success; it’s been such a pleasant stay that I know a part of me will always be legitimately sad about its departure.  Hopefully I’ll be able to convey the extent of that gratitude at some point … but for now, it’s time for me to go – and as fate would have it, tonight there’s a full moon to guide me.

“Now it’s time for me to go, the autumn moon lights my way … ”
-      Led Zeppelin, “Ramble On” (click to play):

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November 26, 2012

Soft Star Youth Dash Shoe Review

Here’s how you know you’ve got a versatile shoe: when you can wear it for a 100-mile trail run through the mountains in the summer, and your daughter can wear it as an everyday school shoe in the fall.

Thanks to Soft Star Shoes, that scenario isn’t much of an exaggeration.  By now my exploits running Leadville in my RunAmoc Dashes are well documented, but the other development in the Dash story was the release of a youth version this fall.  It’s essentially the same model as the grown up model, with a few kid-friendly design tweaks.  My 9-year-old daughter has been putting them through the paces at school and at play, and they’ve quickly become one of her favorites.

Soft Star youth Dash

For the most part, the design and construction of the youth model are similar to the adult Dash smooth, with a solid leather upper and wide toe box in front to let the toes splay.  Both fasten the midfoot very securely in place …

… but the youth version uses a Velcro attachment rather than the traditional laces found on the adult Dash.

The youth version also features an elastic band around the ankle collar to keep the heel in place.  When I first wear tested the adult Dashes, my primary complaint was that the heel seemed to slip out of the collar fairly often*; this band prevents that same issue from happening to little heels.

(*Soft Star made some modifications and eventually came up with a shape that hugs my foot better – it’s not perfect, but obviously good enough to get me through all my ultras.)

Also around the heel area you’ll see an extra layer of leather padding to improve comfort.  The back side of the heels have reflective accents to help keep little feet visible in low light.

My daughter wears her Dashes almost exclusively without socks and hasn’t had any complaints of hot spots or discomfort.  A thin boar skin insole serves a dual purpose of providing enough grip to keep the foot from sliding around, and feeling soft against the skin for added comfort.

Just as with the adult versions, youth Dashes are available with a 2mm street outsole or the more knobby 5mm trail outsole.  For an added cost you can order the leather outsole that’s an option on some Soft Star models (and popular with fans of grounding).  The outsole material above is exactly the same as the one I use for my ultras, so I don’t have any concerns about its durability.  We decided to go with the thicker 5mm option because it’s more comfortable for extended use, and traction is significantly better on a variety of surfaces that most kids encounter. 

Of course, the thicker outsole doesn’t make the shoe any less flexible, as the entire thing can be rolled up or contoured just like any of Soft Star’s footwear.  They allow young feet to move and stretch as though they were barefoot, with the added benefits of modest protection and a fashionable flair.

Youth Dash shoes come in two standard color options: the chocolate and nutmeg combo that my daughter chose, or a more feminine purple and shiny violet option.  (My daughter’s never been much for gender conformity.)  As with all other Soft Star models, you can design your own color schemes for an additional cost.

Although they are technically moccasins, the youth Dashes are built to handle activity just like the grownup versions.  My daughter wears them for P.E. class, all over the playground, and for pretty much any outdoor activity she encounters after the school bell rings. 

Soft Star’s youth Dash shoes retail for $78 from the company website.

*Product provided by Soft Star Shoes

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November 24, 2012

Cyber Monday Shopping Roundup; Random Shots of Beauty

I’ve been blitzed with Black Friday and Cyber Monday promotions over the past week – and since it’s been a while since I’ve done any serious affiliate promotion, I figured I’d pass some of them along here.  Before we get to them, however, let’s roll through our customary Random Shots of Beauty, with a double-size edition in honor of the double-sized weekend.

The first is from a Wednesday afternoon run with my daughter, on one of the rare occasions I’ve had to run in daylight recently:

A grove of massive eucalyptus trees near a historic homestead site in Garland Ranch Regional Park in Carmel Valley.  The other is a bit further away …

… and up into the Santa Cruz Mountains, the site of our family’s annual Christmas tree hunt on the day after Thanksgiving, when most of the rest of America is out shopping.  We do this every single year, and not one time have I ever wished I was in a shopping mall instead.

However, on the subject of shopping, let’s get to the offers.  Rather than go into much detail on any of these, just understand that I’ve used all of the products and/or vendors in question, and I have no hesitation in recommending them to you as well.  Click any of the banners to jump to the sales.

First up is REI, your best one-stop shop for pretty much everything outdoor related.  They’re offering all winter gear at a 30% discount through November 26th.

Next is Massey’s Outfitters, who sell the complete Patagonia catalog as well as an extensive collection of Vibram FiveFingers.  They’ve got a ton of their products discounted (including all Marmot gear), and are offering a $20 gift card with a $100 purchase.

The next banner ad is from GoLite, who offer pretty killer savings all year long, and this week is no exception.  Their holiday promotion is a free beanie with any purchase.

One more banner – not necessarily because it’s huge savings, but because it’s one of my favorite companies.  Patagonia is offering free shipping on all orders through December 9th.

Finally, a couple sales that I don’t have banner ads for: VIVOBAREFOOT has a sweet coupon code for 40% off your order through November 28 – just enter VIVOBF at checkout.  SKORA has a “first-come, best-served” type of coupon code where you can save 25, 50, or possibly even 100% of your purchase price – click here for details. 

Does that give you enough to shop for?  One other note is that Amazon.com will have some great Cyber Monday deals as well – so if you’re looking for something that isn’t on this list, chances are you’ll find it there.

Regular programming will resume later in the week – until then, happy shopping!

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


November 21, 2012

A Charlie Brown (And Milo and Binkley) Thanksgiving

It’s tradition around Running and Rambling HQ that when the holidays roll around, we break out the Charlie Brown videos – and more often than not, I embed a clip from one of the holiday specials here.

So it is again this year, in a brilliant 5-minute clip that features classic Vince Guaraldi music, heartfelt gratitude in recognition of the holiday, some of the finest Snoopy moments on film … and Thanksgiving around a ping pong table.

“Thanksgiving Around a Ping-Pong Table” (click to play):

And while we’re on the subject of animation that has greater significance, there’s an old Bloom County strip that’s been on my mind a lot lately.  You’ll have to click to enlarge:

More to follow on this shortly.  In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.  Don’t eat too much popcorn and jellybeans.

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November 20, 2012


It’s worth noting that when I first started reviewing VIVOBAREFOOT footwear more than three years ago, they were at that time exclusively a dress shoe company.  They hadn’t yet entered the running business, but there was an inherent symbiosis between their “barefoot” shoes and the natural biomechanics of a bygone era of running, before modern corporations turned the entire shoe industry into a destructive vortex of technologies that none of us needed. 


All of which is my long-winded way of saying that running shoes used to be much simpler.  However, today’s product review doesn’t feature a running shoe, but the VIVOBAREFOOT Legacy, designed as a throwback to those simpler days of running – or as the website describes it, “a luxury barefoot shoe that pays homage to the classic Roger Bannister era.”  

And before we proceed further, allow me to re-state what longtime readers already know: I’m a complete Roger Bannister freak.  (Scroll around the lower right sidebar to see what I mean.)  So when you put together the words “Bannister” and “barefoot”, you pretty much have me at hello.  Admittedly then, I may not be the most objective person to provide this review – but truthfully, the Legacy is probably one of the most versatile and stylish shoes I own.

Let’s start with the styling: true to its claim, the Legacy looks like it came straight out of Oxford University in the 1950s.  The entire upper is made with what VIVOBAREFOOT calls luxury leather.  The continuation of the lacing ridge lines down through the toe box give the shoe a look that’s equally suitable for office or casual wear.

The toebox is nice and wide, allowing your toes to splay naturally.  This design element seems almost needless to say for natural shoe reviews nowadays because pretty much everybody does it - but it bears mentioning that VIVOBAREFOOT was way ahead of the curve in pioneering this kind of last in office-appropriate footwear.

Unlike most other VIVOBAREFOOT shoes, there’s a bit of a breaking in period for the Legacy, as the luxury leather is slightly stiff right out of the box.  It becomes softer and more malleable after a few outings, and eventually becomes like a second layer of skin around your midfoot (but not so much in the heel – more on that in a second).

Midfoot fit can be fine-tuned by the traditional lacing system and waxed cotton laces that hold their tension quite well during long periods of wear.  Each shoe weighs 8.5 oz, (241g) which is slightly heavier than other office options (such as Merrell’s Tough Glove), but is light enough to not be burdensome even after a full day on your feet.

Around the heel area, the leather is approximately twice as thick as in the rest of the upper; I suspect this is to give a bit of structure to the heel collar, but it makes the rearfoot area noticeably stiffer than the rest of the shoe.  I feel the difference when walking up stairs or up steep inclines, but it’s not enough to cause any discomfort.

Standing height of the Legacy is either 5mm or 8mm, depending on whether or not you include the removable 3mm EVA insole.  Whichever way you choose, ground feel is outstanding with this shoe, as the soft, flexible rubber outsole provides heightened proprioception on a variety of surfaces.

Another nod to Bannister is the aforementioned outsole, which is taken from VIVOBAREFOOT’s luxury Evo running shoe.  It’s composed of high abrasion, puncture-resistant rubber with shallow hexagonal knobbing.  From my experience with other VIVOBAREFOOT models, I’d say this outsole is quite strong from a dry traction standpoint (especially on dirt or irregular surfaces), but lacks a bit in wet conditions compared to the all-weather outsole found on VIVO’s Lesotho shoe and other models.

Functionally speaking, the Legacy’s outsole mirrors its upper in terms of being versatile for a range of situations and conditions.  Ultimately that’s the strength of the Legacy on the whole: it’s a very well-built, good-looking shoe that you can use pretty much every day of the week, or from transitioning easily from work to a night on the town.

The VIVOBAREFOOT Legacy is available in two colors, and retails for $140 from the company website.  

*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.


November 18, 2012

Random Shots of Fall Beauty

Traditional fall colors are somewhat difficult to find in Monterey County, but if you do enough running around, eventually some of them will cross your path.  Accordingly, this weekend’s post features some color-themed Random Shots of Beauty.

The first is from Salinas; I have no idea what kind of tree this is (any arborists out there who want to educate me, feel free) – all I know is that it is extremely red.

In my home town of Carmel Valley, many of the colors aren’t from trees …

… but from vineyards.  Unlike the red tree earlier, these particular plants are very well known to me; I drive past them every day on my way to and from work, and mark the seasons by their changing shapes and colors.  I also indulge in their ultimate product (in this case, from one of the best wineries in the world) or similar Monterey County offerings quite a bit during the holiday season – which happens to start this week. 

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


November 15, 2012

GoLite Vista Ridge Shirt Review: GoLite Vermilion Thermal Jacket Review

I’ve mentioned a few times lately how our coastal California autumn frequently blesses us with 75-degree days when the rest of the country is in the midst of ice storms or cold spells or the unfairly harsh weather that has decimated the East Coast.  It’s really a wonderful thing … unless you happen to have some cold weather gear that you’re supposed to be testing.

Fortunately, our warm days are preceded by fairly cold (by California standards, anyway) mornings – and since I’m primarily a pre-dawn runner, I’ve been able to put some cold weather apparel through the paces over the past few weeks.  Today’s post features two tops that I’ve worn in temps from mid-30s to mid-40s, and in a few weeks I’ll review some pants that I’ll be using as our mornings drop closer to (and perhaps even below) freezing.

All of said products are from GoLite, who as you may recall completely revamped their business model this year, giving up traditional marketing strategies and distribution channels in favor of offering products directly to consumers at steeply discounted prices on their website.  What they save in advertising costs and retail fees they pass along to you, and I can’t think of an outdoor gear company who offers a better value proposition across the board than GoLite.

Case in point are today’s products – the Vista Ridge long sleeve top and Vermilion Thermal full-zip jacket. Both are great for cool autumn trail running, and both are super-affordable from the GoLite website.

The Vista Ridge Top is designed as a crossover for trail running or hiking, with simple styling and a relaxed fit through the torso that is comfortable under a shell or as a stand-alone layer.  It’s made of 100% recycled polyester, and is fairly lightweight at 6.0 oz (160g).

GoLite Vista Ridge running shirt

In my testing I had two minor gripes; the main one was some mild itching from the fairly large tag on the interior torso seam.  The rest of the garment has flatlock stitching for minimal irritation, so I wish GoLite had made this a completely tagless shirt so I wouldn’t have to cut the interior tags.

The offensive tags and giant logo

My other issue is a subjective one, and also an avoidable one if you’re purchasing for yourself.  I’m not a fan of huge logos across the chest, which is something GoLite does with select styles and colors.  The Vista Ridge shirt is available in four colors, and only one – the one I received for testing, of course – has the large logo.  The other colors have much more subtle logos, which is more my style.

From a moisture wicking and temperature regulation standpoint, the Vista Ridge performed as well as most high-end offerings in this category – but for the price, you can probably buy two or three of these for the cost of one competitor’s shirt.  It retails for $25 from the GoLite website.

My first go-to item from the various products I’m testing this fall is GoLite’s Vermillion jacket, which I have a hard time determining whether to use as a running jacket or casual "lounging around the house" comfortwear.  It’s a midweight layer at 13 oz (360g), and the brushed fleece interior is extremely soft against the skin.  (And no itchy tags to bother me, either.)

GoLite Vermilion Thermal jacket

Like the Vista Ridge shirt, the Vermilion jacket is made extensively with post-consumer materials – in this case, 78% recycled polyester fabric.  The remaining 22% features Cocona Minerale, a fabric derived from coconut fibers that has outstanding natural moisture wicking and odor-resistant properties.

I tested the odor-resistance during a 6-day stretch where I ran in the jacket every day without washing it in between.  With most moisture-wicking apparel, I’d be holding my nose by the third or fourth day – but with the Vermilion jacket, it smelled pretty much the same after the sixth run as it did before the first.

Thermal regulation is pretty strong with the Vermilion as well – with a short sleeve tech shirt and this jacket, I’m good to go for temps approaching freezing.  It’s a jacket you can use for a late-afternoon trail run, and keep it on to run errands after the sun has gone down.  And like the shirt, it’s very competitively priced compared to other jackets, thanks to a GoLite price strategy that allows them to sell it at 60% below retail.

GoLite’s Vermilion Thermal jacket is available in three color schemes, and retails for $48 from the GoLite website.

*Products provided by GoLite.  Affiliate sales support Running and Rambling.

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November 13, 2012

Merrell Bare Access 2 (and Arc 2) Shoe Review

Perhaps more than any other company, Merrell is an ideal example of how an established shoe manufacturer can evolve in response to changing times. 

They were the first major company to embrace the barefoot running movement, and produced an entire line of minimalist products as good as anything else on the market.  However, they also realized that not everyone is ready or willing to go completely minimal, so they created a separate line that incorporates all the biomechanical advantages of minimalist shoes, but with just enough structure and cushioning to welcome transitional or “moderate” minimalists.

Merrell Bare Access 2 (men's, left) and Bare Access Arc 2 (women's, right)

That line is the M-Connect series, which is being progressively introduced over this fall and next spring.  And since I happen to live with a moderate minimalist, I’m curious to see how the M-Connect line appeals to each of us.  We received our first test pairs, the Bare Access 2 (men’s) and Bare Access Arc 2 (women’s)*, just prior to our trip to Zion this fall, so we had some great opportunities for testing.

At the top of Angels Landing in Zion

(*To simplify things for the purpose of this review, I’m going to refer to them both as simply Bare Access men’s or women’s – but female readers take note that your version has a slightly different name.)

As the name implies, the Bare Access 2 are updated versions of a model first released in 2011.  They have traditional running shoe styling, and weigh in at a very light 7.0 oz for the men’s shoe and 5.5 for the women’s.

Much of the lightweight construction is thanks to the thin mesh uppers, which are reinforced by long stability overlays incorporated into the lacing to secure the midfoot in place …

... but are airy enough to provide outstanding cooling and/or drying as necessary.

Both men’s and women’s models are built on the same last as Merrell’s popular Barefoot line, although the fit of the Bare Access feels noticeably wider through the midfoot and arch area.  I’ve never had a problem with the Barefoot series lasts, but if those models proved too narrow for you, the Bare Access will be an improvement.

The toe boxes are plenty wide on the Bare Access 2, allowing your feet to splay naturally …

… and the entire shoe is flexible enough to let your entire foot move in any manner it wants as well.

Like most of Merrell’s Barefoot line, the heel collar of the Bare Access is thin and soft, and interior of the shoe is designed for sockless use.  The microfiber footbed (along with the lacing system) prevents slipping on hills, and the entire interior fees very comfortable against bare skin.

Stack height for the shoes is 13.5mm for the men’s version and 12.5mm for the women’s.  8mm of that is from EVA midsole cushioning with zero drop from heel to toe, and the rest is from the insole and outsole. 

Merrell once again uses high-durability Vibram rubber for its Bare Access outsole; the pattern is sort of similar to the Road Glove shoe, and like that shoe, the Bare Access outsole is ideally suited for hybrid road and trail use.  I’ve done an equal amount of each in my pair, and I feel confident using the Bare Access on everything but highly technical trails.

As a transitional – or moderate, as I’ve described it – shoe, the Bare Access is an outstanding option; there’s enough cushioning and protection to keep you comfortable, but all the construction aspects you need to allow for natural running.  From a minimalist standpoint, the midsole is higher and ground feel is lower than what I prefer, but the Bare Access would be great for long distance road (or light trail) running to give you a margin of error when your legs get fatigued and your form may start to fall apart.

Merrell’s Bare Access 2 (men’s) and Bare Access Arc 2 (women’s) shoes retail for $90 from the Merrell website.  They are also available from Amazon.com at the links below, where some sizes and colors are discounted:

*Products provided by Merrell.  Affiliate sales support Running and Rambling.

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

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