equipment

Gear I like

Review: Sockwa X8

sockwa_02

I’m a barefoot runner. I only run with footgear when I absolutely have to. That means when it’s too cold (-5C is about my lower limit for anything except very short barefoot runs), when the ground surface is too rough (I’m still learning to run barefoot on gravel trails), or when the run distance is too long to be barefoot (like the Niagara 100K ultra I’ll do in June). Or lastly, when I’ve been putting in a lot of distance to train for an upcoming race, and my soles just need a bit of a break from all the asphalt.

In those circumstances, I’ve had only two choices – my Soft Star Moc3s or my Xero Shoes Sensori Ventures. The way that usually works out is Moc3s in the cold, Sensoris in the warm. So far, so good.

Enter the Sockwa X8.

Sockwa X8

The X8s are a deceptively simple piece of kit. Essentially, they’re just a sock with a sole. That means that wearing them feels a lot like being barefoot, but with a little protection. That’s the premise of most minimalist footwear, for sure. But – in my experience, at least – nothing comes close to the X8 experience. And I say “deceptively simple” for a good reason – the X8s are a brilliant piece of technology. They’re carefully made, with high-tech materials, and they’re made well. So it’s worth, I think, spending of bit of time looking at what goes into each pair of X8s.

The uppers are made of Ariaprene, a synthetic rubber material. (Think of it as “see through” neoprene.) It’s breathable, decomposable, non-allergenic, rubber- and latex-free, and stretchable. All good!

Sockwa upper

The upper is stitched together as a one-piece bootie, and then glued to the TPU sole.

Sockwa Curve

The X8 outer sole is 1.2mm thick Thermoplastic Polyurethane. Then there’s an inner sole made of a thin piece of fleece. And there’s 0.7 mm of added tread on the outer sole. The inner sole plus the outer Ariaprene fabric means a total of 4.5mm. Sockwa claims that 2.5mm of that compresses when you step on the ground, so you’re really only feeling about a 2mm sole. TPU is noted for its abrasion-resistant qualities, so I expect the sole will last a very long time.

(Curiously, though the X8s are obviously shaped to fit each foot, they come with prominent labels on the insides of the footbed heels. Do we really need to be told “LEFT” and “RIGHT”?)

I haven’t needed to wash my X8s yet, in spite of running through innumerable puddles and on some gravelly trails. But, when I do, it’ll be easy – they’re machine-washable in cold water, and can be dried by hanging them on a line.

Bare foot and Sockwa foot

You can see the snugness of X8′s fit in the above image. That felt kind of odd when I first put them on, but I quickly got used to it. And I soon discovered that they’re a real joy to run in. They feel extremely “barefooty,” offering tons of good groundfeel and ease of motion.

I’ve worn the X8s a lot in the past few weeks, as I’ve needed to put in some serious weekly distances (111K last week) as I prepare for the upcoming Elk/Beaver 50K trail ultra. The temperatures have been cool in the early mornings (as low as -11C), so, on most of those runs, I’ve worn very thin, low-cut socks with the X8s. But I’ve also work them sockless, and, aside from being able to feel the flat-stitching on the Ariaprene uppers, that hasn’t been an issue at all.

A notable feature of the X8 soles is that, though they’re very flexible, there’s a slightly-raised pattern on them that gives a surprising amount of traction (far more than is offered by the Soft Star Moc3s, which are completely pattern-free). And the X8s don’t make the slappy noise that my Sensori sandals make (as do all minimalist sandals, as far as I know). Nor, of course, are there laces and toe plugs to get in the way. The X8s offer a lovely combination of elegant comfort and high-end functionality.

All of that said, they’re extremely minimalist. I’ve been running barefoot for six years, only wearing footgear when absolutely necessary. So I like to think my barefoot form is reasonably good. If you’re new to minimalist kit, you might want to go easy on the distances until you’ve got your form sorted. Don’t get me wrong -that’s not a criticism of the X8, but rather a caution to the newbie.

Long story short… Brilliant design, excellent execution, and a great price point at US$59.00.

How much do I like the Sockwa X8s? Well, let’s just say that I think I’ve found my ideal footwear for the Niagara 100K ultra in June!

Note: Product was provided by Sockwa for this review.

Review: Janji Apparel

Janji

The always-wonderful Running Stories website has published my review of Janji’s Rwanda shorts and Haiti t-shirt. Well worth a look, even if I say so myself. You can find the review here.

There are two good reasons you should do that…

The first is that Boston-based Janji offers running apparel with a difference – not just good-looking, high-performance kit, but products that embody an ethical approach. Every purchase from Janji helps in supporting individuals and communities in the developing world.

The second is the Running Stories site itself. It describes itself as “a website for runners created by runners.” Check out the site, and you’ll find running stories, inspirational features, reviews, forums and training tips. Nothing says it better than the tagline on the site: “We run. We talk. We run.”

It’s what in Canada is called a two-fer. More bang for your buck, for sure.

Coming Up: Sockwa X8

Sockwa

The good folks at Sockwa (“Socks with attitude”) have very kindly sent me a pair of their X8s for review.

The X8s are a very minimalist slipper-type shoe, described by Sockwa as “breathable, comfortable, and lightweight.” My new X8s look great and fit perfectly, right out of the mailer pouch they came in. (Shoe boxes are so twentieth century, don’t you think?) I’ll post a full review soon. Stay tuned!

Sockwa X8

Review: Orange Mud HydraQuiver

Orange Mud

I’ve been testing my new Orange Mud HydraQuiver hydration pack for the past week or so. I’ve done all of my training runs with the HydraQuiver, on the treadmill (I don’t run outdoors in the winter, especially when it’s -30C, as has been the case lately), at different distances (between 8K and 19K), at various paces, and both shirtless and shirtless. (I’m longing to do some long outdoor runs with the HydraQuiver, but that’ll have to wait until the temps are more reasonable.)

The verdict? The HydraQuiver is a clear winner!

As I mentioned in my HydraQuiver teaser post, my Nathan hydration vest wasn’t meeting all my long run/race needs. I don’t like wearing waterbelts, and I don’t want to carry large handhelds. The HydraQuiver, though, does the needful, and, I think, comes pretty close to perfection.

HydraQuiver front

With the HydraQuiver, there is, remarkably, no bounce, no slosh, and no chafing at all. It sits high between my shoulders. It offers quick and easy access/return to a big water bottle. Each shoulder strap has a pocket made of a stretchable material; each pocket can hold six gel pouches. That means I can carry up to twelve gels, which will come in handy on those ultras where I have to carry my own fuel, such as the Elk/Beaver 50K in May. On such races, I can also carry a couple or three packets of Hammer HEED in the HydraQuiver’s main body pocket, and add water at an aid station. Again, this will work at Elk/Beaver, where, for some bizarre reason, only the dreaded Gatorade is on offer at the aid stations.

There’s also a neat little hole (X marks the spot in the photo below) for my iPod Shuffle/Yurbuds cord – a necessity for this season’s long training runs and ultra races.

HydraQuiver headphone port

A small footprint is part of the HydraQuiver magic. And the sweat-absorbing foam on the back of the pack really works! (One advantage of doing my testing on the treadmill is that I get really, really sweaty doing that. If there was ever a good test of comfort and non-chafability, this was it!)

HydraQuiver back

And let me say it one more time – no bounce, no slosh, and no chafing. In my experience, that’s something of a miracle.

In the course of the testing, I discovered some interesting things:

It was really easy to reach back and grab the water bottle. As the Orange Mud folks say, “If you can scratch the back of your neck, you can reach the bottle.” Putting the bottle back is simplicity itself – it’s “dropback by proprioception” (the ability to know where our limbs are without having to look).

A 24oz bottle full of water weighs 1.9 lbs. But it feels absolutely weightless in the HydraQuiver!

The absence of a sternum strap on the HydraQuiver makes it vastly more comfortable. Once I put on the HydraQuiver, I forget about it. With my Nathan hydration vest, I was always fussing with the sternum strap. (I suspect that the lack of a sternum strap will also be much appreciated by women runners.)

Last but not least, wearing the HydraQuiver helps me with my form. Like most runners, I tend to hunch my shoulders forward when I’m tired. When that happens, the HydraQuiver feels a little tighter. It’s a nudge in the right direction, which is to keep my shoulders down and back. Bonus!

The HydraQuiver is, in my humble opinion, one of the best ideas in hydration to come along in a very long while. I’m going to use it on my long training runs and my upcoming ultras. Good on you, Orange Mud!

Note: I ordered my HydraQuiver from the Running Room rather than directly from Orange Mud (cheaper shipping, no duty, quicker delivery).

Coming Up: HydraQuiver

HydraQuiver

I recently ordered an Orange Mud HydraQuiver, and expect it to arrive any day now.

I’m excited about the HydraQuiver. It’s a fresh take on hydration systems, and I think it’s going to replace my Nathan hydration vest on long training runs and short ultras.

I bought the Nathan because I wanted (and needed) something that would carry enough fluid to last on runs longer than 40K. I’d been carrying two small handhelds, but that got clumsy. I don’t like wearing waterbelts, and I didn’t want to carry large handhelds. The Nathan hydration vest ticked those boxes. When its 2L bladder was full, though, it rode hard on the small of my back, and I never quite managed to adjust it so that wouldn’t happen. And, though it has a small outer pocket for carrying a bit of extra stuff, I couldn’t get to that pocket without taking the vest off. To its credit, the Nathan fits well, and, once adjusted, doesn’t bounce much – at least until it’s almost depleted.

Enter the Orange Mud HydraQuiver. It’s a new product, launched in December 2013, that was born out of a desire to have a hydration system that doesn’t bounce. It carries a single 24oz water bottle (Orange Mud’s DoubleQuiver carries two such bottles) high between the shoulders, with a storage pocket big enough for a light vest, gloves, etc. in the pack’s main body, and gel, cell phone, etc. pockets on the shoulder straps. It’s a good theory, and all the reviews I’ve read of the HydraQuiver suggests it works as planned.

As I said, mine is on its way. I’ll do some testing, and post a full review soonest. Stay tuned!

Review: Vivobarefoot Breatho Trail

Vivibarefoot Breatho Trail

The Context

I’ll start this with a full disclosure. I came to the Vivobarefoot Breatho Trail as a diehard barefoot runner. My barefoot races to date include a 50K ultra, a marathon, eight half marathons, and a short trail race. It’s almost impossible to get me into shoes at any time, but especially when I run. But I’d become keen on running trails – very gnarly ones, at that – and had plans to run an technical 50K trail race. Barefoot isn’t always wise for that sort of thing, or even possible. So I chose to open my mind a little bit, and look at options.

I did a lot of research, looked at a lot of product videos, asked a lot of questions of fellow runners, and then purchased a pair of Vivobarefoot Breatho Trail shoes. Online, sight unseen, from the good folks at Vivobarefoot US. It all felt a bit like I was going over to the Dark Side, but it’s turned out well. Read on…

The Shoe

The Breatho’s very much a minimalist trail shoe, in every sense of the word. It’s a true zero drop, with an aggressively-lugged sole, breathable uppers, and a wide toe box. It ships with a removable insole, which comes in handy if you’re transitioning from a more traditional shoe format or if you’re running on really cold ground. (I live in Canada, where the ground can get very cold indeed.) The Breatho weighs in at only 272 gms., which is plenty light for a shoe.

Now it’s time for a confession. I really dislike the look of most contemporary running shoes. Maybe I’m getting old and grumpy, but it’s all getting a bit much. Shrieking loud colours, unpleasant contrasts, freakish design. In many cases, it’s a matter of “all hat, no horse,” as they say in the Canadian West.

The Breathos, though, are different. They look subdued. They suggest elegance, calmness, and competence. They’re easy on the eyes. And that’s the case in all the colour options on offer for the Breatho – black/black, grey/red, grey/yellow, and grey/blue.

Breatho Trail colours

Now for some particulars…

The Breathos have an outrageously wide toe box. It’s so big and spacious, in fact, that when I first tried mine on, I thought that perhaps I’d bought the wrong size. There’s a lot of room there, which is a good thing. (I’ve become more used to this over time, but it still looks a bit odd.) One very nice feature is that the Breathos don’t have a tongue, which makes them ideal for wearing without socks. The ankle opening is quite low; that may, in rough or dusty terrain, allow stones or other debris to get in. I haven’t that happen yet.

The multi-directional lugs on the Breathos’ soles are one of the major reasons I chose this shoe. The lugs on the heel of the shoe face the opposite direction as the front to help stay upright on steep, slippery, and otherwise gnarly climbs and descents. The soles are very thin (2.5mm) and pliable (though Vivibarefoot says they’re puncture-resistant), which maximizes groundfeel and proprioception. There’s no mid-sole rock plate on this shoe, but that hasn’t presented a problem so far, even on very rocky single-track. The Breathos are both supple and protective – kudos to Vivibarefoot for that. As I said, this is a true zero-drop shoe, with only a 0.6mm difference between the forefoot and heel. There’s nice toe guard at the front, which comes in handy for the inevitable times you kick a rock.

Breatho flexibility

The Test

That’s all good. But how do the Breathos play out in the real world?

The simplest way of illustrating that is to refer you to my race report for the Vulture Bait 50K trail race I did in October. The Vulture Bait offered some pretty tough test conditions: the course was a combination of a few grassy open spaces and a lot of rocky, rooty single-track, with lots of mud, two water crossings, rough terrain, and a lot of elevation changes.

As I said in that report, “I’d only run in [the Breathos] a couple of times on some trails near my home in the weeks before the Vulture Bait, so this was a big test. They passed with flying colours! I wore them with an old pair of Injinji socks, and had no problems at all with either fit or support. Given the conditions of the race, and the fact that they were essentially an unbroken-in pair of shoes, I think that’s pretty remarkable.”

The Breathos check pretty well all the boxes I can think of. They’re as minimalist as a rugged trail shoe is going to get, which is something even a barefoot devotee can appreciate. They’re not something I’d wear on the roads – obviously – so I’ll save them for the trails. But they’ve opened up a whole world of running that wasn’t available to me before. Can’t say much better than that!

The Verdict

I came away from the Vulture Bait a big believer in the Breathos. They’re well-designed, comfortable, and they do the job they’re supposed to do. If I have to wear shoes, these are the ones I’ll wear.

5 stars out of 5!

My Breathos

Review: Xero Shoes Sensori Venture

Xero Shoes Sensori Venture-4-colors

Backstory

I already own three pairs of Xero Shoes huaraches. All of them were purchased as DIY kits. First was a pair of the originals, when Xero Shoes was known as Invisible Shoes. Next were the Connect 4mm road and the Contact 6mm trail models, which I reviewed here and here.

I like the Xero huaraches a lot.They’re light, they’re comfortable, and they work well. I’ve run distances up to 25K in them, on roads and trails, and in all kinds of weather (including temperatures down to -10C, when I wear them with Injinji socks). But I’ve had a couple of issues with them. First, the knots in the lacing on the top of my feet have been irritating enough that they’ve cut my skin. Secondly, and more importantly, the laces have broken at the toe hole a number of times. Not good when you run a lot and run long.

But now Xero Shoes has upped the minimalist huaraches stakes considerably with their new Sensori Venture sandals. Xero’s Steven Sashen was kind enough to send me a pair for review purposes, so I’ve been putting them through their paces. (Yes, I know, that was bad, but I had to say it.)

The Sensori Venture

Sensori Venture in green

Let’s look at the Sensori’s key features. (Some of them are significant!)

They’re ready-to-wear, straight out of the box.
They come in cool colour accents: charcoal; royal blue; lime green; and bright pink.
The laces are reflective.
They have 5.5mm soles.
The footbed is slightly contoured.
They come with a nice tension-adjustment system.
The toe post is made of soft rubber.
There’s a heel cup.
There’s a silicone heel strap.
The Sensori’s come with Xero Shoes usual 5,000 mile warranty (wear them out in under 5,000 miles, and Xero will replace them for the cost of shipping and handling.

Which features do I consider significant?

1/ Getting a perfect fit right out of the box is a real pleasure. With the Sensori, Xero has eschewed the tracing required for its DIY kits in favour of real sizes. Mine are a perfect size 9. I put them on, and they fit!

2/ The new rubber toe posts offer a big increase in comfort, and will likely spell the end to those broken laces I experienced in the past.

3/ The tension-adjustment system makes for a good fit, whether I’m going bare or wearing Injinjis. And it’s meant an end to the skin irritation issue.

4/ The heel strap is partly good fit and partly enhanced comfort. I like it a lot.

The colours? Well, I’m not a big colour guy (I chose the charcoal accent for mine), but the coloured Sensoris look good in the photos I’ve seen on the Xero site and on other review sites. I think they’ll help with Sensori sales.

And the heel cup… I’m still on the fence about that. I’ll admit that the concept is excellent. Xero says that it’ll help keep debris from getting in between the sole and your foot, and I certainly haven’t any issues that way so far. But I think that logic would make more sense for a similar cup at the front of the sandal, because that’s where debris would get in, not at the back. However, a front cup (that sounds wrong, doesn’t it?) would have to be extremely light to prevent the sandal toe from drooping down.

The Verdict

On the whole, I’m very impressed with my Sensori’s. They’re a huge improvement over past models of Xero huaraches, from design to fit to performance. I give them a nine out of ten, the missing point being the minor question about the heel cup.

Well done, Xero!

Me and my Sensoris

Note: Product provided by Xero Shoes.

Coming Up: Xero Sensori Venture Review

Xero Shoes Sensori Venture

Exciting news!

I’ve just found out that I’ll soon get a pair of Xero Shoes’ new Sensori Venture for review. It’s a ready-to-wear minimalist sandal, with a whole bunch of nifty new features, including an elastic toe strap, a heel cup, and a quick adjust strap. The Venture features a 5.25mm FeelTrue rubber outsole (with the same dual-chevron tread as on current Xero shoes), weighs 5.4 oz (153 gms) in a men’s size 9, and will sell for US$39.95. It’s available in four colour combinations.

I already own Xero Connects and Contacts, but expect the Sensori Venture will offer significant improvements in my huarache running experience.

Here’s Xero Shoes’ Steven Sashen explaining what the Sensori Venture is all about:

 

Stay tuned for the full review!

The Essentials

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In a perfect world, I’d run naked. That not being possible, I wear only what I think is necessary. Over the years, I’ve come down to a pretty minimal list – ’cause that’s the kind of guy I am.

Here’s what it takes:

Running kilt

Running Kilt

Except for running barefoot, my running kilt, from Scott Schneider of runningkilts.com, is the most comfortable way of moving I’ve found. (See my inital review of the kilt here.) Once I got over being self-conscious about being seen in public wearing a skirt, I never looked back. Unless it’s cold enough for tights, I now wear my running kilt on all my runs. I can’t understand why more men don’t wear these.

Garmin 210

Garmin 210

For years I ran gadgetless. No iPod, for sure, because I don’t listen to music. But not even a watch. Then I bought a Garmin, and became a data junkie. I still make sure that I run Garmin-free on a regular basis, but the numbers have been good to me.

Soft Star Moc3s

Soft Star Moc3

It’s a hard thing for a hardcore barefoot runner to say, but I love my Soft Star Moc3s. Actually, it’s not really that hard a confession to make – because these are, without any doubt, the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. With them, I can run farther, on more different surfaces, and in more varied weather conditions than I can barefoot, and without losing any of the barefoot form that I love so much. They’ve even enabled me to run trails, which I’ve longed to do for some time. I’m a convert (though I still run barefoot whenever I can).

Buff

Buffs

I started wearing Buffs in my ultra-distance cycling days, under my helmet. I re-discovered them when I began running. A Buff is simplicity itself – a tube of microfibrous fabric that, with different arrangements, can be worn as a scarf, bandanna, headband, beanie, face mask, tube top, helmet liner, wristband, cap, pirate, Sahara style, and other variations. They’re made on a specially-developed tubular loom, so the finished garment is seamless. And they come in about a bjillion colours and patterns.

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It goes without saying that above gear list is for warm weather. And I should add that I regularly trim the list down to the barest essential, i.e., just my running kilt.

In the winter? Well, in the winter, I run on my treadmill. Naked.

Soft Star RunAmocs

http://thwaits.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/runamoc01.jpg

My Soft Star Original RunAmocs arrived in yesterday’s mail. I’ve been looking forward to this!

I ordered them because I was really impressed with my Soft Star Moc3s, and wanted something similar to wear as an everyday shoe. (In some situations, the cheap flip-flops I usually wear just don’t cut it.) The Original RunAmocs, though they were developed and designed as running gear, look very much like “regular” shoes, but adhere to the same design philosophy and quality as the Moc3s.

Soft Star RunAmocs

Specifically, the RunAmocs offer zero drop (a no-brainer, and an absolute for anything I wear on my feet), a 2mm Vibram sole, a solid (i.e., non-perforated) leather upper, and a nice wide toe box. Unlike the Moc3s, which fit like elasticized-sized slippers, the Original RunAmocs feature an integrated lace/elastic ankle closure. The leather uppers are formaldehyde-free, which fits into Soft Star’s overall ethos of using natural, harm-free products.

I be stylin'!

I be stylin’!

I really like the way these shoes look. More importantly, I like the way they feel. They’re not quite the “ghost shoe” that the Moc3s are (read my review of the Moc3s to see what I mean), but they’re pretty darn good. I’ve already worn them around the house, to do some yard work, and to walk the dogs. Of course, I’m going to try them out on a couple of runs, too. Another win from Soft Star!