equipment

Gear I like

Sugoi Helium

Sugoi Helium

I recently bought a Sugoi Helium jacket. It replaces a couple of jackets I’ve had for a long time, neither of which meets my current needs.

The Helium’s perfect for me – lightweight (85gms/3 oz), wind- and water-resistant, and nicely fitted. Though pretty minimalist, it’s got the requisite reflective thingies, a couple of zippered pockets, and rolls up into a tidy, small package. It’ll serve me well for cool weather runs this fall, and will be ideal for the Race to the Stones 100K next summer, where the weather will be variable and, well… English.

(For a good summary of the Helium’s features, check out the short review of an older version of the jacket by Tom Caughlan for iRunFar here.)

I bought the Helium online from Running Free Canada. Not only was it on sale, Running Free’s excellent customer service made the transaction a pleasure. I recommend these folks highly!

Compression Kit

I’ve recently started wearing compression clothing on my runs. Never thought I’d see the day, to tell the truth. I’ve long been a “less is more” kind of guy – my usual kit has been just a pair of old school side-split shorts and minimalist sandals.

Why such a dramatic turnaround? Because compression kit works for me, that’s why.

The theory behind compression clothing, in a nutshell, is that it optimizes bloodflow, thereby improving performance, enhancing stamina, and speeding recovery. Proving that it actually works is very much under discussion, though. Folks who like compression garments won’t run without them. Folks who dislike them say they’re more about fashion than fact.

That said, my research turned up this study (among others) in favour of compression clothing. (The journey to a decision also involved anti-anxiety garments for dogs and my Asperger’s Syndrome. But that’s a story for another post.) So I decided I’d give them a try.

I’m pleased to say they work for me. They work very well, in fact. I now own two Under Armour compression shirts (one long-sleeve, one short-sleeve) and a pair of 2XU compression shorts.

Long story short… I run better when wearing my new compression kit. Form is better, pace is better, and recovery is better. The shirts seem to enhance better arm swing, and the shorts allow for better hip extension and flexion. I’m better able to hold my core firmly and strongly.

A couple of added benefits are: 1/ Compression clothing keeps me cooler on a hot day. It spreads out the sweat, which then evaporates more efficiently. 2/ Because compression garments move less against the skin than loose clothing, chafing is reduced or eliminated. No more BodyGlide. No more nipple tape. That makes them a very good thing.

A note of caution: If you’re self-conscious about your body image, you may not want to go the compression route. Compression garments are, by definition, tight. I’m reasonably lean (142 lbs/64.4 kgs on a 5’7″/170cm frame), but I felt like a sausage in a too-small casing the first time I put on a compression shirt. It didn’t take long to get used to it, though.

For me, it’s all good. Highly recommended, if you’re willing to try something new.

Review: Bedrock Syncline Sandals

Bedrock

When I got home from the Elk/Beaver 50K trail ultra, my new Synclines were waiting for me. They came in the mail, courtesy of the good folks at Oakland, California-based Bedrock Sandals, in the small burlap bag pictured above. (I love neo-hippie minimalist marketing!)

Presenting the Bedrock Synclines…

Bedrock Syncline

I’m a big fan of evolution. Without it, I wouldn’t have espresso, the Internet, modernist architecture – or Bedrock Syncline sandals. The Synclines represent the evolutionary peak of minimalist sandals technology for me right now. They offer a solution to some of my present trail and ultra running issues, and they promise great things for the future.

First, though, a little bit of backstory…

Shortly after I started running barefoot six years ago, I got my first pair of minimalist sandals – a pair of Barefoot Ted Macdonald’s pre-Luna sandals. Later on, I got a pair from Invisible Shoes (now called Xero Shoes). After that, two pairs of Xero Shoes – the Connect (4mm sole) and the Contact (6mm). Then I was an early reviewer for the Xero Shoes Sensori Venture.

Sandal evolution

In the image above, you can see some of the sandals I’ve worn, along with my new Synclines. (The Barefoot Ted sandals are long gone. After about a year of wear, the soles broke at the lacing side holes, and I pitched them.) The Xero Shoes Contacts are at the left, with the leather laces from the BFTs. Next are the Xero Shoes Connects, with nylon laces in a slip-on lacing pattern. Then, the Xero Shoes Sensori Ventures, with stock/out of-the-box lacing. And, finally, the Bedrock Synclines, with straps (straps at last!)

Pre-Syncline, each of the sandals has presented its own joys and sorrows. I like the openness and freedom sandals offer. But the BFT sandals’ leather laces, which I tied Tarahumara style, cut into the thin skin on my upper feet when I’d run long distances (30K+). And they eventually broke. The nylon laces on the Invisible/Xero Shoes sandals broke after about 300K of use. And all of them made a slappy sound when I ran in them, no matter how good my running form was. (And you can be sure that, after six years of running barefoot, my form is reasonably good.)

The Synclines are different in a number of ways.

First, that shape. I followed the sizing chart on the Bedrock site, and ordered the indicated sandal (size 8, which is a size smaller than I usually take). Not only do the Synclines fit my foot shape perfectly, they also follow the curve of my foot in an almost eerily precise way. Point one to Bedrock.

Next, the sole. The Synclines offer an 8mm Vibram sole, with a nubbly rather than chevroned bottom surface. This thickness choice, say the folks at Bedrock, provides wearers with more protection on trails and more durability. That makes sense to me, as long as it doesn’t inhibit groundfeel. (It doesn’t.) Point two to Bedrock.

Now, the really good stuff – the Synclines’ straps. They’re “U.S. Military Grade” (I don’t quite know what that means, but it sounds good), with a lightweight pull-tab at the heel, an elastic heel strap, and a patent-ending buckle adjustment system (very nifty, as it makes tweaking the sandals’ fit an absolute breeze).

Syncline Straps

Bedrock has also tried to solve some of the wear-and-tear issues normal to sandals with inlayed bevels on the lower sides of the soles to protect the straps from abrasion. Big point number three to Bedrock!

Bedrock side holes

The straps are available in your choice of colours – black, gray, teal, lapiz blue, sage green, yellow, olive drab, and red. I’m told by Bedrock that black and olive drab are customers’ most popular choices. That makes me feel good, as I’ve always thought that brightly-coloured straps or laces on serious sandals are a bit weird. (Then again, I don’t like the sight of brightly-coloured running shoes either.)

Colours final

One feature worth noting is the new corded toe-straps that come on the Synclines. According to Bedrock, the toe strap has always been the weak point on thong strap sandals, and so they made this change. It’s “Our way of making Bedrocks much harder to kill.” To date, they say, none of their customers have reported a broken corded toe-strap. I agree – but it’s nice to have an interchangeable feature if ever needed, so I plan to order a pair of replacement toe straps to tuck away in my race/run bag.

Corded straps

So far, I’ve run on trails, roads, and my treadmill with the Synclines. They fit perfectly, they don’t slide around, they don’t chafe, and I don’t make loud slappy noises in them. I’ve run in some mud, though it wasn’t deep mud, and am prepared for some slippage when I get to the deep stuff. I haven’t done any really long runs in them yet, as I’m still on healing journey after shredding my feet at Elk/Beaver (read my race report for all the gory details), and may try some band-aids or blister strips behind the heel straps as needed for really long distances. However, I have a feeling that the better way to resolve that will be to find the right adjustment for those straps.

“Walking wounded” doesn’t quite convey the post-Elk/Beaver picture, by the way. After EB, my feet were completely shredded, swollen, and very, very sore. However, with some bandages and my new Synclines, I was able to run – albeit slowly and tenatively – within a few days. That would have been a much slower process without the Synclines, and I’m grateful.

(It’s worth noting that Bedrock plans to add a new sandal model to their product line late this summer. It’ll have a completely new lacing system as well as a new sole, and will be market-positioned as an all-around adventurer built for hiking, fishing, kayaking, etc. Worth watching for, I think!)

My Bedrock Synclines have made me a happy man and a happy runner. I have a feeling that they’re also going to make me a better trail and ultra runner. ‘Nuff said.

Note: Product was provided by Bedrock Sandals for this review.

Coming Up: Bedrock Synclines

Bedrock Syncline

A pair of Syncline sandals is now on its way to me, courtesy of the good folks at Bedrock Sandals.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of minimalist sandals (aka huaraches). Oakland, California-based Bedrock has taken the huarache to a new level, I think, with some innovative features. The Syncline is their latest effort, with an 8mm Vibram sole, a new corded toe-strap system, and an improved elastic heel strap. I plan to do a lot more trail ultras, so I’m looking forward to putting the Synclines to the test.

(It’s worth noting that, each year, Bedrock donates one percent of its sales to help conserve and restore the environment through an organization called 1% for the Planet. Good on ya, Bedrock!)

Stay tuned!

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