Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Apparel Test: New Balance NBx Windblocker Half-Zip, Brooks Nightlife II Jacket, and Saucony Epic Run Vest

Fellow athletes: how many of you have had this scenario play out:

You wake up early, and begin the day by throwing your coffee together. After it's poured, you get your breakfast going. You sit down, ready to enjoy your healthy creation, and turn on the TV to the local news. You conveniently have turned it on in time for the weather. You stare, horrified, discovering a weather map featuring 3 to 5 inches of snow in the forecast, just in time for your long run. You glance at your watch, rubbing your eyes again to focus as to be sure that yes, in fact, you do see the date correctly.

October 28th.

This may, or may not, accurately describe my morning. But I'm prepared for winter running and cycling, through the use of many products. Now, before we delve into specific products, we need to first review the basics: how to properly layer for winter running.

The TriLayer System

Generally speaking, in the winter you'll want to wear three layers on your top: a base layer, an insulating layer, and a shelter layer.

A base layer is what you'll initially put on as you're getting dressed. Typically, this layer will not be very heavy at all; we are not looking for this garment to provide much warmth. Instead, we want the base layer to be your thermal regulator. This layer is going to fit tightly against the skin, to help move moisture from your skin into the next layer of your system. It will also help make sure that whatever cold wind got through your first two layers does not come in contact with your skin. An example of this would be the Craft ZeroExtreme top reviewed here last winter.

The next layer up is where the warmth will come from. Your insulating piece will be the weighty garment. It won't be nearly as heavy as wearing, say, a cotton sweatshirt. This also tends to be where you'll be spending the most money. Different weights in these garments will give you the most versatility. Also, some of these layers themselves will feature some type of wind and weather protection, allowing you to mix and match more pieces depending upon the conditions outside. Just to give an idea, I only have two baselayers from Craft, but six different insulating pieces. We'll be reviewing one of these insulating pieces in a bit.

The final layer is your shelter layer. This is where your wind and water resistance will come from. Note that I said water resistance and not water proof. Waterproof does not allow for breathability unless you are talking GORE-TEX. And well, most people aren't willing to pay the price for GORE-TEX (on average, talk an extra $40-$50 per jacket at retail price). With that in mind, these jackets will keep water off you for about an hour. Beyond that, and the coat will become saturated. You won't get soaked; instead, you'll be slightly damp. And if you were running or riding correctly, you would have been damp anyways. You are looking for this to also be relatively thin, allowing you greater versatility throughout the fall, winter, and spring. Unless, of course, you freeze to death, at which point there are some heavier winter running jackets from SportHill and New Balance available.

So with this all in mind, there are two shelter layers to review, and one insulating layer.

New Balance NBx Windblocker Half-Zip
Layer: Insulating (2nd)
Retail: $89.99
To quote my New Balance sales rep, Colin, "this is 6th Circle of Hell warm."

The first thing to notice when picking this piece up is to feel how thin it is. Immediately, you'll be thinking, "there's no way this is as warm as this guy is saying it is." And you'd be very, very wrong.

Going back to my Reach the Beach experience, this is the top that I opted for my 3:30 AM, 9 mile slog. It was a balmy 33 degrees that night, with some of the valleys dipping into the 20s. I had put on a very light base-layer, and had paired it with the CW-X Stabilyx tights from last winter.

I was melting in this thing by the time I got to the van stop around mile 6. Absolutely bathed in sweat. It is warm as all get out. The windblock front and microfleece rear panel is extremely effective at keeping the cold out. This isn't to say that it traps heat, though; the top does offer good ventilation. The length of the zipper allows the top to really open up and expose your chest, to help get fresh air to you when needed. The pockets open up and are ventilated as well. The problem, though, is that the pocket is a kangaroo-style, rather than two individual pockets. If there are zippers, I want individual pockets; if there are no zippers, I go kangaroo.

New Balance also included some other thoughtful touches. There are thumbholes that are in a fluorescent yellow (and they actually fit men's thumbs. Thank God. Too many times, people cut this WAY too small.) The In Case of Emergency tag on the inside is a great gesture, so if you don't own a Road ID, you can have quick contacts and medical allergies listed right on the inside. And there are plenty of reflective call outs on the front, sleeves, and back to make sure you don't have to experience the pleasure of being hit by a car.

The fit of this is also within range of the "new" New Balance that we had talked previously about in the 1190 review. This means it is athletically shaped: long torso, relatively narrow. This also makes this a great option for winter cycling: tight fit, long in the back, super warm, cuts out on the wind.

Buy If: You train outdoors for running and cycling throughout the winter; you run relatively cold; you ski; or you need something that can double as your mild winter jacket.

Skip If: You run relatively warm to begin with; you have a more stocky body type; you have too many insulating layers already.

Brooks Nightlife II Jacket
Layer: Shelter (3rd)
Retail: $99.99
The Nightlife Jacket II is an update from the Essential Run Jacket available from last year. Brooks made a couple of updates to try and improve the fit of the piece.

Brooks apparel, in general, has typically been cut in a more "American" style, meaning that the torso typically is a little shorter, and the jacket cut wider to accommodate more body styles and layering. This year's is cut slightly more athletic. It is still wider than the Windblocker top, but not as large as a gap as compared to last year. This is an improvement for me, but may not appeal to everybody.

There is now a zipper-garage at the top, to make sure you don't have the zipper rubbing you raw in the face when you have the jacket fully zipped. The material of the jacket, although still water resistant and wind proof, now has a different texture, that allows for a quieter run. No more swoosh-swooshing your way around.

This is one of the lighter-weight jackets on the market, and so it does give you a lot of versatility, ranging from mid-September all the way through April. (And even May, if you have a spring like last year here in Maine.) The only drawback that I foresee here is the relative dramatic increase in price: last year's Essential Run Jacket went for $70. There's a lot of competition here, including the Saucony Epic Run Jacket in Vizipro, that is $10 less. But that does have a different fit (even more narrow), so for the majority of folks out there, this is the go-to.

Buy If: You want to not just be reflective, but light up like a Christmas tree at night; you crave versatility out of your shelter layer; you are shorter and stouter than a beanpole.

Skip If: You're built like a rail; you run extremely cold; you have the desire to experience being hit by a vehicle.

Saucony Epic Run Vest
Layer: Shelter (3rd)
Retail: $79.99

And now for the other company that wants to make sure that you look like a construction worker on your run. Now, don't get me wrong: this is a good thing. It's just funny to be driving at night and see all of the Vizipro Orange and Nightlife Yellow scattered about.

The Saucony Vizipro line is cut a fair bit more athletic as compared to the Brooks line. This means that if you are tall, or lean, or both, this is the product line for you. The weight of the vest is very similar to the weight of the Brooks jacket as well.

So, why a vest? There are some days where it is a little warmer, but the wind is still cold, and you simply need to protect your core rather than your arms. If you keep your core warm, the rest of you will stay warm. This is where you'd turn.

Once cool option that Saucony includes in their Vizipro line is a small LED light. It charges on the USB drive of the computer. 20 minutes worth of charge will give you an hour of light; a longer charge will give you a much longer light experience.

Buy It: You run relatively warm throughout the winter and have the New Balance top reviewed above; you need a 2nd shelter layer because you crave versatility.

Skip It: You run cold in the winter; you fit better in the Brooks line; you are looking to have one shelter layer to get you through the cold months.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What is "Natural Running?"

CTB Editor's Note: This post is an update, and revision, of the Natural Running post from December, 2010.

This is the magic question. And the problem with magic questions, of course, is that there is no magic answer.

For those with some type of logic function in the brain, this is a big issue. After all, shouldn't it be reasonable that, if we were all to take our shoes off and run, that our form would be relatively the same? But how is that even reasonable? What about those of us with functional or true leg length discrepancies? What about those of us who have shorter Achilles' tendons? What about those of us with chronically tight calves, putting us susceptible to plantar fascii injury?

But, barefoot advocates say, what of the Harvard study that says running barefoot reduces impact force? Running in shoes, the theory goes, allows us to put more impact on the foot than it is designed to withstand, leading to specific injury.

Well, that's not what the study says. From the page linked above, a graph showing the impact when landing with a heel strike in a running shoe:
Figure 1b

Now, for the same study's graph showing impacts when running barefoot with a forefoot strike:
Figure 1c

Notice that the spike goes to the same high point? Running barefoot does NOT reduce actual force.

What the key here, though, is that there is a reduction in the impact transient force. Explained simply, the transient force is that "braking" force that occurs when you excessively heel strike; the foot is absorbing impact while the leg is trying to still come forward (because the foot is extended out in front of you.)

This makes sense: when you run with a forefoot strike, you can't have a heel-toe transition. Of course it will reduce transient force! This isn't telling us anything that, well, anybody should be able to figure out.

To review, what we have talked about so far:
  • Running with a forefoot strike does not reduce actual impact force absorbed, merely the transient force.
  • Running with a heel strike does create a transient force that must be absorbed by the leg.
Now, what of the Hasegawa study?

This 2007 study looked at the footstrike pattern of the elite runners from a half-marathon. The scientists photographed 283 runners at the 15 kilometer mark. The theory posited was that, as most elite athletes were from countries where running barefoot when younger was necessary, that most of the elites would showcase a midfoot or forefoot strike.

The results, meanwhile, were startling: 74.9% of runners photographed exhibited a rear foot strike. Midfoot strike positioning was shown by 23.7%. Forefoot strikes only accounted for 1.4%.

So what makes an elite runner elite? It's not the where that's important; it's how much time the foot spent in contact with the ground. The longer the foot spent in contact with the ground, the slower the runner was. The first 50 runners spent less time on the ground versus the next 50, and that second 50 spent less contact time than the next 50, and so on.

Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude, as the study did, that running economy and efficiency comes from the foot spending less time in contact with the ground, rather than specifically how the foot contacts the ground.


By this point, I'm sure you're now wondering: where are we going with this? We still haven't figured out what natural running is!

Here's the rub: there is no universal answer. We need to separate the core principles of good running form, from the hyperspecifics of a unique foot strike. We must account for the differences in physiology that make humans so different from one another.

Therefore, I would posit that the following elements are key to natural running:
  • The Hasegawa study shows us that running economy is more related to contact time in the ground. Therefore, it would stand to posit that we want to have a faster foot turnover rate.
  • Because of the faster cadence, this will require a shorter stride; it is nearly impossible to overstride if you are trying to keep your footstrikes per minute near the 180 mark.
  • The key of footstrike is to keep it as close under your center of gravity as possible. Whether it lands forefoot or rearfoot or midfoot is, in my opinion, not as important. But landing underneath the knee, keeping the kinetic chain in line from the core downward, is important.
  • We DO want the whole foot to try and contact the ground at as similar a point in time as possible. Our feet are like tripods; we have wide metatarsals and a narrow heel. A tripod is most stable when it is fully in contact with the ground. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that this is how the foot should engage and absorb impact.
  • Therefore, the core of good, natural running form would include a higher cadence for running economy; a stride that engages the ground under the center of gravity, and attempting to engage the whole foot with the ground at as similar time as possible.


So how on Earth does this all relate to the footwear buzzwords of minimalism and natural running?

Well, let's lead with what might be groundbreaking news: we are not meant for pavement or concrete. The human foot was designed to run on grass or sand, not on the roads. We have built a completely unnatural environment to attempt to perform a natural activity on. That being said, there will be some of us who can run all of our miles in Vibram Five Fingers. However, it is likely that this would be the exception, rather than the rule, considering that running injuries have actually increased as people have tried to run in barefoot-esque shoes.

What to do? I think Jordan Rapp, in this month's LAVA Magazine, states it best:
What I think this reflects is a conscious decision on the part of shoe designers to separate biomechanics...from overall feel, which is influenced by a shoe's cushioning.
Previously, I had discussed the differences between so-called "natural" running shoes from minimal and barefoot styles. Considering that we have talked a fair bit about how there is no truly singular "natural" style, I think using the term "natural running shoe" is misleading. One can run with good form in any type of running shoe, whether it features a large heel-toe offset, or is near flat.

Therefore, when looking at running shoes, it is imperative to first discuss running form. Your running mechanics will dictate the offset that will be best for your running shoes, whether it is the "traditional" 12 millimeter difference between the heel and the toe, or the class of effective zero shoes (6 mm or less), or in between. (As a note, both Saucony and New Balance will be introducing shoes with an 8 millimeter offset in their regular running line, to try and promote a more balanced footstrike. Remember, though, that your feet are dumb: you must tell them where to land.)

After determining the offset appropriate, we may then talk about pronation control and cushioning. As a single example, I run in shoes with a low offset (less than 6 mm), but still feature a midfoot pronation control device. Why? Because even with good running form, my feet still overpronate. And I need a good amount of cushioning, because if I run with a more minimal shoe, I develop a stress fracture in my right foot. This is why I've run in the Saucony Mirage, for example.

Therefore, when shopping, these are the things a retailer needs to know in order to ensure a good fit:
  • Injury history
  • Running goals (training, mileage, speed, etc.)
  • Running history (current mileage, races upcoming, etc.)
  • Running stride or form (if known)
  • Cushioning preferences
So what is natural running? Whatever is natural for you.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Best Bad Idea Ever: Reach the Beach Relay Race Report

Alternative Title: Embrace the Suck

Let's get the obvious out of the way: the idea of running from Cannon Mountain down to Hampton Beach is absolute idiocy.

Now, let's break this down further: over 400 teams. Minimum of 4 runners. Maximum of 12. Hundreds of people, all racing like hell over the hills of New Hampshire. Run through the night. Have a dancing toilet start you off from Attitash. Get through the whole night, and have to slog the final half mile on the beach.

This. Is. Awesome.

I mean, there's no getting around it: you will hurt. A lot. But I've never had more fun during an event than this. At some point during a race, the thought usually crosses through your head:

"Wait. I'm doing this for fun? This SUCKS. I am an idiot! I paid how much to do this? AND I THINK THIS IS FUN? Somebody needs to shoot me."

This does not happen during Reach the Beach. With all of this out of the way, let's hit the running diary of this insanity.

Thursday: Travel Day
Tara, Adam, and I headed down to meet our New Balance sales rep Colin at his place in Hampton Beach. This is where we would dump off Tara's car, for an easy exit from Hampton Beach on Saturday morning. After a quick change into some Team New Balance: Maxing Out Our Minimus gear (including the 1190 reviewed previously here), we headed down to Boston to pick up other members of our team.

After touring about the New Balance Boston campus for a bit, we loaded up the first of our two vans (the remainder of the team would meet us the following day) and headed north. We made a pit-stop at the Hannaford in Concord, NH for groceries. After all, we'd be running all through the night! So what, you may wonder, makes it into the shopping cart for an RTB Relay team?
  • Loaves of bread
  • Peanut butter
  • Nutella
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
  • Gatorade
  • Water
  • Beef jerky
  • Pretzels
  • Fig Newtons
  • More beef jerky
  • Red Bull
  • Swedish Fish
  • Sugar Babies
  • Three more pounds of beef jerky
...you get the idea.

After this stop, we headed up to our hotel for the night, relaxed, and then got ready for the run ahead.

Friday: Let the Running...or Waiting Begin
We woke up, had breakfast, packed up, and headed on over to Cannon Mountain, and started to piece together how the race would wind up working.

This year's version of Reach the Beach was really more like two races combined together. Due to Hurricane Irene, part of the run course was washed away, and so we would unable to run the typical route for the course. The race directors came up with a cool plan: the first six runners would run a looped, six-leg course, that was timed. They then estimated how long that would take, based on your seeding time, and factored in the expected 2 hour drive to get around to Attitash (where the 7th leg started). This was your start time at Attitash.

Well, this worked out extremely well if you were an ultra team (6 or fewer runners): you got a little break from your first legs and the rest of the work involved. For those of us with larger teams, though, it meant a lot of waiting. Our first team started at 12:10 from Cannon; we didn't head out until 6:10 from Attitash.

So we meandered, wandered, and waited. After a delicious "last meal" at Moat Mountain in North Conway, it was time to get ready to roll. I was runner 8 on our team, which meant that I was the 2nd person out of the van each time our van was "on duty" to run. Van 1 would run legs 1-6, Van 2 7-12, Van 1 13-18, Van 2 19-24, etc. So I was running legs 8, 20, and 32.

Now, as I had previously mentioned here on the blog, I had NO IDEA what legs these were; I just knew the total mileage was 22.53 miles. Little did I know what was in store in the middle of the night.

But first, it was time to step out and run.

Friday, 7:10 PM--Leg 8/1st Run
6.60 miles, 49:48 time, 7:33/mi pace
Kills: 1

Preston, our first runner (or Man 7) headed in from his leg. Transition here was at Echo Lake State Park in North Conway. I took off like a shot, heading out at a blistering 5:26/mile pace. Whoops.

This leg was relatively quick and flat along West Side Road (the main local road that avoids the strip of North Conway). I found my rhythm relatively quickly, and just tried to settle in. Nerves were up there, as evidenced by my heart rate (average 174 the whole way!). The legs felt good. I made it through 5K in 22:10.

Then I came to a realization: Hey...you have more than 19 miles left in this thing. Don't try to put everything you have in now. You'll be DEAD otherwise. So I backed off a little, just trying to be as smooth as possible. It felt great overall. I made the turn onto Rte 16, and then crossed over to hand off to Adam.

Side note: The "Kill" number is a term related to the number of teams you pass during your leg. So I only made one pass on this leg, which makes sense: we were racing numerous teams at this point that were at our expected pace; the race had yet to accordion. (Slow teams start first, fast teams towards the end. We were in the last 50-60 teams starting from Attitash, to give you an idea.)

10:30 PM--Off Duty
Our last runner made his hand off around 10:30 that night, and we were then off. We made the decision to drive down to the Transition for Leg 19 start, so we could catch some sleep.

15 passenger vans are large, but not quite large enough for 6 people to sleep. It's perfect for 5. I drew the short straw, and did not really sleep.

2:15 AM Saturday--The Phone Call
"We'll be there in 20 minutes."

Oh SH!T!!

Poor Preston had to really scramble to put himself together, as he had the distinct displeasure of immediately throwing on the shoes and getting ready to run. I at least had the 20 minute wait, plus Preston's 4 mile leg, to prep myself. I built myself a snack of Nutella, Fig Newtons, and Red Bull (hey, I needed some caffeine) to provide a little bit of fuel.

3:15 AM--Leg 20/Run Leg #2, aka The Run From Hell
9.13 miles, 1:16:59 time, 8:27/mile pace; 868 feet elevation gain; 757 feet elevation loss
Kills: 7

This is where I thought, "Colin, I could kill you. But this is AWESOME." (He was the one who arranged the legs for this thing.)

Leg 20 was the leg that, when people found out that I was person 8 on a 12 person team, told me, "That is going to suck." And no lie, the running was tough. But there's something cool about stepping out at 3 in the morning, and looking up and seeing nothing but the stars and the reflecting red lights of fellow runners, further above you on the course.

I took our reflective band from Preston and just tried to bank some time. I wanted to keep my effort even throughout the course. I didn't care about pace at the time. I figured that I'd run somewhere between 74 and 80 minutes for this leg, and I could not care how I got there.

I tore out of transition, and started with a half-mile downhill. Well, OK, I guess this is my "warm-up" before the hill. And then it begins: a wall uphill to head across Rte 106, and then continuing on forward through Belmont and Gilmanton.

It is 6 miles of relentless climbing, gaining all of that nearly 900 feet of elevation. It typically was: run uphill for a mile, get a quarter mile of false flat or mild downhill, and head straight back up again. I just focused myself on turning those feet over, and noticing that a lot of those lights were coming back to me. Awesome! Let's keep pushing!

One of the coolest parts of RTB is that your team pulls off the side of the road to cheer you on as you go further in the event. So I had our team stop at the mile 3 and 6 mark, just to help break it up. I took a walk at mile 6 to put some water in the system. It was only 33 degrees, but I was working and sweating hard.

Then the Earth falls away from you. The next two miles lose almost all of that elevation gain. Holy crap! Time to fly on down hill. It was crazy; your perspective got so skewed from going that hard downhill that false flats, or certain grades downhill, looked like you were going back UP. Weird.

My watch was set with alarms every ten minutes. I heard the watch beep for the 7th time (marking the 70 minute mark) and just decided to push as hard as I could to the finish. I saw the transition zone, and just broke into a dead sprint. "Adam! Adam! Adam!" Time to hand off the band.

This is where I started to feel some of the running in my legs. I was a little tight, but overall still felt pretty fresh. I wanted to get 8 kills, but couldn't reel in one last one. Time to climb back in the van. This is where you REALLY get tight. Thankfully, we brought some stretching tools to help out.

7:20 AM--Off Duty
Again, we decided to head on down to our final vehicle transition zone, located at Sanford High School. I'll never forget pulling in here, and seeing that the back half of the parking lot was just covered with people, passed out on the asphalt. No blankets. No pillows. Just exhausted, laying on the warm asphalt. I nearly joined them, but knew if I did that there would be no return.

We headed down to a greasy spoon to load up on some breakfast before the final slog. We chatted for a bit with some of the other teams that were there, and just got ready to run again.

I couldn't get my hips to unlock. I was extremely tight. I just kept trying to warm up, but couldn't get anything going. Uh oh. Looks like we're banking time on this leg, till I run head first into the wall.

11:34 AM: Van On-Duty
Preston merely had 2.2 miles to run. Great. Where's the Red Bull?

11:52 AM: Leg 32, Run #3
6.71 miles, 56:17, 8:23/mile pace
Kills: 4

Again, I rocketed out of transition. It was the only thing that felt good. This was the rule of this run: if it feels good, push hard; when it feels like garbage, well, embrace the suck.

I went through two miles in 14:30. Colin, from the other van, pulled around, and told me later: "I knew you were in trouble. Things did not look good." I knew there was a hill coming up, and I knew it would hurt like hell. I just wanted to keep the effort as even as I could.

At this point, I remembered a rule from racing tris: productive walking. I was walking up some of the hills faster than I was running them, and then could really push the downhills to make up some of the lost time. Well, time to employ the strategy, because you are just getting demolished right now.

I finally found my rhythm again around mile 4, when the road went from either "straight up, straight down, or straight flat" to rolling. This allowed my stride to open and close at a more natural rate for me (mechanics are different based on the road terrain), and hence my pace and effort levels were more consistent.

I finally got to mile 6, and had somebody both come back to me from ahead, and then come from behind. There was no way in hell I was getting passed at this point. The guy from behind had made the mistake of settling in at my pace. I could tell he was hurting, so we chatted for a second. We decided that, well, how many times have you had to suffer for less than a mile? Let's GO.

I hammered that last bit, saw the transition zone, and have never run that hard in my life. Well, outside of the Beach to Beacon sprint. "Adam! Where you at bud?" Time to hand off.

Here's the thing about running that many miles in 24 hours...you don't stop well. I had to keep running. For a little while. I could not stop. I ran an extra half mile, just to slow down and finish.

3:01 PM: Food tent demolished
3:02 PM: Headed back to Colin's house
(Note, these times may be exaggerated here.)

Made it back to Portland around 5:30. The most telling thing, for me, was when Hannah called me at 6 leaving work, and I was so dog-tired I reached up from the floor and put the phone on speakerphone to talk to her. I was laying on the hardwood, just done for. Time for pizza (the classic post-race food in this house.)

Overall, I highly recommend racing this once. We're already putting together an Ultra Team for next year. Team names to be determined, but it will indeed be a crazy time. Thanks to all those who made it possible: race directors, New Balance, Hannaford foods, and every fellow idiot who was out there.