Thursday, July 26, 2012

One Crappy Day

Stepping away from product reviews for a few minutes...

Things have been going extremely well around these parts. Almost too well. My sneaking suspicion had been something would wind up taking us down a peg or three soon. Typically, that's something easy like Sallie Mae wanting some student loan money. You know, hard at the time, but in the grand scheme of things nothing all that bad.

Well, my instinct was right. It was just the scale that was wrong.

On Tuesday evening, one of our upstairs neighbors knocked on our door. This was unusual if only because we all tend to keep to ourselves and it was 9 PM. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey, what's up?
Jon (neighbor): Have you been downstairs lately?
Me: No, why?
Jon: Your storage unit faces Brighton Ave, right?
Me: Yes. (sense of dread building).
Jon: You're going to want to go downstairs.
Me: Why, what's going on?
Jon: Fishman (property managers) were downstairs, found some nasty stuff in my storage. They couldn't get a hold of you to check on yours, so I said I'd tell you.
Me: Alright...I'll check.
Jon: Just, don't shoot the messenger when you get down there.

That never sounds promising, but I still held out hope that it couldn't be that bad.

I was wrong.

Yes, that is all what you think it is.

Almost half a foot deep across the majority of our storage unit was a putrid mess. The stench was horrifying. And it covered everything in its path.

I'll save you the pictures of how it covered all of the stuff that was down there. Out of everything that we had in the storage unit, only our Christmas stuff and a set of snow tires survived.

Now, here's the thing: I don't like asking for help. I hate asking for help. I'm a "pull yourself up from your bootstraps" kind of guy. I'd rather look around for something on my own, not ask for directions, etc. You know the drill. Typical "I know better and will figure it out!" male.

We lost everything. My brewing kit (apologies to the Team Rev3 mates, but there's no way in hell I can make that Revolution Rye Pale Ale now), bottles, sports equipment, electronics, all my old law notebooks (we might consider that a plus...depending on how much sarcasm I'm feeling at a particular moment), some old photos, on and on...

My insurance is not covering the losses, as this is considered a "flood." One could make the argument that sewage does not equal a flood, but knowing my insurance law like I do (hey, that law degree does pay off!), I'm not going to win that battle. As an aside: do you think I just added flood insurance to my policy? If you just nodded your head, congratulations: you're correct. No prizes, though, because...

We can't replace anything that we lost. Nothing. There's just no way for us to do it.

I don't know what exactly it is I'm asking for. Whether that's sympathy, help re-building what it is we lost, or what. I just know one thing: we can't do it alone.

I want to take a time-out to thank the folks at Fishman, our property managers, for doing the best they can with this; our landlord, Jon, who's been checking in with us to see what the situation was; and Greg over at the Bier Cellar, who helped pick out some killer brews to help dull the ache of yesterday.

Today was "throw everything out" day, and was the first time I really lost it. In some cases there's 15-20 years of life that just, quite literally, got crapped on. It's heartbreaking to have things you worked so hard for to have to be tossed into a dumpster, never to be seen again.

We'll be OK, eventually. Just really not sure how to get there.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Gear Review: blueseventy Helix Wetsuit

Wetsuits are one of the larger gear investments a budding triathlete can make; behind a bike and/or race wheels (if, of course, you fall into USAT's median income range of approximately $108,000), it is likely a wetsuit will be your most expensive piece of gear.

With that kind of money on the line, then, it stands to be prudent when it comes to selection. Much like when it comes to proper triathlon bikes and running shoes, fit comes first. Then you can start worrying about the features of a particular suit versus another. This means that if you are part of the crowd screaming, "I can only wear a sleeveless," it is more likely that you either have an abnormally shaped torso (there are indeed certain people who just can't fit into a sleeved suit), or you have never had a sleeved suit that fit you properly.

But, what if you enjoy the feel of the water against your arms, or simply prefer a thinner feel to the sleeves of the suit? Most wetsuit companies really build up the forearms of their suits to create catch panels, with the theory that they will help move more water.

Enter the blueseventy Helix.

blueseventy Helix Men's 2012 Wetsuit. (image courtesy of blueseventy).
The Tech Babble
Wetsuits, at their core, have been using the same kind of material for decades: neoprene. Regardless of brand or fit, you'll be buying a suit made of this material, much like how in running shoes, you'll for the most part be buying an ethylene vinyl acetate product.

Neoprene, due to its smoothness, helps reduce drag in the water. However, because there are air molecules trapped in the rubber (much like how air molecules trapped in the midsole of a running shoe provide the cushioning), the air helps to provide lift, and therefore buoyancy.

Of course, having a whole bunch of rubber surrounding your skin in the water also helps keep you warm. Too warm, in some instances. This is why there are temperature cut-offs for wetsuits: because you run the risk of severe overheating if the water temperature is high to begin with. The suit will only make it warmer! For Rev3 events, the water temperature cut-off for awards is 78 degrees; nobody is permitted to wear a wetsuit when the water is warmer than 84 degrees. For those planning on racing say, Rev3 Maine or Rev3 Cedar Point with me: I think we have nothing to worry about. We'll be wearing wetsuits.

There is also a limit to the thickness of the wetsuit: 5 millimeters at its maximum. This is, again, to limit overheating due to the suit being too thick, and also too much buoyancy help from a wetsuit. As it is, wearing a suit with 5 millimeter thickness is impossibly buoyant; you basically need only scull with your pinkies in order to stay afloat.

That is not to say, though, that all suits with 5 millimeter thickness in them are made the same. Nor should all of the suit necessarily be made to this thickness; sure, we want the buoyancy, but we also need to be able to move in the suit! If you can't move your arms well enough to take an effective swim stroke, then you haven't made any sort of improvement by putting on a wetsuit.

Furthermore, although buoyancy can help out any swimmer, there are different types of buoyancy needed for different people. If you are like most triathletes who come from a cycling or running background, the mass will be in your legs, and you have a difficult time raising the hips to avoid the dreaded "swimming uphill" position: pushing water down with your torso, legs behind you sinking towards the bottom. However, if you have more of a swimming background, your body positioning tends to be better; you want the suit to give you some of the sleekness and buoyancy, but to some degree get out of the way.

blueseventy, named for the fact that water (blue) covers seventy percent of the Earth's surface, recognized this as well. There are two product ranges that blueseventy manufactures: the neutral buoyancy line, and the positive buoyancy line. The neutral buoyancy products are thicker in the torso and core, whereas the positive buoyancy suits focus more on buoyancy through the core, hips, and legs, much like swimming with a permanent pull buoy.

The Helix slats in as the top-of-the-line neutral buoyancy suit. It tiers the maximum thickness of the suit as 5-5-4, with the first section through the torso, the middle section as the core and hips, and the final section throughout the legs. So, the legs are a touch thinner than the top two sections. This isn't to say that they will sink when in the water; instead, blueseventy's research suggests that because the legs are constantly in motion (read: work on your kick, buster, because you're supposed to be kicking in a triathlon swim...), this thickness provides the best balance of buoyancy and freedom of motion.

The core and hips are also constructed slightly differently from the torso. The suit features what are called Aerodome panels in the midsection. Remember above how we talked about the rubber having air molecules trapped in the matrix? Well, increase the volume of those air molecules, and you have Aerodome: same thickness, more buoyancy. This is to help promote that downhill swimming position.

But what of the arms and shoulders, the part of the suit that makes people cringe? This is where blueseventy takes a completely different course as compared to other suit manufacturers. Most suits will feature a butterfly panel, opening up the shoulders and arms, before building to large "catch panels" in the forearm, designed to help move more water during the swim stroke. The problem? These catch panels also create drag in the water, particularly if you have a longer glide before initiating the pull. Also, if you don't get the suit just right in the shoulder, it will feel as if it is pulling down on the arm.

blueseventy's solution? Let's go all minimal up top! The suit has some of the butterfly in the shoulder and back, with 2 millimeter thickness there. But then there are 1.5 and 1 millimeter panels all throughout the arms. And they're not even neoprene; it's fabric! The result: supreme freedom of motion. But it also can help out from a form standpoint; it will allow you to take that swim stroke you've been honing in the pool and bring it directly into the open-water; no form modifications necessary. This can help reduce injury-risk, but also increase awareness of what is working and what's not working; it's easy to make modifications in technique when the suit is so flexible.

The Helix was designed with triathlete's in mind, as there are some answers to common problems that we tend to face. Take, for instance, the run into the water for beach starts, or the run from the water to transition. The Helix has a thinner panel behind the knee to allow you to be able to run easily with the suit on. Also, the zipper works in reverse: when putting the suit on, it zips from the neck down. To remove, pull the cord up. This makes sure that if somebody gets a hold on that pull cord during the course of the swim, it's not pulling the zipper down off your suit and letting a whole bunch of water in.

The Swim: How's It Work
This suit is FAST. As in, holy crap.

As we reviewed before, I swam in the Orca Sonar last season, and another Orca suit for part of the year this year. You would think that, being 6'3" and 158 lb., I would fit well into a suit that is pretty narrow.

And you'd be wrong: the Orca line is designed with folks who fit onto the Felt's and Cervelo's of the bicycle world in mind: long torso, shorter to average length legs. I am, of course, built the opposite way: super long legs, next to no torso. To give you an idea, when doing the Rev3 Maine bike course preview with Jen Small, her response to attempting to draft off of me while on board Wallace the Blue: "You're all legs! No draft comes off of you!"

So, in other words: the Orca line was a poor match. It resulted in some shoulder impingement, simply because I could never get the suit's torso to really match up. Orca also was a little narrower in the shoulders and chest overall. In sum: I should've gone with something different.

This is the suit.

First off, the rubber in this suit simply works. To test it out for yourself, just go for a standard beach start, run in, dive in (please, in a familiar area where you know where you won't hit your head...), and just take off.

You are GONE.

Seriously, this thing just up to speed wants to stay up at speed. And you feel that speed, too. If this is the first time you've worn a wetsuit, the phrase "this is cheating" will probably come to mind. And that's OK. It's not cheating. But it is speedy!

As you start moving into your swim stroke, you'll notice how easy it is to keep your hips high in the water. One thing that I noticed was that this suit really likes to have your head "buried," so to speak: relax your neck to allow your chin to point towards your chest. It really gets you into that downhill swimming position. The two panels on the sides of the front chest will also prevent you from jacknifing at the midsection while you turn to breather, giving you a much more effective position and forcing you into proper torso rotation.

Your legs will float behind you, but again due to some of the torso panels you will have less of the fishtail action that is incredibly common in poorer swimmers (often due to core strength issues). It's really attempting to streamline you and move you towards the direction that you want to be moving in.

And then the arms: what a difference! You really get a good idea as to where you are in the swim stroke, and also knowledge of how small changes in turnover rate and forearm placement will impact your speed in the water. It's incredible how flexible and easy it is to move in this suit. For those who have shorter torsos and have had issues with sleeved suits in the past, stop looking. Go try on a Helix.

For the rest of us, this suit will really make some improvements for you. It is a blazing fast suit that, considering the attention to small details, really pays off in the end. I couldn't be happier to have found this suit out. It makes me a better swimmer.

And when you're paying for a wetsuit, isn't that what we're looking for?

Retail: $649.99
Rental at Rev3 Events Available for $75

Monday, July 9, 2012

Shoe Review: Pearl Izumi isoTransition

I've been a bad, bad product reviewer.

Two months have passed since our last gear test around the CtB offices (the SwiftWick Aspire sock review). Far, far too long.

As a make-up, though, we'll be featuring at least a product review a week for the remainder of July. There's a lot to get through: Pearl Izumi Tri Fly Carbon IVs, blueseventy Helix wetsuit, Blue Triad EX,  XPS Baking Company X-Series Cookies, as well as this review here.

So, let's get down to business, shall we?

Men's Pearl Izumi isoTransition
The Tech Babble
The first thing that generally comes to mind when you think "Pearl Izumi" is cycling, and for good reason: together with parent company Shimano, PI covers 85% of the market. To put that in perspective, the current leader in the running footwear business (Brooks) has a market share of 18%. It's a staggering number!

To no surprise, as triathlon took off Pearl Izumi went headfirst into it, creating numerous apparel and cycling shoe options. And options they have: three different product lines for apparel, three distinct options on the cycling shoe front.

However, PI's running shoes have always left something to be desired. My first experience with PI's running product line came in the form of the original SyncroSeek trail shoe. It's a shoe that makes my top 5 list of worst running shoes ever: heavy as a brick, ran a full size and a half small, and had absolutely no arch in it to speak of. It felt like PI had decided to take one of their mountain biking shoes, slapped a midsole and outsole on it, and called it good.

Not a good first impression. Hello, blacklist.

Thankfully, PI learned from these mistakes. The isoTransition still runs a little short on length, but there is an arch on the inside of the shoe, thanks to the OrthoLite insole. OrthoLite was once used by Nike and Saucony, respectively, for their insoles to their running product line.

The overall theme to the PI product line is what they call 1:1. This is, in their terms, trying to make the athlete and gear one and the same; a mating of the two that is completely natural. PI's big technology hallmark, at least for this particular shoe, is their seamless upper. There are no interior seams anywhere on the shoe. Less seams, of course, should mean less blistering, as there are fewer friction points on the interior of the shoe.

Cushioning comes from a midsole constructed solely from PI's proprietary blend of EVA. No gel pods, no Syncro cradles, no nothing extra. This is a "I'll take my meat and potatoes, thank you very much, nothing else" shoe. Don't take that as meaning that it's under-cushioned; it's just that the shoe is extremely reliant on the ability of the foam to handle the task at hand. Midsole stack heights are 19 millimeters in the heel, 10 millimeters in the forefoot, for an offset of 9 millimeters.

Drainage holes are cut through the bottom of the shoe; this has an unintended consequence which we'll get to during the running section. To complete the shoe, there is an integrated bootie tongue and elastic laces. Total weight for the shoe in a men's size 9 is 7.8 ounces; of course, my size 13 boats weigh in slightly heavier.

The Run
Well, congratulations, Pearl Izumi: you're off my blacklist.

Popping these on, the first thing you notice is, much like the K-Swiss Kwicky Blade Light, is what's not there, rather than what is: there's no impinging seams. There's no pressure points. Instead, you have a shoe that hugs around the foot before opening into a wider toebox to promote forefoot splay. It's comfortable in the same way that, say, walking around in a slide sandal is comfortable: there's only one piece really holding onto your foot, and then the rest of your foot may do as it pleases.

The isoTransition is a neutral shoe, which usually would be bad news for this esteemed author. However, there's some natural stability built in here. Some of that comes from the lowered offset and the natural splay of the forefoot (the wider your toes may spread, the larger the "tripod" your foot can become and be naturally stable). But it also comes from a relatively rigid midfoot region. A small bridge exists only on the medial side of the shoe, giving it additional structure here. It's just enough to allow me to run in it without any type of additional support. I think the best corollary might be some of your structured neutral shoes, a la Asics Nimbus: even though it's neutral, there's just a touch of stability available to those who need it.

There's some serious cushioning underfoot, especially for something with only 10 millimeters of cushioning in the forefoot. The foam has some bounce to it; I'm guessing there's a bit more rubber in the blend of EVA that Pearl Izumi engineered. But the energy return does not come at the cost of pure protection from the road. This is, in my opinion, the result of the drainage holes cut underfoot: it allows the shoe a little bit more room to spread out upon impact, dispersing energy away from the foot.

These holes also make the shoe incredibly flexible in the forefoot. This is good for someone like myself, who has an inherent lack of flexibility in my big toe: I have a hard time with shoes that are very stiff in the forefoot and getting them to respond in sync with my foot. This, on the other hand, is very easy to pick up and go.

Varying stride lengths, it seems like this is a shoe that wants a pretty high cadence. Unsurprising, given some of the athlete's that Pearl Izumi has on the roster: Tim DeBoom and Cait Snow both run with very, very high cadences. Quick turnover really makes this shoe come alive with it's mix of cushioning and energy return.

I have yet to test the drainage on the shoe, as I haven't raced in them yet and that's generally the only time you'll see me dumping gallons of water over my head. But I believe it's safe to say that it will be pretty effective, given that there is drainage from heel to toe.

Overall, it's a great riding shoe for those who like a bit more of a responsive feel underfoot, but don't want to be penalized for doing so. It's a nice mix of road feel, isolation, and fit.

It's more than a triathlon shoe: it's a great running shoe.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Rev3 Maine Bike Course Review

Living in Portland gives me a bit of an advantage when it comes to Rev3 Maine: I can head out onto some part of the course, whenever I want. It's just a short drive from Portland down to Old Orchard Beach, so I can swim, ride, or run the course whenever I find the time.

It just so happens that an opportunity arose to do a full bike course recon-mission with fellow Team Rev3 athlete Jen Small and a small group of recruited help. We rode the whole course at some point during the day; we actually started and finished in Saco, just outside of Old Orchard Beach.

I'm breaking this review up into the mileage for the actual bike course, and not the mileage the way that we rode the course.

Miles 0-3: Heading out of Town
This is probably the worst of the roads that you'll face all day, starting about a mile out of transition until you get to Route 1. By this, I mean it's a little pockmarked, but overall very much rideable and easy to find a clean line. It's gently rolling and generally well-shaded, so it's a good place to settle down from the swim and get ready for the work to come. Because trust me: there is work to come.

Miles 3-10: Working Time
This is where the course starts to really coming into it's own. We rode on a relatively hot day, with a decent amount of wind. You start off with a pretty flat section, minus the overpass over Interstate 95. Then you begin some of the turning on the course, as well as the starting of the rolling hills of Maine.

Here's the thing: when you hear "flat," if you are from, say, Kansas, this course will come as a shock to you. If you live in Montana, then this'll be considered pancake-flat. For the rest of us, I think the most apt descriptor would be "rolling." This course isn't like Rev3 Quassy, which is a beast to climb. But what it will do is separate those who can use their shifting to their advantage and those who attempt to go at courses with the idea of smashing it.

This course will fight back. Roads are gentle through this section, but the exposure means little reprieve if the sun is intense as well as getting to know the wind. Most of this section is parallel to the coast, so it is most likely this section should be crosswind come race day.

Miles 10-15: Route 5
It's probably the busiest stretch of road on the entire course, so if you are thinking of pre-riding, I would highly recommend a group environment in order to be visible. This road has heavy truck traffic, as a lot of farmland and construction calls this stretch of road home.

As such, it's prudent to ride in the shoulder. Expect a headwind heading away from the coast. This also features the first real climb of the course, a gentle slope heading for about a third of a mile.

Miles 15-25: The Bottom of "The Square"
Rev3 Maine Bike Course Map, courtesy of Rev3Tri
One of the more intriguing sections of this course is this "square." This is the lower left-corner of the map above on the bike course.

This square encompasses miles 15 to 35 of the course. The bottom end here turns left from Route 5, heading south, before heading for a right to Lyman and Waterboro.

The most scenic section of the course, this features some beautiful ponds, rolling farmland, and some stonework that screams "classic New England." It's probably the one section of road that makes me think of Rev3 Quassy, and some of the climbing to be done there. There's some uphill here. Nothing too severe, nor too long, but it exists. Those who can spin efficiently will be rewarded.

The back half of this ten mile stretch allows you to really open things up a little bit, as you get the downhill from a lot of that climbing that had been done, as well as some smooth pavement.

Miles 25-33: The Top of the Square
Fastest section of the course by far. According to my Garmin data, this is where I hit top speed, as well as the fastest ten-mile stretch of the day.

Do not think that it will be easy, though; far from it. This section of road moves roughly parallel to the wind, so expect some cross-breeze. This turns into a tail wind when you turn back onto Route 5, but this means that you need to be comfortable moving at a high rate of speed with a pretty stiff breeze trying to knock you on your rear. Bike handling skills and core stability work would be wise additions to your training schedule if you are not already incorporating them.

That said, those who are comfortable can just let 'er rip. There's a small false-flat uphill just before you get back onto 5, but outside of that this is flat to slightly downhill and really, really fast.

Be aware, though, that at the end of the square you'll have a very sharp left to head out onto Route 35 for the next stretch of road. You'll be flying at this point, so be ready to scrub some speed stat.

Miles 33-40: I Thought This Course Was Flat?
Again, it's not flat.

With that out of the way, this part of the course is pretty gentle throughout. Never any hills that should have you concerned if you regularly do some climbing repeats, or have raced at Quassy, this year's Portland bike course, etc.

Be prepared for another decent gust of wind when you hit Route 202 by Hollis. It quickly turns into a tail gust as you turn, and you can really fly down towards the next turn. It's easy to get into a rhythm here. Those who rode a little conservatively on the front side of the course will be able to really let things fly here.

Miles 40-44: Simpson Road
Here is the stretch of road that will eat those who rode too hard out of the gate alive. There's some climbing to be done here. It has the steepest hill of the day. Depending on how many matches you will have burnt by this point, it will be wise to carry a decent granny gear here. I rode pretty comfortably on a 11-26 cassette (53/39 standard crank), but depending on what you typically respond best to I would not be surprised to see a few compact cranks or 27 tooth cassettes.

Miles 44-51: Headed for Home
Time to hit the gas and stay on the pedal: get the calories in, do some work, and get ready to run. Mentally, this stretch is daunting because you have a few turns to navigate, and you've done some of the hardest work already. But you need to have left something for this stretch of road. It'll be very easy to wind up riding too easily here if you lose mental focus. Don't.

At this point, it's also good to start thinking about the run: keep active shifting in mind. Two seconds to let yourself come into transition with fresh legs will be well worth it, so if you find yourself grinding on the pedals, let up on the gearing. A good rule of thumb: if the muscle tension feels "perfect," it's probably one gear harder than the one you want to be in at this point.

Miles 51-56: Back to Old Orchard Beach
This sees you repeat the first five miles that we had talked about before: pretty smooth sailing, straight-forward direction. There's nothing to really bite you hard here, so it'll be good to spin out the legs a touch and get ready for the run.

I think this course is going to be very rewarding for those who focus on spin efficiency: proper gearing, good aero position, smooth-riding. Those who try instead to will the course into submission will be found survival slogging the run. It is quick; total ride time for the course was 2:44:09. (I raced Quassy in 2:46 as a point of reference.) But I think that's from riding smarter, and not harder.

It's gorgeous scenery, as smooth of a set of roads as you'll find in the state, and challenging. You can't ask for much more out of a bike course. I look forward to racing it in August.