Gear review

Gear Review: Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20

I’ve run with a variety of different hydration systems, from handhelds to waistbelts to vests and packs.  When it comes to hydration, I tend to be a minimalist; particularly in training, I rarely carry much of anything, except on the longest efforts.  But for long training runs of 25+ miles, or unsupported or minimally-supported races, I’ve had good results with both the Ultimate Direction AK vest and the Orange Mud HydraQuiver.  Neither of these have enough storage for a long day hike, though.  Recently, on a family hike through Black Creek Preserve in Esopus, I was able to test out the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20.

The Fastpack 20 is a day hiking pack that is inspired by UD's Signature Series of running vests (the AK/SJ/PB vests that are widely seen on the ultra running circuit). As with all the vests in that series, the water bottles are located in front, on each shoulder strap, which makes for easy access and excellent stability. Also with the vests, the shoulder straps are secured by two adjustable sternum straps, which I prefer when hiking (though they can sometimes annoy me when running). The shoulder straps are nicely padded and quite comfortable, though I did find the ride a little low on my back.

The pack itself is basically one big pocket with about 20 liters of storage (hence the "Fastpack 20" moniker). There are mesh pockets on either side which are fairly spacious for additional items, as well as built-in lashes for trekking poles, which is very useful. One cool feature is that the main compartment has no zippered closure or flap over the top; basically, the upper part of the compartment rolls over on itself and secures to the sides with clips. I'm not sure why I liked this so much, but I found it extremely cool. I think I just like the fact that there are so few extraneous/moving parts. You can really cinch the pack down if you're traveling light; it compresses to about 15 liters if you want. This top rollover compartment is waterproof, and the rest of the pack is water-resistant.

Much like the Signature Series of vests, the Fastpack is very streamlined; it's large enough for everything you would need for a long day on the trails, but not so large as to be cumbersome or to invite over-packing. Having the water bottles on the shoulder straps can take a little getting used to if you're not familiar with it, but having run in UD products before, I appreciate the convenience of easy access to water. The fit of the back panel is a change from the vests, and on first wearing was not as flexible as I'd like, but I suspect that will improve as the pack breaks in a little bit. All in all, the Fastpack is an excellent choice for day hikes or even a weekend if you're traveling light.

Gear Review: Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts

I tend to be pretty picky about my running shorts, more so than most of my other gear.  I run in shorts down to about 25 degrees outside, so I spend a good bit of the year in shorts.  I don't like my shorts too long or too short; I like a certain cut.  I need them to be lightweight but stable, and I need to be able to carry a few essentials without feeling like the shorts are slipping down my bottom.

I've found a lot to like with the Patagonia Strider Pro shorts.  Before joining the MPF/RNR team last year,  I did many of my long runs and most of my ultras in the Pearl Izumi Fly Endurance short.  These have a lycra-type material that comprises the upper half of the back part of the shorts, where the gel pockets are located; this helps keep everything stable.  The Patagonia Strider Pro shorts have a similar design; while the material is not quite as tight as lycra, the upper half of the rear of the short is made of a stretchier material that the rest of the short, which stabilizes the rear pockets.  This is by far the best feature of the shorts, allowing you to carry gels, keys, or other essentials without the constant bouncing that would otherwise drive you crazy.  Lots of shorts have multiple rear pockets nowadays; what separates a good short from a bad one is whether or not you can actually use those pockets without bouncing or slipping.  These shorts accomplish that goal, which is the most essential part of making a good ultra short.

There are five pockets in the back.  Four interlocking pockets have an "envelope" design, with elastic flaps that hold gear in place; they will each hold about two gels comfortably.  The middle, largest pocket features a zippered closure and is large enough for keys, a phone, credit cards, or other essentials.

The material is lightweight and breathable, and due to the DWR treatment, repels sweat well without getting too heavy.  The liner is comfortable and doesn't chafe.  The shorts have a split cut on the side of the leg, which for me is an absolute essential; I refuse to run in notched basketball-style shorts.  The only downside for me is the 5" inseam, which is about an inch longer than I'd prefer (gotta show off the quads!).  Plus I'd like the split on the side to be a little higher, giving it a bit of a less "boxy" cut.  But that's nitpicking.  All in all, the Patagonia Strider Pro shorts provide excellent form and function for long training and ultra racing, and I'm happy to have Patagonia on board as a MPF/RNR team sponsor.

Salming: No Nonsense!

I've been lucky enough in my running career to receive support from some great shoe companies: from Nike, in college; to Brooks, when I ran for the Haddonfield Running Company during medical school and residency; and as part of the Inov-8 pro deal team in 2011.  And I'm thrilled now to announce a partnership with Salming, which entered the US market last year and is making great strides on the running, triathlon, and trail running scene.

The great Borje Salming.
Salming was started by hockey legend Borje Salming, the first Swedish player named to the NHL Hall of Fame and widely considered one of the greatest Swedish players of all time.  Like many industry giants, they make products for multiple sports: hockey, as you can imagine, but also floorball, handball, squash, and running.

The running shoes are borne out of Salming's holistic approach to evaluating running form, exemplified by their innovative RunLAB in Gothenburg, which incorporates real-time stride analysis, motion capture, and video to measure individual biomechanics and then derive coaching plans aimed at increasing performance and decreasing injury risk.  Salming's running shoes have garnered multiple awards overseas and debuted in the US late last year.  While the RunLAB has not yet reached US shores, the brand is committed to bringing the insights gained there to their shoe design.  Specifically, they focus on producing light, flexible shoes that allow for a "natural" foot strike and greater ground feel and proprioception.

Now, let's not get into a huge thing here.  Few things polarize a friendly running discussion more than the debate over "natural" running, heel-striking vs. forefoot striking, barefoot running, minimalism, maximalism, and Born to Run.  (BTW: They're making a Born to Run movie!  With Matthew McConaughey!  Tell me you're not gonna watch that.)  It's my blog, so I'll tell you what I think (and feel free to comment below) and then we'll move on: I think that the minimalist movement, although it got co-opted and taken too far, spurred some of the best advances in shoe technology and design in the past thirty years.  Whether or not you run in minimalist shoes, you've benefitted from the impact it had on the industry.  Without people talking about heel-toe drop and foot strike, you never see Hoka One One, Altra, Scott, or a host of great shoes from New Balance, asics, and the rest of the shoe giants.

So where does Salming fall on the spectrum?  They are certainly committed to the "natural" movement in shoe design, but in actuality the shoes do a nice job of walking the line between traditional and new-wave.  They have no zero-drop models; all Salming shoes (at least to this point) have a 5mm heel-toe drop, which is significantly less than the standard 10-12mm seen in most traditional designs, but obviously a big difference over the zero-drop offerings that have proliferated in recent years.  (For reference, that's right in line with many of the Hoka models--the Stinson and the Bondi are both around 4mm; the Conquest and the RapaNui are in the 5-5.5mm range.)  This does help to promote a more midfoot/forefoot strike, but without some of the strain on the calves and Achilles people notice with zero-drop models.  They are all light; the heaviest shoe, the new Trail T1, checks in at just over ten ounces.  Stack heights are low, which does increase the ground feel and responsiveness, to some extent at the cost of cushioning, but not overwhelmingly so.  They are modern shoes with a classic feel.  Overall, they embody the brand's tagline, "No nonsense."  These are no-nonsense running shoes.

The Distance A2.
So far I've been putting in miles in the Distance A2, which I've been enjoying a lot.  I tend to like low, light, flexible shoes, and these certainly fit the bill.  Salming hasn't quite yet mastered the "anatomic toe box" they talk about; the last is still fairly traditional, and it is certainly not up to Altra standards in terms of really expanding the toe box, but hopefully they will get there in subsequent models.  The Trail T1 hits the US in about three weeks, so I'm very, very stoked to check those out.

I couldn't be prouder or more excited to be representing Salming in 2015 with a fantastic group of athletes (including local legends Bec and Laurel Wassner!), who are all much, much more accomplished than I.  I'll be sporting the gear starting at next month's Mount Mitchell Challenge and throughout the rest of the year.  Please check them out and hit me up with any questions you have about the shoes or the brand.  Gonna be a great year!

Orange Mud: Ultralight Hydration

Photo: Joe Dean
Let me start by saying: I really like gear, but I don't often use it.  I love having stuff, but when I run, I'm usually a minimalist.  I generally race with only a handheld, unless the race is unsupported; in training, I won't usually carry anything if I'm running for less than three hours, unless the heat dictates that I carry water.  But last year I started using the Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest on some of my longer runs and unsupported FA-style events.  Honestly, it's a great product.  You can carry a fair bit of gear and two 16-oz bottles without any significant bouncing, and it's incredibly lightweight.  I had very few complaints; on longer efforts I did feel like I was adjusting the chest straps a little too frequently, and the sternal strap can be a bit limiting, but all in all, a huge improvement (from my perspective) over Camelbacks, waist belts, and the like.

The Orange Mud handheld
Last year a friend turned me on to Orange Mud, a small hydration company based out of California.  I first found their handheld, which is one of the better examples on the market that I've found: quite light, very adjustable, with a much more comfortable strap that my previous handhelds, and enough room for a few gels or small packable items.  It wasn't until the end of this year, however, that I discovered the HydraQuiver, the flagship product in the Orange Mud line, and fell in love.

The HydraQuiver is a vest, but unlike the UD vests, the hydration has been moved from the front to the more traditional alignment on the back.  At first, I was concerned with bouncing, as I was under the impression that the elimination of bounce in the UD line had come from shifting the weight to the front.  But the HydraQuiver, instead of distributing the weight in the small of the back, as you'd expect with a Camelback, keeps the weight centered in the upper back, between the shoulder blades.  The result is a completely bounce-free ride, with easy access by reaching behind you.  If you can scratch the back of your neck, you can pull out the water bottle.

When I first put on the Orange Mud HQ, it felt much too tight in the armpits.  But as soon as I started running and my arms came up into their normal carriage, all the tension vanished.  The pack rests comfortably with no bounce and no tension (and no sternal strap).  I have yet to tug on a strap to adjust it during a run.  As great an experience as the UD line provides, the Orange Mud HQ is better; I literally forget that I'm wearing it, and have started taking it on shorter runs of 60-90 minutes, just because it's so comfortable.  The back is padded for comfort, and there is a pocket that will easily accommodate a phone, some nutrition, keys, and other small sundries. It's my go-to choice for running hydration right now, and I anticipate racing with it this year, even in supported ultras, which I never would have thought possible before.

I'm proud to announce that I've joined the Orange Mud team as one of their ambassadors (or "am-badass-adors" as they like to say) and will be happily promoting their gear.  There are several other products worth checking out in the Orange Mud line.  The HydraQiver Double Barrel is the same idea, with two rear bottles; the VP2 has extra space for more gear, during longer efforts.  There are several new products launching this year, including a gym bag which looks very well-planned.  They also have some cool logo gear (including the super-hipster trucker hat, which almost never leaves my head now) and they also make a neat towel/car seat cover.  It's definitely worth checking them out.


As I mentioned in my post on the Shawangunk Ridge Trail Run, the Wagathon is my favorite fat ass run.  "The Wag," named after the rock-climbers' club Westchester Alpine Group, was started in 2005 by climbing legend Felix Modugno and was, in its early years, exclusively a climber's deal; the first three years featured fields of about 3-8 people, all climbers, none of whom ran with any real regularity.  But somehow people started to talk, and in my first year, 2008, we suddenly had almost 30 people at the start.
The start of Wag IV, 2008
The first four years, the course didn't vary much; starting in Sam's Point Preserve, the trail passed Verderkill Falls and Mud Pond on its way to Lake Awosting, Millbrook Mountain, and down to Trapps Bridge; after that, we followed mostly carriage roads up to Skytop at Mohonk Mountain House and then back down through the Preserve into the town of New Paltz, finishing at the Gilded Otter Brewing Company, a distance of about 30 miles.  I "won" the fourth edition in 2008, running a basically solo 4:07, and had a great time.  In 2009, the course changed slightly, adding the beautiful but difficult Gertrude's Nose trail and finishing outside town at the climber's haven, the Mountain Brauhaus.  By this time plenty of runners had joined the hardcore climbing contingent, and from that year on the run became more runner-dominated than climber-dominated.  I ran most of the 2009 race with Scott Willett, an elite triathlete and the founder of the Tri-Life training group, and we tied for the "win".  In 2010 the course changed again, now finishing in Rosendale at the northern end of the Shawangunk ridge; I dropped out with an injury halfway through, but returned in 2011 to share the win with Glen Redpath, my third "win" in four tries.

By this time, organizational duties had passed from Felix, through local ultra runner Joe Brown, and on to Mike Siudy, a climber in his past life who now passes his time running insanely difficult ultra courses through the Catskills.  Mike standardized the course, which had started to fluctuate quite a bit from year to year, and basically codified it into what it is today: a nearly 30-mile trip from Sam's Point to Rosendale, covering single track, carriage roads, and five rock scrambles, including the infamous Giant's Workshop, Lemon Squeeze, and Bonticou Crag.  Also starting in 2012, the structure of the event changed.  While it was always a fat ass event--no entry fee, no support, no awards, few rules--the run had, for the first seven years, had a mass 9 am start.  While the vibe was decidedly friendly and relaxed, there was certainly a mild competitive undertone, and part of the fun (for me at least) was trying to lay down a fast performance and be one of the first people sipping beer at the Red Brick Tavern at the end.  But after seven years in this style, people wanted a change--specifically, some of the faster finishers wanted to share drinks with some of the slower folks, but didn't want to have to wait several hours for everyone to get in.  So starting in 2012, the run became completely non-competitive: start whenever you want, just try to time it so you finish between 4 and 5 pm, so we can all eat, drink, and be merry together.

Phil and Brian at Verderkill Falls
I liked the thought, and admired the impulse toward mass drunkenness, but losing the competitive aspect did kill some of my interest in the event.  The logistics of the run aren't easy--Sam's Point is a good hour's drive from the finish in Rosendale, and it was hard to justify the headache of planning everything out for what now amounted to a long run on most of the same trails I run on every weekend.  Plus, I'm not exactly what you'd call "great" with heights, and some of the more exposed, tricky rock scramble sections are really not my cup of tea.  I never like feeling like I'm about to fall to my death, especially not 25 miles into a 5-6 hour effort.  So for a few years, I was out on the Wag.  But 2014 marked the 10th anniversary of this venerated event, and two of my good friends and training partners, Brian Oestrike and Phil Vondra, were excited to run it for their first time.  Glen was coming up from the city as well, running half the race as his longest run since Achilles' surgery in July.  Phil and I had the seemingly brilliant idea to stash a couple of beers out on the course, which we did the night before, and by 10:45 Brian, Phil, and I were heading off toward Verderkill Falls with the goal of finishing by around 4:30.

"W" is for Wagathon--at Castle Rock
We wound up with a near-perfect day of weather and had a great time chatting it up as we navigated the tricky single track past the falls and out to Lake Awosting.  From there, we followed carriage roads over Castle Rock and headed out toward Millbrook Mountain.  On the way, we caught up with Josh Burns, who had started a few minutes before us, and the four of us kept up a pretty solid pace to Trapps Bridge, 15 miles into the run and the site of our first beer stop.  We dropped a few hints to Josh about the beer, but as we approached the bridge, he announced that he was going to keep going up onto the ridge, and he was gone before any of us could say, "Hey, wait, there really is beer here."  Phil had left us a nice 750ml bottle of Aria from Perennial Brewery, which took us a good 15 minutes to plow through before heading back out on to the trail.

Beer stop #1.  Photo: Phil Vondra
From there, things got a bit wobbly.  The next few miles are a tricky traverse along the top of Trapps Cliff, and while we were pretty pleased with ourselves for having had the forethought to have a beer stop, we were clearly moving rather slowly and stiffly along.  After a few quiet minutes of slogging, Brian commented, "Man, we are really in the doldrums."  Apparently beer with 8% ABV is not a performance enhancer.

In the doldrums, at checkpoint #3.  Photo: Phil Vondra
The course gets worse before it gets better--we slogged our way through Giants' Workshop and the Lemon Squeeze, which Brian negotiated easily with his alpinist background, but I suffered quite a bit until we got past Skytop tower and started running again back downhill.  We hit a nice rhythm, though, and had cranked out a good couple of miles before we reached beer check #2, hidden behind the Mohonk Golf Course: a nice Yard Owl Dark Wheat:
No caption necessary.
There were no two ways about it after that: I was basically drunk, and Phil and Brian kept a pretty close eye on my on the scramble up to Bonticou Crag.  By the time we made our way back down the Northeast Trail and through the swamp at the bottom of the Widowmaker, I was almost back to normal, and all that was left was the final few miles racing the sunset.  We finished up in just over 6 hours, including the beer stops, with about 5:15 of actual running time--not too far off what we had planned, actually.  It was Phil's longest run ever, and all in all, we had a really fun day out.  I have to admit, it was fun seeing everyone at the finish, though I do miss the competitive aspect of it a bit.

Quick gear report: I used the Montrail Rogue Racer, the shoe I've been putting in the vast majority of my miles for the past few months.  They're only 9 oz, and billed as a racing flat, but they have a 9mm drop and a fair bit of cushion, and I've been very happy with them for many miles and several long efforts.  I wore my Pearl Izumi Ultra Split short which is a brilliant piece of clothing.  The pockets in the back of these shorts are actually sewn into the liner, which comes all the way up to the top of the short, so you can carry gels or your phone (the main pocket zips and holds an iPhone 6) with virtually no bouncing.  They're quite expensive for shorts but a fairly indispensable item.  And, as on most long unsupported efforts I used the Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest for hydration.  Though the day after this run I received in the mail the Orange Mud HydraQuiver, which may replace the UD vest as my go-to hydration system for longer runs.  More details to come!

Gear Review: Gore Windstopper Jacket

I'm not going to lie--I've been forced inside on the treadmill this winter with a little more regularity than I'd like.  Part of that is a new work schedule; after eight years of working the night shift, I've gone back to a mix of days and nights.  On days when I'm working at 7 or even 9 am, it's a lot easier to throw on a pair of shorts and stagger upstairs to the treadmill for an early morning run than it is to face layering up for an hour in single-digit temps.  And I don't want to complain, but it's been damn cold here!  I'm no big fan of the treadmill, but they call it the path of least resistance for a reason, no?

I have a new piece of gear this winter, though, that's been getting me out the door more consistently on those near-zero days: my GORE Essential Windstopper soft shell jacket.  GORE is known mostly for their cycling apparel, and I'm sure you could run in their bike stuff, or bike in their run stuff, or whatever.  This one is from their running collection, but it doesn't matter.  It's a soft shell jacket, which means it's nice and stretchy and flexible, without the limitation of range of motion you often find with windproof outer layers.  It is very lightweight.  It is, as the name implies, windproof, and though it makes no claims to be waterproof or even water-repellent, I've found it to be surprisingly moisture-resistent while running in a variety of conditions.  I did have a recent 15-miler with my friend Ian during a fairly steady downpour that overwhelmed it a bit, but I'll take it.

The greatest property of the jacket is its surprising warmth for its weight.  It is a very thin, very light shell, but due in part to its wind-blocking capability, it is incredibly warm.  How warm?  When I started today's run at 11 am, my phone told me it was 9 degrees.  I wore the jacket over a long sleeve and a short sleeve tech shirt and had to ditch the long sleeve halfway.  Put it this way.  On a day when my face looks like this:

I can wear the jacket

with a short sleeve t-shirt AND NOTHING ELSE.

The last thing I'll say about it is, it's damn sharp-looking.  I'm not sponsored by GORE (though I certainly wouldn't mind!); I bought this jacket with my own money.  You should too.

I'm in the process of putting together my 2014 race schedule.  I've got a pretty good sense of what I'd like to run, but I'm already wait listed at one of my target races, and a couple of the others haven't opened yet, so I'll wait a bit until I post a full 2014 schedule on the site.  My first race, though, will be the Mount Mitchell Challenge in Black Mountain, NC on February 22.  Mount Mitchell is the highest peak in the eastern US, and the Challenge is a 40-miler to the top of the mountain and back.  It's a great race that I ran for the first time in 2011, when I had a really good day,  and I'm hoping to have another good one in four weeks.  Plus the race is just outside Asheville, aka Beer City USA, so, you know.  I used to work Coach Roy Benson's running camps in Asheville when I was a collegian, and it remains one of my favorite mountain cities.  Actually, when I was a high school camper there, in 1991, my counselor was a local triathlon hotshot named Jay Curwen...who is now the race director for Mount Mitchell.