Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole


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SoCal Spartan Super: Race Report

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Man, is that tagline truthful…

Since first hearing about the original Spartan Sprint, and subsequently watching the popularity of obstacle races as a whole sprout up like wildfires in a SoCal drought season, I had formed this rock-solid, unmovable opinion that there are two kinds of racers: ones who run regular, running-only, trail or road footraces and….well, douchebags. Because I, for one, am a runner, and obstacle races were not going to take that away from me, dammit! Unlike most obstacle race enthusiasts, I have earned finishers medals in multiple distances between 5K and 50K (actually nevermind, there are no finishers medals for 5k’s…or at least there weren’t the last time I ran one. But I digress.). What are all these Crossfitter-types doing, throwing themselves into the racing world? Wouldn’t they rather hone their craft inside their cozy little indoor boxes of pain? Why are they taking a perfectly good footrace and turning it into some contaminated strongman-competition-slash-half-marathon? Is it because they want to run distance but can’t hack the difficulty of doing it without stopping multiple times? Or is it because they think they’re better than runners, and seek to provide proof of it by creating a race that runners can’t do as well as them? Not to mention, who did they think they were anyway, naming their competitions after historical warriors who earned their honor by bravely facing whole armies with nothing more than swords, shields and barely enough men to form a football team? The more I thought about the whole Spartan race enigma, the more it felt like listening to a really bad R&B song. One of those monstrosities where all of the good parts are just samples from old hit songs and nothing original about them has any character or soul. You know….like a Kanye song.

Oh yeah, you could say I had an opinion or two about obstacle races.

Then I got an email from this nice, unassuming Spartan Race promoter. He offered me a free entry to the local Spartan race of my choice, in exchange for my race report. I doubt the promoter dude read enough of my blog to understand how honest judgmental I am about obstacle races, which, now that I think about it, probably worked in my favor. I mean, what I really wanted to do was respectfully decline. But I didn’t, because after all the years of joke-making and doubtful eye-rolling, I suppose the least I owed to the Spartan race series was to…you know, actually try one.

Mr. Nice Spartan Promoter allowed me to select any one of the races they were offering in SoCal: the Sprint, the Super or the Beast. After some thought I decided on the Super, because the 3-mile Sprint felt like a waste of my time, and the Beast sounded stupid difficult, according to friends of mine, who collectively called the Beast “the hardest thing I have ever done.” I suspected they only found it so hard because they got really tired: the Beast is half marathon distance and most of those guys had never run or walked a step over 6 miles in their entire lives. But I also knew that I had literally no idea what obstacles were going to be on the course. So the Super, at 9 miles and 20 obstacles, seemed like a happy and warm middle-ground porridge. So I signed up for it.

After doing so, I immediately panicked and crowd-sourced my running friends for advice. Most of them are hashers like me. Hashers are a special type of runner, because running a hash involves plenty of mixed and technical terrain, along with a ton of nasty hill climbing, scrambling over rocks, sliding down cliffs, spelunking, mud-dipping, fence-scaling, tunnel trudging and canyon-jumping. My hashing friends assured me that obstacle races are merely a more safely-constructed form of hash trails, and that I would excel with my hashing experience alone. They may have been more or less right. But because I’m not an idiot, I still decided to not underestimate the obstacle portion of this race series. Two months before the race I signed up for an outdoors bootcamp-style class, rife with heavy iron weights, kettle bells, pull-up rings, medicine balls, squats, sprints and a shit-ton of burpees. I got used to feeling sore every day. I started feeling stronger. I got good at burpees.

As if it’s at all possible to be “good” at burpees.

But that all wasn’t enough. I needed another form of protecting preparing myself: two weeks before race day I decided to sign my boyfriend Joseph up for the race as well, and I’m so glad I did. It turned out that I would need him throughout, mentally as well as physically. Man, was he a lifesaver.

On race day I showed up at Vail Lake in Temecula, about an hour’s ride north of San Diego, and was immediately psyched by the view alone. The lake looked gorgeous and the mountainous rocky hills all around were just begging to be climbed. But aside from the water-filled hole in the ground, the terrain of this place is dry as a bone. As if to further illustrate the desert-like properties of the area, the wind was gusting hard that day, churning up dozens of mini sandstorms all around us and tossing tumbleweeds up onto fences, moving cars and against pedestrians. The sandstorms in the parking lot were just foreshadowing for later, because on course they acted like an additional obstacle. The winds constantly blew dirt into our eyes while we were trying to navigate down the steep, rocky hills, and rumbled the tops of the highest obstacles while we attempted to safely mount them without plummeting to our deaths.

We walked roughly a mile from the car lot (where it cost $10 to park) to the race start and went about situating ourselves. Waiver signing, bib number, wristlet timer, $5 bag check (ouch!) and oh look a cool headband with my bib number on it! Joseph and I stood by the start waiting for our wave to be called, and watched the racers below us attempt the obstacles, fail, and settle in for their rounds of 30 burpees each. There were horizontal wall climbs, rope climbs, javelin throwing. It looked legit and moderately intimidating. It was there that I started to psych myself out.

this image was taken a day after the race, because you just didn't want to see me right afterward. Also I forgot.

this image was taken way after the race, because you just didn’t want to see me right afterward. Also I forgot.

“Are you ready?” Joseph asked me, with a giant grin on his face. He was way into it. I’m not even sure I answered him.

I turned to my left and saw the very first obstacle: a 4-foot wall that you must jump over in order to even enter the racers’ corral. I watched several of the men before me pick themselves up with their arms and swing over it without breaking a sweat. I remembered a hash run from several months back where I had to hoist myself up over four walls in a row of the same height, in order to exit a huge drainage pipe that had been buried in the ground. I did fine then, I would do fine now, I figured.

Except I didn’t. I got to the wall and I absolutely failed. FAILED. The wall was higher than I thought, and I had no bodyweight leverage to work with. I grabbed the wall and jumped, fell back down onto my feet, and instantly panicked. The woman to my left barely got over by yanking a leg sideways, slightly clipping me in the head, and falling bum-first onto the other side. It didn’t look fun. Then there was a sudden blur of shirtless bodies, rushing across the wall like it was nothing, and like there was nobody else there to avoid slamming into on the way over. I got smacked again, this time by a flying elbow that was attached to a wildly hollering, shirtless dude with war paint all over his chest. Joseph was already too far ahead in the crowd, having wrongly assumed that I’d get over the wall just as easily as I had a hundred times at the hash. I couldn’t see him. Then I looked to my right and there was a handsome Asian dude with a Ninja Turtle-style headband tied to his head, and his hands were weaved together basket-style at my knees. He looked at me hopefully. “Let me help,” he said. I let him hoist me over the wall, thanked him, and tried not to let this early-on failure set the tone for the rest of the course. I didn’t know it yet, but accepting the help of strangers like that ninja-turtle dude was about to become the biggest lesson of the race.

Once the race announcer was done reciting Bill Pulman’s speech from the movie Independence Day (which I thought was weird, but whatever), followed by the requisite crowd shouting: “Arooooo, Arooooo!” the 12:30 wave was released like a pack of hungry hounds. We ran a few hundred feet, and then were swiftly plunged into three foot deep troughs filled with impressively frigid brown water. My lungs instinctively sucked in air and I ran out of there as fast as my mud-slick trail shoes would take me. Immediately after that we began a half-mile climb up the steep hills ahead. I’m glad we started with the hills, because I needed the chance to redeem myself after the embarrassment I suffered at the first wall.

Joseph and I ran upward with gusto, passing dozens of transparent LuluLemon leggings and Crossfit tee shirts along the way. Near the top, the hill got steep enough that we had to use our hands to grab the rocks and keep from sliding back down the hill. There were lots of loose rocks and sand, and lots of people yelling for help. Having traversed this kind of terrain hundreds of times before, I picked up the pace of my feet and flew up the hill, passing by Joseph and no less than thirty other racers who were struggling, sliding backward and panicking. I honestly couldn’t believe how much easier it was for me than everyone else. I advised a couple of gals ahead to pick up their feet faster so they would have less time to slide back down, even offered one of them a push, but they all ignored me so I weaved on by. I got to the top and waited for Joe to come up through the crowd. We continued on running the rocky trail up some more, and then flew back down a really fun hill (that everyone else was sheepishly side-stepping), toward the next set of obstacles.

It was here that everything started to become a blur, and where our 3 minute lead closed up for good. All I can remember is walls. Wall after wall after wall. As we came down that first hill we saw a 15-foot wall that looked to have some beams affixed to it, perfect for hoisting yourself up and over. When we got closer we saw that the wall was not at all what it seemed: it was slanted toward us, so that the crossbeams were completely useless as mechanisms for climbing. I don’t even know how Joseph got up and over. All I know is that two men caught up while I was floundering, and immediately offered their hands to hoist me the extra few feet I needed to get over it. I was grateful for their help because I never would have gotten over that thing on my own. And being the independent woman runner asshole that I am, I was not expecting to face obstacles at which I would fail without the assistance of another person. I came away from that wall feeling flustered and frustrated.

A good chunk of the race followed suit. In all there were no less than twelve walls, some which had to be scaled, some which could be climbed with horizontal slats. I needed help getting over every scaling wall. Every one foiled me. Each time I got to the top of a hill and saw one, my thought was “Jesus…another fucking wall.” I hated the walls. They were a symbol of all my past and present failings as an athlete. They were like a series of 10-foot tall Crossfit junkies towering over me, laughing heartily at my alarming lack of upper-body strength. “Foolish ultra-runner,” the walls judged, as they sat there stoic and merciless, “you skipped too many arm days. Now you’ll pay.”

The walls sucked, but it was okay, because I also had enough triumphs to keep me going throughout the race. Because I have a lot of trail running experience, I can climb a hill quickly and without going into an asthmatic shock, which is a skill that cannot be underestimated at this race. On two occasions we had to lift and carry very heavy things about a quarter mile over steep hills, around a corner and back again, the infamous bucket of rocks being the first. Yeah the rocks were heavy, and the buckets had no handles so you had to carry them in front of you like an obese toddler. But Joseph and I just…did it. At the top of the hill, a dozen of the guys who had just flown over the high walls like they were speed bumps were now sat atop their buckets, panting like dogs in heat, but we just kept on going with nary a rest. That felt nice.

The more I think on it, there were a number of obstacles that highlighted our strengths and empowered Joseph and I throughout the race. Joe banged out the uneven monkey bars like a seasoned pro and I crawled speedily under the barbed wire like it was my job. We both spent very little effort pulling the heavy sandbags across the dirt, we enjoyed the javelin throw, and we did fine on all of the 20-foot wooden slat walls and anything else that required core and leg strength, of which we both possess plenty. Not to mention the 9-mile run, hills and all, was pretty much a piece of cake. But I should not underestimate the fact that during an obstacle race, one at which you have been faced with a dozen or more physical challenges you were not expecting, there will inevitably come a time when your mental endurance capacity is tested. Joseph and I faced our emotional wall at the same time. And rather fittingly, it occurred at a wall, roughly five miles into the race.

It was a wall slanted away from us, like a ramp. It was equipped with ropes for pulling yourself up and over to the other side, which is a vertical wall with slats for you to climb back down. The kicker is that this wall was placed five feet away from an obstacle in which you needed to completely submerge yourself in frigid muddy water to swim under a wall that met the water’s surface. Now you were cold, soaked head to toe in mud, and slippery…and so was the wall.

I watched Joseph’s first try up this wall. He grabbed the rope and walked up easily enough, leaning back against the rope in the appropriate manner, as we have learned to do on dozens of hash runs. But the rope was attached to the top of the wall so the higher you got the closer your hands got to the wall and the more you had to lean forward. Eventually your feet would slip in the mud and wetness and fly out from under you, leaving you lying helplessly attached by your hands to the top of the wall. I watched Joe go through this ordeal on his first try, let go of the rope and slide back down the wall. Then I watched two women do the same thing. It looked painful and discouraging. I stood there for almost ten minutes, watching people hang there at the top of the wall. One of the ropes had knots in it and I planned to use it once the lady currently using it either figured it out or gave up. People yelled to her to “throw a leg over” but she just lay there, holding on. She stayed there for another five minutes.

I didn’t want to do this obstacle. I was freezing, tired, wet and now completely unmotivated. I wanted to walk right off the course and go home. I wasn’t far from the starting line, I could have just left without protest and without a medal.

Then…well, I just decided to do it. I am not sure what motivated me, but I guess I just got tired of standing there and decided to just fucking go for it. Fearing that lady was never going to let go of the easy knotted rope, I grabbed the same un-knotted rope that Joseph used and started climbing. When I got to the top I allowed all of my body except my left leg to slide down the wall. My leg smacked the top corner of the ramp hard, and I felt the skin of my right tricep scrape against the splintery wood. I regrouped, grabbed the knot at the very top of the rope and yanked myself higher. Then I looked up and saw Ninja Turtle man again – he was on the other side of the wall, standing on a slat, and he had grabbed hold of my arm. “Pull this hand over!” he said as he helped me grip the wooden edge on the other side. “Come on, muscle up! You can do it!” I could hear Joseph yelling at me from below. So I muscled up, as commanded. I had no choice, really. Literally every muscle I had sprung into action. I could hear myself grunting “harrumph!!!” as I quite literally dragged my body over to the flat side of the wall. I guess I am stronger than I give myself credit for, I thought, with more than a little shame.

I felt different about some things after that obstacle. Like, I now understand why so many people love obstacle races. Which leads me to the moral of this whole story: you must have humility and allow others to help you.

Yeah I felt different, alright. If by "different" you mean full of bruises. Ouch.

Yeah I felt different, alright. If by “different” you mean full of bruises. Ouch.

It never occurred to me before I entered the starting line of the race that the whole thing is about teamwork. Much unlike a running race, which is all about challenging one’s self, the obstacle race is about utilizing the different strengths of each individual in order to go forward as a team. It’s about the moment when a 40-something woman I’d never met tapped me on the shoulder and said “come on, let’s get this one together” as we approached the bucket pulleys. It’s about the two really fit dudes who lifted their overweight buddy on their shoulders so he could complete the monkey bars.

I mean, I really get it now. The Spartan race is about a bunch of individual Spartans who come together to face the army of exceptionally tough obstacles, and get through it together.

Despite this really huge positive, I still found this race outweighed by its cons, but I realize that may just be because it’s not the way I personally like spending a Saturday afternoon. I did like that many of the obstacles were fun, that they were all challenging and that I was able to master many of them due to my trail running and hashing experience alone. However, I was surprised by the fact that most of the obstacles were geared toward upper body strength only, something that I have very little of because I’m a runner…..but also a little bit because I’m a woman.

I mean, an 8-foot high, sheer wooden wall? You really expect my 5’4” frame to be able to jump up over that thing by myself? I would need to either be much taller, be a man with natural upper body strength, or be a chick who does Crossfit like, every day for years (and kudos to those ladies because they looked pretty badass hauling over those things…what few of them succeeded). Case in point: Joseph got over most of the walls with no help, and with absolutely no training, but I lifted for two months straight and I had no chance at all without help. Add to that the rope climbs and the wall traverse, and it just looked like a men’s-only club out there. I didn’t like that because, despite the benefits of teamwork, I physically wasn’t able to complete some of the obstacles without help from others. At the end of the day, I did finish and I did receive a medal, but inside I felt less than accomplished because I didn’t do it all on my own.

And this, my friends, is what I’m going to call runner’s block: a runner’s complete inability to translate her own stubborn pride and incessant need to accomplish goals in solitude, to a race at which accepting help from others is practically a necessity.

Pretty cool medal.

Pretty cool medal. Too bad I needed help to earn it.

Bottom line is that while the obstacle race isn’t exactly my cup o’ tea, I do understand why so many people are attracted to and fall in love with the sport. And for those of you brave enough to try your first Spartan race after reading this report, here are a few bits of advice from me to you:

  • Especially if you’re a woman and a runner, train your upper body as much as you can, and expect to have to lift your bodyweight up and over things several times during the race.
  • Bring some weightlifting gloves. My hands were a mess after the race. Gloves don’t work for all the obstacles, but for things like rope climbing and monkey bars, it really sucked to have to use my bare hands.
  • Bring food. Especially if you’re doing the Super or Beast – the race is long, you’re going to need to refuel midway through, and the aid stations do not provide. That’s right – these are no ultra-race aid stations, folks…they have jugs of water only, no electrolytes either. Prepare thyself. I wore my hydration vest, brought salt pills and granola bars, and was glad I did.
  • Be prepared to not be able to complete every obstacle by yourself. Know that you may need to accept help, and become at peace with it.
  • Also be prepared to do burpees. You’re just going to do some, I don’t care how much you train. For example, you only get one chance to throw the javelin at the hay bale, and almost nobody can get themselves completely over that yellow line at the rope swing. And it’s drop and do 30 for each obstacle you fail. Do yourself a favor and practice burpees ahead of time, because those things really are a bitch. In fact, just start doing a few of those a day anyway…because they’re a bitch. They’re insanely good exercise.
  • Bring a friend. At least one. And make sure they’re strong enough to help lift you over things.
  • Bring baby wipes with you, for after the race. They have “showers” there, but really it’s just foam and freezing cold water (at least at Vail lake – they used lake water for the “showers”…I didn’t go near them).

And most importantly, have fun! Bring your most upbeat and positive attitude. Because if you get at all down on yourself during the race, it will be exponentially harder to complete.

Have you done a Spartan Race and loved it? Hated it? Think I’m totally full of it? Leave me some feedback below, I’d love to hear.

Happy Running!


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Spartan Race Entry Giveaway: WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER!

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Hey there again. I did the drawing today for the Spartan Race Entry Giveaway. I tallied up all the entries, gave each a number, and then had the random number generator give me a number. Lucky 21 means the winner-winner-chicken-dinner is:

JEREMY (Sling-Shott)

Congrats, Jeremy! And thanks to all of you who went to my blog, shared, followed and commented to earn entries. To show my appreciation, here’s a coupon code for 10% off your next Spartan registration (good for any race): SPARTANBLOGGER

Thanks again, and come back for my race report in a couple months. Happy Running!


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Spartan Race Giveaway!

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Yes, sure, it’s been a hell of a long time since I’ve reviewed or written anything on this blog (exactly one year to the day, actually – weird!). And it’s been quite a long time since I’ve written at all. But, just the other day I was approached by a Spartan Race promoter, inquiring as to whether I’d be interested in trying out a Spartan Race and doing a giveaway. I thought perhaps this opportunity might as well bring me back to my writing, and as a positive side-effect, back to actually running.

But more on that another day – today is the day for a free race entry!

SPARTAN is an obstacle race series popping up all over the country, and gaining crazy popularity. It’s been responsible for getting thousands of people up off their couches and on the streets and into gyms to train, get fit and reach their goals year after year. SPARTAN is not just for runners, and it’s not just for Crossfitters – it’s for everyone. They started with the Sprint, but now they have introduced many different races of different distances and levels of difficulty, so there’s a race at your level no matter who you are. And I might as well even tell you all – even I’ve decided to sign up for a SPARTAN Race! (a review/race report will be posted afterward) (and yes, I know, I did write this post knocking obstacle races awhile back, I concede!). So just to be informational, here’s the breakdown for each of the race types:

The SPARTAN SPRINT is a 3 mile race with about 15 obstacles
The SPARTAN SUPER is an 8+ mile race with about 20 obstacles
The SPARTAN BEAST is a 12+ mile race with 25+ obstacles

So, if you want to try out your first SPARTAN race, or challenge yourself to one at the next level, this contest is perfect for you! I am giving away a race entry to any one of the following promoted races:

  • 12/06/14 Malibu SPRINT – Santa Monica, CA
  • 12/07/14 Malibu SPRINT – Santa Monica, CA (both these days were about 90% full at time of publishing – you’d have to hurry on this one or be willing to choose a different location if it’s full)
  • 01/17/15 SoCal BEAST – Vail Lake, CA
  • 01/18/15 SoCal SPRINT – Vail Lake, CA
  • 01/24/15 SoCal SUPER – Vail Lake, CA (this is the race I am most likely doing, FYI)
  • 01/25/15 SoCal SPRINT – Vail Lake, CA
  • 02/07/15 Arizona SPRINT – McDowell Mountains, AZ
  • 02/08/15 Arizona SPRINT – McDowell Mountains, AZ
  • 03/07/15 Atlanta SPRINT – Atlanta, GA
  • 03/08/15 Atlanta SPRINT – Atlanta, GA
  • 04/11/15 Charlotte SPRINT – Charlotte, NC
  • 04/12/15 Charlotte SPRINT – Charlotte, NC
  • 04/18/15 Las Vegas SUPER – Las Vegas, NV

Please do me and everyone else a favor and only enter if you are willing and able to attend one of the races listed above. In order to enter, you must do at least one of the actions listed below. if you do more than one you get an entry for each thing.

IMPORTANT: Please don’t forget to leave a comment each time you complete an entry item (even if it’s multiple times, for example the FB posts, so I can keep track of each entry and count it!

  1. Repost this blog post on the Facebook (you may do this once every day for an additional entry)
  2. Repost this blog post on the Twitter (you may do this once every day for an additional entry)
  3. Post about this giveaway on your Tumblr page
  4. Follow my blog
  5. Write a comment below about either your experience with the SPARTAN races, or about why you want to run a SPARTAN race

The winner will be drawn on WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 26TH

The winner-publishing blog entry will also include a race discount promo code, so be sure to come back and check it out.

Good luck!


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Review: Merrell Ascend Glove

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I’ve done a lot of shoe reviews over the past couple of years, and in so doing I’ve come to approach each new offering with the same sort of mild expectation of unspecific excellence. Being that I’m ever in search of the absolute perfect minimalist running shoe for myself, it’s kind of hard not to always put each new shoe on with the highest of hopes. In the end some shoes I’ve tried have wowed me, and some have not. But that’s not what happened at all with the Merrell Ascend Glove. Maybe it was my bad past experiences talking, I don’t know, but I gotta be honest: I kind of expected to not like this shoe.

Why? Well, because it’s not what I would normally prefer in a trail shoe. It’s cushiony (6mm of it), and it’s got a huge stack height (10.5mm) and a rock plate (“TrailProtect pad”). The sole is stiff, the upper is super thick, and the women’s shoe wasn’t offered in a wide enough width for me so I had to order my pair from the less-than-pretty-for-obvious-reasons men’s line. I was sure this would be the kind of shoe that would do nothing more than assist me in jacking up an ankle or contributing to the degradation of my already only barely-good running form. I immediately relegated the Ascend Glove to the back of my mind, alongside the NewBalance 1010 and the HOKA One-One (which I have still not tried but secretly really want to).

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Needless to say, I was skeptical at first. After having spent two years wearing paper-thin minimalist footwear, the Ascend Glove felt like a god-damned marshmallow. It took a little getting used to. Aside from the zero drop, this shoe looked on paper to be just like every running shoe I’d ever worn before I discovered barefoot running. If I wore this heavy (8 oz) foot coffin on the trails, how would I ever reconcile my identity as a minimalist runner?

That last sentence was kind of a joke. Sort of.

But I decided to put the question on hold once I happened to snag a pair from my favorite Merrell rep. I figured why the hell not just try ‘em, right? And anyway, at the time that this shoe arrived I had been offhandedly looking for the next really good trail shoe. I’ve been running a lot more rugged trail out here lately, the kind with steep dirt hills, sharp, rolling rubble, lots of technical stuff and at times, obvious danger. I needed a shoe with better grip that would keep me from falling on my ass all the time. I also wanted something that wouldn’t feel so much like a cleat when I had to mix roads into my run. As it turns out, the Ascend Glove may be just the answer I was looking for.

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My first run in these was a short, mixed-terrain run. I took them over pavement, through loose dirt trails, down steep, rocky embankments, up some sandy hills and over about a half mile of 3” drainage “gravel.” This is a pretty typical run for me these days. The first thing I noticed is that I didn’t slip as much on the steep downhills because the lugs on this shoe are pretty deep and substantial. After about 60-70 miles I have managed to visibly wear down the lugs on the balls of both shoes and on the lateral edges, but since I have been putting them through the ringer I would say this is a fair amount of wear (more on this later).

frontAside from the narrow-ish last (which is more or less Merrell’s modus operandi) that forced me to switch to the men’s version, I am impressed by the way this shoe is made. Like the men’s Trail Glove, arguably the best minimalist shoe Merrell ever made, the upper is rugged, durable and reinforced in all the right places (toe, heel, etc). I should also mention this shoe has also taken on a lot of crud, dozens of foxtails and several throws in the washing machine, so far to no loss of durability. The laces are traditional on this model, none of the lace-locking system that I know many of you loved but I didn’t particularly care for. From what I can tell, there are only small cosmetic differences between the men’s and women’s model. This is refreshing to me because in the past the women’s versions of Merrell’s best minimalist shoes have been much flimsier than the men’s, and that totally bummed me out.

Basically, the two big things I really like about this shoe:  its rather simple, straightforward and durable construct, and its specificity. Even though it’s a bigger, heavier shoe than I typically wear on roads or on easy trail, the Ascend Glove is simple and knows its job. It’s not all bells and whistles, and it’s not trying to be a do-everything, go everywhere shoe. I dig that. Even though the original Trail Glove was an excellent model, its non-specific construction was only great on mixed or easy runs. It wasn’t my best trail shoe, and it wasn’t my best road shoe either. But the Ascend Glove is a great choice for any tough terrain or a long trail run because I know it’s going to have excellent tread for the shiftier terrain, it can take a beating and the thicker sole provides more protection than many other minimalist shoe choices, without being too mushy. So, contrary to my original expectations, I have been wearing and loving the hell out of this shoe.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that this is one of the very few truly rugged trail shoes I have seen out there with a low enough profile and also absolutely zero-drop. I know some people are just fine with a 4mm or 8mm heel, but for whatever reason I just cannot hack it. I have tried. The drop is a deal-breaker for me. If you are the same way as me, then this is the shoe for you.

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As always I know I’ll learn more about the Ascend Glove as I put more miles on it, but so far the only down sides that I have noted (and already mentioned above) are the lack of width choices and the tread wear. I think it’s safe to say that I support Merrell offering a wide-width version for all of their shoes, considering the regular lasts they make fall so far off on the narrow scale. We have all seen what happens to me when I try to wear the regular stuff they make for women! It would be nice for those of us who have strong, wide, barefoot-runner’s feet to have an option that better fits our feet, without having to hit up the men’s selections all the time.

And a moment on the tread: although my Merrell rep has told me that my amount of wear seems normal, I guess I expected this shoe to wear a bit more slowly. But after inspecting the tread wear on my other beloved Merrell shoes, and comparing the amount of erosion on each, I realized he was probably right.  So if you’re putting your shoes through the ringer like I am and will be counting on the tread to keep you safe, you’ll want to replace this shoe at around 300 miles or so. It’s odd for me to recommend this, too, considering that one of the great things about minimalist shoes is you don’t have to deal with replacing shoes for their “supportive” qualities. But if good tread is important for your runs, then the replacement factor still exists.

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All in all though, guys, this is my best trail shoe now. It’s an ideal choice for men and women who are real dirt devils like me and want something that will hold up to the terrain while protecting your feet from the harsher bits, and also from the longer miles. It’s also a great shoe for anyone who loved the Trail Glove / Pace Glove, but would like to move on to something a little less minimal. If you’re on the fence I suggest you check it out, you’ll probably be as pleasantly surprised as I was.


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Rambling Post #170: So I Signed Up for Ragnar

ragnar-car

Just today, I officially committed to running on a Ragnar team. The race happens in June of 2014, at Wasatch Back in Utah, which I guess is the “original” Ragnar. I’m excited, and surreally motivated. In fact, I’m even tempted to go buy one of those nifty little “Team Ragnar” jackets and wear it around this winter to keep myself inspired about the whole thing.

A funny thing happens to me when I sign up for a new kind of running challenge. I immediately start figuring in my weekly training program, planning my next veggie-heavy supermarket shopping spree and promising my body that more hill work and squats, and also less fat cells around my waist, will be a reality of the near future. I start to daydream the perfect outcome to the race: finally being in the best running shape of my life, soaking in amazing views, impressing my friends as I blast out new personal records, et cetera.

Ragnar is no different. In case you’ve never heard of it, Ragnar is a 200-mile relay race where up to 12 team members share vans that exchange runners for their individual legs of the adventure. You don’t sleep much, you live in very close proximity to eleven other people who you hopefully like being in close proximity to, and you run three 4-8 mile sections of the course through the mountains, all night long and into the next day. Besides this and the fact that it commands an almost solemn brand of respect among most trail runners (and a rather interesting brand of scrutiny by the rest), that’s really all I know about Ragnar. Needless to say (if you know me), I’ve kind of always planned to run one of these races someday. Someday, when I have a stronger running body, a bigger group of running friends and the motivation to do it. Right now I’ve actually got two of those, and the third is going to require a lot more squats.

Let me interrupt myself here to acknowledge that yes, in the last two paragraphs I have mentioned getting in shape three times. You probably noticed that. What you didn’t see was that while I was typing out those paragraphs I was also scarfing down a donut from the pink box of evil that Shawn’s friend Damon brought into our home this morning. And I’d freely blame Damon for my complete list of diet faux-pas if it weren’t for the fact that I also bought a large chocolate bar AND a package of red velvet cupcakes at the supermarket last night, and definitely drank half a bottle of white wine with them after dinner. And I would definitely blame PMS for the chocolate splurge if it weren’t for the fact that I’m on birth control pills.

The truth is, even though on the everyday I tend to cook like a spokeswoman for clean eating, I still eat crappy food way too damn often. When I go to the grocery store I sail mostly around the outside of the building, filing half my carriage with fresh produce before adding meats, eggs, whole wheat items and toilet paper. Desserts in our house comprise of frozen real-fruit bars – you know, the ones that contain a grand total of three pronounceable ingredients, and are about 70 calories apiece. Sure, they come in packages of 6 for $4.99 but we consider them an investment in our collective avoidance of cupcakes.

Except, of course, when we buy cupcakes.

And that’s just it: there are so many exceptions to our insanely healthy at-home menu that it feels like a self-deception every time I look at the overflowing fruit-veggie bowl in my kitchen. There is almost always beer and wine in our house. And if we run out, it’s like a red-alert emergency to restock before Friday night’s OMG-it’s-the-weekend beer and grilled chicken dinner night. We go out to eat together a few times a month and, I’m sorry, but we aren’t ordering salads. Then add in the hash runs I attend twice a week on average, which pile on the calories of two to three heavy craft beers plus a not-very-healthy meal, and snack items that I never buy at home – thus tend to indulge in guiltily every couple of weeks, as that feeling of cheesy-Doritos-and-soda-pop-deprivation starts to set in.

Throw all of that onto that super-fun, once-a-month cupcake buying adventure, and today’s Boston Crème donut just sounds like another day in the life, doesn’t it?

As I’m writing this I tried to avoid pointing out that my exercise regime hasn’t looked like any arguable interpretation of the word “regime” in about eight months or so – but now that I’m halfway through it seems inevitable that I’m going to talk about it anyway, so get ready.

I mean, I gotta admit it: for the most part, I no longer run long. I no longer do core exercises. I no longer do hill repeats or sprints or even fartleks (yes you’re right, I just put that in because it’s a funny word and I have a 12-year old’s sense of humor). Hell, I don’t even carry my Garmin with me anymore. And that’s because I don’t care how far I run. I tried to tell myself this is because I’ve finally dropped my sophomoric vanity about arbitrary running goals, but really it’s because I don’t run far enough for it to matter anymore. In fact, I haven’t run more than about seven miles since my 50K back in May. And it’s not even that I’m in a running slump – I still love it. I’m just not pushing myself anymore. In other words, I’m fucking lazy.

Now, if you’re reading this and getting worried that it’s some desperate cry for help or advice on diet and exercise, please don’t. I assure you this is just my style of self deprecating humor, sprinkled in with a lot of useless, go-nowhere complaining. I know that I am overweight right now (at least three socially-inept male hashers have already taken it upon themselves to remind me of this in the last couple of months).  And yes, I even know why – and as referenced by my inconsistent eating habits, it’s pretty clear that it’s not just about genetics.

Or is it?

I mean, the most annoying part about being overweight is not that I’m a runner and that 99.998% of all the runners in Southern California are thin, so I stand out (although that’s really annoying, yes). It’s that I’m supposed to be ashamed of being overweight because I obviously must eat like a pig. The reality of the situation is that while I don’t pray to the gods of perfectly clean eating 100% (or even 80%) of the time, I do have a refrigerator stuffed full of fresh produce and lean meats that make up just about every meal I prepare at home. Except for the very rare occasion, I don’t buy soda. I don’t buy ice cream. I don’t buy potato chips, macaroni and cheese, frozen dinner items, canned soup, cow’s milk, American cheese, microwave popcorn, candy, cookies, white bread, anything with the word “diet” or “light” in it, or any product that has to tell me it’s “gluten-free” because it thinks that’ll fool me. My overall eating habits aren’t very different from my average thin runner friend. Most thin people cave in to the occasional chocolate bar/cupcake/handful of cheesy Doritos, just like me. So yeah, I happen to put on weight a little more easily than some people, but I don’t see why I’m supposed to be ashamed about that. Because I’m really not ashamed. I have a different metabolism. Some people have curly hair. It is what it is.

Refrigerator_full_of_1be3

The only thing I legitimately have to feel bad about (and I do) is this damn lazy streak. I’ve had access to far too much beer for my own good, and it’s making me fatter, drunker and lazier. “Running to the beer” is a really fun idea, but in practice it’s like trying to bail out a sinking boat with a spoon. My reward for a great hard run used to be an even better run later on, not 400 calories of dark beer that my stomach will make me pay for tomorrow morning.  And I used to do more than running before, too. I did core work after every run, lifted weights and took boot camp classes. Yeah, that was back before I was married, when my arms weren’t floppy and my weight was below the “overweight” line at the doctor’s office. Although to be completely honest, my diet was pretty much the same then as it is now, only without as many veggies.

Okay this is where I’m going to stop before the useless complaining really kicks in. Instead I should go buy that Ragnar jacket so I can wear it in anticipation of my exciting new race endeavor. And then maybe I’ll hit up a yoga class, or head out for a run with the dog, or I dunno…..maybe throw that pink fucking box of donuts into the dumpster. And the rest of the red velvet cupcakes too.

But not the chocolate, no way. That shit stays. I’m PMS’ing, dammit.


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A Place Called Home

carlsbadbeach

I am now approaching the eve of a full year spent living in San Diego, on the other side of the country from where my life began. I have been procrastinating this post for awhile now; partly because I’ve been keeping myself too busy to write (more on that later), but mostly because I wasn’t really sure what’s left to say on the subject without worrying that it’ll sounding braggy or trite. But I think I’ve finally come down from that surreal, vacation-like state of having first moved here, and I’ve had time to reflect on what this year has changed about me.

To be honest it doesn’t even feel like a whole year has passed. More like five or six months. A strange thing happens as we get older: the world just keeps spinning faster and the years fling by like boomerangs. Christmas, birthday, Summer, Autumn, Christmas. I remember being a kid and thinking how very long a year was. “Summer is right around the corner,” my Grammy would ponder, but to me it felt as if decades passed before swimsuit weather was upon us again.

Speaking of my Grammy, she lived here in San Diego once. She and my Grampa schlepped themselves west for promising work right after high school, along with my Grampa’s brother Pete and my aunt Pauline. They only stayed for a year, living for a time in the North Park area with my aunt Marion and her husband. It was tight living quarters for sure, but that was part of the family-centric culture back in the 50’s. Even though it was short lived, my grandmother definitely loved it. I know this because she told me so many stories about San Diego when I was a child that I think the soul of this place was permanently imprinted on me even back then.

Views of Lake San Marcos from the top of Double Peak, just ten minutes from my house.

Lake San Marcos from the top of Double Peak. My house may actually be in this photo.

This was apparent when I first vacationed here with Shawn in 2005 – and then kept finding excuses to come back. I knew it then as much as I know it now: this town, by the truest definition, is my home. For 33 years I existed in eastern New England, floundering a lot, finding friends and losing them again, moving from town to town. I looked hard between the forests and the cities for a place I could call mine. A town I would fall in love with. In 33 years I never found one. Finally I began to fancy myself a floater: I figured I must be just one of those people who prefers to be unbound to a particular place in favor of trying everywhere. I realize now I was just unsatisfied.

Unlike just about everyone I knew, I never retained a close-knit group of longtime friends who would drop by the house to borrow a cup of sugar or feed my cat while I was away. I had one or two very close friends whom I love like siblings, but because I moved all over the state we always seemed to be an hour’s drive away from each other. I’ve never been very close to family; both of my parents are deceased and my family of aunts, uncles and cousins are spread out all over New England. And frankly, our emotional distance is even wider than that. I’ve never felt I could count on anyone to be there for me the way I saw others could. I always thought it didn’t bother me, but I understand now that it really kind of did.

But you know, I think we all live our lives normalizing whatever is around us. Palm trees and year-round temperate weather is business as usual for a native Californian. But they were a far-off daydream to me, as I dug my car out of snowdrifts all winter long. A dream so big that I think part of me simply waited to begin living any actual life until I had a permanent tan and a back yard full of queen palms.

sunset

The SoCal Sunset.

And so here I am. Home, and finally living my actual life. This place suits me like a soul mate. I now get to look out the windows of the loft I’ve made into my home-office at a landscape rife with southern Californian beauty. Rocky hills and mountains in the distance that make way for sun-struck glimpses of the great Pacific, hawks flying above, coyotes howling at night, and skies so wide and so blue that I finally understand what it’s like to feel miles of open space and the roundness of the earth as it curves away before my eyes. The mercury hardly ever rises so high that I need air conditioning, nor falls so low that I need to put socks on my bare feet. That perfect happy temperature and humidity level, which tends to elude New England for all but ten days per annum, is the absolute norm here. And so is the sunshine. Sunshine, which has ever been the perpetuator of my deepest personal happiness, couldn’t be more plentiful: it has rained only 6 or 7 times since we arrived.

The beach-sandy, easy-living culture of SoCal plays to all the best parts of my personality. All 70 miles of San Diego coastline is public turf, which means you can park anywhere and walk, run, swim, surf, kayak, paddle or relax on the beach all year round, any time of day or night and never have to be elbow-to-elbow with a bunch of annoying overly-tanned strangers. There are stretches of beach, and even an entire island, dedicated to San Diego’s love of dogs, and a large number of restaurants welcome our canine friends with spacious outdoor seating and plenty of doggy water bowls.

neighborhood

A view of my neighborhood

San Diego is one of the largest hops-brewing cities in the world, housing over 100 breweries and microbreweries within the county lines. The city’s passion for beer has spurned some of the best hashing in the country as well, with something around 15 kennels of trail-running, beer-drinking Hash House Harriers, littering the earth with chalk symbols and baking flour dollops on just about every day of the week. People who become Hashers and Harriettes tend to be a lot like me: they are mostly educated, laid-back people with a love for good trails, fine beer and dirty jokes. Many of them with either no kids or grown kids, they are free to live the social lives they desire. They are athletic but not competitive, health-conscious but not militant. They tend to be quite comfortable within themselves, which makes for an exceptional (and exceptionally large, for me) network of friends and acquaintances who have kept me busy, entertained and running dozens of insanely awesome local trails for over eight months now (which explains my lack of time for blogging). Because of Hashing, I finally have the opportunity to gain that centralize social circle that has always eluded me in life.

Trails in Escondido

Trails in Escondido

And at least two-thirds of the people I have met here, hashers or not, are transplants like me. They have been equally drawn in by the magnetic pull of the SoCal life. It only figures that people who are bold enough to leave their original lives behind for something better tend to have a lot of other personality traits in common too. Because of this I find it much easier to be present in the friendships I have made, and I feel much more understood. Nobody here bugs me to have kids or to buy a home, or alienates me for my divergent choices. I no longer feel surrounded by complainers who hate their lives but are too lazy or cowardly to improve them. I sense more independence amongst these San Diegans: people play more active roles in their own lives and don’t seem as likely to expect from the world (or their parents) that morphine-drip of emotional and/or financial support that I saw so often back east.

I once heard the advice: “Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Southern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.” I used to worry that losing my east coast roots would bring forth the departure of my soul, my grit. But now I see that’s a completely bullshit notion. The only thing I have lost since I’ve moved out here is my bitterness: bitterness about the weather, about the traffic, about friends lost, about the insane cost of living and the life-sucking obligation to always settle for less than what I wanted. I don’t feel that way out here. I don’t feel poor like I did in New England, even though I make roughly the same amount of money. I don’t live in a crappy neighborhood because that’s all I can afford. Instead I live in a nice house in a quiet community, close to the beach and a few minutes from the nearest mountain views.

No, I have not lost my soul: instead I have introduced this soul to the joys I never knew I could afford or deserve. I have not lost my grit: instead I’ve applied it to more positive endeavors, like running for miles up mountains and learning how to stand on a surfboard (it’s much harder than it looks, by the way). I have learned that people desire different things in life and that there is just no good reason – not family, not a job, not fear – to relegate myself to a place or a lifestyle that’s less than what I ultimately desire. I only get one body and one finite period of time to live in it, and I’ve done myself a disservice to have even for a moment wasted it at the hands of my lesser obligations.

surfboards

A photo taken after my first surf lesson

As a result of this realization, I have come to no longer care what my distant family members think of my free-wheeling lifestyle. I don’t care how new parents feel about my rejection of the parenting life. It means less than zero to me whether other married couples think Shawn and I act married enough or spend an adequate amount of time participating in each other’s chosen pastimes. I don’t care if fellow runners think I drink too much beer or if fellow hashers think I run too many races. It took me 33 years, but my choices finally feel like they’re completely mine. I finally feel beautiful. I finally feel whole. I finally feel happy. And I mean really, honestly happy. And I don’t even give a shit if you don’t believe that. This is what it means to “find yourself”.

This, my friends, is what it feels like to find your home.


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Tutus and Shiggy Socks: Finding the Spiritual in an Unexpected Place

It’s going to be another one of those brightly sun-drenched days, I think, as my steady plodding trot turns to a hike and heads skyward once again on this wide open, sandy trail in desert-like northeastern San Diego County. My legs feel like boulders beneath my hips as they labor up another steep incline, more slowly than I wish they would. My hydration vest has come in handy so far but I’m still feeling a little dizzy from the heat and the effort. The trail continues on an upward trend for three more miles before leveling off, and I have to stop twice to catch my breath. I curse the recent bout of bronchitis for setting back my cardio endurance so much, but despite my struggle I am alright. In fact I’m genuinely glad to be here. I would smile to prove it, if I wasn’t so sure that my squinting into the sun would make it look more like a grimace than a grin.

uphillA small part of the pack making their way uphill last week.

The best part of this hot, late morning run is that I’m not alone. If I was, I am sure I’d have turned around and headed home by now. I am travelling with a group of forty or so people, stretched for miles across the two trails which have been laid for us that day: the 4 mile “Turkey” trail and the 6 mile “Eagle.” A handful of people I have grown quite fond of toil beside me, as we hike the hills and run the straight-aways together. There is something special about running with these people. There is something spiritual about following these trails, laid in all-purpose baking flour by a different volunteer each week. There is something extraordinary about the entire event called a Hash, something I know each one of us there senses, but never really talks about.

Every hash group follows the common theme a little differently: some will focus a lot on the run itself, and others are more about gathering socially. Some attract single, twenty-somethings and others are populated by a more middle-aged crowd. But despite their divergent outward appearances, each hash has the same history, and the same backbone. It is the gathering of a pack of like-minded individuals, each participating in a symbolic “hunt” through roads, trails and quite often complete wilderness, which concludes in a “feast” for all involved (beer and food provided by the volunteers who laid the trail). It didn’t take me long to realize that a hash is a perfect modern-day symbol of our most primitive of social activities.

Portable_Chalk_Talk

The Hash House Harriers glossary of terms found in chalk on trail.

Even though we all run together, the hash is way more primal than your average jaunt through the city with a training group or a trail race with your friends. During a hash run you must chase a trail through varying terrains which are completely unpredictable in nature. You may need to run on roads or trails, up steep hills, down slippery embankments, over ankle-twisting gravel, along drainage pipes, and through hip-high brush or bamboo forests. You might be forced to climb fences, jump off walls or walk across roofs. During the run you may be fooled by a cleverly laid back-track, or lose the trail altogether. But no matter where the flour takes you, you will always have to be thinking while you are running. You must keep your eye to the ground – both for your safety and for the latest trail marking. We may all be chatting jovially as we form groups and seek out trail together, but don’t let this levity fool you – the hash transforms us all into the savage hunter, and our prey is the “hare” that was loosed a mere fifteen minutes ahead of the pack.

Even though we all eat good food and drink craft beer once we reach the end of the trails, the hash is nothing like your ordinary summer barbecue. Strangely similar to that of our ancestors, we are a modern-day tribe of revelers, oftentimes bedecked in costume, knee-socks, kilt and handmade ornamental jewelry that displays the names to which each of us is given by the tribe itself. We have appointed chiefs who lead us in verses that we all know and sing (and sometimes dance) during the ritual called a “circle,” which takes place after the trail at every hash event. This ritual is often humorous, unorganized and slightly debaucherous, but a ritual it remains. At some hashes the circle is so unique and esoteric that it actually resembles something spiritual. Something religious, even.

And if I dare to call this experience religious, it’s because I’ve learned so much more about my inner self as a Hasher than I ever did during my years as a Churchgoer.

Being a Hasher has taught me what my strengths are as a runner and it has taught me to accept my weaknesses. It has taught me that running works best as a social sport, the way it was back when our ancestors hunted for dinner on foot. Hashing has taught me the power of positive motivation and of generosity. It has taught me how to train better for races, mentally as well as physically. It taught me that my body can handle most of the things I’m afraid it can’t, and that my odd sense of humor is not lost on everyone. The hash has gifted me with amazing new friendships that have potential of existing for the long haul. And perhaps best of all, the hash has taught me the value of unconformity: grouping people of different age groups, education levels, socio-economic status, birthplaces, religious and political views, morals and vices, sexual orientation and athletic ability into one running, beer-drinking, laughing, roasting, singing, tutu-wearing, joyful assemblage makes for an impossibly high level of awesome that can rarely, if ever, be achieved anywhere else on the planet.

In the words of my dear, dear friend Caity, the hash is “too awesome to actually be real.” Heh. Amen to that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go wash the poison oak out of my favorite shiggy socks. On On!

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