Testing Columbia’s Omni-Freeze Zero…

Being #OmniTEN has it’s perks.  One of the awesome parts of this experience has been the opportunity to dig a little deeper than usual into a brand’s technology.  Usually, I get to test one or two pieces from a company and give my opinion.  Columbia has sent us a pretty wide sampling of pieces hosting a collection of technologies.  The big focus for us, as Spring/Summer Omniten, has been on the OmniFreeze and Omni-Freeze Zero fabrics that are featured this year.

Columbia Omni-Freeze Zero Technology

Omni-Freeze Zero Products I’ve used…

Between the products that I’ve received as part of the OmniTEN welcome package, pieces I’ve asked to test and a couple of pieces I’ve purchased I have quite a collection of Omni-Freeze Zero products.  Here is the list of what I’ve worn:

Omni-Freeze Zero Technology…

Columbia Omni-Freeze Zero TechnologyOmni-Freeze ZERO is the culmination of a four-year development effort including Omni-Freeze, the short lived Omni-Freeze Ice and now Omni-Freeze Zero.

The basis of the technology is to use the sweat (moisture) we produce during exercise or in extreme heat to cool the fabric.  Omni-Freeze Zero fabric is embedded with thousands of little blue super-absorbent polymer rings that trap up to 300% more moisture than normal fabric then use that moisture to physically drop the temperature of the fabric for an extended period of time.

Excerpt from Popular Science Magazine about the technology:

“The human body already has a highly efficient cooling system: As perspiration evaporates, it draws heat away from the body. Wicking fabrics facilitate this process by distributing sweat evenly over the fabric, so that it dries more quickly. Despite devising cheats, such as menthol-like chemical coatings added to fabrics, companies have never actually improved upon the body’s natural cooling process. Designers at Columbia Sportswear have now made a fabric that does.

Omni-Freeze ZERO shot with a thermal camera

image taken with a thermal camera that displays, when it was moistened with steam, darker blue areas signify colder temperatures

The wicking polyester base of the Omni-Freeze ZERO T-shirt is embedded with thousands of 0.15-inch hydrophilic polymer rings (a men’s medium has more than 41,000 of them). As the base spreads sweat, the rings absorb moisture and expand into three-dimensional doughnuts. In order to swell, the rings require energy, which they gather as body heat. In tests, the shirt was up to 10 degrees cooler against the wearer’s skin than shirts made from any other material.”

Typically coupled with complementary technologies like Omni-Wick EVAP and Omni-Shade, these new garments are tailor made for adventures in the heat.

Omni-Freeze Zero Performance…

It’s hot in Phoenix, there’s no getting around it.  A clothing product that can cool itself sounds like a desert dweller’s dream.  So when Columbia sent me the first batch of Omni-Freeze Zero stuff I was anxious to try it out.

I decided to do the first test mid-day on the bike with a brisk 20 mile ride in the Trail Dryer Hat and Freeze Degree 1/2 Zip long sleeve shirt.  I didn’t sweat.  This told me two things: I need try harder and the light, breathable fabric with Omni-Wick kept me pretty dry.  Halfway through the ride I poured a little water on the headband of the hat and did feel some cooling, but it wasn’t significant.

Columbia Omni-Freeze Zero TechnologyLater, I took the Terminal Zero shirt out for a hike.  It was over 100 degrees and I did 6 hot miles on a rocky, exposed trail to work up a sweat.  I could tell that certain areas where the sweat was accumulating I could sense the cooling in the fabric.  I never really built enough sweat to get larger sections of the shirt to cool so I sprayed some water on my neck, shoulders and arms to give the fabric a little boost.  BAM…there it is.  Initially, there’s the immediate natural cooling effect you would feel in any shirt when you splash it with water, but then the fabric cools down and goes well beyond anything water would do alone.  Even spraying it with warm water, the fabric cools below the temp of the water.

There is a tipping point where the fabric saturates enough to activate the cooling of the material.  I decided to see if more water meant more cooling and later put on the Freeze Degree Long Sleeve shirt and jumped in the pool.  It was well over 100 degrees in full sun.  I got out of the pool and sat in the sun with the shirt on.  The shirt didn’t seem to significantly cool until it had dried out a little, then the technology kicked in and I felt a significant sensation of cooling where the shirt was touching my skin.  This cooling effect slowly dissipated as the fabric dried out.

Coupled with complementary technologies like Omni-Shade (50 SPF UV protection) and design features like a vented back panel (in some shirts), the clothing performs well outdoors.  I do feel like I was more comfortable on my warm weather hikes in the Columbia clothing I tested.  Like most technical fabrics, it doesn’t take much use to build up some stink, there’s something about tech fabrics that really amplifies body odor. The Omni-Freeze Zero materials are best used next to the skin so wearing something underneath defeats the purpose.

Room for improvement…

I’ve heard some complaints about Columbia having inconsistent fit and sizing with their garments.  That makes it difficult sometimes to order things online especially when you’re sort of in between sizes like I am.  I don’t think it’s so much that the sizing has been inconsistent as much as they sell different cuts and some styles are more fitted than others.  I found most of the sizing true to convention.

It would be nice to see Columbia develop an Omni-Odor Block technology of some kind.  All of the tech fabrics in athletic wear seem to amplify body odor and these shirts are no different.

Other than that, I like the styling, fit and weight of the garments.  I do wish they made the Terminal Zero in a black or dark gray color but I seem to be in the minority lately about acceptable clothing colors…and I like the blue.  There’s not a lot I would suggest beyond what they’ve done.  I think Columbia does a pretty thorough job in designing clothing that works well in the outdoors.

Bottom Line…

It works.  If you’re like me and you don’t sweat buckets when you’re exercising, you might need to add a little moisture to activate the cooling but the fabric works.  We did get free samples to test as part of OmniTEN, but I felt confident enough in the products after using them to purchase more pieces with my own money AND buy some for my wife.  A little cooling help in Arizona means an extra month or so of enjoying the outdoors before even Omni-Freeze Zero can’t compete with the heat.

 

More from The OMNITEN…

For more Columbia Omni-Freeze Zero talk…check out the reviews from fellow #OmniTEN bloggers Kristie, Eric and Erika.

Kristie:

“I decided to put my long sleeve 1/2 zip top on myself and throw Rainy in my Freeze Degree short sleeve top.  We then took a dip in the water, and it was instant relief and disbelief for me.  I felt unbelievably cool in the water, but once I stepped out of the water (after dunking my Trail Dryer hat in the water), I stayed cool for a couple hours without going back into the water!”

Eric:

coming soon!

Erika:

“Here is the main reason I’m in love with this shirt, it adapts to the temperature of my body, avoiding those too hot, too cold, moments so common in spring. I can put the Omni-Freeze ZERO long-sleeve shirt on and wear it all day comfortably from sun to shade.”

 

30 Days of Running – Day 3…

When my buddy sent me a message last night asking if I was up for a hike/trail run in the morning I was excited at the opportunity to get off the pavement!  I prefer trail running over pavement running any day of the week.

I got up earlier than usual to make sure we could hit the trail before 7AM.  The weather was amazing this morning and the trail wasn’t very crowded at all.  I strapped on the GeigerRig 500 and we hit the trail.

View from the summit of Thunderbird Mountain

Today’s Run…

Left the house at 6:30AM and was on the trail by 7AM exactly.

Weather was a nice 74 degrees with a clear sky.  Ran/hiked Thunderbird Mountain trail.

Total trail was 3.6 miles and we probably ran close to 3 miles of it.  Total time on the trail was 51 minutes.

Run was slow, but felt good.  My legs were not as sore or tired as I expected them to be.  My left ankle felt weak but I’m sure that’s due to running pavement and will improve with more trail running.

Followed the run with a protein shake with peanut butter and banana.

Gear Review: Merrell Barefoot Sonic Glove…

Merrell Sonic Glove barefoot training shoes

Nature Shop UK was gracious enough to participate in the Spring in to Adventure Giveaway with a couple of pairs of Merrell Shoes.

The Merrell Siren Breeze was review by Tiffany at ALittleCampy.com and I received a pair from Merrell’s new barefoot training series, the Sonic Glove.  I had been considering barefoot training and had read many articles and research about the benefits of barefoot running for foot health and muscle strength.  There is a huge trend in running circles toward a more natural zero-drop, barefoot style of running that focuses on natural bio-mechanics.  Merrell has jumped into this trend with both feet (pun intended) and launched a whole campaign and product line around barefoot running here.  This new section of their website encourages you to “Go Barefoot” and “Run Naturally” with their new line of minimalist shoes and offers a huge resource of good information for those who want to start.

I studied up on the mechanics of barefoot running and took my Sonic Gloves out for a spin.

Shoe Details:

UPPER/LINING
• Textile upper
• Microfiber footbed treated with Aegis® antimicrobial solution resists odor
• Merrell Omni-Fit™ lacing System provides a precise, glovelike fit

MIDSOLE/OUTSOLE
• 4 mm compression molded EVA midsole cushions
• 1 mm forefoot shock absorbtion plate maintains forefoot flexibility and protects the foot by distributing pressure
• 0mm ball to heel drop keeps you connected to your terrain
• Vegan friendly footwear
• Vibram® Trail Glove Sole/Rubber Compound TC-1
• Men’s Weight: 6.5 ozs (1/2 pair)

My very first run in the Sonic Glove was uncomfortable.  I guess I expected it to be.  Most of the articles I read stated something to the effect of “it will take some getting used to…” which usually means, “it will hurt!”  My first run was slow, very focused on mechanics and a little painful.  The shoes worked as they should, it certainly had the feel of running barefoot.  The Vibram outsole was actually pretty nice and the tread gave me enough protection while still letting me feel connected to the ground.

Merrell Sonic Glove barefoot training shoes...I wore the shoes without socks.  The Sonic Glove (and all of Merrell’s barefoot shoes) have a permanently bonded anti-microbial shield embedded in the upper material and the footbed to protect against odor, staining and deterioration caused by bacteria and fungus.  My skin did not handle the direct contact with the shoe well and my feet were rubbed raw after only a short 1-mile run.

The next time I tried them I went barefoot again, but taped up the parts of my foot that had been rubbed raw on the previous run.  I wanted to wear the shoes as intended and, by all indications, that meant no socks.  I put 3.5- miles on the shoes on my second run.  It took a couple of miles of awkward, uncoordinated running for me to find my barefoot stride.  Unfortunately it also took a couple of miles for the shoes to wear through the tape.  So just as I was starting to feel comfortable with the movement of barefoot running, I was starting to feel the rub.  I pushed through and finished the 3.5-miles and, bleeding aside, felt good about the run.

For the next few days I was sore in places that running had never made me sore before.  I took this as a good sign that barefoot running was working muscles and joints in a way (hopefully a good way) they hadn’t been worked before.

I avoided running in these shoes for a little while afterward because I wanted my skin to heal before trying them again.  The next couple of runs in them I decided to wear my thin Injinji toesocks to provide a little protection.  This helped.

What I liked about these shoes is that they are lightweight and do, near as I can tell, offer a very close-to-barefoot running experience.  Even the shape of the Vibram outsole mimics the natural shape of a human foot.  I also like that the anti-microbial coating and feel like with regular, long-term usage these shoes would be a nightmare without it.  My footing felt secure, but there was not so much protection that it was comfortable to run on the extremely rocky Arizona trails I usually run.  I do feel like if I had the softer trails of the Pacific Northwest to run on I would enjoy these as trail runners much more.

My biggest disappointment was that I really wished the upper was more comfortable.  With a softer, more comfortable upper it would have been a much better and more realistic “barefoot” experience.  But the upper was stiff and rubbed my feet in a way that constantly reminded me I had a shoe on.  Perhaps, with time, I could break-in the upper a bit more and build callouses in the right spots to make this a non-issue.

I do like the support system that Merrell offers for the barefoot running community.  The literature that comes in the box has tips and instructions on what to expect with minimalist, barefoot running and how to get started.  Their website also has a great deal of information for the beginner and seasoned barefoot runner.  I find this encouraging to keep it up and work barefoot running into my regular training.

All in all, it’s a decent shoe and at $125 retail, it’s a little on the high side but still competitively priced.  I would definitely recommend getting fitted properly and trying on several different pairs, brands and styles before making a decision.  Having a resource like the Nature Shop can be your best path to finding the right barefoot trainer for your feet.

Nature Shop has this pair currently on sale for $87.50 (30% OFF) here.

Gear Review: Brooks PureGrit Trail Running Shoe – Part 2

When I got my PureGrit Trail Runners I started a 3-part review of the shoes.  In Part 1, I laid out the specs and tech on the shoes and my out-of-box impressions.  For this part, I will describe the time, distance and conditions I’ve worn and tested the shoes along with some basic reactions to the performance.  I will write a more in-depth analysis of the performance of the shoe in Part 3.

PureProject – PureGrit Trail Runner

Part 2

These shoes were purchased specifically with trail running in mind.  I really like my Brooks Cascadia trail shoes and I was using them for both hiking, trail running and occasionally street running.  I wanted something lighter and more specifically design with trail running in mind.  When Brooks came out with their PureProject line I was very excited to get my hands on the PureGrit and get more serious about trail running.

Since I got the shoe’s in late January, I have put over 30 miles of trail running on them.  I also started using them for my street runs to see if I could tell if there was a performance difference on pavement (also, I was growing to like them and wanted to wear them more).

The trails out here in Arizona are very hard on footwear.  The Sonoran Desert is littered with jagged, rough terrain and mean, prickly cacti that usually equates to a short life for shoes.  The main trails I’ve been running are the Main Loop at Thunderbird Recreation Area (3.6m loop) and the trail system behind North Mountain (Shaw Butte and Trail 100).  The terrain in both locations is a combination of loose rock, rugged exposed bedrock and sandy washes.

The PureGrit outsole has proven to be incredibly tough against these conditions.  It’s thin, so you can still feel the ground even through the padded mid-sole but I like to have a sense of what’s under me when I’m running.  The unique tread design on the PureGrit is amazingly functional.  It really grabs the trail for traction when pushing forward or climbing uphill.  The impressive part was how effective the reverse tread at the heal of the shoe allows control on the downhill.  I have never once felt as though my footing was compromised in these shoes.  The durability of the outsole is also commendable.  With over 60 miles on varying terrain, I have seen no real wear and barely any scuffing of the tread.  The open tread design also means it doesn’t pick up small pebbles and rock as you run.

The outsole design has two specific features that are part of what makes these shoes unique.  According to Brooks, the Toe Flex (a split in the outsole to isolate the movement of the big toe) and the Ideal Heel (designed to shift your stride forward) are key features of the PureGrit that allow for greater stability, control and better form.  I really have not noticed much benefit from the Toe Flex feature.  I’ve even been wearing toesocks with my PureGrit runners in the hopes that it would allow me to feel more of the intended effect of the Toe Flex feature, but I don’t notice it.  The Ideal Heel design, however, does seem to have altered the mechanics of my stride.  I do feel a difference when wearing these as compared to my other running shoes.

The midsole was one of the pieces that worried me when I initially looked at these shoes.  It’s soft, allowing for fantastic comfort, but I didn’t expect it to hold up to trail conditions all that well.  Luckily, I underestimated the durability of the material.  It’s got a couple of scratches and stains, but otherwise has held up perfectly and has yet to let me down.PureGrit upper...

The main body of the shoe is so super light-weight that I expected to have some problems with it.  I had a pair of Nike running shoes a few years ago with an ultra-light material upper and it began to fall apart after only a few runs.  The upper of the PureProject shoes is remarkably resilient.  It conforms to my foot amazingly well and yet, somehow has really done well against the elements.  The outer material is a mesh, which I feared would let dust and fine sand in to the shoe and create problems in the footbed during runs.  Even running on very dusty trails and through sandy washes, I did not have any issues with small particles finding their way in to the shoe.

The cut of the upper is very low, offering no protection or support for your ankles.  On a trail shoe, this can be a little dangerous.  However, I have never felt unstable or uncomfortable running in these.  Other than my ankles feeling sore and fatigued afterward (something I attribute to my running mechanics rather than the shoe), I really have not had any trouble due to the lack of ankle support.

PureProject PureGrit from Brooks on the trail...

Tough Mudder Arizona 2012 – Blissfully Insane…

AS A TOUGH MUDDER I PLEDGE THAT…

  • I understand that Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge…
  • I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time…
  • I DO NOT WHINE – kids whine…
  • I help my fellow Mudders complete the course…
  • I overcome ALL fears…

I welcomed the cold.  I seemed to be alone in this opinion but the last thing I wanted was to get overheated and dehydrated.  I know that my body will produce plenty of heat to keep me warm over the next 12.5 miles, regardless of how many of the 29 military-style obstacles before us have us plunging into pools of ice-cold water.  I need it to be cold, or this is gonna suck.

I don’t remember exactly when I got it in my head that I wanted to do this race.  I know it started with an interest in signing up for a Warrior Dash when they were here in Arizona in 2010.  I missed that one due to a schedule conflict with a family trip and now, as my fitness and conditioning were improving, the 5k Warrior Dash just didn’t seem like enough.  At some point I mentioned to my brother, half jokingly,  that there was going to be a Tough Mudder in Arizona and I was thinking of signing up.  Soon after, a local gym let me know they were creating a team to take the Tough Mudder challenge.  That was it, I signed up with the gym’s team.  Once I signed up things started falling into place.  My brother and sister-in-law wanted to go too.  They signed up on the same team I was on and started planning a trip to come out to Arizona for the race.  My fiancé didn’t want to be left out, so we signed her up too.  The four of us would be our own team, within a team…and we couldn’t wait!

The Arctic Enema…

The Tough Mudder concept began as a business plan contest submission.  In 2009, Will Dean submitted his business plan where he boasted he could attract “500 people to run a grueling race through mud and man-made obstacles” and his outlandish idea was a semifinalist in the Harvard Business School’s Annual Business Plan Contest.  Since then, the race has exploded across the US and internationally going from an impressive 50,000 participants in 2010 to a projected 500,000 in 2012.  Why has this insane race that delivers on it’s promise to “test your all-around mettle, not just your ability to run in a straight line, on your own, for hours on end, getting bored out of your mind“?  The website explains the race like this,

“Tough Mudder events are hardcore 10-12 mile obstacle courses designed by British Special Forces to test your all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie. As the leading company in the booming obstacle course industry, Tough Mudder has already challenged half a million inspiring participants worldwide and raised more than $2 million dollars for the Wounded Warrior Project. But Tough Mudder is more than an event, it’s a way of thinking. By running a Tough Mudder challenge, you’ll unlock a true sense of accomplishment, have a great time, and discover a camaraderie with your fellow participants that’s experienced all too rarely these days.

I think that’s the draw, the important piece of this that inspires people, “you’ll unlock a true sense of accomplishment, have a great time, and discover a camaraderie with your fellow participants that’s experienced all too rarely these days“.

So there we were on a cold Arizona morning, full of nervous energy and bouncing and jogging in place at the starting line to stay warm.  We listened to the National Anthem (which was performed at the start of every wave of runners) and then a rousing, blood-pumping speech which included a group recitation of the Tough Mudder Pledge.  The MC did a remarkable job getting the crowd pumped up before the race, insuring us, once a gain, that this was no walk in the park.  When the gun went off, it was hard NOT to take off at a full-tilt sprint but I kept having to remind myself, “you have 12 miles of this shit!” and paced myself.

I won’t walk you through a blow-by-blow of the race because they are all different.  Each Tough Mudder is designed specifically and uniquely for THAT particular location.  That’s one of the many reasons why so many “Mudder’s” sign-up for multiple races.  They do have some iconic obstacles that you will see in every race like the Arctic Enema, Everest and the Mud Mile.  To see a map and description of what we went through here in Arizona, you can go here and click on the link for the full map.

Nightline recently aired this segment on the 2012 Arizona Tough Mudder…

Sorry about the commercials, it’s worth the wait…

 

When we passed a sign that read “If this were the Warrior Dash, you’d be done” I was incredibly happy I signed up for something more substantial.  Somewhere around mile 11 my opinion was slightly different.  As a whole, we took on every obstacle with enthusiasm.  Not just as a challenge but, honestly, as a break from running.  Many of the obstacles, especially the Berlin Walls, require teamwork and my brother and I found ourselves sitting at the foot of the walls helping numerous people up and over the 12-foot vertical structures.  My brother was one of the few people there who could negotiate the Berlin Walls successfully without assistance (it was impressive to watch).  Likewise, the Everest challenge was specifically designed to require teamwork as you sprint full speed up a slippery, mud-soaked half-pipe wall hoping that someone at the top will grab you before you lose your footing and slide down.  Many slid down before they could be snatched by a helping hand…

As insane as it sounds when you try to tell others about the experience, it was a hell of a lot of fun.  It draws a particular type of person and people not drawn to this type of race have a really hard time understanding why people sign up, and pay good money, to do this to themselves.  For me, I don’t try to talk them in to it or justify it…I just know that for me, and the others that were there with me, it was a great experience and a lot of fun.  As much as we hurt after the fact, as uncomfortable and cold as we were during the race, as much as we complained about being jolted with 10,000 volts of electricity (enough to knock you unconscious for a second or two)…we are already talking about when we’ll be able to sign up for another one.  And THAT is enough of an endorsement to the event right there.

To find a Tough Mudder near you, check the events page here.

 

BTW – I just received an email before posting this article that my finish time was in the top 5% and qualifies me to compete in the World’s Toughest Mudder 2012.  It’s a grueling 24-hour version of the Tough Mudder and I will NOT be participating.  Good to know I qualified though!

ADDED 2.2.2012: This video was just released by Tough Mudder announcing their official partnership with Under Armour for the event clothing. The Arizona 2012 Race was the first official event to see Under Armour T-shirts given to the finishers. This video is very well done and really captures the overall mood of the event…

Gear Review: Brooks PureGrit Trail Running Shoe – Part 1…

Instead of patiently waiting until I’ve been able to put some miles on these shoes to fully field test them before starting my review, I will be breaking the review up into 3 parts.  The first part will focus on the technology behind the shoe and what the manufacturers profess about it’s design and construction as well my personally first impressions of the shoe.  The second part will describe the actual time, mileage and conditions of the field testing and summarize the shoe’s performance.  The third part will layout my final conclusions and pit the actual performance against the manufacturer’s claims.  So, without further adieu…

PureProject – PureGrit Trail Runner

Part 1

Specifications

  • Midsole Height:  Heel (15 mm), Forefoot (11 mm)
  • Outsole Height:  Heel (3 mm), Forefoot (3 mm)
  • Heel-to-Toe Offset:  4 mm
  • Tooling Height:  Heel (18 mm), Forefoot (14 mm)
  • Weight:  8.9 oz (M’s) / 7.6 oz (W’s)
  • Surface: Offroad/Trail
  • Pronation: None/Normal, Mild, Moderate
  • Build: Small, Medium, Large
  • Competition: Trail racing
  • Arch: Flat, Medium, High
  • Performance: Light Weight
  • Category: Trail
Technologies

Design

Brooks designers worked with ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, to develope a unique one-piece outsole that has a concave shape. According to their website, “When forces are applied, the piece splays out to provide a more balanced lay-down.” This dynamic outsole and unique lug design are intended to help the runner find better grip and balance on the trail.  Also built-in to the new outsole is a split toe design meant to allow independent function of the big toe for more natural balance and stronger push-off.  Brooks also boasts their outsole is, “Designed from the most detailed anatomical form…” which is intended to create unparalleled fit and feel.

The PureProject midsole offers a minimal 4mm drop and made of  “earth-loving BioMoGo technology blended with the responsive ride of Brooks® DNA”.  BioMoGo technology is brooks biodegradable midsole composite that “degrades 50 times faster than the standard midsole“.  Brooks DNA is a responsive midsole system that immediately adjusts to the runner’s size and stride as well as offering 30% more cushioning than standard midsoles and 2x the energy return.  Built into the midsole design is a new minimalist heel designed to encourage the runner’s, “contact points to shift forward, aligning your center of gravity for optimal spring.”

The PureGrit upper has had just as much thought put into its design as the rest of the shoe.  The upper is made of an ultralight, breathable mesh over a die-cut conforming foam for a firm fit.  Their Nav Band is an elastic band built into the upper that stretches across the instep to insure a glove-like fit and security while you run.

As for durability, Brooks says, “Just like our core line, we hold PureProject to the industry’s highest weartest and durability standards. Because of their lightweight construction and fewer materials, runners should generally expect shoes from the PureProject line to last approximately 250-300 miles.

First Impressions

These shoes are incredibly light.  This is the closest thing to a minimalist running shoe I’ve tried on.  Brooks did a great job in material selection here, even thought they are lightweight they don’t feel weak.  So many lightweight shoes feel as though structure was sacrificed to lose the extra ounces which just won’t cut it in a trail runner.  The outsole feels like it would chew up the trail, but the soft midsole seems like it might not take the abuse so well.  Especially out here in Arizona where the trail comes at you from all sides.

I have not felt any significant difference in my run experience due to the toe split or the concave outsole, but in all honesty I have not had them on the trail yet.  I’ve had them out for a couple of short jogs around the streets here and they feel very comfortable with really no break-in period.  I have very high arches and typically have to spend some time breaking in new shoes so that they don’t kill the tops of my feet.  My PureGrits were immediately comfortable and after a couple of short runs I did not feel any pain, fatigue or hot-spots related to my arches.

I am, after only a few miles on these, feeling fatigue in my ankles.  My assumption is that the design of these shoes is doing something to alter my natural stride and alignment (hopefully correcting it!) and it’s causing some fatigue as my ankles adjust.

In short, I am impressed so far and can’t wait to get them on the trail.  Look for Part 2 – the Trail Test coming soon…

The Hiker’s Hike…

Havasu Creek Canyon, Arizona circa April of 2000

 

Lately, I’ve been thinking I might not be getting the best experience out of my hikes.  I think about how I used to hike and what made me excited about a particular trail and something has changed.  I feel like I’ve been doing so much fitness-oriented hiking lately that I can’t down-shift and enjoy a hike purely for the experience.  As I make the effort to change this, it made me start thinking about why I hike, what draws me to the trail and how what the trail has to offer changes my approach to the hiking experience.

Slot Canyon in Northern Arizona

What draws me to the trail these days is very much about goals.  I find myself choosing hikes based on bagging a new peak, beating a previous time or simply logging miles in to my fitness routine.  My choices are less about the experience and more about the route, the terrain and how fast I think I can complete it and get back home.  So much so that I don’t even carry a camera with me anymore.  There’s really nothing wrong with this, especially since I am in recovery from an injury and I am focused on training for a race.  Fitness goals are very important to me right now, but I do miss hiking purely for the joy of discovery.

Havasu Creek near confluence with Colorado River

When I first moved to Arizona and began hiking in the desert, every hike was about getting to see something new.  It was about the varied terrain, the exotic and esoteric plants, the fascinating little creatures that scurried about…it was about the journey.  The desert was a new place to me and I would find myself randomly picking hikes in far off places just to see what I could find.  I wanted to stand under a new waterfall, look from a new peak, see new trees and hear new birds.  I recall hikes where I would spend huge amounts of time just watching a rattle snake, or the spectacle of a tarantula migration or inspecting some old piece of mining equipment long since left behind.  Some of my best and most memorable hiking experiences were from this time in my life.  A time when every trip was a new adventure in every sense of the word.

Today I feel torn.  Part of me enjoys the convenience of a trail within a 10-minute drive of my house in the city that offers me 3, 5 or 7 mile options that I know I can complete in a set amount of time.  It’s definitely better, in my opinion, than asphalt.  But there’s another part of me that misses the exploration side of hiking, the adventure and the sense of discovery.  I feel like I should have more reverence for the trail, more respect and acknowledgement of the uniqueness that makes each trail special.  The problem I have is that many of these local trails just don’t feel special anymore.

I think it’s time to push out of my comfort zone.  It’s time to visit new places, take the road less traveled and reintroduce ADVENTURE to the outdoors again.  I know there are amazing places out there that I have yet to visit and I want to start making those destinations more of a priority.  We all hike for different reasons and there is no right or wrong, as long as you enjoy yourself and stay safe.  I can still run in town and climb local peaks to build cardio and endurance, but I really want to hike the kind of trails that used to fill me with a sense of wonder…a true Hiker’s Hike.

And who knows, maybe I’ll start carrying a camera again…

Grand Canyon, Arizona circa October, 2007

 

Gear Review: Injinji Synthetic Socks – #SockOff2011

 SockOff2011 continues after a long, reluctant hiatus!  Due to the fact that I am still recovering from my injury, the hike was not exactly the same as my last Sock-Off test.  This time I ventured out to the Overton/Go John loop in Cave Creek to log in 6.5 miles with my Injinji Lightweight Ultra-thin Toesocks.  The terrain and hiking conditions were pretty much the same as the last hike with loose rock, gravel, sand and other aggressive terrain conditions.  The shoes were still my handy Brooks Cascadia Trail Runners. The socks revealed some surprises for me and I am happy to release my findings…

Price and availability

Injinji synthetic toesocks pricing ranges depending on the style you choose.  They range from very light no-show running socks to the heavier, crew-socks to full calf compression socks.  The pricing of the socks mentioned in this review range from $10 to $16 which is very competitive for a specialty sock.  This review centers around the Performance Series Lightweight Ultra-Thin Mini-Crew and the Original Weight Moderate Mini-Crew.  Injinji has also come out with an Outdoor Series Original Weight Mini-Crew which I look forward to trying out.  Injinji socks are available almost anywhere.  Unfortunately, their full line is usually not in stores.  I have found that even though I can buy these socks at almost any apparel store, they typically only carry one or two styles and only one or two colors.  For the full spectrum of what Injinji offers, you really need to hit up their website.

Here’s a little about the product from the Injinji website:

Injinji has embraced the changing world, specifically identifying the need for a biomechanically and medically advanced product that would allow the foot to perform at its best. Makers of “The Original Performance Toesock”, Injinji modified the basic structure, shape, and fiber of the traditional sock. “Optimal foot health is a key part of our overall wellness”, says Jason Battenfield, CEO. “Our toesocks provide each wearer with proper toe alignment which improves posture, gripping and balance, strengthens the muscles in the foot and leg, encourages healthy circulation, manages moisture, and prevents skin on skin friction.”

Comfort and Fit

So, it took me a while to try these on.  I have to admit, they sat for a while as I pondered the strange idea of a sock that wrapped around my toes.  Once I began my recovery I found myself excited to get outside AND excited to test out these socks.  So I took them with me over my Thanksgiving trip and tried them out on some basic, flat running trails.  Initially putting them on is awkward.  That first time slipping them on and trying to get your toes in each little pocket is taxing, but once they are on (properly!) the fit is pretty pleasant.  I actually wore them around the house for a while before taking them out for a spin and I found them so comfortable I almost forgot they were on.  This was not the case with the original-weight socks, you always feel those.  But with the ultra-thin socks, it’s like not wearing socks at all.  The synthetic material does have a lot of stretch to it, so the fit is very nice.  They cling to your feet and conform to the shape of your foot instead of the other way around.  I give them full marks for comfort and fit.

Padding and Support

Here’s where Injinji is weakest in my opinion.  The socks are uniform in padding so they’re either thin all over, or thicker all over and don’t offer any technical support for specific parts of the foot.  It’s a very minimalist concept for a sock.  The ultra-thin would make a great running sock, in the right shoe and with on a paved route.  For me, my trail runners are a little big to allow for padded socks when I hike, so there was a lot of extra room in the shoe with the ultra-lights on.  They seem to fit much better in my road-runners which are a half-size smaller.  They offer nothing for padding making them a very poor trail sock.  The Original Weight socks are much more appropriate for the trail, but still lack the padding and support I like to have on rugged trails.

Durability

These socks were put through the paces much more than the Point6 socks I reviewed before.  I took them out for two 6-mile runs and a 6.5-mile hike.  One of the runs was in a rain storm, so I got to see how they handle being wet.  The Light-Weight Ultra Thin’s were already showing signs of wear after the two runs.  They seem to be wearing at the heel and at the top of the toes.  I imagine the Original Weight socks will not wear out as fast, but the thinner socks don’t really seem to be holding up.  They became saturated in the rain very quickly I did notice a little slipping on the foot when they were wet which worried me a little.  When the run complete, I did not have any blisters or hot spots on my feet so I guess they did their job.

Overall Performance on the trail

Overall impressions are mixed.  On the one hand, these are very comfortable socks to have on.  The material between the toes is not as invasive or bothersome as I expected it to be.  In fact, if anything, this is what makes the socks comfortable in the first place.  The material is a mix of synthetics (70% CoolMax 25% Nylon 5% Lycra) that makes for a very comfortable sock against the skin.  They are soft, pliable and breathable.  However, they just don’t offer the padding or support that is ultimately desirable in an outdoor trail sock.  This is why I am excited to try their Outdoor Series.  If they can offer the kind of padding needed, these could be a great trail sock.  I don’t even mind the fact that they are 100% synthetic because they do feel nice.  I just don’t expect them to have the lifespan of a well-made 100% wool sock.

I had an extra pair of the lightweight socks when I did the hike so I offered them to my buddy who did the trail with me.  I wanted to see if he would have a different perspective on the socks.  He communicated a lot of the same things I mentioned above: shoe felt looser due to thin sock material, padding was not sufficient for rugged trail hiking, comfort and fit was very nice and the sensation of the sock around each toe was very comfortable once you got used to it.  He speculated as well, that the socks would probably perform much better on pavement in a tighter shoe.

Don’t forget to visit Hiking the Trail and Diary of a Day hiker for their own comprehensive reviews of the Injinji hiking socks for SockOff2011!

Stay tuned for my next SockOff2011 review featuring the  Thorlo-CoolMax Synthetic trail running sock.