Category Archives: General

A Running Review? The Columbia Conspiracy Vapor Trail Running Shoe

As wide as my interests range, as an athlete, I tend to consider myself a cyclist, first and foremost.  It’s not important to me to distinguish between mountain biker, cyclocrosser, gravel grinder or whatever.  Bikes of all varieties appeal to me.  (Some varieties considerably less than others; track and downhill MTB aren’t exactly my cup of tea.)  Occasionally though, I lace up some shoes and go running.  Sometimes it’s training for a triathlon.  Sometimes it’s training for cyclocross.  Sometimes it’s just for the sake of running through the woods.

Thus I run.  And to run, I need shoes upon my feet.  (I did read Born to Run and enjoyed the heck out of it, but I don’t do the barefoot thing.)

I usually end up with trail running shoes.  Why? I do run on trails sometimes.  I probably log half of my running miles on a treadmill though.  I like the way they look better than “normal” running shoes.  Part of it is probably the reason that most people drive 4WD vehicles. “Someday,” they think.  “Someday I might need to save a baby seal during a blizzard and really need 4WD!”

My North Face Singletracks were starting to bother my feet in a lot of areas.  The laces dug into my instep.  The support bands dug into my foot just behind the ball.  Bits of the shoe were starting to come apart.

To the Internet! For newness!

Columbia’s outlet site had the Conspiracy Vapor shoes for half price.  Bonus: they came in black and lime green, a colorway that’s currently a favorite of mine.  I couldn’t find any reviews on them, which bothered me (but not enough to prevent me from buying).  Click, ship, wait.

I have been pretty interested in the minimalist running thing since I read Born to Run, but was afraid to jump in.  I have struggled with shin splints a lot in my running history and was really concerned about how my body would react to these.  To be honest, I wasn’t even really planning on  using them as running shoes.  I was going to buy these for casual shoes and buy some Under Armour Speedform Apollos when my running season (aka: “Winter”) rolled around.

As a casual shoe, the Vapors are adequate.  For day-to-day existence, they get the job done.  They’re comfortable to walk in, don’t get too hot and are certainly not heavy on your feet.  I do have two gripes.  First is that the laces are too long.  When I tie the shoes, both the loops and the tag ends of my laces graze the ground.  Further, because of their very minimal sole and 3mm drop, my pants end up being too long and I tread on them.  I don’t like cuffing pants like some hipster, but it becomes a necessity with the Vapors.  If your pants break higher than mine or you wear shorts way more often than me, they’re a good choice.

2014-10-07 15.53.57
The Columbia Conspiracy Vapor Trail Running Shoes

I did want to try them out on a run, for the sake of thoroughness.  Yesterday I laced up and headed out for a quick 3 mile jaunt over a variety of surfaces: tarmac, grass, gravel, singletrack and so on.  I felt very awkward for the first hundred yards or so, but quickly adapted to the new shoes.  There is clearly more jarring on the pavement than with more heavily cushioned shoes, but not enough to abandon the shoes.  When you run on gravel, you’ll feel the big stones on your sole, but the shoe bends with your foot around the stone.  On the clumpy grass of a local soccer field, I was a little concerned about rolling an ankle or something.

The shoes really shined when I hit the singletrack.  The trails were wet from a ton of rain and were covered in various places by wet leaves and wet pine needles.  The Vapors declared these of no concern and ran on.  There were a couple of wet boardwalks the shoes were similarly unconcerned with.  Running over the baby head rocks required a lot more effort to remain stable, as the shoe lacks that heavy-duty sole of most trail shoes.

The OmniGrip lugs on the sole grip tenaciously, even to wet surfaces.
The OmniGrip lugs on the sole grip tenaciously, even to wet surfaces.

Whereas I went out the door worried about running in the Vapors, I came home convinced they would make a better running shoe than casual shoe.

The shoes fit tight and pretty true-to-size (I wear a 10 pretty consistently in most brands).  I would expect to get a solid year of running out of them (due to my inconsistent running schedule, I usually get about a year out of most running shoes).

Considering my last pair of Columbia running shoes were stability shoes with a ton of cushioning, the fact I can run comfortably in these speaks volumes as to they quality and versatility.  If you are at all interested in a more minimalist shoe for trail running, the Conspiracy Vapor is pretty good.  I would rate them much higher than the North Face Singletrack 2.  If you’re just looking for a shoe to wear around town, I would look elsewhere — especially if you have to pay the full $80 retail price.

5 Reasons You Want to Be a Skratch Labs Ambassador

So, the great folks over at Skratch Labs posted their Individual Ambassador application again for 2014.  Having been an Ambassador during 2013, I’d like to think I have a little insight on the awesomeness required of Ambassadors.  To help some of you rise up to that level of awesomosity (it’s so far beyond simply “awesome” that we have to make up new words to describe it), here are the top 5 reasons you should submit your own application:

1. The People at Skratch Labs are even more awesome than their Ambassadors.
When I asked if they could supply the drink mix to a 400-cyclist event that was two months out, they said they couldn’t give it away, but they gave the organizers a great price because of my involvement.  They arranged it so we got signed copies of the new Feed Zone Portables book.  The Box of Wonderfulness that showed up on my doorstep when I first took up my ambassadorship was beyond generous.  When my wife wanted to surprise me with some Skratch kit for Father’s Day, they were all kinds of helpful.  The best part is that the Ambassadors are only a little more special than the average Skratch customer, because they treat their customers so well.

2. The Ambassadors are truly inspirational.
Seriously.  The amateurs who pre-rode every stage of the Tour of California.  Ironwomen who practically live on the podium.  Triathletes who represent the nation in world championships. Firefighters as real heroes.  Age-group World Champs in Xterra Trail Running.  Moms and Dads who are raising families and still living active and healthy lives.  Being counted among the Ambassadors, even for one year, is an honor I won’t forget.

3. Discounts on Skratch Labs products.
If you haven’t tried Skratch Labs stuff already what is wrong with you I mean really?  And if you have tried the stuff, you know that it’s absolutely worth the price you pay for it.  Hydration that doesn’t upset your stomach that tastes great and is made of ingredients you can actually pronounce?  Priceless.  (Actually, it’s $19.50 a pound, which isn’t priceless, but, umm… HEY LOOK OVER THERE!)

4. You will look incredible.
You will be able to rock the pixels on the bike, at the gym, on your run, driving your big rig, or anywhere else.  Clothes with the “S” logo and/or pixels are scientifically proven to make you more attractive and a better athlete.

5. Bacon.
‘Nuff said.

So what are you waiting for?  Fill out the application now! (It’s still here: http://bit.ly/TasteAgent)

 

Life is Change, I Guess

While the tagline of this blog has always been, “Cycling, Christianity and Fatherhood Meet”, the topics here have almost always been cycling-focused.  You know, race reports, product reviews and all that.  It’s only occasionally I’ve dipped into those other topics.  Well, today I’m going to go off that direction again.

It seems like nearly everybody else in my life is in the midst of some kind of major life change.  At least two good friends at the University have accepted new jobs out of state.  New jobs, new homes, changes.  A few families are expecting new little ones.  New lives, new challenges, changes.  Kids that have been at the church since we got there are starting to graduate.  Students I’ve shepherded through 2-4 years at the University are heading off to their new jobs.  Even at church, we are struggling with people who are starting to move on to other churches due to various areas of dissatisfaction.

I would generally say I’m the kind of guy who likes change.  I like to try new things, see new places.  At the same time, I apparently expect a certain level of constancy in my life.  My father worked for the same police department for almost 30 years.  The friends they had before I was born are still friends they have today.  People just didn’t move off to other states.

Frankly, I think part of it is also jealousy.  As of August 15, I will begin my 9th year at my job.  My race schedule is full of the same old events. A change of pace would be somewhat desirable.  I don’t even know what I would want to change, but somehow I want something new.

Oh well.  Maybe there are even better things coming without me going anywhere.  Perhaps the thing to focus on is my first race in just over two weeks.  I can also look forward to some reviews I need to do on Bontrager R3 TLR tires and a CycleOps PowerCal.  Keep looking forward instead of looking back.

Kona Project 2 Messenger Bag Review

A number of years ago, I got a Specialized messenger bag that I carried back and forth to work.  This bag seemed to be one of the magical bags of holding, capable of carrying much more than one would ever expect.  My wife has a tendency to forget that I ride my bike into work and will occasionally send me to the store on my way home for various things.  One day, I had to pick up some ice cream, milk, a loaf of garlic bread and some other odds and ends.  The bag swallowed it all.

However, the bag was showing its age.  The cell phone pouch was designed for a traditional cell phone and not the current crop of smartphones.The nylon wasn’t acting particularly waterproof anymore.  The hook-and-loop fabric on the top flap was getting pretty weak. Did it really need to be replaced? No, not really.  But when Christmas rolls around, the difference between “want” and “need” gets all fuzzy and you end up opening up a package containing a Kona Project 2 Messenger Bag.  And you grin like a maniac, because you just got an awesome new bag.  How awesome?

I had searched for reviews of this bag before putting on the Wishlist and was somewhat disheartened.  Not with regards to their impressions of the bag itself, but simply that they all focused on the more inane things.  They enumerate every pocket and produce laundry lists of things they can shove in there.  There are never any impressions of what it’s like to wear the bag or ride with the bag.  Now that I’ve been using it for two months, it’s time for some thoughts.

Closures

The bag has a variety of closures.  The zipper on the flap pocket is of the waterproof variety.  There are two hook-and-loop fasteners that keep the flap closed as well as two bright orange buckles.  The buckles actually border on the ornamental.  They need to be adjusted every time you repack the bag or they fall off.  The marketing always makes a big deal out of the magnetic Hydro FlapsTM which are honestly pretty cool.  They normally attach themselves automatically, but occasionally require a little manual adjustment.  The waterproof laptop bag folds on the top and is secured closed by hook-and-loop as well as secured to the inside of the bag with the same.

Pockets and Stuff

There are lots.  They vary in size.  Some close with zippers, some with hook-and-loop, some just have mesh with an elastic band at the top.  There are more pockets than I know what to do with.

Straps

There are two main straps.  Obviously, there’s the thick shoulder strap, which is nicely padded everywhere it matters, and is intended to go over your left shoulder.  There is also a stabilization strap that connects between the bottom of the bag and the main strap.  Both are easily adjustable, but I find that you have to cinch them down incredibly tight to get the bag secure when you’re actually riding.  All of the straps have a nice elastic sleeve to keep the tag end from flapping in the breeze (too much).

Actual Usage Impressions

The bag rides a little higher on my back than my old Specialized bag.  That one rode down on my hips; the P2 bag rides on my ribcage.  Time will tell if this is going to get hot and uncomfortable in the summer.  For the winter, it isn’t bothersome.  I’ve ridden in slushy nastiness, heavy snow and some rain and everything comes out of the bag dry.  Whether it’s a function of the material or some kind of topical treatment, water beads up quite nicely on the surface.  The pocket on the top flap has been excellent for those times when you’re carrying a bill to the post office or a check to the bank.  It’s secure, yet within relatively easy reach.

It took me a while to get used to putting the bag on my left shoulder.  I had been a right-shoulder carrier of my old bag. I’ve found this to be a better setup though.  During these winter months, I shoulder my bike cyclocross-style to hoof it up 5 flights of stairs to my office (and a few other places too).  That puts the bag on my left shoulder and the bike on my right and they don’t interfere with each other.

Kona advertises the built-in safety light, which is very cool in theory.  I’ve lost a few blinky lights that slipped off my bag during my commute in the past and there’s just no way this one is falling off.  There are three things that keep it from being great.  First, it’s not really very bright compared with other alternatives.  Second, it’s relatively hard to operate. You often need two hands to actually click the thing.  Finally, my position on my commuter bike (a singlespeed cyclocross bike) points the light a little too far up and not enough back.  If you have a more upright position on your commuter, you won’t have this last problem.

As I mentioned above, it’s taken me a while to get the hang of the straps. You really have to pull the chest strap tight or the bag flops around when you ride.  The orange buckles that attach to the front strap need to be adjusted for every new load — even the difference between a full and empty lunch bag.  It’s not a huge time suck, but I almost never adjusted those straps on my old bag.

The cell phone pocket on the strap is perfect for me.  It seems ideally sized to hold an iPhone, though I cannot get the iPhone in with its silicone case.  Taking the case on and off is also a little annoying, but it’s not that bad. And in the end, you can actually hear and feel the phone while you’re riding and then answer it without much difficulty.  This is a lot better than my old “phone in the jeans pocket” option.

It’s definitely capacious, yet rides on your body well.  My normal load is a 15″ MacBook Pro, iPad, pair of shoes and lunch.  The P2 bag swallows this without batting its metaphoric eye.  I haven’t had to carry it for a long distance yet, but imagine it will be fine.  I’ll learn soon enough, as I’ll take it on a conference trip to San Diego in the beginning of March.  I think it will handle airport security better than my old bag, because taking the laptop and iPad out really meant repacking the entire bag to get them back in.  There’s enough structure to the P2 bag that taking things out should require the same repacking.

Final Impressions

After riding through some of the most ridiculous winter weather, I can definitely say the bag holds everything you need it to and will keep things nice and secure. The only last hurdle is whether or not the bag rides well during hot summer days.  Having a hot backpack was the reason I moved to a messenger bag in the first place.  There’s no doubt it’s pricey — $150 — but so far it has been worth it and the bag is backed up by a Lifetime Warranty from Brenthaven.  So far, I would highly recommend the P2 Messenger Bag from Kona.

Discipline

I have, in recent days, become quite a fan of discipline.  It’s a concept that we don’t like, isn’t it?  Freedom is part of our American dream, part of what every soul seems to long for.  Yet in the last few weeks, I have found that discipline makes me happier.

I’ve been disciplined for years with my training.  I used online training with Carmichael Training Systems for a year, used Joe Friel’s Training Bible for a couple of years and used the CTS Time-Crunched athlete series for a couple of years.  I set goals, I make a plan and I execute the plan.  Along the way, there are plenty of metrics for determining success or failure.  They’ve worked extraordinarily well for me.  I’ve nearly cracked the top 10 on regional mountain bike races and successfully raced to receive my Cat 3 upgrade for cyclocross.  In so many other ways, I eschewed that discipline, and have only recently began implementing it more in my life.

I had put on a few extra pounds in the last year or so by racing more, training less and eating with abandon.  I had stayed around 170-175 for a few years, but had snuck up above 180 and decided I would take off the extra stuff and get down to the 165-170 pound range.  A couple fewer pounds means better climbing speed!  The last time I lost weight, I used the Livestrong.com Daily Plate, which is simply calorie tracking.  If you eat it, you record it.  By restricting calories (and earning some back through exercise), I took off 25 pounds.  The goal this time is smaller and the tool is MyFitnessPal, but the premise is the same: Record the food, keep the calories down, lose the weight.  I’ve still got 10 pounds to go, but it’s just a matter of time and determination — and discipline.  The discipline to control what I eat, the discipline to record all of it, the discipline to do it when there’s so much else to do.

Finances were another thing I struggled with.  I get paid well, but wasn’t keeping good track of my accounts.  I got back into using a tool called YNAB (You Need A Budget), which has the same basic premise as MyFitnessPal: keep track of every dollar you spend.  When you have to keep track, you start making wiser decisions about what you purchase (just like tracking calories makes you think about what you’re eating).  And since you’ve planned out where every dollar is supposed to be used (the YNAB people call it “giving every dollar a job”), you don’t overspend.  The discipline comes from recording those transactions, from planning your money’s jobs and from watching your purchasing habits.  Success comes through discipline!

Even in my faith life, discipline has been important.  For someone who does as much as I do in my church, I hadn’t been spending regular time in the Word of God.  Getting more involved with the Word of Life program on Wednesday nights put a daily devotional in my hands.  Now I read and reflect while I’m eating my breakfast each day.  I could still read the news, read webcomics, or just eat breakfast staring off into space.  But I am disciplining myself to read, to meditate and do it every day.

It occurred to me how much this was affecting my whole outlook on life when I found myself putting together a new workflow for my days in the office.  Each day before I close down the computer, I schedule out the next day.  I lay out each task, get some kind of idea how long each will take and then set reminders in the Mac Reminders app.  Suddenly my days are structured, productive and I never find myself thinking, “What do I have to do now?” or even, “Is there something I’m supposed to be doing?”

And so I return to my original premise: Discipline makes me happier.  I know what I’ve been eating and buying and reading and working on.  When my ToDo list is empty, I can relax.  When I reach the end of the day with a zero calorie balance, I know I’ve done what I can to reach a goal that is important to me.  I know I’m growing through the Word and can confidently say, “Yes, I read my Bible every day.”  My life is better with discipline. It’s a fascinating contradiction.

Two World Championships

This Sunday, there will be two “world championship” sporting events held in the United States.  One is the Super Bowl, where they might not call it the “World Championships of Football” (at least anymore — it was the original name of the game),  but I can pretty much guarantee somebody, at some point, will declare the victors to be the “world champions”.  The other is the World Championship Cyclocross races in Louisville, Kentucky.  This might be Super Bowl XLVII, but this is CX Worlds LXIII.  The first match will be watched primarily by Americans, played by Americans and elicit little attention anywhere else.  The Cyclocross races actually have people from all over the world coming to ride.  Belgians, Dutch, British, French, Japanese and New Zealander athletes will be on hand and the eyes of the world will be on Kentucky.  The Super Bowl has never been held outside of the United States (and largely hasn’t even been held in a cold-weather location).  The Cyclocross World Championships have been held in Europe since 1950 and will be in this country for the first time ever.

Look, I’m not disparaging NFL athletes.  Some of them are incredible physical specimens with incredible control and awareness of their body.  I definitely can’t say I’m a fan of the sport (which is putting it nicely).  But it makes me sad that athletes will be putting themselves through the wringer for an hour in the mud of Louisville and the majority of Americans will have no idea, because they will be too busy preparing to stuff themselves with beer and wings later that night.  I will watch both, but will be watching the cyclocross for the content and the Super Bowl for the commercials. Maybe you’d care to join me in watching some streaming video on Sunday: http://www.louisville2013.com

Commuting Challenges

I have been a fair-weather bicycle commuter for several years now.  It simply doesn’t take that long for me to get into work.  Some days, it’s the only time I get to ride.  But I’ve always packed the bike away and drove my Jeep once the snow started to fly.  Houghton gets so much snow that our streets really don’t actually get clear of snow.  They have a layer of packed down snow that has always struck me as pretty dangerous to ride on.  Once the snow melts off the streets, I’m back on my bike.

I’ve also made an excuse out of the darkness.  Since I teach an 8AM class three days a week, I would have to ride in the dark most of the time.  I have a nice NiteRider MiNewt light, but I still use darkness as an excuse.

This year, my employer has decided that parking is an issue and is going to start charging us to park.  In some situations, I can understand this.  Not ours.  All of the land containing the parking lots is ours already.  I don’t see why we should have to pay — except to generate revenue for the university.  Since I would be paying $125/year for the 3 months I drive, I decided I would no longer be a fair-weather commuter, but a year-round commuter.

These last few weeks have been challenging to my new resolution.  Here’s the current radar:
You can just see the text that says “Houghton” under the big blotch of colorful storm.  That’s where I live.  And that’s what I rode through on my way to work this morning.  Whee.

This is going to be an interesting winter.