Sharing experience. No copying of press releases. Everything paid out my own pocket.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Salomon XA Pro Skin 10+3 - finally a pack for runners

I'm constantly amazed at how sports/outdoor gear has evolved over the last 25 years. I still remember my early teenage years when we went running or cycling in cotton shirts. Only one kid in my road cycling team, his father was the local dentist, used to have a fancy Greg Lemond LOOK shirt made of 50% synthetics fabrics. We were all envious of him. However, at that time odor resistance was not a feature of these fabrics. Shirts made of them would stink like hell after one day of use.

One area where we haven't seen much improvement over the last years are backpacks for runners. Actually, a couple of years ago there was only a handful of companies (Inov-8 and Raidlight have to be mentioned here) offering packs specifically for this audience. All of these early running packs were basically slimmed down hiking packs with a traditional design. I always disliked the hip/waist belt of these packs. In order to avoid bouncing one had to pull all straps tightly. I always find this very restrictive. I also often damaged my shirts by rubbing of the waist belt.

Now we enter a new era: the Pro Skin and Advanced Skin running packs by Salomon. I'm really blown away by these. And apparently not just me since it was really difficult to get hold of one. These are almost sold out for this season (at least in Germany). Initially I wanted to get the more expensive Advanced Skin 12 pack, however, the only model I could get was the slightly slimmed down Pro Skin 10+3. For differences you check Salomon's homepage or other reviews. I just want to focus on my specific aspects, e.g. mountain running and commuting.

Overall impression

Wow!!!!!! Perfect!! Just needs some minor tweaks in the next iteration

Test conditions
  • urban environment, paved surfaces, all weather conditions, runs up to 1 hr, twice a day.
  • mountain/trail running, all weather conditions, runs up to 4 hours.
  • "Freight": usual long distance trail running gear (including poles). For commuting only fresh underwear. My 15'' would not fit. 
  • The fit!!! Even packed fully there is absolutely no bouncing. The chest straps allow a great custom fit. No waist belt!! I went for a 4 hour run that span climbing to summits. The pack was really a part of my body. Edit 28.06.2012: I must correct this statement. If packed fully with heavier items (for example groceries) it would bounce quite a lot.
  • The pack's water bladder. With other packs bladders would often bounce annoyingly. Not with this pack.
  • The two front pouches, which are actually intended for bottles, are great for storing cell phones or other gadgets. However, ...
  • It seems quite odor resistant which is important for a commuter.

  • ... these front pouches could have been made out of waterproof fabric. On my ascends sweat would work its way through the shoulder strap and through the fabric of the pouch. Keys and cell phone were drained in sweat. Running up mountains is a sweaty business, the pack designers should be aware of this. My current solution is to put my stuff into small plastic bags. However, this is quite annoying with my cell phone. I access it regularly during my longer runs (GPS, mp3, radio, calling up my wife that I'll be late, ...).
  • Most other reviews on this family of packs complain about the 4D pole holder system. For me poles are a must when descending. Pure fun! I do not use them uphill. Therefore, I was really disappointed the system and I have to agree with the other reviews. The pack was provided with a manual for the system. Unfortunately, my pack is different to the manual and to the pictures shown on Salomon's homepage (see pictures below). The top strap that attaches to the right should strap is different. Now I do not know if I have a "newer" or "older" model, I just know that if I follow the manual it won't work properly. Solution now is to simply put them into water bladder compartment. This works for me since I do not race. I always change shirts on the summit anyway. However, I would find it annoying if I ran on a more up and down terrain.

Salomon homepage product illustration of pole holder system vs. my pack:

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Run/bike commuting and no showers at the office?

When asked why they would not go to work by bike (I wouldn't even dare to ask by running) many people say that they have no showers at the office. I'm in the same situation. However, it took me several steps of evolution/refinement to the system that solve the issue now.

First of all I have to say that I do have my own office. I'm not a big wig just an average employee. Therefore, I'm lucky in that respect. When I started ditching my car for the city part of my daily commute (depending on how I commute, e.g. by bike or running, I park my car in the outskirts of the city) I employed the following systems:

  1. Use public transport in the morning, run/bike back in the afternoon

    I would park my car close to a train or subway station. I even got a folding bike that I could carry with me in the train. Unfortunately, my office is quite some distance away from the next subway station. This was no issue when I went bike commuting in the afternoon but mildly annoying when run commuting. I also had to bring back my clothes for the next day. In winter and when running this was quite a pack full. Additionally, I had to change trains twice. Altogether, given the additional cost for the train, the packed trains in the morning, the loss of time, I simply got fed up of this.
  2. Baby wipes

    Disillusioned by the public transport option I started running/biking in the mornings, too. To solve the no-shower-issue I cleaned myself with baby wipes. I used heaps of them. I could get clean with them and pass the female-colleagues-smell test but I was always missing the refreshing effect you get from a shower.
  3. No rinse body wash

    In my quest to optimize the system I came across the products from No rinse. I tried their product range for a while but couldn't cope with the smell of it. After using it my office would stink like hell. Additionally, using their products becomes quite expensive when used almost daily. Looking at the ingredients and reading up a little on cosmetics one can see that baby bath liquid has almost the same ingredients as No rinse body wash. For the fraction of the price. This led me to my current set up.
  4. My makeshift office shower

    My makeshift office shower consists of the following items:
  • 66 x 66 cm washing machine safety drain pan (~ € 20)
  • mild baby bath liquid, perfume free! The advantage of baby bath liquid is that you do not have to rinse entirely from your skin and it dissolves well in water (compared to shower liquid)  
  • small bucket with tap water; this is where I add the baby soap. Update: Got a larger bucket now 
  • wash cloth Update: I use a common sponge now. Much nicer, gives a real shower feeling
  • water bottle filled with tap water for the final rinse. Update: Upgraded to 1.5l bootle
  • towel
I leave it to your imagination how this system is used in detail. I guess, you get the idea. After my shower I simply pour back the water from the pan into the bucket and wipe the the pan with a paper towel. Finally, I hide the pan behind the desk.

This system is almost as good as a real shower. It cleans, is cost effective and above all it refreshes!

Aarn Marathon Magic 22 - good for commuting?

Usually my 12 l Inov-8 backpack does just fine for my commute. I do not run every day but go by car or by bike at least once a week. This is when I take fresh clothes with me. However, every once in a while I have to take some more stuff with me on my commute run. So far I've used an old Deuter hiking backpack that I had bought many years ago. This was o.k. but not perfect for running. Therefore, I was on the hunt for a larger pack in the > 20 l range. After some research I found the Aarn Marathon series. I have to admit that I had never heard of this brand Aarn before but the gear geek in me was intrigued immediately.

You get all the specs from their homepage, I see no point in repeating it here.

The only deterrent was the hefty price tag of €150. However, if the pack is really so good I'd be happy to pay the price. Was it worth it?

Overall impression

A lot of money wasted. Top part of the pack bounces annoyingly. Not different to my cheap old Deuter. Don't get me wrong, this is a great product. Given the alternatives on the market it's simply not worth to spend so much money.

Test conditions
  • urban environment, paved surfaces, all weather conditions, runs up to 1 hr, twice a day.
  • "Freight": a pair of shoes, pants, shirt, winter jacket. Sometimes a 15'' notebook. 
  • I've never used it with the the front bags. To cite Aarns homepage "All models are exceptional performers either with or without the Balance Pockets.".
  • I actually like its looks. Nice design. The pack seems a high quality product.
  • Adjustable to back lenght (theroretically, I never found the proper set up for my back length)

  • Extremely long straps. Why???
  • Set up is confusing. Where do I have to pull? Which strap?
  • This may only bother me but they could have quipped the belt with a (optional) small pocket when one does not want to use the front bags. There should always be a small pocket for keys and cell phone in the immediate reach.
  • Haven't noticed any of the "biomechinal" features that are advertised.
  • My main concern: The shoulder straps are connected to the pack some 15 cm below the top of pack. During my runs this top section of pack would bounce annoyingly. When you look at their homepage the pictures there seem to show a previous model. The shoulder straps are connected with additional straps. This seems to be more stabilizing. I don't know why they got rid of it. Maybe set up was just wrong ... but then, finding the proper fit with this pack is really difficult. I guess, the intention for this design is to reduce the load on the shoulder and to put more on the hips. This may increase comfort when hinking but not when running.

Monday, June 4, 2012

K-Swiss Blade Foot Run [zero drop; cushioned]

This shoe hasn't received a lot of attention, yet. I Just found it by accident and was intrigued immediately: zero drop & cushioned! My run commuter-forefoot striker dreams may come true. I ordered a pair immediately.

Overall impression

Great shoe at a great price tag. K-Swiss, please add some black rubber to the lateral side of the outsole.

Test conditions
  • urban environment, paved surfaces, all weather conditions, runs up to 1 hr, twice a day.
  • size: 10.5 US, 44 EU, 9.5 UK [my long foot measures 27 cm; slightly wider than average]
  • I'm a natural forefoot/midfoot striker [since ever and not just since it is trendy. Running up a mountain with your heels is quite difficult.]
  • added a 2 mm Noene under the insole for additional cushioning.
  • zero drop !!!
  • good cushioning; quite firm but still comfortable [Brooks Pure Flow seems more cushioned with a softer feel]. My first run in them was a 90 min trip with a twin baby stroller (the babies were sleeping throughout) on paved tracks only. Even though I've frequently run the same route in my Pure Flows I was surprised to feel a little beat the day after. Therefore, I've added a 2 mm Noene since I want slightly more comfort on paved roads. I would even consider adding a 4 mm Noene. I'm really interested in how the Blade Foot Run cushioning compared to Merrells Bare Access.
  • snug fit; though slightly narrow in the beginning these get wider by time

  • the last is sort of pointy. A more anatomical shape would be great [shape wise Merrell is the gold standard for me]. I doesn't bother me in the city but if you run on rocky/rooty trails you easiliy catch your feet. At least I do. 
  • My biggest point of critisizm is the outsole. As you can see in the picture below two areas are enforced with black rubber compound. K-Swiss' shoe testers must have been all heel strikers. Otherwise I can't explain why they haven't added some to the lateral part of the outsole. This is where forfoot strikers initiate ground contact. Already after my first spin in the them the red circled area showed significant wear. This white foam material is not very durable. This all reminds me of a big dissappointment with a pair of Saucony Kinvara. These shoes also have only soft foam at the lateral side of the outsole. These also showed considerable wear after only a few runs and the lugs would dissappear completly after a few weeks.
    Given the purpose of this shoes to promote a more natural running style (can you actually heel strike in zero drop shoe?) 
  • not really a negative but I do not notice any effect of these blades. I could do without if this enhances durability.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Brooks Pure Flow - Independent review

I work in the big city. Unfortunately, after quite some driving on the motorway I would also have to cross the city in order to get to my work place. Since I hate city driving I frequently park my car at the city border and commute the remainder as a runner (10-14 km, one way). Sometimes, I also take the subway in the morning. This reduces the morning run to 3-5 km, depending where I get off.

Most of the commute run is on paved ground. While I really love zero-drop shoes I do not buy into this minimalism fad. Though some aspects are really interesting and may change the industry for good a little bit I do not believe that we evolved to run on paved surfaces. Especially when you carry a heavy backpack.

Before I used the Flow regularly I had Saucony's Cortana for these runs. But I must say I don't like Saucony's cushioning. Too squishy. Not very lasting. I also hated running in the Kinvaras (apart from their excessive lateral wear that really put me off).

Overall impression

Great shoe for forefoot/midfoot strikers on paved surfaces that don't want to sacrifice comfort.

Test conditions
  • urban environment, paved surfaces, all weather conditions, runs up to 1 hr
  • size: 10 US, 44 EU, 9 UK, 28 cm [my long foot measures 27 cm]
  • I'm a natural forefoot/midfoot striker [since ever and not just since it is trendy. Running up a mountain with your heels is quite difficult.]
  • added a 2 mm Noene under the insole. However, I cut the Noene half way to level the 4 mm drop of the shoe a little bit.

  • fairly flat with only 4 mm of drop (though I'd like to see them with 0 mm)
  • very good cushioning; quite firm but still very comfortable 
  • great fit; though slightly narrow in the beginning these get wider by time
  • my wife is more a heel/midfoot stiker. This "ideal heel" really makes her land more in a midfoot position. Previously she tried the Cortana. Even I notice that. However, I'd say if it came with 0 mm drop there probably would be no need for such a feature.

  • not available with 0 mm zero drop
  • after 350 km the cushioning deteriorates noticeably. Given the price tag in Eurpe those should hold up longer

Brooks Pure Grit - independent review

For my commute run in the city I've used Brooks' Pure Flow for quite a while now. And I must say I really love them even though they don't hold up very well (please wait for later review on them). Out of this satisfaction I decided to get a pair of their trail running siblings, the Pure Grit.

Overall impression

Big, big, big disappointment. Maybe good for running on trails in city parks

Test conditions
  • several mountain runs ranging from 1 to 4 hours at dry and moist conditions.
  • size: 10 US, 44 EU, 9 UK, 28 cm [my long foot measures 27 cm]
  • I'm a natural forefoot/midfoot striker [since ever and not just since it is trendy. Running up a mountain with your heels is quite difficult.]
  • added a 2 mm Noene under the insole. However, I cut the Noene half way to level the 4 mm drop of the shoe a little bit.

  • fairly flat with only 4 mm of drop (though I'd like to see 0 mm)
  • decent cushioning (for longer distances I could do with more)
  • greenish colour fits my Inov-8 backpack

  • grip and traction is pathetic for a trail running shoe. Slippery even on dry rocks. In wet conditions suicidal on mountain trails. I consider Inov-8 outsoles as gold standard here.
  • compared to the Flow the Grit seems more narrow and pointy. While the uppers are quite flexible they're still restrictive. Due to the pointy shape of the shoes I constantly caught my foot on rocks and roots. A more anatomical last would do good here [compare to Merrell's Trail Glove]. Especially at the end of longer runs when concentration poor. First I thought that I may have to size down and got a second pair. But these were simply too short and much too narrow.

Where I live, where I run

I live down there between the two lakes ...

... viewed from the summit of my "home mountain" ...

... after a refreshing trail run of 1000 m upwards.

However, I also have to earn money in the big city. But I hate driving in the city. Therefore, I park my car at the city border and run to work. Depending on where I park my car this makes ~10 km one way. In the morning I sometimes go partly by subway and run the remainder.