Sunday, October 13, 2013

Shoe Review: Pearl Izumi E:motion Trail N1

I go through a lot of shoes.  More specifically, I go through a lot of trail running shoes.  Some of them, I wear a few times, put maybe 75-100 miles on them, and just realize that they aren't what I was hoping they would be.  Most of those either end up as a gift to a friend, or in a pile in the bottom of my closet.

Every once in awhile, I find that shoe.  You know the one I'm talking about.  The shoe that feels like it was made just for your stride, for your foot, for the terrain that you train on the most.  The shoe that was made for you.  

I've only ever found a few of those shoes in the probably 20+ different pairs of trail running shoes.  The first, was the NB MT110.  I loved that shoe, and I still love it.  There is still a pair in my closet right now, that I still pull out on occasion.  It's the first pair of shoes I've ever bough a second pair of when my first wore out. I ran my first trail marathon in them.  I'll always have an infatuation with those shoes.

The second pair, was the Salomon XT S-Lab 4.  I felt fast wearing those shoes.  They say that bright shoes affect your mental perception of how fast you run, well, it's hard to find something brighter that Salomon red.  Unfortunately (or not), the one pair of these I owned I got at a crazy online sale, and I could only find them for $180 after that.  Nope, not paying it.

I went through a few other pairs of trail shoes, finding some decent ones, but never anything I really fell in love with.  I even bought another pair of super expensive shoes that came in bright red and were designed with the ultra runner in mind.  I wanted to love them, but I just couldn't.  The tread chunked off, the fit wasn't right, and after two runs, I sent them back.  

I needed something that could handle high mileage training, have a smooth and comfortable ride, provide grip on gnarly terrain, as well as run good on the flat, and last for a long time.  I searched, I read reviews, I asked people through social media, I looked back through pictures at what other people wore during trail races.  

I remembered back to Western States...and Timmy Olson.

He managed to win two years in a row (so far) wearing the Pearl Izumi Trail N1s.  At this point, I figured I should give them a shot.  Yep, I fell for the marketing, but I'm not afraid to admit it.  I have to be honest, all the reviews I read on them were mixed.  Some people complained that they were far too stiff after a couple of runs.  I was willing to take a chance, because I think in this day of "barely there" minimalist shoes, people have gotten far too used to a shoe being uber-flexy right out of the box.  Do people not remember what it is like to have to break in a pair of running shoes?

I was skeptical.  I had nothing to lose, because I know I could always go back to my MT110s if these didn't work out...but I had to wonder....what if they are that good?  So I ordered a pair...

My first pair of Trail N1s. 

When I got them and took them out of the box, I was surprised.  Fairly light, but not minimalist.  Good tread pattern, but not overly aggressive.  Decent amount of cushion, but only the necessary amount, not too much.  And that upper; that seamless piece of ventilated beauty.  I fell in love with that upper the first time I put it on.  

(*I'm not going to bore you with the specific specs and marketing quotes about this shoe, you can get it from Pearl Izumi's website if that's what you are looking for.)

Taking them out for the first run was on my usual route around my house, which is the perfect trail shoe  proving ground.  Starts out with about 1.5 miles of road, then cuts to a sandy fire road, then a super sandy climb up to a ridge line.  Once on the ridge line, there are miles of trail options; rolling gravel double track, and gnarly, techy, lava rock encrusted single track with rolling hills, and steep climbs/scrambles.  If a shoe can survive a couple runs through here, I'd be willing to put it through anything.

Out on the run, I was surprised with how they did on the road.  They obviously aren't road shoes, but they aren't uncomfortable or clunky on the road either.  Good so far, but I wasn't looking for road shoes.  

On the sandy fire road, they did just fine...but I'm still not super impressed; a decent pair of road shoes would be fine too.  

I climbed up the sandy slope to the ridge line, and to no surprise, the shoes filled with sand.  Now, I won't hold this against any shoe, because they all fill with sand.  This is that deep, powdery, uninhabited beach kind of sand.  And it's about a 50 degree climb.  Unless you're wearing fishing waders, you're going to get sand in your shoes.  

Next, I hit the single track.  This shoe came alive...

Steep rocky climb?  Check.  Rolling smooth track?  Check.  Bombing down loose, rocky, technical steep descents?  Double check.  This shoe handled everything I could throw at it on the first run, and just sat there asking for more.  I ran hard, I ran fast, up, down, off camber, soft ground, hard ground, anything I could find.  At the end I looked down at my feet, and in my head the shoes looked back and said "Is that all you've got?"

Pearl Izumi claims these shoes have some sort of E:Motion witchcraft built in to them.  I'm an average man, so I have no idea what all that mumbo jumbo means exactly.  But I do know this...whatever it is that's engineered into these shoes, it works.  Don't just take my work for it, take a look around.  Take the ultra running community for example.  It's not often you see the elite runners wearing shoes that are a different brand than what their sponsor makes...but when you do, there's a good chance it's these Pearl Izumis.  And now I know why.  

The more I wear these shoes, the more I like them.  They were stiff at first, but after about 50 miles, they broke in perfectly.  If you try them, and don't like them at first run, give them some miles, these shoes will make you a believer.  I've got around 250 miles in these shoes, and I still love them.  It's pretty much all I run in, no matter where I'm running.

Tread comparison, new (obviously) on the left, old on right after 250-ish miles.  There's probably just a little less than half the tread left in the forefoot.  Note:  The terrain around here destroys most shoes pretty quickly due to the grittiness.  These PI's have stood up much better than most shoes.

The red and black one still has the cardboard insert in it, but as you see in comparison, the upper has held up amazingly well.  Especially considering all the run-ins this upper gets with shard volcanic type rock.

In fact, I just bought another pair to keep in the box until I break them in for my fall 50 miler.  I love my Pearl Izumis.  No longer do I have to decide which shoe to buy, only which color.  I plan on running these things into the ground time, after time, after time, after time....

New ones in a new color...just waiting for a run.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Race Report: Big Bear Ridge Run 24 Miler

On a whim, I decided a couple of weeks ago to sign up for a local trail race that I had been eyeing on for quite sometime.  It met all the criteria I was looking for when I signed up:

1.  It was close enough that I could drive to the race, run it, and drive home in one day;
2.  It was something I hadn't run before;
3.  It fit in as a long run in my training schedule for my winter 50-miler.

The Big Bear Ridge Run fit the bill.  It's part of a series of races sponsored by Race Ready that takes place locally.  The other races are the Holcomb Valley Trail Runs (also near Big Bear), and the Mount Baldy Run-to-the-top.  Originally I thought it might be cool next year to run the whole series, but now I'm not so sure...more on that later.

We arrived Sunday morning at the registration area for packet pickup right at 7 a.m. when they opened up.  The one thing I found odd, was that on race day morning the packet pickup was in the parking lot of a mexican restaurant, and the start line was another mile or two away at a ski resort...or more so on the side of a residential road near a ski resort.  Packet pickup and race swag (see photo below) complete, the crew (my wife and son) and I were parked on the side of the road at the "starting line" hanging out until race time.  At least they had a porta-potty...

The race swag.

That was the sign on the side of the road.  Pretty self-explanatory.

As start time approached, all the runners mobbed to the starting area for a little pre-race briefing from the RD.  It was kind of a pain in the ass, because we were all gathered around him standing in the middle of a residential road, and there was still traffic trying to get by.  Prior to and during the brief, the RD was passing out colored stickers for each person to put on their bib to determine their distance; I don't remember which color was what distance, all I knew is that the race I was running, the 24 miler, was no sticker.

During the brief the RD passed to us that there was a slight course modification for the 24 miler due to the government shutdown on some of the trails, so it might have slightly affected the distance of the course.  That was fine with me, as he said it did involve increasing the amount of single-track on the new Skyline trail.  I was happy that considering the other races throughout the country were getting cancelled due to the shutdown, that this one was happening at all.  

The start of the race was a very local feel.  It was literally the race director saying "Go," and the runners were off.  People took off up the road, which quickly turned into fire road, climbing steadily for the first 2 miles.  It seemed like everyone was moving very fast, but then again, I've kind of grown accustomed to "ultra" speed....slow and steady.  Considering I was just treating this race as a catered long training run, I was in no hurry.  I had no real expectations for this race, just to go out and enjoy a day on the trail with some other runners.  (Ok, that's not entirely true.  There was one guy in the car next to us when we were waiting at the starting line, who insisted on mean mugging me the entire time prior to the start.  I don't know why, because I was trying to be cordial with him when I was outside the car getting my gear ready, saying "hello" and what not.  Apparently he was trying to be very intense and scare his competition.  It was then I made my only true goal for the beat him.  Goal accomplished.)

Race Start.  That's me in the visor and manpris.

My hill running legs weren't much for the day, so I pretty much stuck to power hiking all the climbs, which still worked out pretty well.  People would pull away from me slightly on the climbs, but my down hill legs were strong, and I would usually catch them and pass them on the flats and downhills.  Since this was the first race I've done where I didn't taper, I was pretty happy with how I felt.  I definitely wasn't fresh, having had about 45 miles that week in my legs already, including a 14 mile tempo run on Friday night.  So I just continued truckin' along, running my own race.  

I did notice that of the seven "aid stations" that were on the long course, I swear I went through the first 4 in the first 8 miles.  It was confusing, I'd come up to what I thought was an aid station, but it was just a water stop.  The aid station locations just seemed poorly planned in trying to accommodate all the race distances.  I had my Salomon hydration pack on, and plenty of nutrition, so I just blew through pretty much all the aid stations until somewhere around mile 12.  

At this point, I was pretty much running alone, having passed the few guys that were in front of me.  All the 10k and 13 mile runners had already hit their turn around points, and I couldn't see anyone else on the trail.  I had no idea what position I was in, and really, I didn't much care.  No headphones, no traffic, no problem.  Things were going well.  When I did get to the aid station that was somewhere around mile 12, I decided to stop for a second just to check out what was available.  Here is where I had my first real problem.

I realize small local races aren't going to provide your standard "ultra" fare of buffet foods at the aid stations.   And in reality, considering the shorter distance of the race, the aid station options would have been perfect; however (and it's a big however), at the very least, anything you provide that is perishable, should be fresh.  Bananas, brown...and I'm not talking cut up earlier that morning and starting to brown.  I'm talking cut up days ago and stored in the back of some guys truck brown.  I passed on those.  Next was oranges.  The oranges were brown.  I have no idea how long it takes for oranges to turn brown, buy I'll bet it's much longer than it takes bananas, and I know what those looked like.  No citrus today.  There was a handful of pretzel crumbs in a zip lock, water, coke, and electrolyte drink.  There was also a tray of fig newtons...those sounded delicious.  It was still early enough where I was glad to take in some sweets, so I grabbed a few of those, pounded a cup of coke, and headed down the trail.  I took a bite of the newton...crunchy.  Crunchy, crumbly, stale fig newtons. I was so disappointed.  I wanted that fruit filled cake bite.  It was so dry, I couldn't even eat it.  I crumbled the rest up in my hands, and provided critter food to the woodland creatures.  That set the tone for the rest of the race to come.  

Around mile 14 I ended up catching up to a guy ahead of me, and a guy caught me from behind.  Instead of racing it out, we did the typical trail run thing, and decided to run together for awhile.  We pulled into an aid station around mile 17.5, and I decided to take a minute, refill my hydration pack, get some coke, and just take a quick minute.  The three of us who were running together had no idea where we were at in the race, until one of the other two asked the aid station volunteer how many people came through before us, and he said there have been 4 others.  We all three looked at each other, and suddenly realized that if we pushed, we could podium this race.  The other two took off, as I was still trying to pour more Tailwind into my hydration pack and mix it up.  They got a good 30 second head start before I thanked the aid station volunteer, and took off down the single track of the Skyline trail.  

This is where I pretty much gassed out for a number of reasons.  I just didn't have enough legs left to keep up with those guys on the climbs, and I wasn't making up ground on the flats or downhills anymore, either.  I was ok with that.  As long as I didn't get passed in the last 10k of the race, I was happy with how things went.  

Here's what I'll say about the Skyline trail; if I was mountain biking it, it would probably be a killer ride.  I can imagine flying around it's little rollers and banked turns and switch backs on my Trek, and having a good old time.  But...for running, it flat out sucked.  Those little rollers that are great on a MTB, are not conducive to running, and just plain suck.  The banked turns and deeply rutted flats had me constantly running off-camber and rolling ankles.  Don't misunderstand, I love super technical stuff, rocky, rooted, steep; that's my type of terrain.  This was not.  It was simply annoying.  I couldn't get a good rhythm, and it seemed to drag on forever.  I've never said that about a trail before; usually going on forever is something I long for in a trail.  This time it was simply not the case.  Am I bitching?  Am I whining and complaining?  Yep.  But guess what?  It's my race report, so I'll whine if I want to.  

I hit one more aid station with about 2.5 miles left, and then was back on fire roads, followed by a bit of rocky, rutted mountain bike trail to the finish.  I came in 7th overall, 3rd in my age group.  All things considered, I was happy.
Finishing along side my son.

My age group award ceremony.

If I ever went back to that race fresh, I think I could finish top 3, maybe better.  But I won't be going back to that race, and I'll explain why below.

I'm not one to list problems without proposing solutions, so here's my list of both in regards to the race:

1.  The start location was far from ideal, and nearly unsafe.  I suggest moving the start location a mile up the road where there was a pull off at the start of the forest service roads.  There would be far less traffic, and eliminates pavement from the course.  

2.  Aid station volunteers should be briefed on what to expect from runners.  Don't get me wrong, I thank every single one of them, and appreciate their time and effort.  This was a new (2nd annual) race, so I know there are still kinks to work out.  I've been on both sides of the table.  I know what it's like to run and volunteer at aid stations.  I get the impression that these volunteers just didn't know what they didn't know.  It's not their fault by any means, but I do hold the RD and staff accountable for that.  

3.  Provide course information to those who register.  I'm the kind of runner who likes to know details about the course before I race it.  The website had nothing other than the distance.

4.  I enjoy the local feel of a small race.  However, there is a fine line between a race feeling "local," and a race being disorganized.  I would qualify this race somewhere in the grey area in between.

5.  I get the impression this course was designed as a MTB course first, and running race was added as an after thought.  That irks me.  I like MTBs.  I own one.  I love riding it.  But what I would consider an excellent ride and an awesome run are not the same course.  There are miles and miles of trails in that area, pick something other than Skyline. 

6.  I realize there was a MTB race on this course the day before, therefore all the aid station food items were probably prepped the day or two before that.  It was evident.  Give the runners the same effort as the mountain bikers, and give us some semi-fresh aid station food.

7.  I love beer.  I love finish line parties, big or small.  This was a nice gathering with chili and smoothies for racers and spectators alike.  What I don't like, is seeing the RD sitting around drinking beer while he still has runners on the course.  You may call me uptight, I call it irresponsible. (*note, while I didn't see it, it was mentioned that the shuttle drive who took people back to the start had also been drinking and then shuttling runners.  Not good.)

8.  Why the high price?  I've come to accept nowadays that most races are creeping up on the hundred dollar range when you start getting into the marathon and beyond distance, but the $80 price tag on this one baffles me.  I understand the costs of permitting, insurance, etc.  I know it's not free to put on a race.  But $80?  I expected more from a race that is sub-marathon distance in this price range.  The swag wasn't even that great.  Frankly, the shirts were cheap, the "race bag" was obviously left over from the MTB race (it's got MTB tire advertising all over it), and the water bottle was from Gatorade, and didn't even mention the race on it.  At least the age-group medal was decent.  Next year I'll take that $80 price tag and spend it on a 50k.

This race has potential, and with a few tweaks, it could be a great local event.  With a few more tweaks, it could even bring in some real competition.  Make it another 6 or 7 miles, and I bet there's a bunch of SoCal ultrarunners who would love to come throw down.  The truth is, it's just not there yet.  A small race does not have to be a poorly run race.  I don't feel like the RD and organizers put their best foot forward.
Here's what I used during the race, for those who are gear nuts:

1.  Pearl Izumi EM Trail N1 - these are my favorite trail shoes ever, for any distance.
2.  Drymax Trail Lite socks - used to be an Injinji guy, but the toe seams bugged me.
3.  Pearl Izumi Ultra 3/4 tights - Yep.  Full Euro, and they were awesome.
4.  Under Armor Short Sleeve - It works.
5.  Waterproof Medical Tape - to prevent a bloody shirt
6.  Body Glide - for my sensitive parts.
7.  Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin 5 pack - used 1 flask with water, hydrapack with nutrition
8.  Under Armor visor - because it's SoCal trail running, and thats how we do.
9.  Oakley sunglasses - because they make me look cool
10. Suunto Ambit GPS watch - because Suunto.

For race nutrition,  aside from coke at aid stations, I only used Tailwind Nutrition.  It worked awesome, except when I over mixed it in a hurry, and the berry flavor was just too sweet.  I'll take the hit on that, but know this; I'll only race with Tailwind from now on.  

I also took Master Amino Acid Pattern (MAP) prior to the race, and took 4 more pills about half way through.  I took 4 more post race, and when I woke up the day after the race, my legs felt fresh.  This stuff is amazing, albeit costly.  I don't know exactly how it works, but it does.  Period.

In all, it was a decent day.  There never really is a bad day on the trail.  It was a confidence booster knowing I can do well even on fatigued legs.  I'm feeling better every week about my fitness levels, and I'm excited to see how things go when I actually taper for a race.  

Bootlegger 50k in November is next on the schedule, and I may "mini-taper" for that race, since it will be my last long run before the real taper starts for TNF 50 in December.  Feeling good about progress during this training cycle.  It's higher volume than what I've done in the past, and also a little more tempo stuff than usual.  

And so far, it's working.

He doesn't care, He'll race in blue jeans.