Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Stop! In the Name of Blood(y Nips)

Despite my habit of forking out money for the techiest of tech apparel, as a curvy female, I often find myself chafing in places that should not chafe. When hiking or biking, slathering some Bodyglide or Vaseline onto the chafe-prone areas prior to the activity usually does the trick, but when I’m running, mmmmnot so much – not in one very specific area, anyway.

Only that particular breed of masochist known as the long-distance runner will empathize with me. It wasn’t till I crossed the finish line of my first marathon, sweat drenched, chest heaving…

Wait, scratch that.

It wasn’t until I jumped in the shower after my first marathon and screamed bloody murder when the water hit my skin that I understood the agony that accompanies chafed nipples. And I vowed to never, ever experience it again.

Now, I am the first to admit that this is normally more of a guy problem than a girl problem (as jog bras usually prevent the problem in smaller-breasted women). I’d seen guys at the finish line with bloody lines extending down from each nipple, guys with band-aids, guys who’d lost their band-aids to sweat and friction, and guys with these weird octagonal-shaped nipples protruding from their Coolmax.

After experimenting with sports lubricants such as Bodyglide, Sportslick, and Hydropel to no avail – and being quite confident it had nothing to do with the level of support I was getting from my jog bra – I stumbled onto a product called NipGuards at a race expo. Basically, NipGuards are small octagonal pieces of foam with a strong adhesive on one side, which you stick overtop your nipples. The outside of the foam is friction-resistant, allowing whatever fabric that would normally rub up against your skin to move with ease.

I had my doubts that the adhesive would hold for that many miles, but I was willing to give it a shot. I was a little worried about looking silly, but I figured octagon-nipples (at approximately $0.90 a pair) were a small price to pay for a chafe-free marathon.

To my great surprise, the product worked like a charm – no chafing, no movement. The adhesive was strong enough to survive 26 miles and buckets of sweat and rain. They didn’t come off till I peeled them off in my post-race scream-free shower.

I will never run a distance over thirteen miles without them again.

Grade: A+++++++

Sunday, July 26, 2009

cold gear...i'll never leave home without it

Anyone who's been caving with me knows that I have a very difficult time staying warm when I'm not actively moving around. I'm the kinda girl that wears Cap3 on a cool summer evening. This cold is not limited to caving, mind you, as I've frozen my butt off in my fair share of grocery stores, movie theatres, restaurants, and countless other exotic locales. My awesome superpower best shows itself underground and in water, though.

After one particularly frigid trip last year to Limrock Blowing Cave, managed by our friends over at SCCi, wherein particularly hilarious video footage was shot of me dancing to get warm (cue up Poison's "Talk Dirty to Me" in your preferred music player; they've disabled sound)...I resolved to get a better handle on the situation.

I bought any number of base layers to test them in the miserable conditions that caves present: a steady temperature of 56F with even colder water that you often get to swim and crawl through (goodie!) and zero sun to add warmth (because, you know, there's no sun in caves). The key is to be fully flexible, not overheated when I'm moving around, and warm when I'm stationary or swimming. This is harder to achieve than one might initially think. But, yesterday, one particular set of layers fit the bill and proved to be way more valuable than gold.

We ventured out to Steward Springs Cave, and spent most of the time partially immersed in water, or so it seemed. I started with one set of base layers, and about halfway through finally decided I'd had enough chattering of my teeth and tough-gal efforts so I switched to my magic layers: Coldgear Compression (under my wet clothes).

I immediately felt the difference. I don't know what took me so long, honestly. I never overheated, and I was not cold for the rest of the cave.

They can be pricey for a budget shopper, but I swear it's some of the best money I've spent on gear. Coldgear is a flexible base layer with some kind of magic membrane that keeps you warm but not too warm. I know there are some cheap knockoffs at places like Cabelas that you might check out (my fiancé swears by them) if you don't want to spring for the $50. They claim the wicking will keep you dry, but obviously that's fairly null and void when you're swimming.

Seriously though, I'm in lurv.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

My Home Away From Home...

...This is how I referred to my Eureka Solitaire backpacking tent, my loyal friend and companion for two years and close to 20 backpacking trips.

It took me almost a year to accumulate a good set of backpacking gear. Being lightweight can be expensive! This particular purchase encompassed weeks of searching catalogs, websites, etc. to find something that would be light enough for someone as small as myself while still falling within an appropriate price range. While I love REI with all my heart, they have neither when it comes to backpacking tents. Their tents are not light and they are quite pricey. I had seen the Solitaire in my Campmor catalog and on a few websites, and, at $80.00 and 2.5 lbs, it seemed about as close as I would get. They had it in Dick's Sporting Goods, so I went to the store and crawled in. Satisfied, I went home and did what I always do first with big purchases: entered the name of the product into such websites as Froogle and Pricegrabber. Finally, at $64.00, including shipping, from some outdoor store I had never heard of and couldn't tell you to this day, my tent was on its way!

Cons: Tall people beware! This is not the tent for you. However, as I myself am a whopping 5'4", it was the tent for me. The Solitaire is what is referred to in the backpacking world as a "coffin". It's tiny. You have to change your clothes laying on the ground. Gear can be a tight squeeze. Sometimes, when someone on the trip has a big tent for one person, I will coax them into keeping my pack in their tent.

In addition, it's not the easiest to put up. There are two poles which bend into half circles, and it will not stand without the stakes. Once you get the hang of it, it's not that bad, but I have to admit, I yelled at it on more than one occasion and every so often I pinched my finger between the stake and the hook.

Pros: Well, first of all, it's light and cheap. You are not going to find many tents out there in this price range that don't weigh 3-5 lbs. The last I checked, REI didn't carry a single backpacking tent under 3 lbs, even the $300.00 models! They also do not carry anything under $100.00. This rule typically applies even with sale items on their website...

The small size isn't just good for lightening your load on those long hikes. It keeps you warm when it's cold! I have slept comfortably in this tent on more than one 15-20 degree night in the winter. There is also a zipper underneath the built-in rain fly to keep you cooler when it's hot.

If you think the low price tag means low quality, think again! This tent is extremely durable, and, unlike, the Walmart tent, it kept me dry without seam sealer. (Caveat: I have found the one thing this tent cannot survive: ME! Just as the North Face pants cannot stay fully intact in the knee when I do a triple somersault onto a rock while hiking, the Eureka Solitaire tent poles cannot survive being beaten repeatedly by a trekking pole to remove ice from the outside of the tent after a night of freezing rain. Who knew?!)

All in all, I think this is a fantastic tent for a small person on a budget. For several months, I spent every weekend in this tent, and never wished for anything more. While the REI Crysalis (Price tag $50 higher, even on clearance, weight 8 oz. heavier) has been purchased as a replacement and is next in line to vie for my affections, I will miss my old friend and starter tent.

Grade: B+

Monday, July 20, 2009

i've turned into a hipster

Ok, I've got a confession to make. Remember when I blogged about how much I loved my Chacos and how they had a tendency to clamp but I was still on the fence about taking them back because I loved the rest of them so much? Yeah, well. Pretty much the next day I decided I'd had enough of dead toes syndrome. So, I took them back (thank you REI for your generous return policy).

After my speedy return, I walked straightaway to the shoes to buy a pair of Hipthongs (what IS it with their naming conventions?) and have NOT looked back. They are everything I thought the Zongs could and should be.

I don't have any clamping problems, they slip on easily in the morning, and they have the great arch support that sold me on Chacos in the first place. I love them so much I considered wearing them to a cocktail affair on Friday evening--proper cocktail fashion won, but I missed them all night and thought several times about sneaking out to the car to switch out.

I'd probably sleep in them if that wouldn't be totally, utterly silly. (I bet I'd sleep better!!)

Rating: A+++++

Editor's Note: I would take a look at the Unaweeps if you're looking for water sports. Without a back, I don't know that they'd stay on! Just don't get the kind that wrap around your big toe...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

reduce, reuse, recycle...revival in atlanta

I will always be a devoted fan of REI, aka The Big Kids Toystore, but when I get the opportunity I like to support independent retailers. I recently heard of The Gear Revival, and took a moment to pop my head in.

I'll admit I was expecting a tiny hole of a store based on their "Atlanta Store" photo, and I was pleasantly surprised to find quite the contrary: it's no REI mothership, but still nicely sized. Big enough, not overwhelming.

The Gear Revival "buys, sells, and trades new and gently used gear for outdoor adventures." ... When I want to finally sell some of my extra gear, I have a great and easy way to go about selling it. And I'm totally ok with buying used gear and clothing, plus whatever new stuff I find there. They were not pushy as I nosed around, but not absent if I needed help.

I took a quick peak at their backpacking packs, and was happy to see that (at first glance) they appear to be selective about the gear they take in. The packs appeared to be in great condition with a range of options. The other used products I browsed were also in good to great condition, with equally good pricing. I found some pants for $10, and our favourite backpacking cook set for $20. New pricing seemed to be right in line with competition, if not slightly lower.

They do not offer the extremely generous return policy that REI does, which could be seen as a drawback by many, but I honestly wouldn't expect them to offer that. Their return policy strikes me as perfectly reasonable:

NEW, unused products may be returned to us within 15 calendar days of receipt for a refund if not satisfied. Contact us for a return authorization number...With all of that said, if you are ever unsatisfied with a purchase from us, pleaes contact a manager and he or she will make sure you are taken care of. Your complete satisfaction is our goal.

I give them an A for offering an alternative and for being an independent retailer in a sea of chains. I'm still pretty devoted to the other big folks, but will happily support these guys when I can.

PS. For those not in ATL, they have an ebay store and sell some products online.

Monday, July 6, 2009

How low can you go? Budget backpacking, Walmart style...Tents and pads.

A lot of people have told me they would love to get into backpacking, but they need time to buy all the gear. I understand this sentiment. It took me 8 or 9 months to accumulate the gear to go on my first trip, and that was with a budget. However, time and experience has taught me that, while you really do want to get that nice, expensive gear for the perfect lightweight experience, there are some corners that can be cut if you want to go now instead of waiting until next March.

Last fall, while packing our gear after car camping in Northwest Georgia at a caving weekend, one of the people in our group came over to a few of us and told us to feel his tent. It seemed like an odd request, but I picked it up and it felt lighter than my backpacking tent. "Walmart, $20.00," he said. I was intrigued, and, incidentally, at Walmart the next day after work purchasing the Junior Dome Tent from Ozark Trail.

This led to a battery of tests which concluded this weekend on a car camping trip in Bryson City, NC. How can a seasoned backpacker trust a $20.00 backpacking tent?

First, the weight test. It felt light in the store, but what would it be next to my $70.00 coffin of a backpacking tent? The Eureka Solitaire is approximately a 2lb, 9oz tent, both lighter and cheaper than anything I have seen at REI in recent days. I went through a very scientific process while comparing the weight of the two tents: I picked them up. The Walmart tent felt lighter. Grade: A+

Second, the space test. The Solitaire, while awesome in many ways which will be described in a subsequent post, is small. I refer to it as my coffin tent because you can't really sit up in it. It's that small. The Junior Dome Tent is 6' x 5'. I pitched it in my living room and laid inside this tent, which I should mention was recommended by a man who is 6'1" tall. It was like my own little backpacking condo. I could sit, stand (hunched over, anyway), hang out... The recommended way of sleeping in this tent, if used solo, is diagonally, however. It's a tad short otherwise. Beyond that, huge. Bonus: If you don't want to carry the stakes, the tent stays up fine without them, and you can save a few more ounces on the weight. Grade: A-

Finally, the weather test. This was where I was concerned. A thin-materialed $20.00 tent that weighs less than the majority of high rated backpacking tents I have researched? You can be sure I would not take it out in the winter. I won't lie about that. However, I decided to take it out this weekend for the final test, in a situation where I could just throw my stuff in the car if the tent was too leaky. I got my test yesterday morning, when it poured down rain on us for a solid 4-5 hours. I was not surprised to find that the tent leaked at the seams after 3-4 hours of heavy rain. What I was surprised by was how little it leaked relative to the amount of rain we actually got (and it should be noted that several others on the trip commented that their other tents leaked at the seams as well). The troubleshooting guide on the inside of the tent recommends seam sealer, which I purchased at the Nantahala Outdoor Center for $4.50. So, yeah, you get what you pay for, to an extent. My stuff was not completely dry. But it was dry enough that I would definitely use the tent again, on a real backpacking trip. Would I check the weather when choosing between that and one of my more expensive, slightly heavier tents? Probably, but if it were the only tent I owned, I don't think I would really hesitate. Grade: B-. Grade post seam sealer: TBD.

Budget option #2: The pad. While laying in my living room on my roommate's foam exercise pad (Walmart, approx $18, see example), it occurred to me that it was quite comfortable and might do as another budget backpacking option, so I brought it out with the tent for the second element of my experiment. I was not wrong. While it hasn't passed the winter test yet, the foam exercise pad was as soft as my thermarest with less slipping and sliding off the pad. It is also as light or lighter in weight than my Thermarest. Added bonus: no inflation and deflation! Any good backpacker knows how tedious the process of blowing up and deflating your pad can be. Grade: A.

For the beginner backpacker who is ready to let their cheap and lazy side shine through, this tent and pad option is a must-buy. The tent can be put up with two poles and no stakes, and the pad requires no inflation and deflation. The total cost is under $40.00, perhaps just over $40.00 with the seam sealer and optional water-proofing spray to protect the dryness of your gear in a torrential downpour.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

'Tis the season...

...For running. Ok, actually, it's totally not, but this is the weekend of the Peachtree Road Race, the world's largest and most popular road race for reasons entirely beyond my comprehension, so I figured, why not write a review about running shoes and how to shop for them.

I learned the hard way that you don't just show up at the sporting goods store and buy the high-rated, expensive shoe. In January 2008, while training for my first big race, I decided that I would buy some "serious" running shoes. I promptly made my way to Dick's Sporting Goods, where I picked up a pair of $130.00 Saucony shoes that were heaven on my feet. (Of course, they were last year's model, and marked down to about half off. I may be an impulse buyer, but I am still cheap.) Runner's World loved these shoes and had them listed as one of the best of 2007. These shoes were so soft on the inside I wore them everywhere just so my feet could be in them. Totally jazzed about the new investment, I ran two 7 milers on a week when my long run was only supposed to be 5 miles. I thought I was unstoppable.

About 3 days after the second of these 7 mile runs, as I was running an easy 2-3 miles on the treadmill after work, I was in agony. That night my ankle was so swollen I could barely stand on it. I ended up with an overuse injury that put me out of the sport of running (and just about everything else) for about a month. Every day as I drove home from work and watched the runners in my neighborhood, I cringed because I could not join them. It was mental agony until early March. Was I able to run the half marathon in April? Yes, with Advil and effort, and everything was killing me when I did it. In May of 2008, a debilitating ankle injury and some nasty shin splints later, I finally cracked under the pressure and decided it was time for a stride test.

I made my way over to the Big Peach Running Company in Decatur expecting to break the bank. This was a specialty store where they would test my stride and tell me the only way I could ever successfully continue my running career would be to buy their $300.00 shoe with $150.00 inserts. My palms were sweating around my credit card, but I was determined. I had signed up for a marathon and I was going to run it.

What I experienced was unlike what I had imagined. Two salespeople measured my arch and put me on a treadmill, where I ran for several minutes in all of about 12 pairs of shoes while at least one other person and I watched the way my legs moved and discussed the effectiveness of each shoe. Now I was expecting to spend $800.00. Forty-five minutes of personal attention later, I settled on a shoe I loved - the Mizuno Wave Rider, which offered some support for a mild overpronation, but not so much that I would underpronate. Or something. Who understands that stuff? I closed my eyes and asked the price hesitantly. The guy said to me "$200.00." I said "Ok." Not so bad. "I'm just kidding, they're $97.00."

Forty-five minutes of personal attention, help from two salespeople, two different types of testing, and I spent less than $100.00 on my shoes?!?!?! Yes, this really happened. And I have been satisfied with the result. Of course, I have had injuries since then. I didn't stop running. Shoes are just shoes, not the miracle cure-all for your feet and legs. However, I could feel the difference in my runs, and I wasn't getting hurt every time I hit the pavement. I love this store so much, I will not buy my shoes anywhere else, even if I find them for a better price. I tell everyone I know to go there. If you are not lucky enough to live in Atlanta and have a Big Peach of your own, by all means, go to another store, but make sure you get the stride test if you want to be serious about running, and hopefully you will find a place that is comparable.

Grade: This store gets a resounding A+ rating from me. When I was at the Atlanta Thanksgiving Half Marathon Expo last fall and saw a pair of my shoes for $80.00, I wasn't going to buy them, until I realized the stand was run by Big Peach.

Tip for the Peachtree Road Race: Bring snacks and money for more snacks. Unlike every other road race I have ever run and despite extensive sponsorship, they do not feed you at the end of the Peachtree. Your muscles need calories to recover, so be prepared by carrying a post-run snack or some cash to grab one at the Park Tavern.