Monday, November 21, 2011

Koskenkorva Martini

"I've climbed with some of the best climbers in the world, more importantly, to me, they are some of the best people in the world. That's another reason why I climb."
~Jim Wickwire

I really like to climb.

No, really. I do.

And why I like it so much - love it, in fact - is hard to distill down into a single statement. I've tried. But each time I think I have it quantified and pinned down, I realise I've left one or two or a hundred things out. Every climbing experience is unique and holds its own magical treasures. There are certainly things which top the list of why I love climbing and some ever-present themes - the zen-like quality; the control; the mindfulness; the freedom; the challenge; the dance-like movements - but I can have as rich and rewarding an experience playing around on 5.8s teaching new climbers as I have puzzling out the pieces of a rapturous - and torturous - 5.12 that draws sweat, blood and tears. How is it that I enjoy climbing as much on a perfect blue-sky day as on a miserable, rain-soaked and frozen-to-the-bones day? Why is a top-belay in too-small shoes in the blazing sun just as enjoyable as a sit-belay from a grassy field in the shade?

There has to be something, right?

A recent weekend adventure of climbing brought that something out of the shadows and into sharp focus. As variable as the situation, the weather, the location, the temperature, the comfort of the gear, the quality of the rock, there actually is a constant: the people. I get to climb with awesome people. And a day climbing, 'suffering' up an unknown 5.14 in Golden or in agony 50 feet up a cliff in Diablo Canyon because I brought the wrong shoes for multi-pitch or freezing my ass off in El Rito because a summer storm moved in to dump rain and hail while halfway up a 90 foot route, with people I truly like is better than most anything I can think of.

I turned 40 this year. I viewed turning 40 in the same way I viewed turning 20: a non-milestone. It held no more fear or excitement than turning 39 did. Or 12. Or 26. However, 40 is a nice, round number and it did elicit a good party and a wealth of presents (Yay presents!). Among the gifts was a climbing route. Really.

Two fellow climbers, Vaino and Doni, had scoped out a possible new route and had earmarked it for me to develop. I got a card. And a photo of the cliff. With a note: This is your route.

I don't squeal. But if I did? Big squeal.

To say I was excited is a bit of an understatement. I've rode shotgun on bolting before. I have some first ascents. My name is attached to a few routes. But I had never developed a route from start to FA.

And setting the route? Bolting it? Climbing it for the very first time ever? PERFECT.

Yes, it was a beautiful day for climbing. Yes the weather was incredibly cooperative. Even the burrito from Sofia's Kitchen  - chicharones and red chile for me, thanks! - was remarkably tasty on the way to the crag.

But it was the company that was truly perfect.

Every climbing adventure I have had revolves around the shared experiences. And this was no exception. I am honored and quite flattered that Doni and Vaino entrusted me with such a gift. They have developed entire walls and Vaino has set some of my favorite routes both in New Mexico and Colorado. But what truly made the experience memorable was that they were with me and I got to climb with them.

So if you want to climb something I've set, head down to Socorro in southern New Mexico. Maybe you'll feel some of the joy I experienced - especially if you climb it with good friends.

It is in The Box. On Alcohol Wall, which is part of the Major Wall Area. It's a short 5.10a. But it is mine and I'm pretty proud of it.

Koskenkorva Martini (5.10a)
A short, fun route. Easy standing first clip. Start on some generous incut holds, moving left, making the second clip and up to the feature (a little cave with a large tooth that looks like the silhouette of a bat). Pull up on a solid match on the 'tooth' and reach for a juggy side pocket to the left for the clip. High feet will get you a decent hold on the right and higher feet will get you up to the great ledge on the left - definitely the crux. Pull up to a short scramble for another clip and up to the finish at the anchors.

Koskenkorva Martini

Vaino & Doni
 Setting and bolting the route.

Safety first.

Drilling a bolt hole.

Drilling a bolt hole.

Hammering in a bolt.

Cleaning the route.
First ascent of Koskenkorva Martini.

The "bat" feature.

Moving past the crux.

At the bolts.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Why I Buy? The Shiny and the Solid

"And I am a weapon of massive consumption
And its not my fault it's how I'm programmed to function"
~Lily Allen

Gear is almost indescribably wonderful.
I am a confessed gear whore.
gear whore n. someone who has to have the best, most expensive, coolest gear, useful or not.
Yes, I like the shiny and the new. And there are times when I look over my rack and I realise I am just one or two colour-coordinated draws away from being one of those sport climbers.

But really, why do I buy what I buy? Such a simple question does not have a simple answer.

I have worked in marketing and advertising for the past 20 years and have a pretty good grasp on how the artifice and casuistry of product pimping works. But that doesn’t mean I am immune. In fact, I have a high appreciation for a well-crafted advertisement and am more likely to invest at least my time into researching a product that is packaged well and peddled in just the right way to highlight its particular je ne sais quoi. Black and white sketches or flat product photos might be enough to pique some consumers’ interest, but many people really do prefer the glossy, full-colour splash of gear-in-action (me included). It’s a world of embodying the brand.

Not an actual product. Sorry.
Companies like Black Diamond Equipment and Petzl know this. They don’t casually spend their advertising dollars. And retailers know what they are doing when they put those pretty products in the hands and on the backs of pretty people.

But as much as the beautiful people and shiny colours get my attention, it is not the reason I buy. Getting the customer into the store or to your website might be half the battle, but half does not make a sale.

The performance of a piece of gear - be it a rope, draw, cam or headlamp - is crucial to any buying decision I make. I may like shiny, but that shiny needs to be backed up by solid and functional. When it comes to climbing gear, I’m trusting my life to its performance; if the lobes on a cam fall off, a rope fails in a fall or the stitching on a belay loop comes undone, the prettiness of any gear is moot. Taking a look outside of the sphere of neon advertising is important. And for that I love reviews.

Katanas = awesomeness!
To glean the information I need about gear, I love reading reviews. From the slick editorials in industry magazines to the postings on Internet forums and retailer web pages, the views of actual end-users is invaluable. Knowing the good and the bad and how they balance is key to get me from “Oh! Shiny! Want!!” to actually purchasing a product. No piece of gear is perfect (OK, maybe my lovely Katanas...) and knowing about the less-than-perfect aspects of it helps me weigh the actual value to me, myself and I.

But reviews can still be a bit remote or removed. It’s great to read what Sharma thinks about the new Sterling ropes (OK maybe we’ll file that one under ‘embodying the brand’ and walk away) or what badgirlclimber873 thinks about the Grigri 2. But it is even better to be able to relate those experiences to your own use of gear. And that’s where one of the most important elements of why I buy gear comes into play: personal recommendations.

I trust the people with whom I choose to surround myself. And a thumbs-up from a friend is worth more than all the glossy-pages any advertising budget can buy. The breadth of use of gear by my fellows may not be as far reaching as the pros nor even as broad as many other people out there, but it is immediately relevant to me and my use. Our abilities and interests run, if not entirely parallel, at least in the same spheres.

If I am looking to get a new piece of equipment, my most valuable resources are the people around me. Have they used it? Do they like it or not? Why? Does the x-factor of a particular piece of gear really matter in the end? No one is paying them - outright or under-the-table - to give me an opinion.

The final piece in my decision to buy is personal experience. I like to try out equipment before I buy it. On the trail, at the crag or in the store, being able to see how a piece of gear and I work together is important. It can be something as simple as knowing if my hand fits nicely into a chalk bag or as crucial as knowing if a pair of new climbing shoes (Don’t worry Katanas, I’m not replacing you!) cuts in at the ankles or has a toe-box that doesn’t suit my feet. That’s why I am so often a repeat customer; when I am familiar with and trust gear I will keep going back to it again and again.

Perhaps characterising myself as a gear whore is unfair and, in fact, untrue. I am actually very cautious and judicious in my decision to buy. A company might get my attention with flashing lights and sirens, but it is quality, dependability and reputation that will get me to cross that line and become an actual consumer. I do like to have pretty gear. And yes, some of my gear goes unused for long stretches. But I don’t have it just for the sake of having it. Make a quality product that is useful and innovative. Wrap it up in a pretty package. Let me use it and put it to the test and talk to others about it. I might buy it. And if I do, I'll tell others about how much I like it.

This post can also be read on the fabulous PembaServes website: Why I Buy? The Shiny and The Solid.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Climbing the Wu Wei

"... at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance."
~T. S. Eliot

"The natural is sufficient. If one strives, he fails."
~Wang Pi

I had an interesting exchange on Twitter about climbing. 

tweep1: Gnarly bruise and knot, plus a sore elbow, from fighting my way up a crazy 11c yesterday. :) #climb
@Paukku: Tsk tsk. You shouldn't be fighting. Flow with the route. Become the route.
tweep2: I'm a big proponent of having the ability to both flow and fight, then you can get thru whatever the route dictates

@Paukku: I find that if I think a route dictates 'fighting' I am climbing it wrong. I am very wu wei when it comes to it.
tweep2: but there are routes out there that require full extension lunges and low lock-offs, which many would call "fighting"
@Paukku: Semantics. Fighting is purposeful violent conflict meant to establish dominance over something. Not how I climb.

Semantics indeed. One could argue that I could just accept that "fight" in this context was being used to indicate "conscious exertion of power" and move on. Some routes are 'harder' and require different movements and more effort, right? But to me that is not the point. To me, climbing is not about power or winning or conquering. And it is certainly not about fighting.

Wu Wei
One of the seeming paradoxes of Taoism, a school of thought I greatly admire, is the concept of Wu Wei. It is a concept of effortless action or action without doing. Non-doing. Put another way, it is action in which there is no division between the object and the action that is done. It is action that is both spontaneous and effortless without being passive.

Got that?

From a climbing perspective, this translates to graceful climbing. And I admire graceful climbers. I love watching the flow - another key for understanding Wu Wei - of a climber who does not fight against a route. Each move is the right action, appropriate to its time and place, and creates greater harmony and balance within the climb. Capturing that beauty of form and movement is how I approach climbing.

This is key to the mental character of climbing - a constituent element of climbing that is sadly overlooked by many, especially as this sport becomes more and more popular.

Climbing in the Wu Wei is not the absence of action, but rather the absence of conflict. It is climbing without combative or egotistical effort. This kind of climbing is like water that flows over and around the rocks in its path; it does not try to force a path, but works with the natural rhythm of its surroundings. Water is yielding and soft, yet it is powerful and shapes the world.

Rather than seeing a particular move within a climb - a lunge or a lockoff - as an obstacle, I see it instead as an opportunity to understand the flow of the route. Those moments of clarity - those wonderful aha moments - when a route seems impossible and then suddenly becomes possible are never about how I can fight harder; they are about realising the flow of the route and then matching it. They are about accord.

Am I just splitting hairs?

I don't think so.

To characterize climbing, even a very challenging and difficult climb, as fighting is contradictory to the very essence of why I love climbing. I am not getting into the arena with an adversary who must be subjugated or defeated; I am journeying with a friend.

As Benjamin Hoff states in The Tao of Pooh:

When you work with Wu Wei, you put the round peg in the round hole and the square peg in the square hole. No stress, no struggle. Egotistical Desire tries to force the round peg into the square hole and the square peg into the round hole. Cleverness tries to devise craftier ways of making pegs fit where they don’t belong. Knowledge tries to figure out why round pegs fit into round holes, but not square holes. Wu Wei doesn't try. It doesn't think about it. It just does it. And when it does, it doesn't appear to do much of anything. But Things Get Done.

That is how I approach climbing. And that feeling, when I am in the moment of a climb, when I am following the lines a route reveals to me, letting them lead me so that I flow, is one of the best feelings in the world. It makes me peaceful and present. I am the point, the still point.

One of the nicest compliments I have ever received is when someone told me that I make climbing look effortless. I could not do that if I was fighting.


Thursday, September 01, 2011

Gear Review: PETZL Xion Rope & Ange Finesse Quickdraws

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. 
~Lao Tzu

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. And sometimes that is just what you need.

The plan was straight forward enough. A day-trip to Castlewood Canyon for some rope climbing, specifically to Grocery Store Wall. It’s a crag I have climbed at before and it offers a good variety of routes. My climbing partner, Tali of Cupcake Mafia, was interested in some solid TR and I was excited about getting back on “Bozo No No”, a 5.11a sport that I was itching to climb again, and use my new, shiny gear.

Bozo No No, August 2009

I am funny when it comes to gear. On the one hand I like the familiar, the predictable and the comfortable. New gear tends to stay new on my rack because when I am comfortable with a piece of gear, I rely on it without thinking, reaching for it instinctively. It becomes an extension of me. I almost always turn to the old gear, favouring it over new gear which is untested in my own hands and can be, and often is, decidedly different in feel and operation. On the other hand, new gear is sexy and pretty and I’ somewhat of a gear whore.

When some new Petzl Ange Finesse Quickdraws and a lovely 10.1 XION rope came into my possession, those two facets of my personality collided. What to do with the new gear? I had been getting rather anxious to go climbing. As most every crag in New Mexico was closed due to the fire danger and actual fires, climbing in my home state was pretty much out. But with a trip up to Colorado planned and the gear being so shiny, it seemed like this was a sign. Synchronicity!

So here we were, driving through Franktown on the way to Castlewood Canyon and some outside routes at long last.

Grocery Store Wall is easy to get to from Denver. That’s both good and bad. Good, because who doesn’t like a quick drive from Denver and an easy five-minute approach? Bad, because who doesn’t like a quick drive from Denver and an easy five-minute approach? It can get crazy crowded. But when we parked the lot was not even close to full. However, the two 16-passenger vans did make us a bit nervous.

There’s nothing more disheartening to find when you head out to the crag than ropes as far as the eye can see. It’s like finding a crowded indoor gym outside somehow. The vans apparently supplied the kids to complete that gym-feel.

Maybe “Bozo No No” would be open. But no, a sizable group was gathered around the route and there didn’t seem to be any open TR routes to set up on to wait it out. My new gear was making noises from inside my pack. It sounded a lot like “Climb!” So what to do?

Grocery Store Wall is the only wall I’ve climbed at in Castlewood, but it is by no means the only wall in the canyon. There’s rumoured to be more than 600 routes in there. And Tali and I had looked at some of the other areas in the canyon. The night before we had discussed options if we encountered this very scenario. The Dungeon had stood out as a good possibility because it is not as easily accessible and therefore might not appeal to the washed masses of hobby-climbers. The routes are harder, but there’s still a good supply of TR and I’d have a large selection of sport routes to choose from.

Of course we had not counted on the cat.

Each of the crags we had selected as options had been dutifully looked up on the ever-helpful Mountain Project and printed out as mini-guides. This was especially important as a) we had experienced a “wandering around Castlewood Canyon kind of lost” experience before and b) the other possible crags were unfamiliar to either of us. So we leafed through the guides to The Dungeon and found we had only the cover page. Because the cat likes to play with the printer. (Thank you, Finn!)

What the heck, we thought. We’ve got the directions to the crag. And a whole day to play on routes. Off we went along Cherry Creek River. As anyone knows who has set off to find something with only an indistinct idea of where it is and only vague directions on how to get there can attest, a moderate hike can become one of unusually great scope. But Castlewood Canyon is simply gorgeous and despite the humidity and heat the walk was beautiful.

(A word of advice here. Always, always read through the comments on Mountain Project. If you don’t you might miss important advice. For example, when the directions state that the area is “Located at the N end of West Rim” and you do not read the comments, you might miss where it states: “The Dungeon is not located on the north end of the west rim...[it] is located just north of the western-most projection of the east rim.” And if you are not wanting an epic approach, this is good stuff to know.)

Neither of us had planned on the long (long) hike, but the vistas were incredible and really, it was just what I needed. Great company and good adventure are a salve for the soul. (Thank you, cat!)

When we arrived at last at The Dungeon, it became immediately clear why it holds that name. We approached from the top, and looking down on it it really does look like a dungeon.

We were tired, over-heated and sweaty. But we were here. It was time to unpack the gear and climb. Wally, my ever present climbing charm, was ready to go.

The Dungeon offers sport climbs from 5.9 to 5.12d. Of course, not having a guide of any kind and not being familiar with the area, it was down to just playing on routes and seeing what felt good. We rappelled down into the shade (yay!) and started to climb.

The first thing I can say about the Ange Finesse Quickdraws is that they are light. Really light. The Ange S biners weigh in at only 28 g. That’s 9 g less than my usual biners weigh. The weight is not really an issue for day climbing on short sport routes (unless your approach goes from five minutes to several hours), but it is definitely appealing when putting together a rack for multipitch adventures. Twelve Finesse draws can save you up to half a pound.

The Ange S biners look different. They use a single wire gate system that quite honestly looks puny. But the design is pretty ingenious. The gate is remarkably smooth and despite its svelte appearance locks solidly into a hole in the nose. The hole, incidentally, prevents debris, like the flour-y dirt of Castlewood Canyon, from becoming trapped in the biner.

Another nice feature of the Ange is that the S biners sport nifty little grooves on the top and bottom on the inside of the biner. These act as guides that aligns the biner on both the sling and the rope, keeping the axis just right.

But along with the reduction in weight comes a significant reduction in size. The Ange S biners are smaller. A lot smaller. This is my only real gripe against the Ange. A smaller biner means a smaller gate which means a smaller opening. In the case of the Ange S it is 0.9-inches . I’m used to the 1.125-inches opening on my usual biners. That doesn’t look like much on paper, but this smaller opening made me fumble my clipping every so often. Kind of big deal as I (perhaps unwisely) warmed up on “The Rack”, a 5.11a. The last thing I wanted was to be groping awkwardly to get a clip.

I put the draws through the paces. I fell. A lot. And I hung on the draws quite a bit as well. Despite calling the Anges “Barbie biners” all day, they did what a draw is supposed to do. I was timid at first, the diminutive size making me think these were light-weight in the strength department as well, but I came to trust them. With a rating of 20 kN (4,496 lbf), gate closed - most of my draws have a 24 kN (5,395 lbf) rating, gate closed - they caught me just fine and I have no complaints when it comes to that.

Along with the Anges draws I brought along a pretty green Petzl 10.1 XION rope. I know. 10.1. Tiny little draws and a big rope. But the great thing about the XION is that it doesn’t feel like a big rope. The rope is smooth and supple and remarkably easy to handle. It glided through the ATCs without any problem. The weight was not an issue on the short sport climbs in The Dungeon. And it was a great rope for TR. And it’s green. You can’t go wrong with green.

(Quite happily we were unable to test out the Duratec Dry treatment that is a feature of the XION.)

After a day of playing in The Dungeon, we decided it would be wise to try to beat the setting of the sun and get back to the car. We could practically see the car from The Dungeon. Ok, it was across the canyon and across Cherry Creek River, but the hike in had been a little too epic. We decided to bushwhack. And that’s another story.

You can also find this review on the excellent Pemba Serves website: Gear Review: PETZL Xion Rope & Ange Finesse Quickdraws.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

To Be a Father

"The father who would taste the essence of his fatherhood must turn back from the plane of his experience, take with him the fruits of his journey and begin again beside his child, marching step by step over the same old road."
—Angelo Patri

It has been five years since I wrote "Fatherhood".

Five years of watching a miracle grow.

Five years of joy, worry, elation, sorrow, pride and wonder.

If I loved being a father five years ago, I'm not sure how to explain it now. There are things which define us because they are what we do - I climb rocks, therefor I am a rock climber - and then there are things which define us because they are what make up our souls.

The quote I used in "Fatherhood" has become even more poignant to me.

"There's something like a line of gold thread running through a mans words when he talks to his daughter, and gradually over the years it gets to be long enough for you to pick up in your hands and weave into a cloth that feels like love itself."
—John Gregory Brown, Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, 1994

Growing up I was always very expectant of each new milestone. Kindergarten. First grade. Middle school. High school. Graduation. Turning 18. Turning 21. Each time I was disappointed. I always experienced that let-down of when you don't get the gift you were expecting. That morning-after-Christmas blues.

Because what I was expecting was to feel different. I always thought I would cross some threshold and would suddenly be a changed person. What exactly that meant, I wasn't certain. But I heard people talk excitedly about each milestone like it was special. And each time I failed to feel that wonder I thought must be there.

As I got a little older I thought I pinned down that elusive something. I wanted to feel like an adult. I was waiting for that one event that would signal my change from a child into an adult.

But that did not happen.

Each hallmark of a life-well-lived passed without me feeling very adult-like at all. In fact, I really felt like I was faking it.

That was it. Everything I have done in my life I have done with a sense of it not really being...legitimate. Like I was pretending to be something I am not. I would look at the paradigm for X and come to the conclusion that I was certainly not X. I wasn't an adult. I was a child pretending to be an adult.

I have found that most of us feel this way.

But the day the Chickabiddy was born I did feel changed. It was like the molecules of my being rearranged, reformed into something new. The birth of my daughter was like an annealing of my character. I picked up the mantle of fatherhood and found that it not only felt comfortable, it felt natural and right and...perfect.

I cannot now remember not being a father.

I have heard many people say that having children changes your life. I agree. However, I do not agree that this is a bad thing. The connotation of that statement is almost always a negative one. The implication is that life becomes limited and restricted because of children. Tosh. My life became richer, fuller and more vibrant. Possibilities opened up that I never imagined. Maybe I was more of an adult than I realised.

I simply love being a daddy.

I still watch my daughter with amazement. Six years have flown by since I heard her first cry of life and they have been a wonderful six years. She is amazingly intelligent. And her heart is so tender and caring it makes my heart ache. I am still excited with the potential of her life, but after watching her grow and learn for six years I am also astounded by what she has already become.

I am connected to both that potential and that growth. And maybe that's why this feels so natural to me. I do not have to pretend. It is not something separate or removed from the rest of my life. In a very real way I have picked up the experiences of my life and have gone back to the beginning, to walk along side my daughter. Hand in hand.


Monday, June 06, 2011

Hobbit Ninja Feet Revisited

In the spring of 2007 I made a decision to work more on my cardio. This was not borne out of any tragic cardio-event, but more of a realisation that as I was getting older, focusing on my cardiovascular health would be a good thing. And the obvious choice for cardio, for many reasons, was running. The equipment needed is minimal and most of us have the coordination to perform it at least passably. But there was a catch. Running to me meant agony.

Back in high school I attempted to take up running. Not being a terribly sporty child (read: no soccer, baseball, volleyball, football, et hoc genus omne), running kind of went the way of Hardy Boys mysteries and Thundercats; running was a part of my childhood that just stayed there. But I remembered fairly clearly how to do the running thing. It was just like walking, only faster.

Not far into my new routine of running I started to get horrible pains in both my knees and in my lower back. The outer front of my right knee and the back of my left knee would swell considerably whenever I ran more than about three blocks and the pain would last for days. This put a stop to my high school running plans.

Throughout the rest of my teens and 20s I sporadically attempted to pick up running. Always with the same results. The pain I endured was just too much to make running practical for anything other than escaping slow moving zombies. I gave it up as a never-to-be and jokingly told people that I only ran when chased. Fair enough.

As I marched through the lower end of the 30s and hit some milestones, including the birth of my daughter, I began to once again think that working on some sort of cardio would be good. It is not that I was sloth - I rock climb and bike and swim and do gym things like lifting weights and bending myself to keep my joints well used - but I wanted something I could do consistently, on-the-fly and would give me that cardio workout I knew I needed. I could - and do - climb the stairs at work. But, dang it, I wanted to be able to take my casual activity and participate in an organized event every now and again. And the Stair Climbers 2,000 Steps just didn't sound fun.

Upon examining all the activities available to me, I once again decided that running was a logical choice, save for the whole excruciating pain part. So I started to do research. Initially, I was hoping to find something that would correct the defect in my running. I had never been told I run funny, but I had not, like one helpful website suggested, had someone video me running so I could analyze my running style. I read further.

I am not alone in my experiences of painful running. A lot of people experience it. A lot. And there are hundreds of thousand of websites dedicated to the subject. I read. And read. And read some more.

Apparently you can buy shoes that correct whatever deficiencies you have in running. There are stores that will set you running on a treadmill, analyze your gait and stride and countless other things and then give you a magical pair of shoes that will fix problems like supination and over-pronation and untold others.

This all sounded quite complicated for an activity we have been doing for as long as we've been upright. But I read more, because if this was going to fix my knees and back and let me run with wild abandon I was all for it. And in reading more I learned that those special shoes, over time, can cause new weaknesses to develop. But you can just go in and get a new pair of fix-it shoes for that.

I didn't like that.

Reading even more, I came across another school of thought on running and the pain associated with it. Shoes are the problem.

Ok, that is an interesting thought.

"Shoes do no more for the foot than a hat does for the brain."
—Dr. Mercer Rang, orthopedic surgeon and researcher in pediatric development

So why is barefoot supposedly better?  Because running, as with any sport, is about developing good technique. Shoes can - and very frequently do - inhibit this development. That idea really opened my eyes. If I were climbing with Bob and Bob had a horrible technique that was causing him to injury himself, I would not suggest that he get a piece of equipment to cover up that failure in technique. I would tell him he needed to improve his technique.

And in doing more research I eventually found Vibram Fivefingers.

In May of 2007 I ordered a pair of Vibram Fivefinger Sprints from the Vibram Fivefinger website as they were not available in stores in New Mexico at that time. And I immediately liked them. They were the best of both worlds for me. The Vibram sole protected my feet from the stickers and rocks and even glass that inevitably litters the walkways and streets of the city, and the glove-like fit and the individual toes allowed my foot far more range of motion and allowed the 26 bones, 33 joints and 20 muscles of each foot to do the job they were designed to do.

I started running. And, much to my surprise despite it being the reason I wanted to try them out, I did not suffer the knee and back pain I had come to associate with running. Running became fun again. I started participating in 5Ks and having a great time. And I noticed performance in my other activities improve as well.

Fast forward to 2011. I still have those same Sprints. Yes, they are that durable. I'm not saying there has been no wear and tear. The soles are thinner than they were and the material between my toes has wore down, even through, in some places. But I have put them through the paces. I wear them all the time. Not just for running. I use them for trailing hiking and as approach shoes and around town and for outdoor yoga and at the water park. I still love running in them. There is a child-like joy I get and it is that, almost more than the lack of pain in my knees and back, that have kept me a fan for four years.

Vibram now makes many varieties of Fivefingers. And they even make a pair specifically for running. In May of 2011, four years after getting my first pair, I ordered a pair of Bikilas. And I love them as much as my Sprints and KSOs (my dressy, black Fivefingers).

The Bikilas are actually a bit of a step away from 'barefoot' as they have more support, more underfoot protection and a much more aggressive tread. But really this isn't about being barefoot so much as it is about learning and maintaining the proper technique.

For running, especially if you are going to do lots of trail running or running where there might be little rocks and other debris in your path, the Bikilas are great. They have more overall support. The Bikila is truly a running shoe. It is engineered as such. To great effect. Despite the more engineered feel, they still allow that foot movement that makes Fivefingers so special.

Vibram Fivefingers are not for everyone. You have to have a pretty typical foot, specifically your toes cannot be decidedly long or crooked. And some people just do not like the feel of something between the toes.The sizing can be tricky. So if you can go into a store to try them out, I highly recommend that.

If you are looking for a minimalistic shoe, one that can help you feel more connected to the ground you walk on, and maybe even one that can help alleviate the aches and pains of bad running technique, give a pair of Fivefingers a try!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Not Like Me

"At bottom every man knows well enough that he is a unique being, only once on this earth; and by no extraordinary chance will such a marvelously picturesque piece of diversity in unity as he is, ever be put together a second time."
--Friedrich Nietzsche

You are not like me. You look different. You talk different.

And that's just fine.

I am not, as so many people seem to be, suspicious of difference. In fact, I am suspicious of sameness. I am leery of it.

I do not understand the mentality that would lead someone to wish to live in a world filled only with people "just like me". How frightful that would be. And boring.

Like eating the same food all the time.

I am not saying I am not without preferences or prejudices, we all have them. But when it comes to the people with whom I surround myself, I want diversity and variation. I want to be challenged in what I think is the way things are. I want to learn and grow and change.

Perhaps I have an unfair advantage. I grew up in a house in which a multitude of different nationalities and cultures constantly mixed. My parents always had exchange students from all over the world staying with us. And if you walked out the front door and looked at my neighborhood, the same neighborhood my daughter now calls her own, you'd see a mishmash of cultures. It's still that way. 40 years later.

And perhaps, too, I have never felt I fell within a culture that required an assertion of  "better than you". I never heard my parents say or saw my parents do anything remotely prejudiced. I was never raised with a sense of pride or honor because of my culture/race/socioeconomic status, rather I was raised to take pride and honor in the things I accomplished. Not the things I was by happenstance.

In my opinion, a culture is a not a thing that should be closely guarded and protected, but shared and celebrated.

We are not the same, you and I. We don't have to be.


Monday, January 24, 2011


resolve (ri zolv'). v., to come to a definite or earnest decision about; determine.

"We spend January one walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives...not looking for flaws, but for potential." --Ellen Goodman

In a flurry of misapplied inspiration I made myself a list of goals. As one year slipped into another, I thought it might be a good idea to arm myself with a catalogue of to-dos and to-don'ts; a page of milestones to reach in 2011. Or at the very least an index of ambition.

However, I'm not very good at upholding this particular cultural tradition. For one, I am out of practice, having made my last list of promises a good 20 years ago. For another, I am not fond of lists. They are linear and confining. And I suck at making them.

But I armed myself with pen and paper and started to work on my list.

It looked something like this:

  1. Onsight a 5.12
  2. Send a V9
  3. Drop my 5K time to under 22 minutes
  4. Do 150 tpups (pull-ups) in one session
  5. Ride my bike to and from work at least a third of the time
  6. Perform a flawless Vrschikasana
   7. Write at least one blog entry every month

Not bad goals, if a little too centered on the physicality of living. Each item seemed to meet the criteria of a good resolution (to my mind): specific, measurable, attainable, self-improving. I was pretty pleased with my list.

But the Universe, always with a wry sense of humour, did not like my list.

I did not charge into 2011 waving my list of resolutions in the air and conquering as I had planned. It was more of a stumble. A painful, clumsy stumble.

Starting off the New Year with two dislocated ribs was not on my list – I checked.

I assure you, the pain of this, if you have never experienced it firsthand, is quite impressive. It hurts to move. It hurts to be still. It hurts to stand. It hurts to sit. It hurts to lie down. It hurts to breathe. And it is not the type of injury you can tape up and ignore. Believe me, I've tried.

This left me with a pretty useless list. And a bad case of the self-pities. Despite my continued assertion that I am not a sporty guy, being unable to do physical things leaves me panic-y and more than a little depressed.  I'm not good at resting. I'm not good at 'not doing'.

And so for the first two weeks of 2011 I pouted. 

But I also thought a lot.

I looked at my list again. And I thought about my goals. And the nature of resolutions.

I am certain that this tradition of making a list of goals means different things to different people. People do it for different reasons. People do it in different ways. And perhaps for me this was the wrong way. I have never needed a tick list to send a route in rock climbing. I have never needed a mapped out plan for progressing in yoga. I am much more creative when I do not have an A, B and C set before me.

Along with its seeming sardonic cruelty, the Universe is also a very sneaky teacher.

Turns out that 'resolve' can mean a lot of things. 

resolve (ri zolv'). iv., to progress from dissonance to consonance.


When my life runs smoothly and I grow as a person, it is not from following a list. It is from listening – to my body, to what feels right and natural, to what the Universe has to tell me. When I approach an activity, be it writing or climbing or running or drawing or yoga, with affinity and not in an adversarial way I get the most out of it and make the biggest progress.

Some people need to overcome, master and control. Yet the things which bring me happiness and peace and quality of life are not things against which I have to fight and struggle. My strength comes not from overpowering a challenge, but by growing.

Two dislocated ribs. It is easy to see the dissonance. It prevents me from doing the things I love. But I can find the consonance, if I pause and look and reflect.

Rest. Reflect. I will accomplish all the things I need to accomplish in 2011. And I do not need a list. But I do need to listen.