Singularity

Tag: gear

Sam reviews: Vibram Fivefingers Lontra

by on Jan.08, 2013, under gear

avatarAnyone who has spent enough time in my presence to notice my shoes will know that I’m a committed user of Vibram Fivefingers (VFFs), and have been for the last three years. I am rarely found in anything else when travelling on foot. Initially I started wearing them because they allowed me to walk properly and run again after a serious foot injury. Now I wear them because normal shoes feel weird and wrong, not to mention resurrecting the problems that made me turn to barefoot living in the first place. I have KSOs for work and Bikilas for running.

The problem is, of course, that I live in a maritime climate at a similar latitude to Gothenburg, Yekaterinburg and Fort McMurray. That means that most of the year it is wet, and in the winter it is wet and cold. Outdoor pursuits that involve walking or running in VFFs are out for a large chunk of the year. My damaged foot does not tolerate being cold and wet and VFFs are neither warm nor waterproof.

Or rather, they weren’t.

December 2012 saw the long-awaited release of Vibram’s new insulated and/or waterproof models, the Lontra (and its LS variant) and the Speed XC. To say that I’d been champing at the bit to get hold of a pair is something of an understatement. I’d heard about their coming release back in September and my race season generally starts in March. Losing an entire winter’s training could have scuppered my comeback so I went as far as emailing the UK distributors of Vibram, as well as Vibram Europe and Vibram US.

I think I must have been one of the first UK residents to order a pair, direct from Italy just before Christmas. As I’ve got on so well with the Bikila and the KSO I went for the Lontra as the strap fastening and the neoprene cuff appealed. The shoes arrived on Hogmanay, and our trip down to Fife to see my parents was delayed as I refused to go without them.

They had their first outing on New Year’s Day, on a walk that took us across muddy farmland, along the beach, and back up a muddy path.

On the beach

First off, this should not be your first pair of VFFs. If you do not already own a pair, this review is of no use to you. Go and try a pair of Classics or KSOs or Treks first. Then you can come back. The reason I say this is because the laminated, water-resistant fabric is very stiff and the fit is snug. I spent 15 minutes getting these on the first time and if my toes didn’t already know what to do I think I might have failed.

If you already own a pair and the fit is on the tolerable side of small, get a size up from your usual. These are tight. The thicker material and overall stiffer shoe affects how your foot sits inside. I have quite small toes — my big toe is indeed my biggest, my little toe is tiny — and the fit is bearably small rather than comfortable. My other VFFs have a tiny gap at the end of the toes and using socks is not a problem. If you live in a very cold climate and want to wear socks then you may find the recommended size too snug for comfort.

The Lontra

You’ll notice from that image that there is a neoprene cuff and an extra loop at the front. If you try putting these on the way you put on KSOs you’ll be there for a while. The instructions are no different, but I would suggest pulling the neoprene up over the heel far enough that the rear loop is accessible and the heel is up against the main body of the shoe, then working the toes into place with the aid of the front loop, and only then pulling the heel up and settling into the heel cup. These are not shoes to use in an offroad triathlon if you want a fast T2.

On the foot

This may also not be the model for you if you have moderate to high arches. I don’t consider myself to have a particularly high instep, but as you can see from the picture the fastening strap only just reaches the fluff for the velcro. It pops off repeatedly, to the point of irritation. I don’t understand why the shoe has been designed like this, as all it would take is another inch or two of strap and it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s not as if they are worried about putting velcro on the strap — there is plenty of it, but the strap itself is too short. Out of curiosity, I decided to see how compressed the shoe got if I attached the strap near the start of the velcro. Below you can see the shoe done up this way and done up without any compression.

Compressed

Normal

Done up to give a proper foot shape, any flex pops the strap. If I do it up tightly enough for the strap to remain attached, I get painful compression over the top of the foot and my right big toe goes numb. All for the want of an inch or so of strap. It’s mind-boggling.

20130108_7

Performance-wise, these more than live up to expectations. They are warm and cosy, and, although billed as water-resistant rather than water-proof, kept my feet dry through mud, shallow rockpools and even a brief foray into the sea to retrieve a ball a toddler had lost. They let in a spot of wet when I used a jet of water from a hose to wash off the mud, and I can’t complain about that.

Some feedback is lost as the footbed is well constructed to protect against rocks and give traction on slippy surfaces. I had no problems walking over pebbles and rocks, and felt sure-footed over mud. The fleecy liner is comfortable against bare skin — I have not worn them often enough to judge what the infamous funk is like.

All in all these shoes do what I hoped they would do in terms of letting me get out and about in the cold and wet. I am mystified by the strap design, and wish I’d known about the tight fit before I bought them. I would probably have gone for the next size up. I would also have given serious consideration to getting the LS variant, which offers more room for high arches, although I suspect I would still have chosen this model because it has the neoprene cuff. In an ideal world Vibram would offer an LS model with elastic laces and a neoprene cuff, or add a couple of inches to the strap on the Lontra.

For summer walking in the wet these will most likely be too warm and the Speed XC might be the better option.

If you feel the same way about ‘normal’ shoes as I do, then Vibram’s new water-resistant range perform brilliantly in terms of keeping out the wet and the cold. Assuming they are all like the Lontras, they are sized ever-so slightly on the small side; and the Lontras have a serious issue when it comes to the strap design. They aren’t cheap, but there’s not much to choose from when it comes to waterproof, insulated, barefoot shoes.

They are definitely a shoe for the enthusiast, and I hope Vibram will improve on the design to make them a more comfortable, forgiving winter option.

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Geek GIRL

by on Apr.22, 2011, under Geekery, Photography, rambling

avatarThere is a long and sorry tale practically worthy of a Norse saga associated with me and my mobile phone. Maybe one day I shall write the whole thing Edda-style: the challenge being that I am so fed up with it that it would be hard to make a reader not be fed up with it too.

For various reasons to do with the way Frood and I acquired our very first mobile phones, back in the dim and distant past, it hasn’t been easy to upgrade when time came due. My first relatively contemporary phone was a Sony Ericsson K850i, but I drowned it on a camping trip. Well. I say ‘drowned’. It got slightly moist in a manner my old Nokia would have shrugged off. Mind you, my old Nokia shrugged off being dropped in ponds, beer, puddles, the sea and even a toilet. There’s something to be said for old tech.

I digress.

Since the damp demise of my previous mobile I’ve been using Frood’s old Samsung something-or-the-other, which weighs as much as half a housebrick and is sturdy enough to be used as a offensive weapon, assuming that you keep the slide shut. It has the most irritating interface of any phone I’ve ever used, and has reduced me to swearing on more than one occasion with its insistence on using a set of nested options positively bureaucratic in its complication in order to achieve the simplest of things (such as choosing a recipient for a text message). I’ve never experienced so many delayed voice message notifications or lost text messages as I have with this phone. And, to rub dirt into the road rash of annoyance, Frood has been sitting on the sofa twittering and facebooking on his WiFi networked HTC Android phone for about a year now. The git.

Last weekend we went to the shop and upgraded my phone. I am now the proud owner of a brand-new, shiny, HTC Desire S, and it has not only brought out the geek in me but given me cause to think.

First there’s the playlist problem. The HTC Desire S doesn’t recognise WMP, which means that transferring a playlist (.wpl) gets all the songs onto the phone, but not in the desired order. Thinking it might be another MMT setting I did some research, musing on how I was already coming at the problem from a whole new platform built on my experience with the Samsung. A problem that Frood has been dealing with for a while was solved in five minutes of google-fu. We’ve ended up installing MediaMonkey and now Frood is engaged in the task of converting our old PC into a proper music box, mostly by re-ripping all of our music so that it’s stored in a consistent format.

Then there’s the camera. It’s only 5MP. I had my eyes set on one of the new Sony Ericssons, with their 8.2MP cameras, but there weren’t any in stock and I do carry my Canon Ti 10MP around with me everywhere anyway. But then I discovered the retro camera app and I’ve been having some fun with that.

New hat

Here’s a picture of me wearing my new Buff hat. I took this using the standard camera. There’s a small front-facing camera on the phone so you can see what you’re doing in self-portraits, although you have to stay very still and the quality isn’t the best. The hat is reversible and adjustable and has a neoprene peak and groovy cave-painting style figures all over it, including one of someone on a bike. It is the best cycling hat I have ever had, and I own two Campag hats.

Speaking of which…

Beer & bottom bracketsHere is a shot I took using one of the retro camera functions. It shows a box of Peroni (Italian beer) next to the new bottom bracket that finally arrived. It’s a Campag Centaur to go with my Centaur triple chainset. Two lovely Italian things. Beer and a bottom bracket.

I am the sort of woman who gets excited by shiny new tech toys, but only when they have improved functionality and make my life easier, more fun or more interesting. I’m also the sort of woman who can overhaul the transmission on her handbuilt British-made touring bike (with the 6mm offset rear triangle for an undished rear wheel, boo-yah baby) and appreciates not just the functionality of the bicycle but the inherent beauty in high-quality components.

What else? Here’s another picture: Retro

This, for me, encapsulates what I find most geeky about myself. I’m wearing my new Minister of Chance t-shirt (GO! BUY! WE NEED MOAR!) — and I experienced a little warm glow of pleasure when I received an email from the crew thanking me for my support. There’s a bike in the background. In my life there is always a bike in the background. There’s a stack of Fortean Times magazines, because I use them as research and also harbour an ambition to write something one day they might publish. I took this using a retro camera on a shiny new smartphone with which I’m deeply in love: a camera effect I chose because it makes it look like I’m taking postcard shots during a zombie apocalypse. I’m wearing my buff hat, although you can’t see it, and I’m not looking my best. But that last point doesn’t matter. This is me. I have one eye: the missing one I have replaced with moulded black plastic. What is important about me isn’t what I look like. It’s not the fact that I have wrinkles and grey hairs or scarring from a skin disorder. It’s not, to revisit an old complaint, my breasts or my buttocks or whether lycra looks good on me.

I enjoy feeling attractive, and it’s not that I won’t make the effort on occasion. But it’s not what defines me. In a recent discussion online regarding the objectification of women one of the participants observed that it’s human nature to find people attractive: he used wanting to look good for one’s wedding as an example. And I think, for my wedding, I did about as good a job as I could have done with what I’ve got without calling in the services of a professional stylist.

But wanting to be and enjoying being seen as attractive doesn’t make a woman’s looks public property and it doesn’t grant tacit approval for her to be reduced to breasts and bum and maybe a pretty face on top.

My favourite wedding photo is this one:

Shall we adjourn to the dirigible, darling?

I think I look pretty damn good in that. But I also think I look like me in a dress (and, for added geekery, a pair of Vibram Five Fingers).

What I am is all of these things, and it’s true of every other woman. We are all more than what we look like in our chosen form of dress. Someone might look at one of my triathlon photos and see nothing but an arse in lycra (and they do, believe me). Yet who I am is someone who can build her own wheels and would be quite capable of handling herself come the Undead Armageddon. I can sort out technical problems with our home network and have a strong view on component choice. I can spot a 5mm hex key at a distance of ten paces. I like computer games. I read and write and enjoy science-fiction. I have lived life and taken its knocks and it shows. I am all these things, and more, as well as someone capable of putting curves in green velvet.

I think it’s tragic that we are still prepared to judge accomplished women by what they look like. I think it’s unfair and annoying that women who are conventionally beautiful will tend to do better than women who aren’t; and that our media constantly chooses conventionally attractive women as every potential role model, thus propagating the idea that being good at what you do is not enough. I get angry when someone uses a woman’s desire to feel attractive in order to please herself as justification for looking at that aspect of her in isolation. And I become utterly livid when I’m told that it’s just boys being boys and only a bit of fun and I’m taking it too seriously.

Equality isn’t about treating everyone the same. It’s about looking at people for what they are in totality: the sum of their talents and abilities; their hopes and fears and passions.

I could never have been a supermodel. I am not a clear-skinned, fresh-faced, perfectly symmetric, youthful beauty. There are days when I am depressed by how I have been culturally indoctrinated into thinking my life could be better if I were. But if you were trying to get your playlists to synch to your mobile device before hitting the road when there was no petrol left and there were zombies in the garden, I’d be your huckleberry.

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Gym and swim thoughts

by on Feb.19, 2011, under training, Triathlon

avatarOne of my extravagancies in life is being a member of what I consider to be a ridiculously expensive gym — David Lloyd in Newhaven. I joined this gym when we moved to Edinburgh and I was training intensely for triathlon. I used to be in there four or five times a week, and as someone trying to fit a lot of training into not much time, I figured the premium price tag was worth it for always being able to get the piece of kit I wanted, even at rush hour. Two pools, whirlpool, sauna, the latest exercise machines and plenty of them, light, pleasant, airy… When I was first choosing a gym and went along to take look, compared to the gyms I’d used in the past it was a little breath of luxury. For which, admittedly, I would be paying for the nose. At the time I justified it because this is what I do. I don’t go to the pub, I don’t go out clubbing. The important things in my life* are my friends and my sport, and I deserve a little luxury.

What has kept me coming back, however, is the fact that (a) it has a 25m pool, unlike any other private gym in Edinburgh; and (b) they couldn’t give a rat’s ass what toys I take into the pool with me. Local council run facilities tend to get a bit uppity if you try taking paddles and fins into public swimming sessions, for health and safety reasons, figuring that you might hit someone in the face with the sharp edge of a paddle or kick them in the teeth with a training fin.

With a view to saving money while still being able to train with toys I did once go along to a local triathlon club (who shall remain nameless) swimming session, but it was a quagmire of thrashing and stop-start waiting for the people ahead to get a move on, while not feeling confident an unknown swimmer would be welcome in the faster lanes. As well as that I felt like no one wanted to do more than exchange minimal words with me because I hadn’t proved I could swim a sub-12 minute 750m in race conditions.

Besides, I didn’t like being pinned down to training sessions that didn’t suit my timetable.

So. David Lloyd at Newhaven it has been for several years. Last year, as you know, was a washout because of injury, so I was paying their extortionate fees for 8 months without being able to make use of their facilities — a fact that grated, as you can imagine.

Recently I decided that I was fit enough to at least get back in the pool and retrieved all my training aids from their storage crate.

I have a silly number of toys. I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to sports kit, if you hadn’t noticed. For me a trip to the pool requires a bag so large that the folks on reception grin and open up the disabled access door for me half the time rather than have to rescue me from the turnstile when my bag gets stuck halfway through. I have fins, power paddles and Finis PT Paddles, as well as the usual suspects of kickboard and pullbuoy. I don’t currently have a swimmer’s snorkel, but trust me, it’s on the list.

When I get in the pool I leave all my kit laid out neatly where I can get at it easily for the various sets. The advantage of this is that I only get other serious swimmers sharing my lane. People who might otherwise have chanced it for 10 lengths of breast-stroke will use the other lane instead. Serious swimmers, on the other hand, have no problem sharing. You can always tell someone who competes, by the way: she will have excellent lane discipline.

All of which preamble brings me to my last training session. When I turned up there was no one in the lane but there were a pair of fins, a water bottle, paddles and a kickboard already at the end of the lane. Excellent, I thought. With two of us thrashing around in fins and paddles we should discourage anyone else.

I had just completed my 400m warm-up when the other swimmer appeared. He didn’t say anything, but took to the water, and for 600m we shared the lane in silence, passing each other at progressively different points in the lane that told me I was faster than him. As this was only my third pool session after a 9 month absence, and he was a swimmer serious enough to be bringing training aids, this gave me a warm, tingly feeling.

We had a coincidental break, in which we had a brief chat. He wasn’t training for anything in particular, he told me, he just liked to swim. Usually he swam for an hour every morning at 06:30, but he had the week off work and so he was trying an afternoon session. He donned fins and paddles. I donned paddles and pullbuoy and indicated he should go ahead. “You’ll be faster than me,” I told him.

“I should think so,” he replied. “I hope to be going quite quick now.”

I gave him a third of a length and then set off after him.

I was easing off to match his pace by the end of 50m, which was no bad thing. I enjoyed 200m at that lazy pace then removed all the training aids. He was still going, and after giving him a head start of a half length I set off after him again

And kept up. Easily. For the next 200m.

There is the wake effect, which means that swimming directly behind another swimmer is easier and requires less effort, but still. I shouldn’t have been able to keep up with someone using paddles and fins. So I stopped and watched him.

Every entry he was making with the hand on the opposite side of the shoulder to which it was attached; and he was hitting the water with the heel of his hand first, as if he were holding it up to say “STOP!” at the water, which, in a way, he was. He was slower with paddles, because he had more braking surface.

If he had been in training for anything I might have said something, but he wasn’t so I didn’t. He was swimming for the pleasure of it and didn’t need some uppity triathlete saying “LOL, U R DOIN IT RONG.”

On the run and the bike technique doesn’t become a significant factor until you are trying to save energy over the longer distances. In the swim, though, you have got to get that technique sorted. Correct technique is the difference between a fit swimmer who can’t get below 15 minutes for the 750m and someone who is blistering through the water at a pace that would make a Dall’s porpoise take notice.

I did offer him the use of my PT paddles, while we were chatting. He declined. It’s probably for the best. I suspect he’d have sunk like a stone.

My technique, incidentally, I owe partly to Zoe, who used to be one of the personal instructors at David Lloyd. If you fancy some personal tuition, Katerina is lovely.

 

* Other than, you know, obvious survival things like breathing, eating, sleeping and writing.
† I mean, my social skills are not the greatest, but I know the difference between politely friendly and welcoming.
‡ Another couple of weeks and I’m hoping to get back to weight training, but I’ve taken this year off triathlon completely in a deliberate effort to stop myself pushing too hard too fast to meet some arbitrary deadline. I know, I know. Who am I and what have I done with Sam?

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Sam reviews: Samsung YP-U6AB MP3 player

by on Jan.15, 2011, under gear, Geekery, kit, Reviews

avatarI love music. I listen to a lot of music. My tastes are eclectic, running from Baroque through onomatopoaeic, quirky, more quirky and utterly bonkers, by way of some psytrance, big beat, a bit of metal and stuff I find hard to classify. And everything in between. New Age ambient, prog rock… I’m synaesthetic, and my synaesthesia affects my proprioception. I don’t like any specific sort of music. I like music that does things to me. Check out my Last.fm profile and you’ll get the idea.

My MP3 player is probably the one gadget I have that would cause withdrawal symptoms if I lost it. I’ve had some form of personal stereo ever since the first Sony Walkman, back in the days of audio tape. (I find it scary that there are people alive today who might not know about audio tape.) I went from tape to minidisc to flash drive, and for the past few years have received sterling service from my Sony NW-S205F. It did everything I wanted it to do, despite the clunky and incompatible-with-everything-else SonicStage software, was small and light and easy to use while working out or on the bike, and it was showerproof.

Before any cycling chums start getting their knickers in a twist: yes, I listen to music while on the bike if I’m riding alone. No, it doesn’t affect my ability to hear traffic. As far as I am concerned if you are relying on your hearing to save you from being hit by a car then you’re doing it wrong anyway. If you wish to argue about this, please go and contribute to one of the many, many threads on CC and I will proceed to ignore you there, too. I am a big girl who has tried with and without and I have performed my own risk assessment, thank you very much. You are free to disagree but not to impose.

In the past couple of months it became apparent that my very much loved MP3 player, which was bloody expensive when I got it, was suffering from terminal battery failure. Desperate, I searched the internet thinking that maybe there was a DIY method of changing the battery, because Sony support said it was uneconomical to change the battery and it was better to replace the unit, thereby missing the point entirely because they don’t do anything similar any more. The internet said no: the design is so compact and the insides so tightly packed together that battery replacement is likely to destroy the player.

So that left me needing a new one. I looked at the various Sony products because I’ve always had Sony players. Sadly, as I said, they don’t make anything resembling the NW-S205F any more. Their sports player is this weird combination headphone/headband thing, and I don’t want my ears taking the weight, thank you very much. I find it hard to believe that can possibly be comfortable when running. The alternative is the B series, which diligent research revealed to be allergic to moisture. No good for a gym bunny/recidivist cyclist like me.

Samsung YP-U6QP

I bought the black one, obviously

After hunting around a bit more I settled on the Samsung YP-U6AB (the QP is the 2GB version) on the basis that it seemed to be exactly the same in terms of function as the lamented Sony NW-S205F, but it was rectangular and didn’t have a fast charge. I could live without fast charge.

First there was the issue with the shop losing my order, then replacing my order with one for the multimedia version (yeah, that’ll do well in the rain), then, once all that had been sorted out, sending it using an ancient, asthmatic camel that took a route via Klatchistan. I can only imagine that’s why it took so damn long to arrive.

But get here it did. Yesterday.

As the Sony had sickened to the point of me taking my old minidisc to work yesterday, you can imagine that I was impatient to get going with it. So impatient, in fact, that the lack of any form of carrying case (the Sony had come with a special armband that I have worn so much in the intervening years it has practically left a groove on my arm) only made me a little bit ranty. The software that shipped with the device wouldn’t work on the machine on which we keep most of the music. This did not fill me with joy and happiness. However, the product information indicated that it was compatible with Windows Media Player 11 and that transferring music was an easy drag and drop affair.

Now, say what you like about Sony’s compatibility and their godsawful ATRAC format, the SonicStage software did one thing very, very well: it managed music and playlists and transferred them to the player without me having to think about it. Create playlist, save playlist, drag it to player, done.

First of all I spent more time that I’d intended creating a new playlist in WMP. I meant to chuck a few songs on and get going but there were some I needed to have and then I had to make sure that they had compatible songs around them and appropriate spacing… You know how it is. Well. You probably don’t. So I was as impatient as an unruly sackperson waiting for an even more unruly sackperson to catch up by the time the device was charged, I had swapped across to the other machine and bullied Vista into network sharing properly so I had access to our whole catalogue and then constructed the aforementioned playlist.

I did the drag and drop thing, safely removed hardware as directed in the user manual, then fired up the new toy. I boggled at the small wiggly thing that appeared on the display along with the demand I choose one. What was this? An adoption centre for imps? I picked the one that looked most aggravated and fumbled giving it a name. DID NOT MATTER. NEED MUSIC. NEED PORTABLE MUSIC. GIVE ME MY PORTABLE MUSIC.

Noes!!!! The playlist hadn’t worked! All the songs were there, but they were arranged ALPHABETICALLY. What noxious effluvium of a mastitic ungulate from the nether regions of Beelzebub’s bowels was this? This is 2011! MP3 players are no longer the stupid, simple mass storage devices of old. I wanted a portable soundscape generator, not a flash drive!

I tried installing the software that came with it. It crashed my machine, leaving me with the horrible decision to switch everything off manually to get it unfrozen, even though the U6 had the “Do not disconnect while transferring” warning on it (which was a lie, because I wasn’t transferring anything).

My wrath was mighty.

With a grim determination that could only end up in the MP3 player doing what I wanted it to or someone dying a vicious and brutal death, I rebooted my computer and hit the internet. A seven stage iteration of search terms later I had learned about MSC and MTP and also that the Samsung U6 is one of the very few players on the market that’s still MSC. I spat the dummy at that point and was about to go into full-on berserker mode, but then I found this thread on anythingbutipod. Only the Korean release is purely MSC. In Europe the U6 can be switched to MTP. Once I’d found that I hunted down the instructions to do so because, guess what, it’s not in the user manual.

Success! With MTP enabled the U6 accepts drag and drop playlists from WMP with barely a shrug of the shoulder.

Sound quality seems good enough, although I’m using the Phillips headphones that I had already rather than the nasty-looking things that came with it. It’s not as user-friendly as the old Sony and I doubt I’ll ever use the sports function (I didn’t use it on the Sony, after all) — I only wanted a sports model because they tend to be more robust. The decision tree is more along the lines of Frood‘s creative than the play-all/play-album/play-playlist options on my old Sony. I’m not fussed about playing by genre, artist or whatever. The only option I’d ever want other than album or playlist is bpm. There’s a user-assignable button on it, although I have no idea what I might use it for. I’m sure I’ll think of something.

It’s a subtle, understated little thing in the black option, about half again as long as my thumb. The metal finish gives it a reassuringly robust feel. Now that it’s doing what I want I’m pleased with my purchase, especially as I got a 4GB player for less than half the price I paid for my previous 2GB one. Around forty of your Earth pounds is a pretty good deal, I’d say.

But, really, I shouldn’t have to spend an evening becoming even more of a geek than I am already in order to do something as simple as transfer a playlist. The device should come in MTP mode from the factory, but, failing that, at the bare minimum this should be discussed in the supplied user manual. Samsung, I like your hardware but you need to do some serious work on ease of use.

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Imelda Marcos I ain’t

by on Jun.03, 2010, under kit, training

avatarBy some peculiar quirk of genetics I was born without some of the traits commonly associated with others of my sex. I don’t like gossip magazines, I see no good reason for television soaps to exist, clothes shopping is to be done only if there is no sane alternative, and Jimmy Choo sounds to me like a dogfood brand. (“Jimmy Choo to keep his teeth healthy. Because your dog is worth it.”)

I own two pairs of footwear that would be considered ‘proper’ shoes, and that’s only if you count the Lara Croft replica boots.

However I do own a lot of sports shoes (especially if you count the two pairs of fins, but let’s not go there). My current collection includes three pairs of cycling shoes (road, tri and offroad) and five pairs of running shoes.

The latter is excessive, I admit. But, you see, there’s the old pair of Asics I’ve had for about ten years and they’ve been retired from both racing and training but they’re still good for general purpose wear. There’s the old pair of Trabucos that I’ve trained and raced in to the point where the orange has turned muddy and the uppers are wearing through. There’s the new pair of Trabucos that I bought to replace them but they don’t fit as well because they changed the last and put a stone-plate in there. There’s the pair of Inov8s I use for lightweight hiking and will be used for running if I ever remain injury-free for long enough to get out into the hills.

And there’s the pair of Salomons. I bought these from Run4It on Lothian Road, to replace the Trabucos with the stone-plate when it became clear that no amount of use was going to break them in to the point where they were comfortable. Back in my competitive ski-ing days I used to wear Salomons and I have a pair of Salomon walking boots, as well as a Salomon Raid Revo running pack and some of their running tights. I like their stuff. It’s usually built well and thoughtfully and suits my needs.

XT Wings

They've released a new version now. I expect they have the same heel:toe proportions

In the shop there was a slight niggle in my left foot, but that was the one that had been playing up with the Trabucos, so I figured that it was just bruising. On the treadmill they felt fine. I ran 20k in them on the treadmill in the gym just to be sure. With some lace adjustments and the right socks they seemed okay when I finally took them outdoors. For about 100k.

Then the pain started. Excruciating. It felt like I was landing on a spike every time my left foot went down. Eventually I took them back to the shop and they sent them off to Salomon. Salomon said they’d found a slight flaw and sent me a new pair.

I was even more careful. I checked them in the shop. I checked them at home. I checked them in the gym. No niggle. They felt great. They felt like I had hoped they would feel.

For about 30k. Then exactly the same problem. It was, oddly, relieved either by removing my socks completely —although I ended up with the interior seams chewing the tops of my toes, so I had to race my first of the season with my feet decorated in compeed— or thick off-road socks. Nothing in-between.

During this time I developed acute ITB syndrome in my left knee. This cost me a couple of hundred quid in physio, three months off training and racing at Tranent. My second race of the year, in April, ruptured the plantar fascia in my right foot, which was probably compensating for the restricted motion in my left leg. More physio, not to mention podiatry charges, and more time off training (I managed 15 minutes on the treadmill yesterday and have spent most of the last 3 weeks with my foot taped).

After analysing the various factors that could have contributed, I can only come up with one thing: the shoes.

I’m a mid-foot striker, landing just behind the ball of my foot. What this means is that most trainers are ill-suited to my gait. They have too much padding in the heel and not enough at the front. I’m also a mild over-pronator, so I need late-stage motion control. These are things that competent staff at a good running shop should know about and it’s why I go to a specialist running shop instead of buying my shoes for half the price over the internet. I value the additional service of knowledgeable staff.

I shouldn’t have been sold these shoes. It’s not that the shoes are bad shoes: they’re just not suited to my style of running. Unlike the Asics, which have the built-up heel but also have a fairly generous amount of forefoot padding, the Wings save weight by reducing the padding at the front. This means that, not only is there insufficient padding to protect the foot at impact, the heel is about 50% thicker than the forefoot. In a mid-foot striker this limits ankle flexion through the stride, putting undue strain on the calves and the windlass mechanism in the foot. Because of the lack of padding in the front, eventual compression of the insole meant that when the ball of my foot landed on one of the knurls in the sole I could really feel it.

I’ve had to find out all this for myself by careful research and a lot of reading, which I’ve had time to do because I CAN’T BLOODY TRAIN DUE TO THIS STUPID INJURY.

I’m a bit grumpy from lack of exercise.

There have been suggestions recently that barefoot running techniques, including non-heel striking, increase the chances of plantar fasciitis. I’ve been running this way for five years now and this year is the first of me having an injury of this nature. While it’s true that barefoot running isn’t for everyone, because everyone is different and biomechanics are not generic enough for one technique to suit all, I can’t accept that my running style has caused this injury when I’ve been fine with it for a number of years and thousands of kilometres.

I think the problem is more that most shoes aren’t designed for these techniques, and mixing the two is what is causing the problems. If you’ve got a runner who has heard about these techniques and decides to give them a go in his ordinary running shoes, and those shoes are designed for heel-strikers, then he’s going to suffer the same issues as me: the shoes promote a heel-toe movement and he’s running with a toe-heel movement. Seems fairly obvious to me that this is not a good thing.

Although Run4It has the best selection of Hilly socks in Edinburgh, I’m not best pleased about the service I’ve received there and won’t be going back. I did go in and explain the situation, however their response was to thank me for letting them know and say they’d make a note of the feedback for future customers.

That didn’t help me at all.

I’m trying to look on the bright side: I am now far more knowledgeable about shoes, feet and running than I ever was before and am in a better position to assess whether the staff in a shop are able to offer me competent advice or not. I have finally found a good reason to spend the money getting a biomechanical assessment from a podiatrist and have external verification that my obsession with technique and stretching has paid off.

However, the shoes cost me the best part of 90 poorly molluscs, the combined physio and podiatry costs are in the region of £350, I may need custom orthotics to stop this happening again because of the weakness in the foot; and I currently have only a very slim chance of being race fit for the Galway Triathlon, which wasn’t exactly pocket change to enter.

And I still need to replace my trail shoes. At least I have a very good idea of what to avoid.

I won’t be running in the Salomons again. Size UK 6.5, ladies, blue, have done about 50k and look brand new. Any takers? I don’t have the gene that codes for “wanting to keep a pair of shoes that don’t fit me properly and I’m never going to wear”.

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Gear review – Finis PT paddles

by on May.04, 2010, under gear, kit, training

avatarI have argued on numerous occasions that I am not a geek. Except, let’s be honest, it’s a lie. OK, so I don’t go into orgasmic quivers over the latest mobile phone OS, and the iPad release left me utterly cold. The thought of playing Arkham Asylum in 3D doesn’t give me goosebumps and I can turn off The Gadget Show as easily as I can turn off Iron Chef.

And yet, at the same time, I spent about half an hour obsessively comparing saddle-mounted hydration systems only last week and I have a shelf full of books that go into painfully anal detail about everything from wheel building to running technique.

I confess. It’s way past time. I’m a sports geek.

Not a nerd, not the sort of person who can recite which teams won what in which league in which year from the relative safety and comfort of an anorak: the sort of geek who makes it her business to know the latest thought on technique and performance and kit and gets excited about training aids that other people can’t even identify at first glance.

(I also like computer games, and I don’t mean Nintendogs. I mean The Darkness, Wolverine, Bioshock… you know. All those girlie games.)

So it will come as little surprise to those of you who understand the performance sports geek mentality to hear that I like my swim training aids. Of course I have the everyone-has-those pullbuoy and kickboard, but I also have other things, things that most people wouldn’t recognise. I own a pair of fist gloves. How geeky is that?

The latest toy to take my fancy was a set of the Finis PT paddles. PT stands for “Perfect Technique” and the aim is rather similar to the fist gloves: they are designed to force the swimmer to learn to use his entire body rather than just his hand for propulsion:

PT Paddles are shaped to deflect water around your hand, effectively removing the hands from the swimming equation. By removing the hand as a paddle, swimmers have to find other methods of generating propulsion.

Because your hand can no longer ‘grip’ the water, your body will need to adjust your stroke. The elbow is positioned higher, the hips roll a little further, and the forearm is activated earlier, allowing you to catch and pull yourself through the water.

Wearing the PT Paddles overtime increases your body awareness and muscle memory. Then when you swim normally without the paddles, you will feel stronger and faster in the water.

Finis PT paddles

I thought I’d take to them like a duck to water (ahem), being a veteran user of the fistgloves. What I wasn’t expecting was for them to be buoyant, nor the effect of the additional weight. While fistgloves are not too dissimilar from simply making a fist when swimming, and make your hand slip through the water with alarming lack of resistance, the PT paddles somehow manage to keep the feel of arm speed through the stroke the same while still removing the hand from the propulsive effort. They are also an additional weight to carry through the recovery part of the stroke.

I didn’t find them as tiring as the fistgloves, which makes me think that I’m floundering less in the water and making better forward progress, despite the feeling that I’m not. That in turn tells me that the PT paddles are more about feel and I think that might work for swimmers who can’t cope with the loss of propulsion that comes from fistgloves. They might, indeed, be a worthy intermediate step for someone training on his own, without the benefit of coaching, who wants to try some of these more advanced techniques without resorting to fins.

In terms of construction they are fairly soft, so you might get away with them at the local pool, especially as they seem to be contained within the area of the hand. Adjusting the straps is a bit fiddly, even more so than normal swimming paddles, and it took quite some time to get them to the point where I felt they were workable. Comfortable is still some way off. They are certainly more robust than fistgloves (I’m on my third pair). Of course they are also good for anyone who has a latex allergy.

For what you get they are expensive, and I’m not sure they are worth the price. On the other hand, fistgloves are almost a tenner and are as fragile as a fragile thing called Little Miss Fragile from Fragiledonia, so if you’re as tough on gear as I am and want to try teaching yourself to use more than your hands for propulsion, give them a go. Or take a couple of squash balls into the pool with you — just don’t let go.

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But you’re a girl!

by on Aug.19, 2009, under Cycling, Rant

You might have noticed by now that I have a bit of a thing for bicycles.

Oh. Hey. Guess what. I’m a girl.

This isn’t news, right? Well, apparently it still is to the bicycle industry. Sustrans sent out mystery shoppers, all women, ranging in age and cycling experience.

While the majority of the 633 women who took part in the survey reported a positive experience in the shops they visited, the range of products on offer, and the way they are presented is sending women straight out of the door, and for some, straight online.

Sustrans’ mystery shoppers ranged from eight to 88 with all levels of experience from complete beginners to women who cycle every day. The new cyclists are generally happy with the service they are getting, it’s the experienced cyclists that are feeling short-changed…

Melissa Henry, Sustrans’ Communications Director explains more: “We found that experienced cyclists, those women who know what they do and don’t want, are left feeling patronised – the assumption appearing to be that women know nothing about bikes. Experienced cyclists of all ages were left feeling that a bike shop was akin to an alien landscape, with them as the alien.”

My feelings regarding Sustrans aside, this particular finding surprises me about as much as the sun coming up in the morning, water being wet, grass being green and drivers running red lights. Bike manufacturers are getting better and better at providing for the female rider, with compact frames, shorter top tubes and anatomy-specific contact points and clothing. They still seem to be stuck on the idea that girl = pink or powder blue, but it’s a start.

The problem is not so much the availability of kit any more, but the attitude of bike shop staff towards the women buying it. Down in Exeter I was spoiled for choice, with both The Bike Shed and Richard’s Bikes treating me exactly as I wanted to be treated: as a cyclist who happened to be a girl. This contrasted greatly with Mud Dock (closed down several years ago and good riddance), where the staff seemed to think that, as a girl, I should be worrying more about chipping my nail polish than I was about halide lighting systems for winter commuting; and that it was okay to insist that their idea of what would work for me was better than mine. If I go into a shop and tell them exactly what I want I expect to be treated like I know what I’m doing because, hey guys? I do.

Fairly recently I was in a shop in Edinburgh that shall remain nameless and having what started as a friendly chat with the guy on the till. It stopped being friendly round about the time he said: “Well I’m sure there are girls who are strong enough to ride fixed.” I suppose he must have realised that he’d just lit the blue touch paper because he tried damping the flames with some statements that were meant to be conciliatory but were in reality just as patronising; only to be rescued by Munky dragging me away before I grabbed a powder pink Giro helmet from the shelf and beat him to death with it.

He wasn’t trying to be patronising. He didn’t mean it. He opened his mouth and put his foot in it. But this wasn’t the standard, overplayed trope of a male giving a straightforward answer that isn’t what the woman wants to hear (“What do you mean my bum looks big in this?”): it was halfway through a conversation about how we were riding coast to coast on fixed gear bikes overnight, and we’d already done it twice. Even faced with incontrovertible evidence of girls riding fixed (mine was locked up outside the shop), there was this ingrained attitude that it was a freak occurrence.

Because we all know girls should ride Pashley Princesses or, if they’re particularly sporty, maybe a Specialized Dolce.

Even when I was buying spokes to rebuild a front wheel, walking into a (different) shop and giving the spoke length and number I wanted, the look on the guy’s face was just that bit incredulous. He didn’t pass comment until I was walking out: “Good luck with that.” Would he have said that if I were male?

Now it’s very easy to misinterpret what might be honestly-meant comments, but, as an experienced and technically competent female cyclist, what I notice isn’t so much the occasional blatant comment (the title of this piece being my favourite to date) as the cumulative effect of little things. The continual questioning of decisions I have already made and the faintly blank stares, as if they can’t quite believe that those words have come out of my mouth: a mouth that resides, it has to be said, above a fairly obvious pair of breasts.

Yes, thank you, I do want that particular chain. No, I don’t want one of those ones because they are made of mushrooms and cheese. Why yes, I do have experience of that particular brand. Hence the mushrooms and cheese. No, I don’t want a steel cog. I have been getting on just fine with the alloy one, which is, you have to agree, more attractive. Please don’t try to sell me that headset. I know it’s cheaper. My bike deserves better and so do I. If I say I want double-butted I bloody well want double-butted, and I do understand that it’s not a reference to arse-cheeks on the Chippendales.

And, for the final time, NO I DO NOT WANT THAT ONE JUST BECAUSE IT COMES IN PINK, KTHXBAI. MY CUSTOM IS GOING ELSEWHERE.

It’s time for the retail industry to start catching up with the growing number of girls who are into it as much as the guys are. But, ladies, that’s not going to happen if we flounce out of the shop in a huff the first time we have to deal with this sort of prejudice. It’s no good retreating to the internet. Attitudes are only going to change if there is a drive for them to do so. Your local bike shop is an incredibly valuable resource, even if it does seem to think that competent females are on a par with talking donkeys. So give them a chance to improve before reverting to the relative safety of Wiggle.

Bike shops employing female staff are not as safe as you might think, unless those staff are mechanics. However, for the record, I’ve found that shops catering to triathletes don’t suffer from this bias nearly so much. So if you’re really struggling with a male-dominated bike shop whose staff thinks girls belong on three-speed shoppers with flowers in their hair (or, at least, on their suitably pink helmets), try finding your local triathlon shop.

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Happy Friday

by on Aug.14, 2009, under Cycling, kit

I’m working from home today as I have a bout of gastroenteritis. Or food poisoning. Or gut flu. Whatever it is seems to be content to prowl around making me feel just a tad less than my usual splendid self, its presence plain but not debilitating, as long as I don’t eat anything. If I eat anything resembling proper food it’s a different matter altogether. So I don’t feel unwell enough not to work, but I don’t feel well enough to go into the office, especially as I’d have to cycle because the car is in for servicing.

In response to a livejournal post on BikePirates I put up some pics of my bikes, and, I have to say, that has cheered me up no end. Share my joy with a touch of bike pr0n for a Friday morning.


The fast one (Peregrine the Pinarello):

I look best on the bike

The loaded one (Fingal, Orbit Fast Tour):

Fingal at Inverness Station

The fixed one (Shackleton, last of the 135mm Il Pompinos):

Shackleton

The other fixed one (Blackbird, a rescued and rebuilt Raleigh Sun Solo circa 1983):

Blackbird goes for a ride

The sometimes grubby one (Max, a Specialized Hard Rock from before they got ugly, with his friend, Bob):

Max and Bob

And if that didn’t make you feel better about the world in general then it’s either because you’re envious of my stable (perfectly understandable) or you prefer lolcats of a Friday.

funny pictures of cats with captions

If that didn’t work then there ish no pleeshing you.

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Why go shopping?

by on Apr.05, 2009, under kit, training

Sometimes it’s a wonder, in these days of Wiggle and other internet sports shops, that actual, physical shops manage to stay afloat. When you can buy sports kit so much cheaper online, why go to a shop with overheads?

I’ll tell you for why.

A couple of years ago I went to RunAndBecome in Edinburgh and bought my first pair of trail shoes. The staff were great. They spent a long time making sure I had the right shoes for my purpose, my feet and my gait. The shoes were the Asics Gel Trabucos, and I’ve been very pleased with them. They’ve done sterling service both in training and competition.

Finally, however, they wore out, as shoes are wont to do. I knew they were on their way out, and then I had a dream in which I got back from a particularly tough run and discovered the soles were completely smooth. My feet had been hurting of late so I figured this was my subconscious telling me to bloody get out there and replace them.

A copy of Runner’s World had arrived with a catalogue from an online retailer offering the Trabucos at half retail price, and money is kind of tight at the moment so I was sorely tempted. However, I like to support shops because of the service they offer, so off I went to RunAndBecome and told them I needed to replace my Trabucos. Size 39. I was expecting to be in and out in a flash.

But when I tried them on in the shop they DIDN’T BLOODY FIT. Asics, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to change the last for the 2009 model and they were now too tight. Several pairs of different and not quite right shoes later the lovely shop lady found a pair of 2008 Trabucos on offer, and they happened to be in my size, and also were made with the same last as the 2007 model. Hooray!

That, boys and girls, is why one should not buy such an important piece of kit as running shoes online, no matter how sure you are that you know exactly what you want. As for you folks who take advantage of shops by going in to try them on and then going away to order them cheaply online: boo sucks to you. That’s just taking advantage, that is. It’s practically theft. You are using their services and not supporting the shop. Keep that up and there won’t be a shop, and then you’ll be reduced to ordering unsatisfactory kit online and having to send it back.

I don’t really mind that the new ones are bright yellow. Even though it tastes teh nasteh. I’ll just not look at them.

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