"It never gets easier, you just go faster." - Greg Lemond

Monday, June 24, 2013

Review of Salomon Sense Ultra

I've had the pleasure of tooling around in a pair of Salomon Sense Ultra's for several months now.  The short review is that they are a tremendous lightweight shoe with decent protection and decent durability.

First, I have to say that in general, all the lives of my shoes are dramatically reduced now that I'm running in Colorado.  But it seems the Sense Ultra is particularity susceptible to dying quicker in the Rocky Mountains. Its a sacrifice one has to make for a lightweight shoe I guess.  I wouldn't mind seeing a little more outsole on these guys.

I ran quite a bit in the original Sense, but it was never quite comfortable enough for me.  I'm not sure what it was.  I would get blisters on the outside of my pinky toes on both feet and never could lock the heel down quite good enough.  When I was at 3-Rivers Running Company, I had the chance to look at the Sense Ultras.  I thought the toebox looked a little wider, and the heel cup was slightly different, in so much as it seemed to offer a greater hook to come up over the back of the heel.

I actually decided to size down to a 10.5 from my typical size 11 (MT110, Speedcross 3, Pearl Izumi Trail N1) and the shoes fit nearly perfectly for most of their lifespan.  I have concluded that the heel cup is better and the Ultras either have a wider toebox or it is easier to stretch it out over the life of the shoe.  They accommodated my feet, which tend to be on the wide side, very nicely.

Grand Canyon R2R2R
I've put these shoes through hell.  I ran several long Poto runs back in Michigan in them.  After that they still looked like new, maybe with a little bit of midsole wrinkling, which didn't seem to influence the cushion.  Then I went to Colorado for a job interview and starting running in the Front Range  in the Sense Ultras.  Then I took them to the Grand Canyon for a R2R2R.  Then back to Colorado for more Front Range running.

I've taken them through numerous water crossings, both deep and shallow, and the shoes drained and dried out very well, which is perhaps unsurprising.  The low profile nature of the shoes also allowed them to handle well in the river when you aren't quite sure what you're stepping on.

I found the outsole to be plenty sticky on most rocks, as long as they weren't too wet and grimy (the rocks not the shoes).

Protection in someplace like Michigan is fantastic.  Protection in Colorado is decent.  Forefoot/midfoot is usually protected enough that you even if you catch a stinger, the pain is fleeting and doesn't last long. It seems Salomons special carbon fiber rockplate does its job.  I did notice that if I stepped on a narrow or sharp rock in the arch area of my foot it would be quite painful.   I attribute this to the flexibility of the shoe.  Its nice for running fast to have a flexible shoe, but it does allow for the occasional painful reminder that these shoes are intended to be a racing flat.

My longest run in them was the R2R2R at the Grand Canyon, which was 48 miles and I probably had the shoes on my feet for 13+ hours.  No blisters, which is great and I'm sure I wouldn't have had such luck with the regular Sense.

After about 300 miles now, the shoes are totally toast.  At least in my terms.

Missing lugs and outsole

After about 200 miles the tread started wearing down and lugs were shredded off.  I continued to abuse them, doing a Hope Pass double crossing and summiting a 14'er in them.  Now, there are several spots where the glue seems to have failed and I can peel back the outsole to expose more midsole.  In other places the outsole just appears to be gone.  One of the great things though is that the protection never failed on these shoes.  The rockplate is still in great shape, despite numerous attempts to puncture it by sharp rocks.  Kudos to Salomon.

Still not destroyed

Despite the wear on the outsole, I can probably get a few more miles out of these guys.  I feel that the traction is starting to be reduced, but really they never had tremendous traction in the first place.  Speaking of traction, the rubber is decently sticky, but they're no La Sportiva.  The shoes have a great ride on hard pack trail, fireroads, and pavement.  The small footprint allows them to be very maneuverable.  Unfortunately I found them to be VERY skatey in loose dirt/gravel on switchbacks and in the mud.

Holes in the medial sides of both pairs

Another hole forming on the lateral sides

The upper is probably the biggest issue with these guys right now.  I'm not worried about them ripping and becoming "unusable" during a run, but they have developed holes in the medial side of the toebox.  Now they let in a ton of dust and gravel.  Otherwise the mesh upper and Sensi-fit sock/sleeve thing was amazing.

Now I just need to save up enough $ to get another pair, or wait for a new iteration of these shoes.  I've noticed a few pictures from Zegama where it looked like the Salomon team had a pair of Sense Softgrounds!  When can I get these!  I think they will probably be a slight bit heavier, but the added weight for what I can only imagine is a more durable outsole with better traction would be a no brainer for me.  I just love the fit of the Sense Ultra so much, that a shoe with a more rugged outsole sounds like a great combo.

Looks a lot like the Speedcross outsole (Photo by Ian Corless)

Niice!  (Photo by Ian Corless)

Overall, the Sense Ultra is a great shoe.  Excellent fit.  A shoe that makes you want to run fast.  Protective for how lightweight.  Very maneuverable with their low profile/small footprint.  The cushion does its job even though it tends to wrinkle quickly.  The biggest downsides are the poor traction on anything that is loose or muddy as well as the relatively short lifespan.  Oh and they are so freaking expensive.  I should mention though that I've heard through the grapevine that Salomon plans on progressively lowering the price over the next couple years.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


Sheer rock walls rise over a 1,000 feet on all sides of me.  In front lies Grays and Torreys peaks, the two highest peaks on the Continental Divide.  But I pay all of this no attention.  I'm staring down at my feet.  Two steps forward, slip, slide, off-camber trail in slushy snow is a challenge at sea level, let alone at 12,500 feet.  I concentrate on my feet.  Trekking poles are next to useless as they sink two feet into the snow every time I stab the ground.    My legs are dead from the start; for some reason I ran 22 miles on rocky mountain trails yesterday.

I'm with Ryan and Alaina, fellow midwesterners who are also too ignorant to be turned-off by the challenge of summiting 14er's in the snow.  Its early June after all, summertime right?

The trail finally quits its off-camber slushfest, and takes a sharp left turn.  At least we think its the trail.  Its become a little difficult to decide which set of half-buried eroded footprints to follow.  The sharp left turn is greeted by a change in the incline of the trail, and not the good kind of change, it gets steep, a lot steeper.  Cody the dog runs on past me as if we aren't two miles above sea level.  I might not be acclimated yet.

Im trying to smile

More paincave

We reach the saddle between Grays and Torreys.  Dang, the trail we were supposed to take was going to have us summit Grays before we hit the saddle.  Oh well, more climbing for us.  We decide to hit Torreys Peak first, and another slog begins.  Alaina giggles somewhat uncontrollably every time I fall down in the snow (which is quite frequently).
Looking up at Torreys from the saddle

Sometime during this climb, my legs start to wake up and I feel stronger than I have all day.  Which is strange because now we're at 14,000 feet.  "Keep climbing fool" I repeatedly tell myself, its my new mantra.  We summit Torreys and there is a couple up there, preparing to ski back down.  Yeah, there is that much snow still on the mountain.  Some photos are taken, food eaten, and we look for a line to ascend Grays.  As we run down to the saddle, we are slalom running, each of us weaving in and out, keeping our momentum under control in the deep snow while avoiding sharp looking rocks and precarious cornices that look ready to pop.  

I preferred staying away from these

Looking...  badass

Now that my legs were feeling better, I enjoyed the climb up to the summit of Grays, actually leading the charge to the summit the first time that day.

Rock field on the summit of Grays

Notice the dark skies and rain beginning at the top of the photo. 

We had planned our trip so that we would be leaving the mountain before any weather was forecasted to hit the area.  The last thing any of us wanted was to be near a lighting storm while we were well above treeline.  Ryan and I did a quick anti-rain dance known as the Tootie Ta on the summit of Grays that was meant to help hold the storm back until we were back at the car.  Indeed, as we were beginning to descend from Grays, we could see the clouds beginning to hammer the peaks probably a mile or two west of us.  We noted that there were a lot of people who were still on their way up to the saddle while we were glissade-ing down from Grays.  Some of them were not dressed safely if the weather became worse.  Be careful folks, I may just be a farmboy from the midwest, but I'm not taking any chances in the big mountains.

I think its snowing over there

Notice the sky color.  Lots of people still going up.  Glad we're going down.

Blue skies giving way to dark clouds
After a few silly falls in the snow, we make it down to the off-camber trails leading to the valley in which we started.  There is a loud boom-ing noise, and I immediately think thunder.  Wrong, Ryan yells "avalanche", probably the last word anyone standing on snow in the mountains wants to hear.  Luckily it was a long ways away, but I can still feel the adrenaline as we watched dirty snow and rocks tumble down one of the colours leading up to the summit of Torreys.  I'm not sure if its the same colour used for the Dead Dog Colour route, but its damn close, and fascinating to watch.  The hardpacked snow has become extremely soft and its not uncommon to posthole down to your knee without warning.  But at that point, it was all fun and games.

Tremendous adventure.  Can't wait to see whats next.  Good reminder that even if you're suffering, if you keep moving forward, you can find yourself achieving your goals.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Waist belts

Or should I say "waste" belts.  Most runners that I know have at least attempted to use a waist belt of some sort.  My first experience with a waste belt was using a Nathan hydration belt to carry a 22 ounce water bottle and a few gels.  While this belt seemed to work fine for short runs - 8-12 mile range - I noticed that it was difficult to get it to stay cinched down, and that having a belt/water bottle around my waste bothered by stomach.

That was years ago.  I haven't messed around with belts much since then.  Shorts with pockets are becoming more standard, and I just figured that I would carry handheld water bottles.  But then I ran a 50k where I ran out of gels and since I was in the mix for a top slot, I did not want to take the time to go over to my drop bag to grab more.  The rest of the race I relied on aid station fare, and it all worked out OK, but I thought, hmmm, if I had had a belt, maybe this wouldn't have happened.

So come time for the hallucination 100, I dug out my old Inov-8 Race Elite pack and it worked great for carrying around extra food and I never felt anxious about running out of calories.  But it still bothered my stomach a little bit and I found that it probably had too much storage.  It also seemed to bounce around more than I would have liked.
So the idea of using a waist pack kinda went to the back burner, again.  Then through some fortunate circumstance I got my hands on one of Salomon's new creations, the S-lab Advanced Skin 2 (AS2) belt.  A few trial runs with it, and I was sold, waist belts seem to have come a long ways since I bought my old Inov-8 race elite pack.  They don't even look like awesome (ugly) fanny packs anymore!

After a little fiddling around I think I finally got the AS2 to be tight enough around the waste.  This brings up my one and only complaint, I have my belt tied down as small as the waste belt will allow, and it is just barely tight enough.  What about other runners who have a skinnier waste than I do?  I will never understand why some running gear (specifically waste packs) seem to have enough room in the belt to fit someone with a 45 inch waste, but skinny runners, sorry you're SOL.  Ok end rant.
As tight as it will go

The AS2 comes with a soft flask, and I bought another one to throw in there.  This allows me to carry 16 ounces of fluid, with no bounce at all.  The belt has small elastic loops that fit over the top of the bottles to fully secure them.  I've put 10 ounces hard flasks of other varieties in the belt, and while it will comfortably carry one, it seems to start to get bouncy again if I have two in there.  The AS2 also provides plenty of room for gels and a camera or whatever other small nick-knacks you'd like to carry.  My only other knock against the AS2 belt, is that there is not a great spot to secure a light shell, although if you don't mind the awkwardness, you can stuff one into a large pocket due to the stretch mesh.
18 ounces of H20

The buckle system on the AS2 is different than many other buckles, but it works nicely and I have never had a problem with it coming undone.  What is interesting  is that the AS2 essentially has 4 panels, and you can orient them however you like, depending on what you have in the pockets.  It does seem to ride up more if you put the pockets that are meant to be in the back facing forwards.

Now while I really liked the AS2, sometimes it seemed like a lot of material and a lot of storage, especially if I only needed to carry 1 or 2 gels and a camera or car key.  So I decided to try a more minimal belt.
Ultraspire Quantum

I had heard great things about the Ultraspire line of products, and wanted to see what the hype was about.  I noticed the Quantum was about as minimal a belt as they made and it was relatively cheap.  So I ordered one.  I was a little amused at first, as I hadn't noticed before I ordered it that there was no buckle.  Its meant to be pulled on just like a pair of shorts.  You then tighten the belt with a small cinching strap.  My initial skepticism quickly faded as I noticed that this meant you could put the belt in any orientation you wanted, with pockets facing whatever direction you require with little to no problem.
Pockets and cinching strap

The Quantum has two small mesh pockets that I've put two gels into each, and the back pocket is primo.  I fit a camera, my car key, and a clif bar into it without issue.  Sometimes I'll even crumble an empty soft flask and stuff it in there, if I know there is a water source down the trail.

Now between the AS2 belt and the Quantum, I am constantly forced to choose which one to wear.  I prefer the Quantum's fit and feel over the AS2, but the storage space on the AS2 is clearly superior, and it offers the nice functionality of carrying water.  Both seem to have very nice features, I especially like the zipper on the Quantum, as it is by far, the easiest zipper I have ever used, even when descending technical trail.
Nice mesh on both

Overall, I don't think anyone would be disappointed with either, as long as the specific purpose of each belt. The AS2 belt has the downside that if you are too skinny, you might not be able to get it to fit tight enough. Both have a nice mesh material that does not bother me at all when I am shirtless, which is certainly appreciated.

S-Lab Advanced Skin