Friday, December 28, 2012

Wrap it up, 2012.

Since I foolishly did not take (even very bad) photos of any gear this week, you're getting a different kind of review - the ubiquitous, self-centred look back at my year. Just grit your teeth and hang on; I'll try to make it quick.

Snowy trail, but I'm in shorts on January 7th!

January: Groin injury sustained during a particularly nasty run in the snow. Thought it could be anything from a torn hip labrum through a femoral neck stress fracture. Still don't know what it was, exactly (never saw a doc), but took 10 days off from running and commenced regular lateral hip strengthening exercises. Whined a lot.

Dorking it up at the indoor tri in February.

February: Slashed my toe open in the pool a couple of days before the Runner's Den Indoor Sprint Tri. Raced, had fun, and really surprised myself with the pace I was able to maintain on a 5k course that's basically one giant hill, run down and then up twice. Also started the blog, much to your chagrin.

Just me and my buddies at Around the Bay in March.

March: Managed to keep from re-injuring myself during a tightly compressed mileage build for the Around the Bay 30k, at which I like to think I acquitted myself admirably considering I'd been ready to sell my bib just a month or so beforehand (see: January).

Muddy at the finish line in Ancaster in April.

April: Went every so slightly faster at the Paris to Ancaster 60k than the year before. Have convinced myself that the improvement of only 5mins is due to the course being tougher this year than last (with the substitution of a muddy country lane for a stretch of dirt road). No excuse has been found for finishing near the back of the pack, though.

Heading out of T1 at Woodstock in May.

May: A spectacular 10k PR at the Mudpuppy Chase and the triathlon season kickoff in Woodstock! I probably had more fun in May than any other single month this year.

Racing for my Dad at Welland in June.

June: This is the month that nearly did me in. Our bedroom ceiling collapsed, requiring about $6,000 in roofing work and new bedroom furniture. I barely made it through the 160km Tour de Grand on the hottest day of the year, and to top it all off my Dad passed away suddenly on Father's Day. The only good thing that came out of June was my rather breakthrough performance at the Welland Triathlon, blowing away my prior times on that course.

Finishing a tough day at Gravenhurst in July.

July: As I drew closer to my planned "A" race of the season, training had given way to life's upheavals. The best I could hope for was to get through unscathed, and to enjoy a weekend away. Despite all that and a ridiculously hot, sunny day, I only narrowly missed going sub-3 hours at the Gravenhurst Olympic Tri. I had an amazing weekend with my husband, had an absolute riot volunteering on the swim and run courses for the Sunday races, and only came crashing back to reality when another piece of our stinkin' house broke. Right before we were leaving for vacation. Crap. Some heated phonecalls and $1,100 later the problem was solved.

Broken and unhappy at Mine Over Matter in August.

August: Started with an incredible motorcycle tour through Quebec City, the Laurentian Mountains and Montreal, and ended with me breaking my left wrist at the Mine Over Matter off-road tri and my first DNF ever.

Ill advised indeed at Lakeside in September.

September: Because I'm too dumb to know when to stay down, I raced the Lakeside Olympic tri 3 weeks after breaking my wrist, then the Tour de King 50k mountain bike race 2 weeks after that. In between, we spent most of a week in Alberta (with a side trip to British Columbia) visiting with Tanker's family and seeing beautiful things.

Running happy at Vulture Bait in October.

October: I finally got my cast removed on the 3rd, just in time to set another huge PR at the Vulture Bait 25k trail race. I managed not to fall on my injured wrist there, but wasn't quite so lucky on a miserable day at the Horror Hill 6-hour toward the end of the month. Fortunately there was no real damage done, and I was able to finish out the race despite the mud.

Tanker and I in Blair in November.

November: All races being done for the year, I decided to start reviewing products for my weekly blog posts rather than bore you with too many details of training and me, me, me. I relaxed a little and ate too much, but I don't really take time off from training - I just make it more about fun than improvements, and try to spend more time with friends and family. My wrist continued to improve - my ortho was impressed and said he wouldn't need to see me again - and I was able to ride my mountain bike comfortably, so Tanker and I explored some new trails together.

Trying not to blind myself in December.
December: In what will hopefully prove to be my last bit of bad luck for the year, I was struck in the left goggle by a gentleman's head in the pool while lane swimming - the resulting cut and bruising was enough to keep me from training at all for two days and out of the pool for a week. On the bright side, the weather cooperated for some silliness: 

T'was 8 days before Christmas, 
when I went for a ride; 
but not on the trainer, 
no I went outside!

It was mild and damp 
as I climbed on my bike, 
but at 4 degrees above zero, 
hey, what's not to like? 

Not a cyclist was spotted, 
except for myself - 
all dressed up in red, 
like some giant elf! 

I pedaled along happily, 
enjoying the lights, 
and wish all my fellow riders 
Merry Christmas and goodnight!

So there you have it. While I'm very pleased with some of my performances this year, the setbacks and tragedies that have interspersed the bright moments have been nasty enough that I'm looking forward to starting afresh in 2013. My race schedule is already filling up, and I'm still hoping to hear some good news from my sponsors for the season to come. In the meantime, I wish you all the best for a happy, productive and prosperous new year!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Tested: Ultimate Direction Wink hydration vest

This week's review: the (2010) Wink hydration pack from Ultimate Direction.

Completely assembled and ready to go.

Back view showing stretch mesh outer pocket, trekking pole retainers, bungee webbing and tow loop.

What it is: A lightweight backpack with integrated 2 litre bladder for beverages and lots of storage capacity.

Why you want one: To stay hydrated and carry extra nutrition or other gear on long training runs or while racing.

Open bladder removed and hung by the hole thoughtfully included for the purpose.
This is how I store it whenever it's not in use.

Full view of the closed bladder and insulated hose.

Duration used: 2 years (purchased sometime in 3rd quarter of 2010)

Price paid/purchased from: I believe I paid about $70 on sale from ZombieRunner.

Top, smaller (maybe 5"x5") zip pocket with main compartment open in behind.
Side zip compartment with elastic webbing loops and hook and loop-flap valuables pocket.

Bladder installed inside dedicated pouch in main compartment & hung from hook and loop strap.
 What rawks: The straps are shaped for the female figure and sit comfortably around your neck and shoulders, keeping the pack high on your back to minimize the feeling of the weight of the bladder (and keeps people with short torsos like mine happy) - the men's version called the Wasp rides the same but is a slightly different shape. I have never experienced any chafing from the pack, though I will admit I've never used it without at least 1 layer of fabric between my skin and the vest and I have noticed some discoloration on the bottom of the back where it has rubbed on a red shirt. The vest is lined throughout with cushioned mesh and the back has two raised pads that create a channel down the centre, all of which permit airflow and prevent the pack from feeling too hot in warm weather. The webbing harness system, comprised of a single strap on each side and two side release-buckled front straps keep the pack very secure; I don't really notice it bouncing even when pounding down a hill. The straps even include a loop of elastic webbing to hold any excess length when you've adjusted the vest (by using the double-back buckles on each strap) to keep it from flapping around. The centre baffle in the bladder helps it keep its flattened shape when full and prevents sloshing, while the ingenious hang loop on the top of the bladder attaches to a hook and loop strap in the top of the pack that keeps it from collapsing as it is emptied. The low placement of the drinking hose's origin allows full use of the whole bladder's capacity - you don't end up carrying any fluids that you're unable to drink while moving. The bladder is easily filled without having to remove it from the pack while still having a secure closure that doesn't leak. Generous reflective accents keep you safe while you're out in poor visibility and a drain hole in the bottom of the main compartment lets any leaks or rain run out without making you carry unnecessary weight. The hose can be routed over either shoulder thanks to dual retaining loops on the vest, and you can position the end anywhere you can clip on the thoughtfully-designed keeper; it's a hook and loop strap riveted to a small metal clip that can rotate 360 degrees to hold the hose at virtually any position. I keep it clipped to the top of the upper front strap and leave a tail of hose about 8" long so I can pull the valve up to my mouth, but you might prefer it clipped to the vest itself or even the collar of your shirt. The valve itself is a marvel of simplicity; just bite and drink. I've used the pack in very cold conditions and had ice develop in the mouthpiece, but was able to chew on it to crush any blockage and drink easily. The full-length neoprene sleeve on the hose helps keep the beverage from freezing in the cold or from heating up in hotter or sunny weather. If it's an iffy day, you're running long enough to see the sun rise or fall (or both), or just just need to bring something to your run destination you'll appreciate the absolutely ridiculous storage capacity of the Wink. The huge main compartment, even with the bladder installed in its own pouch, will easily accommodate almost any running jacket on the market (or even an ultralight tent or tarp shelter for fastpacking). The smaller, top, zip pocket would hold a toque or headband, and a set of insulated gloves would tuck neatly into the side zip compartment along with a cellphone in the internal hook and loop-flapped pocket. If you need to grab or ditch a large item in a hurry, the stretch mesh open-top pouch on the back or bungee webbing are great options, and there are hook and loop straps to hold a pair of trekking poles in place. Even with all that,  you still have all four front pockets available! The upper two open-topped pouches will each hold a standard 5oz gel flask, and the two lower, zippered pockets are even higher volume - one is made of the same air mesh as much of the vest, but has stretch gussets that allow it to comfortably hold 4 or 5 Clif bars, while the other is made entirely of stretch mesh and could engulf a softball. The pocket placement keeps them out of the way of your arm swing while still leaving them easily accessible - I like to throw my smartphone in one so I can take photos along the way (or, you know, call for help) and keep a zipper bag of toilet paper in the other, 'cause it always pays to be prepared.

Hose routed through the "shingled" overlapping elastic webbing of the exit port, and up through the hole in the vest.

A single strap on each side slides through the piece by my index finger to help the pack move with you.
What sucks: Either the bladder itself or the hose has a really odd, pervasive plastic taste to it - I've never used anything but water in it, but over the years I've used it the flavour has never gone away. I don't notice it after a bit on the run, but the first sip I take always results in an "oh yeah, THAT" sort of reaction. It's certainly not the lightest hydration vest on the market, though I can't say I've really had an issue with the weight. The bite valve has been known to drip a bit during transport and on runs as it doesn't have a positive closure. The front straps cannot be re-positioned (up & down) as they can on some other offerings. I do get occasional hand rub on the front pockets, and have never been 100% sure about the fit of the vest on my particular body. The elastic loops add weight to the adjustment straps but don't work terribly well to keep the excess webbing in place, and have been known to bounce annoyingly. I wouldn't use this in a race unless the aid stations were virtually non-existent as a hand bottle is much faster and easier to fill and lighter to carry, but those complaints would apply to any hydration pack.

Detail of the hook and loop closure on the bladder - the roll-top has yet to leak on me.
You can also see the top of the centre baffle.

Detail of the 4 front pockets - great capacity and decent placement.
What I'd like to see: Attachment straps you can re-position on the front to accommodate different body shapes, a better system to deal with the excess webbing ends, and some at least one higher-capacity drop-in pocket on the front.

A vest for all seasons.

Best photo I have of how the pack sits on me.

What I'm saying: This is a really versatile bit of kit! I reach for it whenever a hand bottle would either freeze, be inconvenient or simply not have the capacity for the duration of my workout, or if I need to carry extra gear (like a rain jacket or spare gloves). I have got a lot of great use out of this pack and have never had an issue with it that really annoyed me. That being said, I feel like it could fit me a bit better and offer some faster access (but still secure) storage that is reachable while running. I am very tempted to buy a Surge from newcomer UltraSpire, but having seen how functional my Wink is Tanker has said that he'd happily use it if I buy a new pack! It does an admirable job of keeping what you need readily at hand without any fuss, and it's just the spoiled brat in me that wants to try something new. UPDATE March 2014: After falling on my back while cross-country skiing in the pack, first the centre baffle in the bladder let go on one side (leaving it waving uselessly inside), then the bladder developed a slow leak at the top of the heat seal seam on the still-attached side of the baffle. I did try using a Tear Aid patch to seal it, but it failed during the course of a 20 mile run directly afterwards. It appears that this type of bladder is no longer available, so I will have to experiment with something else (unless I can stop the leak by other means). Unfortunately, very little seems to be available with the original bite valve - I've tried the push-pull type of valve since and hate it, so it looks like I'll have to do some surgery to whatever new bladder I end up using. I cannot say whether the indirect impact of me falling on the pack was responsible for this, though the timing does correspond. I still got approximately 3.5 years of use from the bladder, and the pack itself is still in perfect condition.

Yes, I do run with it, too.

Cold weather trail run.

For further edification: Read reviews from Snowshoe Magazine, Running Institute of San Diego and Half-TRIing.

As this will probably be my last blog post beforehand, I'd like to wish all of my readers a very Merry Christmas (or other winter holiday according to your preference) - hope this is a time filled with joy for you and those you hold dear!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tested: Louis Garneau Vent 2 vest

This week's product review: the Vent 2 (women's) vest by Canadian cycling goods manufacturer Louis Garneau.

What it is: A lightweight, windproof and water-resistant vest with reflective elements and a mesh back that features 2 large pockets.

Why you want one: For those in-between days when a jersey or shirt isn't enough, but a jacket would be too much. Wear it with arm warmers on a chilly morning and take it off when the day warms up, or stash it in a pocket to throw on as the temperatures drop or when the skies open - the beauty of a vest is its versatility and ability to dump heat while still keeping your core warm during exertion.

Under my Ultimate Direction Wink hydration vest.

Unzipped at Run for the Toad 2011.

Duration used: 3.5 years (purchased sometime in the summer of 2009)

Price paid/purchased from: I paid approx. $50 + tax from Grand River Cycle.

Not just for triathlon training!

Totally at home on a snowy trail.

What rawks: This is probably one of my favourite and most-worn pieces of gear. It's lightweight, fits in a jersey pocket if you want to ditch it, and works for almost any activity - I've worn mine cycling, running, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, plus on the occasional windy walk or hike. The reflective piping is plentiful, running parallel to the armholes at the shoulders in front, down both sides of the back with additional bits radiating out to under the arms, plus a nice stripe down the middle between the pockets. It has proved very durable, too - unlike some other reflective piping that has lost its coating through hard use and multiple washings, the vest's trim flares like brand new after all of the abuse it has suffered at my hands. If that's not enough visibility for you, the vest is available in fluorescent yellow and also includes a loop to which you can attach a blinking light. The two-way zipper is stout and stays put where you want it; you can easily unzip the bottom or top to vent additional heat if necessary. When things get chilly, the wicking fabric-lined tall collar nestles softly under your chin thanks to the zipper garage and leaves plenty of space for additional tall-collared layers underneath. While there is no silicone trim to keep the vest in place at the back, there is an internal drawcord should you need to cinch it down - I don't believe I've ever used it, though, as the length is generous and the vest stays in place on me quite well without assistance. The armholes are cut well to allow full range of motion, aided by some soft, stretchy material under the arm and on the back of the shoulder, but not so gaping as to leave you feeling exposed. The materials used are ideal for their purpose; the ripstop nylon for the front, sides and collar is light but durable, and the mesh back and pockets allows excellent airflow while still being sturdy enough to take a beating. The back pockets truly are one of the shining features of this vest - large enough for a full-size water bottle or pair of heavy gloves, they're as easily accessed and useful as any cycling jersey's equivalent, yet hard to find on the competition's vest offerings. Despite not having any elastic at the top, I've never had an item bounce out, and will regularly chuck my unprotected smartphone in either one. The tailored fit of the vest is cut loose enough to allow layering underneath, but doesn't interfere with wearing a hydration vest overtop. While not waterproof, the vest will shrug off a light shower and continue to provide core warmth even when wet due to its windproof quality. For triathletes, this would be a much faster option to throw on in T1 on a cold day than a full jacket - I've considered doing so at a couple of late-season races.

Helping me deal with the rain and wind at Horror Hill 2012.

Gel flask in the back pocket, also from Horror Hill 2012.

What sucks: The collar doesn't like to lay down nicely when unzipped. There is no stretch to the fabric (with the exception of the bits around the armholes), so you need to get the right size. The water-resistance of the fabric won't really stand up to anything more than a light sprinkle, and the mesh of the pockets allows anything stowed in them to get soaked and covered in mud or road grime on the bike. While the mesh back does let you dump heat during activity, it leaves you exposed if you're doing start/stop activities (like getting caught at stoplights) with the wind behind you.

Major glow off the reflective piping at Horror Hill 2010.

Side view at the finish of Vulture Bait 2012 - the vest moves with you really nicely.

What I'd like to see: A little more pliable fabric used for the storm flap on the zipper so the collar would lay down, and maybe some solid fabric on the pockets to protect the contents a bit. I honestly can't think of anything else!

What I'm saying: If you don't have a vest, get one. You'll use it on warm days to cut the rain, on cool days to cut the wind, and on downright cold days to keep your core warm while still being able to dump heat. The low price and nice features of the Vent 2 make it a solid choice among its competitors.

Training run along the Speed River.

Finish of Vulture Bait 2012.
I can't believe I don't have a single photo of me using my cycling vest on a bike.

For further edification: BikeRadar and All Seasons Cyclist reviewed the men's version of the vest, and there are several customer reviews at RealCyclist.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Tested: 2009 Fuel Belt Revenge hydration belt

This week's review: the 2009 model Revenge hydration belt by Fuel Belt.

What it is: A wide elastic belt with hook and loop closure that carries three 7oz fluid bottles and one 5oz gel flask.

Laid out - the vessels range around your back.

Don't you love the el-cheapo vinyl floor?

Why you want it: You don't, but if you did it would be to bring fluids and nutrition on longer runs and races.

Detail of one of the bottles locked into its holster.

The side view shows the shock cord around the neck of the bottle.

Duration used: I've owned it since July of 2009, but only used it for a little more than a year.

Price paid/purchased from: I bought mine on eBay for about $30USD + shipping.

Removal step 1 - pop off the shock cord.

Removal step 2 - pull bottle out, trying not to accidentally open the valve.

Empty holster with loose, bouncy shock cord end.

What rawks: Very little. The hook and loop closure is sturdy enough not to come undone and the bottles don't pop out when inserted properly and locked down. The inverted carriage of the gel flask probably helps with viscous gels in cold weather, and it does have a lot of reflective accents so you might not get mowed down by a car.

Pull the strap aside.

Pull the flask out at an awkward angle.

What sucks: A lot. First, the valves on bottles don't like to stay closed when you're not drinking, but don't like to stay open when you're trying to get some fluids - the rubbery white pop-up part just doesn't have enough friction against the hard red plastic portion to stay put. Speaking of staying put, the belt doesn't; it bounces and shifts around, and has to be repositioned frequently. The elasticity of the belt portion is apparently sufficient to make it somewhat uncomfortable (and certainly unflattering if you have an ounce of body fat) to wear without being able to keep it from riding up. The bottles are in an inconvenient place to reach, but still manage to interfere with natural arm swing while running, especially after the belt rides up to just below your ribcage. Once removed from their holsters, the bottles take two hands to return, and even then it's not a sure thing - get the angle a bit wrong and they'll squirt right out through the bottom of the elastic. Trying to sort out this finicky business behind your back, or even just reaching around to one side, while running is not an experience I care to endure. The gel flask is just as bad, if not worse; in the images above you can see how the front (right-hand side as pictured) of the holster is folded over from trying to negotiate it back into the belt while moving, and the elastic strap was a nuisance both while trying to slot in the flask and to try to position properly when done. I'd run out of fingers and toes before I was able to count all the times I had to retrieve a dropped bottle or flask. Assuming you're able to remove, drink from, and replace the bottles, you still end up unbalanced because the weight distribution changes with every ounce of water you shift from the bottles to your belly. Even if everything performed perfectly, the belt's fatal flaw is its capacity - a single 24oz bike bottle used with an Ultimate Direction Fastdraw harness gives you an extra 3 ounces of fluid over this idiot contraption, and even the standard 20oz bottle probably delivers more hydration as it doesn't pop open and leak at the least provocation like the belt's bottles. The proportion of gel to fluids seems out of whack, too; I can happily get through 3 hours of running on 5oz of gel, but if I'm only washing it down with 7oz of water per hour I'm going to be in the hurt locker pretty quickly. If you're actually racing, you can grab extra water at aid stations, but I primarily bought this for long training runs that are typically unsupported. The bottles seem to hold a lot of flavour, too - I mixed up some Hammer HEED in one and every sip of water since has smacked of that sickly lemon-lime. In winter, I've never had any other bottle freeze up as quickly or as badly as the Fuel Belt bottles did; they were absolutely useless after just 20mins at -10c/14f. You'd think a gel flask would be hard to bugger up, but the valve on the Fuel Belt version contrives to both restrict the flow of gel and get gummed up worse than any others I've used. I actually prefer the flasks that First Endurance uses as the packaging for EFS Liquid Shot, and they're free! 

Inside of the gel flask has airflow mesh and is stiffened slightly.

The bottle holster areas get no similar treatment.

What I'd like to see: More and/or bigger bottles (there are 10oz Fuel Belt bottles available, but you should have the option to buy the belt with greater capacity from the beginning). Fuel Belt has since re-tooled the Revenge Series with airflow pads inside the holsters, which have also been re-designed for one-handed operation...but also look like they'd preclude the use of larger bottles, as they now have a rigid frame. The maximum capacity seems to be 4 bottles, for a total of 28oz - still not enough for a 2-hour run for me in hot weather. They ditched the gel flask holder, too, opting for a zippered pocket instead - I don't know if it is large enough to hold a gel flask, and my preferred nutrition (EFS Liquid Shot) is not available in single-serve packets.

Heading out for a training run with the belt plus additional water in the handheld.

Riding up to interfere with arm swing after only a few yards.

What I'm saying: As much as I tried to like it, I freakin' hate this belt and completely quit using it after about mid-season in 2010 when I finally sucked it up and bought an Ultimate Direction Wink hydration pack. I had hacked along as seen above by supplementing the anemic fluid capacity of the belt with a handheld - I'd drink the hand bottle first, then refill it from the tiny bottles on the belt - but I was basically just in denial about having wasted my money on a piece of gear that didn't work for me at all. I did use it for the 2009 Goodlife Fitness Toronto Half-Marathon, but had to supplement with additional water from the course and probably would have been better off just using the aid stations for all of my fluid and nutrition needs. The only use any part of this gets anymore is the occasional 5k trail race that Tanker does with me - he gets dry mouth quite badly, so will hand-carry one of the 7oz bottles with him to sip on here and there on the course. The rest of it sits mouldering in the bottom of my big bag o'bottles, waiting for the day I might be stricken with amnesia and give it another try. Anyone want to buy a used hydration belt, size medium?

Horror Hill 2012 - at least 1/5 of it gets used periodically.

For further edification: I can't find any other reviews of this particular model. I'm guessing everyone else spent their money more wisely, or got so frustrated they just took a match to the bloody thing!