Monday, February 5, 2018

Review: Skratch Labs Anytime Energy Bars

Skratch Labs turns a big six years old this week, and they're growing up so fast!  It seems like just yesterday that they were convinced it was impossible to make an energy bar that wasn't dry and terrible.  "Fresh food is better for you," they said.  "Chewing shouldn't burn more calories than your actual workout," they maintained.

Unfortunately, their fans and athletes couldn't keep things simple for them.  Yes, we all like freshly made portables to fuel our endeavors, but sometimes we just don't prepare in time.  We end up stopping at the gas station and picking up something that we know isn't going to sit well.  And inevitably, we either find ourselves somewhere along the continuum of gastrointestinal regret, or crashing because we've decided that the wise decision was to eat nothing at all.  For many athletes, bars are a necessary evil, and Skratch Labs stepped up to make a version that we could feel good about eating.

I'll admit I was a little skeptical at first.  As much as I wanted to believe that the company who had turned my opinion of sports drinks around could do the same for bars, all of my experience told me it was a long shot.  And then from my first bite, I knew they had delivered.  And the second bite.  And soon I had scarfed the whole thing down without a trace of dry mouth or insecure stomach.

Like all of their creations, Skratch Labs went in with the idea that simpler is better, using as few and as minimally processed ingredients as possible, with no artificial coloring or flavoring.  In addition to the higher moisture content, they lack preservatives, which does mean that they have a shorter shelf life than many similar products.  Realistically though, I can't imagine a box of these being in my house and even coming close to the expiration date.  The bars are easy to open, and made in a manageable size, all somewhere around 200 calories a piece depending on the flavor.  And despite having an overall macronutrient profile that's comparable to many other bars, the actual sugar content is pleasingly low, with the highest coming in at only 7 grams.

For those of you with allergies or on restricted diets, all three flavors are gluten free, dairy free, vegan, and kosher.  They do, however, all contain nut butters if not solid nuts (almond and cashew).

Of the three flavors, the Chocolate Chip & Almond are probably the most mainstream.  They're made with non-dairy chocolate chips, which I didn't even realize until someone else told me, but is great news for vegans or lactose intolerant folks who miss having good chocolate options.  What surprised me about these was actually the dried cranberries, which are tart enough that I actually thought they were cherries at first.  Just sweet enough without being overpowering, and a great variety of textures in every bite.

If I had to pick a favorite, Cherries & Pistachios might be it.  Just different enough from flavors I've gotten used to in the past, a nice balance of sweet and salty, and soft overall with enough crunch to keep it interesting.  These have found a permanent place in my backpack, as well as in my wife's bag for when pregnancy hunger randomly hits.

Ginger & Miso.  Yes, a miso flavored bar.  This has to be the most polarizing of the three flavors, but has consistently disappeared at every demo I've done.  The ginger and miso provide an overall savoriness that's perfect for breaking up the taste saturation we often encounter from an overabundance of sweet options.  Fair warning though, these things also have red pepper that can range from unnoticeable to unexpectedly spicy from one bite to the next, and I tend to avoid them when my stomach is already feeling overly acidic.  That being said, I love them right now when I'm out climbing in sub-freezing weather, with that kick providing the illusion of warmth on top of an already solid flavor.

Of course I still love to cook, and having a fresh batch of cookies or other bite sized energy out at the rocks is something I'll continue to look forward to, but it's so nice to finally have a convenient pre-packaged option that I can happily share with my friends and family.  Well done Skratch Labs.  Check them out if you haven't already!

Sunday, February 4, 2018

GS sloper redemption

Some days climbing just feels hard.  Yesterday wasn't one of those days.

I'll admit that when I picked Mike up and the 17 degree air hit my hands as I shifted things to make room for him, for the briefest moment I questioned whether climbing was as good an idea as I had thought.  By the time we got to Governor Stable though, it was already in the low 20s, as high as it had been at the warmest part of our previous visit.  We ran laps around the parking lot, did calisthenics and stretches on the playground, and headed down the hill for a perfect day of diabase slopers.

After a quick warmup, including lots more jumping jacks and general flailing about, we settled in at the slab below Huck so Mike could try Pimp Smack and I could take another shot at Simon.  For such a pretty little slab, with seemingly endless options for feet, those crimps at the back had never quite been within reach.

                                                                       Photo: Mike Brest
Fortunately Adam came down the trail and was able to piece together his memory of finishing it last year, using a high right foot that I hadn't been able to hold when I first tried it a few years back in my old soft shoes.  My new Oracles toed into the diagonal edge perfectly, but I still found my left hand slipping off the sloper in the process of getting my foot that high.  Then for some reason I decided to shift my hand down and crimp the bottom of the sloper dish, and instantly felt solid.

                                                                                               Photo: Mike Brest
I've never thought of myself as particularly strong on slopers, but early this past summer I was at Gretna with a friend who I had always assumed was better on slopers than me, yet he was falling off holds that I found easy.  Looking at how we both used other holds, we realized that my greater comfort on slopers was a result of my preference for open handed crimping, which puts my hand in a similar position to that of holding a sloper.  While figuring that out was a good confidence builder at the time, realizing yesterday that the extra leverage from my fingertips can give me more of an advantage than increasing contact area felt like a game changer for me.

                                                                                              Photo: Mike Brest
With about an hour left and the temperature up to a balmy 30 degrees, I wanted to see if I had the energy to keep the momentum going and finish No Moss, after peeling off the finish jug last time.  Pulling on, the start hold didn't feel as good as I wanted, but then the first sloper felt amazing.  And the next.  And right when I expected to be landing on the pad, I realized I was comfortably hanging from the finish instead.  It was a bit anti-climactic actually, aside from realizing that the climb somehow made me look like an angry pirate.

                                                                                              Photo: Mike Brest
This may be an unpopular opinion, but here's hoping these cold days stick around a while!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Review: Evolv Oracle

It's only been a week since I first climbed in the new Evolv Oracles, but even after the first day I was ready to call them the best climbing shoe I've ever used.

Backing up a bit first though.  Anyone who climbed with me before the past couple years probably gave me a hard time about the fact that I bought the same shoe year after year, and broke them in until they were entirely upturned to match my smear-focused climbing style.  At some point it occurred to me that I could probably find shoes to fit me better out of the box instead of using ones that only fit the way I liked after the second resole.  Finally the universe intervened in the form of a free pair of Kronos, and my first time taking them out I was amazed to find that I immediately cruised up a slab problem that had taken me two hours of work when I first put it up.  Soon the Shaman became my all-around shoe for everything except hard heel and toe hooks, which I would switch to the Agro for.  While it took me a while to get used to the decreased smearing ability of the stiffer rubber, the edging ability blew me away, and I quickly started ticking off slabs in my Shamans that I had been unable to do in any other shoe.

Joes to Pros variation, Northwest Branch, MD

          From NY With Love, Sourlands, NJ               Photo: Logan Zimmerman

When I heard the Oracle described as the toe of the Shaman and the heel of the Agro, I was intrigued.  After using them twice in the gym and once outside in the past week, I can say that description is spot on.  The toe has all of the precision and edging power I've come to expect from the Shaman, locking me in on steep terrain and letting me stand on next to nothing on slabs.  On the nearly frictionless wooden holds of my favorite training board, I was able to grab onto even the rounded edges beautifully.

                                                                   Photo: Pennie Close
While the front of the Oracle doesn't have the total rubber coverage of the Agro, they still hold their own in toe-hook sequences, and I felt like the laces stayed out of the way better then velcro when I used more of my foot.

           Baron Harkonen, Cunningham Falls, MD          Photo: Charlie Garcia
I do feel a slight amount of give when I hook with the side of my heel in the Oracle, but straight on heel-hooks are totally solid.  The shape of the heel conforms well enough to my foot that I almost feel like I could already heel-hook with them unlaced, and then the FSS tensioning system locks it in place way better than I would have ever imagined in a lace-up shoe.

                                                                                           Photo: Pennie Close
In terms of sizing, I wear the Shaman in 10/10.5 split and the Agro in 10.5, and went with 10.5 for the Oracle.  Normally the Shaman fits me immediately out of the box, and the Agro feels great once it's actually on my feet, though I have a little trouble getting my heel through the opening the first few times.  The Oracle fit almost perfectly out of the box, with the laces accommodating my foot size difference enough that so far I haven't felt the urgent need to split sizes.  Having exclusively worn velcro for a couple years, I did find tops of my toes were hurting after a while from over-tightening the laces the first day, but after keeping them looser the next two times the issue was alleviated.  In fact, my second time using the Oracle at the gym, I climbed vertical/slab routes with them totally untied to let the skin recover a little more, and found that I was still able to climb at my onsight level with no added difficulty.

So there you have it.  The Oracle will definitely be replacing the Shaman as my standard shoe both indoors and out.  That being said, Evolv has two more fantastic looking shoes coming out that I was even more excited about than these.  It's a safe bet you'll be hearing more from me when they do!

Monday, January 29, 2018

New year, new focus

Happy 2018!  It's been a great one for me so far, largely colored by the knowledge that I'm finally going to be a dad in about three months.  I feel like I should be nervous, but if I am, the excitement is doing a great job of masking it.  If anything, I've found myself feeling more motivated these past several months than I have in a long time.  Maybe my schedule won't change as much as I think it will, but right now while my schedule is all my own, I've been taking full advantage of the fitness area at our gorgeous new climbing gym.  Focusing on full-body antagonist work that I can easily replicate at home while the baby naps, my back is finally in good enough shape to let me take advantage of the vastly steeper bouldering terrain that the new gym offers.

While my after work bouldering sessions have mostly become training days at the gym, I've been trying to get out as close to every weekend as possible, generally aiming for quantity and variety of movement over any harder projecting.  With so much out there that I want to climb, and the freedom to get out wherever I want right now, I don't want to look back and realize that I spent most of the winter staring at the same few feet of rock.

After not getting out for the first couple weeks of the year because I thought the weather wasn't good enough, I ended up heading to Governor Stable as an excuse to have lunch at the Troegs brewery afterward.  Even with temps in the low teens when we got there, twenty minutes of cardio and calisthenics in the parking lot had me feeling toasty all day, and the friction was the best I've ever felt on diabase slopers.  Unfortunately I still kept peeling off the finish jug of No Moss, but the day was a great reminder that even seemingly sub-optimal conditions can actually be fantastic with the right mindset.

                                                                                                                                                                         Photo: Mike Brest
Last weekend I went out for a much warmer day of Sugarloaf area bouldering, first to Mount Ephraim, and then up to White Rocks.  We started off on the Magical Boulder, where I got on Awakening for the first time in almost five years.  Even though it felt easy now considering how much work I put into it back then, the movement was every bit as good as I remembered, and I would still rank it among the best boulders I've climbed anywhere.

                                                                                       Photo: Taimur Ahmad
Over at White Rocks, we took a short tour around before stopping to finish our day on the slab at the base of the boulderfield.  Taimur snagged the second ascent of God of Thumbder, managing to continue traversing low for a more direct link into the start of Crimp Life than I had thought possible when I first tried it a couple years ago, and I was happy to find that his beta worked for me now too,

Taimur Ahmad on Thumbdercling

                                                                                        Photo: Taimur Ahmad
Saturday I went out to Cunningham Falls, intending to work on Never Let Me Go, but deciding after a few tries that I'm not quite as ready for the first move as I'd hoped.  Instead I went for a mileage day, repeating a few of my favorite climbs on the Jonah boulder, and working out a couple of the link-ups that have come to mind in the past few visits.  After finishing the link from Belly into Baron Harkonen, I decided to reverse it into a Baron-Belly link that I didn't have enough time to finish after working out the moves, but was a lot of fun nonetheless.  In any case, it's still really exciting to be able to spend this much time on steep terrain again without worrying about every move injuring me.

                                                                                       Photo: Charlie Garcia

                                                                                        Photo: Charlie Garcia
Fingers crossed this good weather will hold out for this weekend.  I see some more diabase slopers in my future!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Where has the time gone?

Almost Thanksgiving already, and somehow I haven't posted on here since February.  In fact, I started writing this over a month ago and am just now getting around to finishing it!  Partially it was the fact that other obsessions led me to spend far less time on the computer than usual, which isn't really a bad thing.  Specifically, I've been making it a point to read new books this year (14 so far!) instead of just reading the same Tolkien stories over and over, as well as playing a ton of fiddle.

I actually did do less climbing this past spring than I wanted to though, continuing struggle with back injuries that I later found out were due to having two bulging disks in my lower spine.  The good news is that stretching, PT, and changing how I do many basic motions throughout my day has made a huge difference for me, so I feel like this winter I'll finally be able to get my climbing back on track.  I've even been able to start getting out on several of the overhung boulders that I had resigned myself to never being able to touch without injury, and it's brought a whole new level of excitement for me.  I'm not an old man yet!

So what else has my year brought?  Well, two big trips to start with.  In the spring I spent a fantastic week visiting my mother-in-law in Vietnam, which had hands down the most welcoming people I've ever met while traveling, as well as some of the best food.

This summer I had planned to roadtrip out west and eventually join friends in Squamish, and then they decided to go climb for two weeks in France and Switzerland instead.  So across the ocean I went!

Other than that, I've just been putting in a bunch of training time at the gym and then getting out locally whenever I can.  Back in March I got Taimur out for a tour of Bushwhack, where we knocked out the short slab that had shut a bunch of us down a couple years ago.  It was crazy to see how easily he smeared up in his Agros when my old Miuras had always greased right off, but with my own pair not arriving until the next day, I managed to find an edgier way to the top in my Shamans.

Last weekend I went back out with Indy and Rob, where among other things we dropped a rope so Rob could enjoy the slabby glory of Nine and Three Quarters without worrying about the backbreaking fall.

                                   Photo by Mark 'Indy" Kochte

I've started getting out to Catoctin/Cunningham a little more, and have been especially happy that my back has been able to handle the steepness of the Jonah boulder.  While it hasn't quite felt ready for the first move of Never Let Me Go, it's held up nicely for Baron Harkonen and a couple of fun variations.

                                                              Photo by John Brunson

As usual in the Fall, I've also been making some after work trips to Northwest Branch, running through my usual circuits and especially happy to find all of the holds on Seam Nightmares finally useable again.

And with perfect diabase temperatures setting in, of course I've been making the trip up to Gretna whenever I can.  So far I haven't done anything too exciting, but my back has finally been feeling good enough to try Equilateral, although I was so tired that I peeled off the last move by the time I had worked out my sequence for the rest of it.  Guess that just means I'll enjoy it even more when I do top it out.

                                                                                       Photo by Mark Profeta
Until next time!