Friday, August 14, 2015

Product review: Skratch Labs

It's another steamy August week in Maryland, not that we really get any other kind.  As a teacher, I have the luxury of being able to escape out west for a good piece of the summer, but when I'm home I can either sit around waiting for better conditions or make the most of the time I have.  Sometimes this means being out climbing, going out with no real expectation of doing anything hard (but often surprising myself), and just focusing on the opportunity to check out new places or learn to move more efficiently in familiar ones.  Other days this means training, whether that be core workouts, long walks in the woods, or getting my fingers ready for the prime bouldering season that's just around the corner.

                                                                                              Photo: Ben Dooley
Whatever a summer day brings, it's pretty much a given that I'll be sweating.  Over time I've gotten better about bringing enough water when I go out to play, though for a long time I left it sitting in my pack until I was already feeling my performance slip.  As I often forget to eat too, I got into the habit of bringing a sports drink with me, both for the electrolytes and to get at least a few calories back into my system.  It did the trick, but between having to stop and buy one every time I went climbing, and wondering what kind of chemicals I was putting into my body, I frequently found myself thinking that there must be a better solution.

I've been hearing about the hydration products from Skratch Labs for a few years now, initially from Dustin before he moved west, and more recently from Dana.  As she had already motivated me to take my training seriously, especially after she almost tied my score at the Sourland Smackdown despite missing the first two or three hours of the competition, following her recommendations seemed like a safe bet.

Still, even hearing about the Skratch products from two motivated athletes, I wondered if they actually lived up to the hype.  Then I tasted the Exercise Hydration Mix for the first time and was hooked.  Not only was it delicious, but I loved the fact that the ingredient list was short and entirely comprised of words I knew.  Words like "raspberries."  Not "raspberry flavor," not "extract of."  Just "raspberries."  

Last month during our week in Boulder, we had the opportunity to stop by Skratch Labs for a tour. It was fun to hear the stories behind the company and products, from their early days supporting competitive cyclists to their subsequent expansion into the greater world of outdoor recreation. Many of those stories can be found on their blog, along with detailed information on why various ingredients were chosen and how to most effectively use the products as part of an active lifestyle.  Just walking through the place though, it was clear that their commitment to balancing nutrition and taste went far beyond the things they sold.  Constantly developing new recipes for their athletes or for each other, these were good people who believed in sharing good food, and who recognize the importance of community.

Before we left we got to taste several flavors we hadn't seen at home yet, and picked up a good assortment to get us through rest of our trip.  Obviously everyone's preferences will vary, but here are my thoughts on the current flavors:

The first one I tried, and still my favorite.  Fresh raspberry flavor, lightly tart with just the right amount of sweetness.  Even better, the bottom of the bottle ends up coated in a layer of raspberry seeds.  As a Maryland native, I liken the seeds to the presence of shell fragments in crab soup.  Yes, it can be a shock if you unexpectedly bite one, but at least you know what you're eating is real.  This has been my go-to drink this summer.

My second favorite after the raspberry.  Like eating fresh pineapple, but without the mouth-numbing acidity and syrupy sweetness that I usually associate with the flavor.  And like the raspberry seeds, the cloudiness from the pulp is a nice reassurance that what you're drinking is actual fruit.

Lightly sweet orange flavor that reminds me more of orange soda than orange juice (in a good way), and not as sour as I expected.  For you big orange juice fans, it still has a nice cloud of pulp.

Lemons + Limes-
I noticed more lime than lemon in this one.  Probably the most similar to other sports drinks, but it was a clean lime flavor instead of tasting like cheap margarita mix.  Even better when I accidentally drank it hot, thinking it was the matcha flavor.  Speaking of which...

Matcha + Lemons-
Made with ground green tea and lemon, it tastes just like you'd expect.  Drink it hot.  Or iced.  Really no way to go wrong with this one, especially with the little caffeine boost from the matcha.  Perfect for those post-work training sessions when that mid-afternoon tiredness is creeping in.

Apples + Cinnamon-
In an area where our best climbing comes during cold weather, I've found that maintaining core heat is the biggest factor in performing well.  Bringing a thermos of hot water has made a huge difference in my winter climbing, as long as I'm willing to deal with the unpleasant metallic taste.  Now it can taste like apple pie instead.  Brilliant.  I'll be going through a lot of this stuff...

The flavors are also fun to combine, with my favorite combo at the moment being the raspberry with the lemon-lime.  Being back to work now, I'm also enjoying mixing the raspberry and the matcha for a little caffeine boost to keep me motivated through afternoon sluggishness.  As a whole, the mixes are all well balanced... enough sugar for a boost without feeling syrupy, enough sodium without a salty burn, and low acidity even from flavors where I would expect more.  I've been making a 32 ounce bottle (generally raspberry) for all of my climbing and hard training sessions this summer, and it's gone a long way toward maintaining my physical and mental energy even on the nastiest of days.  Given my history of forgetting to hydrate, it's especially nice to have something that I actually look forward to drinking.

In addition to their standard Exercise Hydration Mixes, three other levels of hydration mix are available from Skratch.  At the lightest end is the Daily Electrolyte Mix, designed for when you're not really sweating, but still want something a little more substantial (and flavorful) than water.  In the other direction is the Rescue Hydration Mix.  I found this one particularly interesting because it was developed based on the World Health Organization standards for the solutions used to treat dehydration in developing countries, but with better taste and no artificial ingredients.  Skratch has an awesome writeup about the Rescue Hydration Mix here, which also has some great information about dehydration in general.  For even more extreme needs, they make the Hyper Hydration Mix, though they do specify that very few people will actually lose enough fluids to justify using it.

For those in need of a little extra carb boost, Skratch also makes Fruit Drops in both raspberry and orange flavor.

These are similar to other energy chews on the market, but like the hydration mixes are made with recognizable ingredients, and are designed to be friendly to the gastro-intestinal system.  Unlike some I've had that feel like they'll pull a tooth out, I found these much easier to chew, and the light sugar coating on the outside gives them a nice little crunch.  Skratch's blog gives all of the technical info and advice on their use, but I like the fact that they seem to view these as a backup option, preferring to rely on freshly made portable foods whenever possible.

As I said before, Skratch is a company full of people who like to eat well, and they've devoted a lot of time to perfecting recipes both for home meals and portable options.  While they don't sell most of these directly, they do have two cookbooks full of great recipes in addition to the ones they post online. I held off on getting one since we were already running low on car space, but everything I saw while flipping though looked awesome.

The one portable food product that they do actually sell is the mix for their cookies, which I haven't tried yet (Dana has promised to fix that), but from what I've read they sound like a great alternative to energy bars.

I'll admit that I was a little surprised when I first saw the cookies on their site.  Thinking about some of the dry energy bars I've choked down though, it made total sense.  After being conditioned to think that some of these pre-wrapped lumps must give us some magic edge, we often settle for the ones that taste the least terrible.  But let's face it, most of us would rather be eating cookies anyway, and Skratch points out that cookies are often easier to digest while still giving us the same nutritional benefits.  That works for me!

For anyone in or passing through Boulder, I'd highly recommend stopping by Skratch if you get a chance.  Good people making good things.  Plus they're conveniently located across from Boulder Beer, whether you're looking to pre-hydrate before lunch or grab a packet of of the rescue mix afterward.

And for those in the Columbia, MD area looking to give Skratch a try or restock your dwindling supply, Race Pace (near the climbing gym) has the best selection I've seen so far.  Lots of flavors in stock, and they even carried the cookie mix.  Check them out if you get a chance.

Special thanks to Jason for the awesome tour, and cheers to all the folks at Skratch Labs making the magic happen!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Gym review: Earth Treks Golden

One advantage of visiting Colorado during an exceptionally rainy week is that we never have to feel awkward about spending time inside.  While I usually pack my time there with as much hiking and climbing as I can get, the weather decided otherwise during my visit to Boulder a couple weeks ago, and our time instead became filled with brewery stops and the occasional gym climbing session just to keep ourselves moving a bit.

Earth Treks Golden opened up just a couple months after my last trip to Colorado, and from everything I'd heard about it, I couldn't wait to check it out.  If nothing else, as a member of the Earth Treks locations back in Maryland, it was nice to know that there was a gym in Colorado where I could climb for free.  Even nicer was the fact that so many of the Maryland employees migrated out to staff the new location, making me feel at home right from the beginning.

We only did a couple of the routes, but I was definitely impressed.  The walls had a much greater variety of angles and curves than most gyms I've experienced, which was a perfect complement to the style of Golden's head setter, whose routes tend to be as visually appealing as they are fun to climb. Consistent with the Maryland locations, they use a single color of holds rather than colored tape when setting, eliminating the annoying and unrealistic (by outdoor standards) problem of having to waste energy while trying to look around a foothold to see if the tape is the right color.

The texture of the walls was great too. Even many of the easier routes were set to take full advantage of the high friction surface, forcing climbers to trust their smearing ability rather than giving them an obvious ladder of footholds.  Although I had heard that Golden's wall texture was rough compared some of the other local gyms,  I didn't realize how true this was until I revisited one of my favorite Boulder gyms a couple days later and was frustrated by the difficulty I had with smearing there.  True, a smoother wall surface does help train greater strength in moving directly from hold to hold, thereby helping a setter force a certain sequence, and encouraging climbers to commit to larger moves.  And yes, I've definitely encountered glassy boulders that made smearing nearly impossible, but as someone who has an unhealthy obsession with slab climbing, I also recognize that there's so much more to it than pasting your foot somewhere and hoping it sticks.  Like any climbing movement, there's a refinement to good foot placement between obvious holds that can only be found through repeated experimentation, and Golden is a place that definitely facilitates that.

The bouldering area was easily the most impressive of any of the Earth Treks locations, and possibly the best I've seen from any gym I've visited.  As with the roped areas, the variety of terrain was phenomenal. From gentle scoops on rounded topout boulders to steep and sustained overhangs, I wish this was a bouldering cave I had closer to home.  The fully padded floor was a nice addition, allowing a climber to commit to a move without worry about inadvertently hitting a pad edge and rolling an ankle.  Like the other locations, convenient downclimbing handles were located throughout the bouldering area, giving a great alternative to jumping down or trying to downclimb smaller holds when already pumped.  Add in some top-quality setting, and it's a place that will be turning out little bouldering monsters for years.

And then there's the training area...

A full weight room downstairs, complete with multiple bars and hanging shapes.  Three beautifully set system boards upstairs, all adjustable from vertical to steep.  Even if the rest of the gym didn't exist, I'd go to Golden just for this.  So jealous.

And speaking of jealous...

A dedicated footwash in the locker room, rather than having to awkwardly grab a bunch of paper towels from the sink and walk into the shower fully clothed just so I can stand my own feet on the ride home? Brilliant.  Pretty sure this should be required in any gym built from here on out.

I'll admit that the Columbia Earth Treks is still my favorite, both because it's my home gym and because we have the best slab and crack terrain of them all, but Golden was a work of art.  Having seen the changes as the Maryland locations have expanded and improved, it was cool to see how Earth Treks was able to combine successful aspects of their existing gyms with new ideas that could only be pulled off when starting from scratch.  It also makes me excited to see what direction they'll take in future gyms and expansions, given what they've learned from this one.  Thanks to everyone out there who showed us a good time, and congrats to Earth Treks on opening up such a great place!

Summer roadtrip 2015 Part 4: Wyoming and back home

When we originally planned our trip, our intent had been to go more or less directly home from Montana. Then we adjusted it a bit to visit friends in Wyoming who had been wanting us to come out. Looking at the options for routes between Missoula and Lander, we decided to take the western route to pass through the Tetons, thinking that would be the highlight of the day's scenery.  Despite the rain, it was.

As expected, the Tetons were gorgeous, and I can't wait to go back and explore sometime in better weather.  The funny thing is that we saw so many other places along the way that were almost as pretty.

With my limited experience with Wyoming, that drive was already enough to convince me to spend more time there, and then we got to Lander.

The next morning, we went just a couple miles from our hosts' home to Sinks Canyon, and I was blown away by the ridiculous amount of climbing.

I even got to play on a bit of it myself.

And did I mention rivers that disappear into caves?

After a late lunch and a visit to an old ghost town, we went out to take a walk in the hills outside of town.  Unreal.

Safe to say we'll be going back!

From Lander, we decided against taking the straightest way home, wanting to detour slightly north to see Devils Tower and Badlands National Park, which Emily had never seen and I hadn't been to for almost 25 years.

Again, the drive was enough to make me want to come back.  I knew we would be driving through Ten Sleep, and that seeing the walls there would make me want to come back and climb.

What I didn't expect was that mountains above the canyon would call to me just as strongly.

Eventually we made it to Devils Tower, which was just as worth the drive as I remembered.

And with semi-intentional perfect timing, we got to the badlands just in time for sunset.

We even saw some unexpected friends.

The next day was a long one, and Chicago was a bit of a shock to our systems, but we rewarded ourselves with one of the best dinners of the trip.  It's not very often that a 45 minute wait to get in is so worth it.

Our last day was easy.  Only eight and a half hours of driving, and almost all of that on familiar roads. We did stop outside of Cleveland for perch tacos and an IPA sampler though.

And now here we are.  They say time flies when you're having fun, and I certainly had a great time, but somehow that three weeks felt way longer.  I guess it was just because we packed so much into that time and saw so many friends and family, which is amazing considering how often the weather limited what we could do.  As much as we did though, and as fun as it is to be on the road and feel the excitement of wondering what's around the next corner, I'll admit there's a part of me that's just as happy to be home.  But I guess that's the whole point of travel... experiencing new things so we can come back and see the familiar through new eyes.  Fortunately for me, I have three weeks left of vacation to see it with!

Summer roadtrip 2015 Part 3: Montana

Normally it's hard for me to leave Colorado and see the familiar mountains slipping away in the distance.  It's a little easier when I know I'm heading somewhere equally beautiful, so it worked out well that Montana was our next stop.

After a night in Wyoming, we got to Missoula just in time for my sister Sara's birthday dinner, joined soon after by our friends Rob and Sarah who we were staying with that week.  Not to downplay my sister's birthday, but I was really way more excited about getting to meet my niece Sky for the first time. It was actually nice to have so many kids to play with that week, between my niece and Rob & Sarah's three kids.  Good thing they all got along so well!

Missoula is really growing on me.  Between the rivers and the incredible hiking, there was no shortage of outdoor fun to be had.  Add in a bunch of good breweries, wineries, and restaurants (including some of the best ice cream ever), and even rainy days are a lot of fun.  One of my favorite things was how kid-friendly the businesses were, as we went to two bars, three breweries, a winery, and a distillery with at least one small child, and nobody seemed to think twice about it.  Definitely a good place for active parents to be, though even they need their rest sometimes.

Our first full day there was spent floating down the river, something I need to do more often.  It was Emily's first time on a stand-up paddleboard, and I don't think a day has passed since then that she hasn't talked about buying one.  While I had been on a board before, I'd never been on a raft or kayaked on fresh water, so there were plenty of new experiences all around.  The trip was even more fun since Rob brought his two boys, who were naturals out on the river.  They live in the right place for it!

Whatever hiking I missed out on in Colorado, the couple days we spent in the Bitterroot Mountains made up for it.  It's amazing to me that mountains that seem at first so unremarkable from the road are actually so extensive and impressive.  Whether hiking up steep canyons or across open peaks, I'm continually surprised by how much there is to see, especially since the terrain is often what I associate with being about 3000 feet higher up, based on my experience in Colorado.  Plus, any hike is made better when there are huckleberries growing along the trail!

On our last day, we hiked up St. Mary's Peak, and I started to understand just how vast the Bitterroot area was.  It's also the most accessible peak in the range, which made it a perfect choice for a hike with three kids.  After a couple miles through forest and flowers, the views finally opened up a bit.

Then they opened up a lot!

It was crazy to think that we were at the same elevation that we were used to starting our hikes at further south.  After a few more minutes, we reached the top and were invited into the fire tower to rest and warm up.  Can't say I minded stopping for a bit...

It's good for me to have another mountain range that I want to explore as much as those in Colorado that I'm already more familiar with.  It's good to be reminded that mountains are mountains.  And it's good that the next day we were back on the road to find more of them.

Summer roadtrip 2015 Part 2: Colorado

We rolled into Colorado the night of the 4th, just in time for dinner at my sister's place in Boulder and a walk up to Chautauqua for the fireworks.  Between the wind and the rain, we actually weren't sure whether the fireworks were going to happen, but luckily they started right as we were about to give up, and we couldn't have picked a better spot for them.

Actually, rain was a running theme during our week in Colorado.  On the bright side, it was the first time I'd ever seen the fire danger meters at their lowest setting, so at least it was nice to know that they weren't having as bad a fire season as on my last few visits.

We spent most of the week at our friends James and Sheila's house, and hanging out with my sister Becca and friend Timm as much as we could.  While I would have thought I'd be frustrated by the trails and rocks all being wet, it was nice to know that we could go out and have such a good time even staying mostly indoors.  Mainly that meant a lot of time at breweries, so our good time was understandable, but we also had fun tours of Skratch Labs and SparkFun, plus some climbing at the new Earth Treks and at Movement.

That Wednesday, we drove up to Allenspark to hang out with my mom and friends Todd and Drew, who were out in Rocky Mountain National Park for the week.  Our plans of a hike that day were shut down by the rain, so went down to Estes to wait for the others to get down from Sky Pond.  After we had killed a few hours at the Dancing Pines tasting room and Ed's, they finally made it back down and wanted to head to the cabin and make chili.  Since that was going to be a while anyway, Emily and I went for a rainy drive through the park.  Deciding that a short hike in the rain was better than no hike at all, we got out of the car to walk at least as far as Nymph Lake, and ended up going on to Dream Lake before turning back.

The next day started out much better, and after a good breakfast at Meadow Mountain Cafe, we drove up Trail Ridge for the only hike I had been set on doing this trip.  Leaving a car at the Milner Pass trailhead, we drove back up to the alpine visitor center and walked across the tundra to Forest Canyon Pass, one of my favorite walks in the park.

Our goal for the day was a small summit rising south of the pass.  I had gone up all of the other points along that ridge two years ago on my way back from Mount Ida, but hadn't made it to this one, and for some reason couldn't stop thinking about it.

Cutting up through the forest, we aimed for what we thought was the best way up to the top. Wanting to get up and down before the coming storm hit, the walk was a little more directly up than we wanted, but the views were nice.

Then we heard the thunder coming.  Worried that what we saw ahead of us was a false summit, my mom and Emily and Todd opted to get back under cover of the trees.  Drew and I went ahead, and within a couple minutes were happy to find ourselves on top.

With another less distant clap of thunder, and the beginning of light hail, drew and I ran back down to the trees.  Thinking we were still behind the rest of the group, we ran the rest of the way down to the car in the now more intense hail, only to get down and realize that they were still behind us.  After waiting a few minutes for the storm to pass, we walked back up to join them, and finished the hike with them while actually enjoying the views this time around.

After a milkshake stop in Estes, we drove through the same hailstorm two more times on our way back down for one last night in Boulder.  From there, we spent a couple days at my brother's place, before getting back on the road.

Next stop, Montana.