impromptu trail race = UltrAspire Astral review

So last Wednesday I had one too many glasses of red wine and agreed to run an 8km trail race on the weekend. I was told that it was a “small field”, and I was intending to run 8km on Sunday anyway (though I highly doubt I would have had I not agreed to the race). So on Sunday I was up at the crack of sparrows to drive to Hartbeespoort to run further than I’ve ever run before. I made it through the Vivobarefoot Nature’s Way 8km Run coordinated by My Road Less Travelled, unfortunately not in my vivobarefoots (more on that later). It was a wonderful, quiet course, definitely flatter than last week’s Beast, and I did get through all 8kms without dying, puking, or crawling across the finish line. Official time was 01:04:41, 36th overall (out of 56) and 5th female veteran. Also, I won a hat from Windpomp that conveniently matches my watch.

But the real reason to run was to demo the new women’s race vest from UltrAspire: the Astral. I don’t usually run with a pack; I try to run for as short a time possible so I don’t have to carry water. But after last weekend’s Beast I realized that I might want to entertain the notion of carrying water in a feminine, light-weight running vest. Also, some races require you to carry stuff, like water, and a cell phone, and a space blanket, and trail mix.

Unlike the happy, go-lucky models on the UltrAspire Astral website, I am 173 cm (5’8″) and a 36C, so not built like any trail runner I’ve seen so far. I was carrying 1L of water, my blackberry, my inhaler, a small container of yogurt covered dates, a space blanket, my car keys, and tissues. But there was space for a ton more- like a wind breaker and a first aid kit, and also more food and water! I liked the layer of padding between the bladder and my back, providing a cushion that prevented me from getting too chilled by the reservoir, or too hot when I warmed up. The construction of the harness actually felt like wearing nothing at all, literally there was no pressure on my shoulders and the pack hung well around my (ample) chest. The front pockets (I used one for clean tissues and one for dirty ones) weren’t poofy (they sort of look that way in the pictures) and didn’t get in the way of my arms. And boy are those front pockets roomy! Another cool feature: pockets on the shoulder straps allowing easy access to little things like lip balm or pain killers. And there’s this very cool bungee at the top (which I noticed after the race) that allows you to hang the whole pack from a rope or tree branch while you fill the bladder with more fluids, or use your required cell phone to check in on Facebook.


Kinga is modeling my very first hydration system- a Camelbak, purchased for mountain biking circa 1995. He is also illustrating how uncomfortable it is.

I don’t have much experience with race vests, but I do with packs for hiking and commuting. I have always hated the chest strap/waist strap combo, which creates a big squeeze on the top of the breasts and squishes everything together into one giant uniboob. At first I was skeptical of the Astral’s front bungee cords holding the pack across the rib cage because they hit right at the diaphragm line. The last thing I wanted was to free the ladies, but restrict my breathing. I didn’t have to worry at all- the suspension system over the shoulders and back, combined with the bungees, actually allow for plenty of breathing room across the chest while still holding the whole kit securely in place with no chafing or rubbing anywhere! It was a really wonderful first race pack experience and I’m sure I’ll be spoiled from now on. These beauties will be retailing at Mindful Runner mid-March and you can get in line after me!

For reference, I’ve included a picture of my loyal companion wearing my first hydration system. The Astral leaves this pack way back in the closet under the stairs from where I dug it out just for this picture.

Also, lesson learned- at first I thought this pack was so noisy! But then I heard other runners with packs passing me and I realized there was a lot of clattering from carrying too much gear. So pad all your hard items for a quieter run.


the travelling ashtangi

as kids, my family never went half-ass on vacation. we travelled all over the U.S.- florida and disney world several times as my grandparents had a very nice jumping off point in orlando. gettysburg to see the battlefields, mesa verde in colorado to check out the cliff dwellers (at 15 years old i was the 3rd designated driver on that trip), prince edward island (that’s in Canadia). the younger sibs even made it out to the badlands (oregon trail style, but no one died of dysentery). there was no national park or museum we didn’t hit (i saw the house, not the movie, where jesse james was shot). we always drove, packing 8 kids and all our reading material and pillows into a 14 passenger van. it was a hoot. until saturday came.

my mom (designated driver #2) would always make sure that on sunday morning we were taking up an entire pew at mass in Godknowswhere, USA (or Canadia). i’m not sure how she did it, but she always found a catholic mass for us to attend. even on vacation! (honestly, she made me track down a catholic mass in kasane, botswana) and if a mass couldn’t be found, she would be very put out. quiet all day and reading her today’s missal. eish.

now, as an ashtangi, i understand. because whenever i go somewhere, travelling for work or on vacation, i am on-line checking out where to catch the nearest mysore/ashtanga classes where i’ll be. in NYC it’s with eddie and his crew at ashtanga yoga new york. in amsterdam it’s yoga mandala, in nairobi it’s with oriane (who finally got me to my chin in bhuja pidasana). i’m now heading home for 6 weeks and thinking: vermont? boston? portland?

because we ashtangis, we’re all one big tribe (don’t you dare call it a ‘religion’ or a…*whisper* ‘cult’). though ‘physically intimate, but emotionally distant’ we still like to practice together and enjoy each other’s company for that 1 hour, 1.5 hours, maybe even 2 hours, on our mats in the morning, even if we never make eye contact. it’s what holds us all together and individually keeps us sane. because who else would get up at 5:30am to practice primary series again? while on vacation?

and like a catholic mass, there’s no question about what you’re supposed to do. growing up i knew when the bells rang i had to go to my knees and start spewing latin, no matter where i was. now when the instructor calls ‘samasthitih’, i know we’re going to chant the vande gurunam together- in sanskrit. so it seems the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.

and as a studio owner it’s wonderful to see the occasional, and very welcome, international travellers. those people, who like me, always google: ‘ashtanga [name of city on plane ticket]’. and then scan links for words like ‘traditional’ or ‘mysore’. hell, we’re probably the people who i didn’t make eye contact with in the yoga room/inter-denominational prayer room at the [whatever international airport].

two weeks ago it was a woman from milan. this week it’s a man from america. ekam has had visitors from zambia, france, and lots of south africans now living abroad coming home for the holidays. they bring a breath of fresh air with them and a dedication to a practice that crosses borders and peoples (though i have a sneaking suspicion that we’re all a-type). it’s inspiring that a practice that started in a room that couldn’t hold more than 12 people at a time, has expanded into a global, individual practice. and we welcome all comers. because, in the end, it’s a little global piece of home, and a practice that we all share and are inspired by. in the end, there’s no vacation from the dedication to the practice.

(funny article about how insufferable yogis are. and there’s even a link to something about yoga snobbery. [snark.])

the sound of my practice

unlike my sense of sight and smell, my hearing is definitely going downhill with age. if there’s any background noise like music, or appliances humming, or trucks on the highway, i can’t hear some spoken frequencies and i do miss parts of conversations. it’s especially frustrating when i’m trying to learn something new, like at the gym during pk training. if there’s music playing in a huge open hall, i really have no idea what people are saying. sorry.

having lived in a few countries where english is not the primary language has also contributed to my tuning out on conversations happening around me. so forgive me if i don’t respond to questions or hissing noises (a sound i specifically filter out after living in greece). i’m not exactly deaf and i’m not exactly ignoring you- it’s just a coping mechanism.

however there are sounds that are specific triggers for me, that i yearn to hear and are like a pavlovian signal, bringing me to a state of readiness, or relaxation, or just a sense of peace.

ujjayi pranayama

ujjayi pranayama translates as ‘victorious breath’ or ‘ocean breath’. think of the sound of waves crashing along the shoreline. when i enter a room where ashtanga vinyasa yoga is being practiced, either as a student or teacher, this sound brings me immediately into a sweat. my breathing slows and begins to match the ebb and flow of those breathing in the room, my heart rate drops and steadies. i ready myself to practice, or to adjust, and there’s a sense of calm and purpose. this sound of my daily yoga practice brings my mind to a single point of focus and allows me to go with the flow.

the parkour step, scrape & slap

you can always tell parkour is going on around you by a series of steps, then a scrape and a slap. it’s the sound of feet running along an urban surface then a rotation or a step onto a wall (or different surface) and then maybe the slap of hands on brick or stone, or feet landing. it’s not exactly rhythmic, it’s never the same twice, and it surrounds you as you practice. this sound also brings me to a sweat, but my heart rate increases. the sound is never aggressive and should always be light. you can tell a bad move by the weight of the foot fall, and the grunt of effort (or the cry of frustration). the lighter steps are those of the more practiced moving in the area. for me this sound builds excitement and means it’s playtime!

call to prayer

i first heard this sound travelling through the middle east as a college student. i’m not religious, but when the muezzin begins, time stops. any conversation i’m in halts and the senses are drawn to the call even though i don’t understand a word. in Kenya, i would hear it every morning at sunrise from a mosque near my house. when i arrived in india, i was pleasantly surprised to hear temples calling out the evening mantra, the rhythmic chanting rolling across the palm trees. the call to prayer is an unearthly sound that awakens our subconscious to that which is greater than ourselves. i miss it as it’s a relief to pause during the day, even for a moment, to listen with greater awareness.

humpback whale song

you can't see them in the water, but you can sure as hell feel them 😡

so the reason i’m writing is that i went for a dive in mozambique last month. i didn’t want to- the water was cold, visibility poor, i had just seen 7 (enormous) whale sharks on an ocean safari, but struggled to swim with them because of my stupid sprained ankle. i’d also been stung by a blue bottle and seen enough heaving and puking over the side to last me awhile. but i felt obligated to keep up my diving practice, so i hopped on the next boat out.

sound is different underwater, distorted. when diving you first hear your inhale, darth-vaderish in the eerie light, then the thundering of bubbles around your ears released from your regulator as you exhale. not so relaxing as you look up through the meters of water weighing you down. once i got my bearings i heard fish crunching and munching on coral (like rice krispies when you pour milk on them). and then…i heard whale song. the whales were kilometers away and the sound felt like it was being pulled and stretched across the distance. i floated waiting for it again, trying not to breathe. the song accompanied us as we swam and there were moments when i wanted to ditch the group and follow the siren’s call out into the sea to swim find its source. it was haunting and so attractive; i can understand why Ulysses had to be tied to the mast.

that dive made my day (probably my whole year). the whale song combined both the relaxing and energizing effects that i seek in my practices. peaceful, soothing and invigorating, it brought me outside of my body and my mind to something much greater than myself. an unexpected gift at an unexpected time.

Tumbledown excursion…with pics!

I’m not a big fan of hiking. Mostly because of a serious injury i sustained while hiking Chocurua in New Hampshire in 1997. On the way down i rolled my ankle and stupidly hiked on it for the next hour (the 3 guys i was with might have had something to do with my bravado). At this point i’d like to impress upon everyone that immediately after an injury you must R.I.C.E (rest, ice, compression, elevation) for at least an hour. Every minute that you delay RICE-ing you add a day onto your recovery time. So my hour of heroism got me 2 weeks on the couch taking pain killers and icing, a month of severe pain, and 2 months walking with a limp. This set the stage for a whole host of other problems as i didn’t start seeing a physio until 5 years later. i’ve cured most of the injury with my yoga practice, but it’s been a long journey.

My family was so surprised i was intending to hike Tumbledown that more than one of them asked me if i was ok. I had to tell everyone i was definitely going so that i wouldn’t be left behind. i was a bit worried, another sprained ankle could make the next few weeks (not to mention my flight home) uncomfortable, but i put my faith in my yoga practice and recent training and bit the bullet. it was time to suck it up and join the rest of the family on the traditional summer hike.

Tumbledown is just over 3000 ft high and has several trails to the summit. One of them (the Chimney Trail) has been closed due to landslides and the fact that several people have gotten stuck in the chimney. The Loop Trail that we climbed has a small crevice called ‘Fat Man’s Misery’ that can prove a bit of a squeeze for some. The reward at the top is beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and a swim in a small pond before the hike down. The whole journey took us about 3 hours, including the swim, snacks and photo-op at the top.

After the hike down and second snacking frenzy we headed to Coos Canyon for another dip. Which proved that deep down i am a giant chicken. I blame it on the freezing water. So one small jump and swim for me and i was ready to go.

I think i’ll leave hiking for another 12 years, still not a fan. But overall the hike wasn’t as bad as i remember and i’m only a little footsore (wrong shoes). The family might be able to convince me to go again next year. And maybe i’ll be less of a chicken at Coos.

Kennebec river excursion…with pics!

This sign should be in front of our house this week.

Blogging is hard while on vacation- so much to post, so little desire. And whenever the Yates family convenes, it’s always well-ordered chaos. Well-ordered because most of us are type-A (the rest of us are closet type-A), and chaos because that’s what happens when type-As try to out-type-A each other. I mentioned there were 8 of us, right? Not including the parental units? And that doesn’t include spouses, children and other extended family.

After spending 3 days in a jet-lagged, micro-brewed stupor I finally got off my ass and kayaked the lower Kennebec River gorge. Ben and Leonie shredded the top section with two hard-core Mainers: Morrill and John. If ever there was an ‘Old Man River’- it’s these guys. They’ve done every river in any kind of river-craft you can imagine, and their accents are as thick as the black flies. More on the Maine state bird later.

Morrill and John

Morrill and John, shredders.

A shredder is a 2-person inflatable that can tackle pretty much anything a river can throw at you. You can even play in it if you and your co-pilot are co-ordinated enough. The Kennebec River gorge has some nice class III-IV white-water and the dam was releasing 5000 cfs that day, so nice flow! But too big for me and my insufficient kayak skills, so I put the two shredders in at Harris Station and then drove to Carey Brook access point to wait.

Harris Station

Harris Station was built in the 1950s to generate power for the state of Maine. It has 3 massive turbines and can produce 85.9 megawatts of electricity at full tilt. It turned out to be a little over-engineered and so they only generate power for 3-4 hours/day, not only for Maine but for the surrounding states as well. When they open up the generators (usually from 10am-1pm) the rafters, kayakers, shredders and duckies based in The Forks put in and ride the waves back to town. Yes, there is a town in Maine called ‘The Forks’. It is at the confluence of the Kennebec and Dead Rivers, ergo a fork. No, there aren’t any vampires there.

I'm going to cross the eddy line with a left broach, peel out and catch that wave train river right. Meet you at Gravel Beach for lunch.

I joined up with the shredders at Carey Brook. It was a complete high to be back in my perception sparc and on the river again. And either I’m much stronger or that little boat is hella-stable; I didn’t have any ‘oh-shit’ moments and actually was able to catch a few waves and surf a bit. Water is an amazing substance, so pliable when you run your paddle through it and so hard when a wave crushes into your chest. And at the end I found out- I can still roll with ease, another trick I practiced and practiced and practiced.

Access to white-water is one of the very few things I miss about life in America. There’s nothing like spending your morning pushing through a river that changes every time you run it and every moment you’re in it. And after the big stuff and a snack on the river, there’s an afternoon float out through a beautiful, green sunlit gorge. Maine- the way life should be.