November 6, 2017

Adventure : Barbados



We had a really crappy summer up here in Quebec, one of the worst I recall in recent years. It rained all the time, we had almost no sunshine and the number of weekends lost to bad weather still makes me cringe.

While hiking the Katahdin range with The Dragonfly at the end of September, under yet another  cold and rainy sky, she lost her usual positivity. “I’ve had it”, she said. “Let’s go somewhere sunny for our October vacation”. The original plan to run Javelina Jundred took a quick 180 and, a couple hours later, we were booked for Barbados.

We opted for a flight-and-accomodation package, because we’re not much the all-inclusive types and we like to support the local economy when we travel. We chose The Meridian Inn (http://www.meridianinn.com/) , a cute, clean local little hotel by Dover Beach in Christchurch, in a spot called the St-Lawrence Gap.

Barbados' famous ZR "buses"
From the moment we exited the airport, we loved the vibe of Barbados. Instead of taking a taxi, we walked a couple hundred yards to a local bus stop where we were picked up by a “ZR”, a variable-capacity van usually packed to the brim with locals going about their day. They unceremoniously made a little room for us and our backpacks, charged us the mandatory dollar and kept going along one of the regional routes to the happy tunes of local reggae bands blaring out the radio. The sun was shining, the day was beautiful and we grinned in delight from ear to ear.

The Meridian was easily reached and gave us a warm welcome. They even switched our room to a little penthouse apartment at no cost. We had an awesome rooftop terrace of our own with an ocean view, and the friendly staff made us feel right at home.

Barbados has truly outstanding beaches, and Dover Beach is no exception. Amazing fine sand, warm waters and steady rolling waves make the country a paradise for all water sports. Needless to say, we were really happy we had brought our snorkeling kits, and quickly decided we wanted to go diving, too.

The Dragonfly and I, swimming with the fish
We took a trip with Eco Dive Barbados, a locally-owned shop focused on the preservation of marine life and the promotion of sustainable diving practices. No fish-feeding here, that’s for sure! It was really cool to meet and share the passion of enthusiastic divers who care for nature. Dive master Andrew and our captain Mikey quickly made it clear that they favor slow, calm diving with as little movement as possible to truly enjoy what reef life is like. They took us to one of their favorite spots with abundant marine life and we enjoyed exploring a reef and a couple shipwrecks sitting in Carlisle Bay Marine Park. It was all I love about scuba diving.


Wonderful Crane Beach on an amazing day
We met wonderful people during the trip, one of which turned out to be both a local Bajan (what Barbadians call themselves) and a Montrealer. Our new friend Rudy took us for a little road trip around the island and showed us a few amazing spots like Crane Beach, with its amazing cavern, and Bathsheba, a gorgeous piece of paradise up in the Northeast. We got to meet his 96-year-old mother, a lovely lady who still lives in the house where Rudy grew up.

Going out and about is simple in Barbados; they have an extensive public transport service which is very easy to navigate. You can choose between the bigger, government-run buses which go along the main routes, or simply walk along pretty much any street and wait for the colorful horn tone of a ZR van (I swear each one has their own!), wave your hand and ask the driver or their helper if your destination is on their way. Yes? You hop in. No? You wait another couple minutes and you find one going the right way. Simple as that.


We took advantage of the easy transport system and visited spots all over the island :


Animal Flower Cave, view from the cliff top
Animal Flower Cave, at the northern tip, is a nice scenic bus ride but not worth the asking entry price. If you go, just walk around the park area, where the panorama overlooking the caves is quite stunning.


Orchid World is a real treat
Orchid World was a lovely experience, with its thousand exotic flowers and plants.



Charming Bridgetown
A walk around Bridgetown is kind of a must, although that’s where most of the cruise crowd hangs out, so usually this is not where you’ll find me.



The Carlisle Bay beach
The surrounding Carlisle Bay is gorgeous, the beach is impeccable and the scene is quite festive!



Running in Barbados...
Mind the inverted traffic!
If you plan on running in Barbados, well, let’s just say it’s far from ideal. The sidewalks are kind of random and the traffic is very dense, with vehicles whooshing close by in a cone of diesel fumes. Drivers are very polite and will make way for you, but too often there’s just not enough space for everybody.

Beach running, at least along the southwest coast, isn’t easy either because most beaches are along relatively small coves, separated either by cliffs or large lava rock wave breakers, so most beaches aren’t interconnected. There is a lovely seaside boardwalk in Hastings, but it’s not even a mile long. Barbados is a paradise for many things, but sadly running doesn’t seem to be one.

Although everything isn’t perfect in Barbados, it’s an awesome country filled with cool, nice people and gorgeous views. I loved the general attitude of the people and the ease and safety of going around. The island is blessed with some of the dreamiest beaches I have ever seen and has a lot more to offer visitors than just an ocean swim and a tanning spree.


Julie taking a picture of me taking a picture of Rudy

The week went by too fast for us and we would have loved to stay longer and enjoy more of what Barbados has to offer. Among others, I would’ve really liked to visit one of the artisanal rum distilleries and spend some more time diving various sites along the coastline.

Barbados has reconciled me with the Caribbean, by showing me it’s possible to travel outside of the ubiquitous all-inclusive package deals and enjoy an up-close encounter with a friendly population whose standard of life seems pretty good, all the while feeling welcome and relaxed. Barbados is a picture-pretty island where adventure and relaxation can go hand-in-hand; it was the perfect place for us to go recharge our batteries, enjoy some off-time and meet some friendly new faces. It was a lovely, lovely adventure!


October 23, 2017

Review : TomTom Spark 3




  • Type : GPS / HRM
  • Use : Running, cycling, hiking
  • Price : $200




Intro

I’m of the “Run Free” style and usually don’t use a GPS watch, but some of my activities (like a cycling class that required heart rate monitoring) required that I got one. So I went to the Internet and started looking up Garmin models, and rapidly gasped at the high prices these little devices fetch nowadays. I didn’t want to spend so much on a running GPS, so I started looking for alternatives.

I knew TomTom because it’s the brand of my truck’s GPS and, although it had its pros and cons, it was an inexpensive device that worked fairly well. I figured their watches must be more or less on par with that performance. I read reviews, most of which sounded enthusiastic, and I got convinced that at $200, I probably wouldn’t find anything better. So I bought one.

Real-life test
I received my watch in April. It set me back almost $250 with the purchase of the HRM strap. My first use for it was my spinning class and the HRM performed as expected. I liked that I could wear the Spark 3 as a daily watch too, and needed only to recharge it every 5 or 6 days.

When I started wearing it for running and used the GPS function, I compared the results I was getting with The Dragonfly, who has 2 or 3 different Garmin brand watches. We noticed significant discrepancies and it seemed that the speed accuracy of my Spark 3 was off the mark more often than not.

I’m not a numbers guy, so I honestly didn’t care so much, although I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t trust my watch for speed training, among other things. At least it seemed to get the overall distance right, so it was somewhat good enough for me.

The snap-in, snap-out system where you separate the bezel from the watch to recharge it seemed a little gimmicky, but as long as it worked, I was fine with it.

The first tear, right under the spot where the bezel
snaps in and out
Analysis
Purchasing a GPS watch means you want to get reliable information about your trainings, no matter what level you are or what your goals may be. You expect being able to snatch a GPS satellite signal quickly when coming out the door and gathering relevant information while you run.

Personally, I also expected some degree of ruggedness, considering the Spark 3 is also built with hiking and trekking features, and I never thought there would be an issue wearing it as a standard everyday watch.

The second one, which added insult to injury. This watch
is a little over 6 months old.
After only a couple months of very standard wear, my watch looks terrible. The bracelet is the worst, being torn in two different spots and about to break off completely. I also updated the firmware to try fixing the accuracy issues, to no avail. At this point, I don’t consider the data I’m getting to be relevant and I expect the band to break any day now. I’m not convinced purchasing another bracelet will be any relief, since I don’t see why it wouldn’t wear out as quickly as the original. It’s also expensive to replace and there’s no generic or third-party options, because of the snap-in system for the bezel.

Conclusion
I’m disappointed with my purchase and regret it. I’m also puzzled as to why the Spark 3 has received so many positive reviews, since I’m pretty easy to please with a GPS; it simply needs to grab the signal quickly and to tell me the speed and distance I’m going. I don’t think it’s asking too much.

High points
  • Looks good for everyday wear
  • Significantly cheaper than Garmin equivalent

Low points
  • Unreliable
  • Very poor bracelet quality
  • Disappointing overall product




September 20, 2017

Review : Merrell Trail Crusher

  • Type : Neutral
  • Use : All-terrain
  • Price : $100

Intro
A couple weeks ago, if you’d asked me whether a jack-of-all-trades, all-terrain shoe was fit for trail running, I would’ve said no with quite a bit of assurance. Pretty much any shoe of that type that I’d seen before presented the same problem; an outsole too stiff and hard, designed to resist the wear of pavement, which made it unfit for the trails, where grip is key. That was until I tried the Trail Crusher.

Merrell has been making some excellent running shoes, with models such as the Bare Access and its Trail version (probably one of the very best trail running shoes made in recent years, in my opinion). Lately, they had seemed to have gone the maximalist route, with shoe models offering more and more stack height and cushioning, as seems to be the trend these days, and which was a huge disappointment to all the neutral-type shoe enthusiasts.

Well, it seems they are back on track with the Trail Crusher, with a reasonable cushioning of 18mm to 14mm, heel to toe and a drop of 4mm which should suit a large swath of runners. Although not the lightest of shoes, they kept the weight down to a decent 12oz and the shoe does feel a little heavy when you weight it, but that feeling disappears when you actually put it on.

Road test
I started testing the Trail Crusher on asphalt, as it is my personal nemesis. The hard surface kills my knees and requires me to use more cushioning than I’d like, making my choice of road shoe even more tedious and difficult. I want nothing to have with motion control or density variations in the sole, which even further limits my choices.

The shoe felt light and nimble, and as the miles piled up, provided enough protection against shocks to make me feel comfortable for going a little longer. In fact, I started to think that the Trail Crusher, despite its name, would probably turn out to be much more of a road runner than anything else.

Trail test
Then I headed for the trails. Although admittedly they were not the most technical, they still offered some roots, uneven footing, some loose rocks and various other hazards requiring at least some level of grip and agility. I was very pleased to find out that the outsole’s design, which doesn’t really look like a hardcore nubby trail shoe, actually works really well and retains surprising proprioception for a relatively-cushioned shoe. The bubble-looking tread concept has probably been borrowed from the hiking department, as I’ve seen very similar-looking soles on Merrell products before. My only worry is how the Trail Crusher will retain its grip with the eventual wear of the oval shapes, but that remains to be seen.

Analysis
With its decent flex, reasonable weight and no-nonsense design, it seems that the Trail Crusher has successfully combined the requirements to be both a road and a trail shoe, which is quite a feat, and excellent news for budget-weary runners who enjoy a variety of terrains. Merrell’s signature wide toebox and some reinforcements at both ends of the upper complete an intelligent design and impressed me almost as much as the Bare Access model, enough so that I will be buying extra pairs just in case they would choose to stop production before my first pair wears out.

Conclusion
If you run on multiple surfaces, enjoy light neutral shoes without excessive cushioning and don’t want to own 15 different models of footwear to cover every type of terrain you run on, the Trail Crusher is an excellent contender, very well-designed and reasonably-priced. As far as all-terrains go, it doesn’t get much better than that.


High points
  • In line with Merrell’s previous designs like the Bare Access
  • Sole design actually works on all terrains
  • Pretty good pricing

Low points
  • Not sure how the grip will be when the outsole starts to wear out
  • Heel cup is surprisingly high and reaches above usual on my Achilles tendon