Tag Archives: review

Are You “Spartan Fit”? Would You Want to Be?

NOTE: The following is a review of a dangerous book. If you’re happy with your life in every way, I advise you to avoid this post. And if you think you’re some kind of stud/ripping bitch athlete, the Surgeon General has determined that reading this book will be hazardous to your ego.

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YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED

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When I got an invitation to review a new fitness book, I didn’t jump on it at first.

After all, the world is full of such books, and the basic advice is universal: Exercise toward your goal. Eat better. Sleep more. Drink lots of water. And so forth. Good advice to be sure, but nothing new under the sun. And the book was about obstacle races, which don’t appeal to me. But the person issuing the invitation was persistent, so I agreed and downloaded the preview copy.

I’m glad I did.

Spartan Fit cover

Spartan Fit! by Joe DeSena is a book aimed at making you exactly that. It contains a 30-day program to prepare you for competing in a Spartan obstacle race. But its true purpose is to challenge you to overcome your biggest obstacle, which is, of course, yourself. And you don’t need to run a Spartan Race to do that.

So what does it take to get “Spartan Fit”? Here’s DeSena’s simplest “training program” in Chapter 1:

Go outside right now and run as far as you can. Then do as many burpees as you can. Then run, walk, or crawl home. Eat whole foods, skip dessert, don’t get drunk, get some sunshine, take cold showers, lift something heavy, use the stairs, meditate or pray, find someone to love. Lights out at 8 p.m. There’s your program— go do it.

To me, that’s a Texas penitentiary, not a desirable way to live. So you might think I wouldn’t encourage anyone to read this book. But you should read it, even if you have no interest in Spartan Races, or running a marathon someday, or in pursuing any Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

It’s worth reading just for its stories. Like Jay Jackson’s fight for his life with a home intruder, or “The Barn Beast” attempting a 100-mile snowshoe race, or Steven Pressfield’s descriptions of life in ancient Sparta and how and why Spartan warriors became legendary for their ability and fearlessness in battle.

And for current and aspiring athletes, there’s lots more in here for you. Descriptions of typical Spartan Race obstacles. The “seven pillars” of the program (endurance, strength, athleticism, recovery, nutrition, mind, and code). Nutrition guidance and recipes. And throughout the book you can feel the intense sincerity of the author in trying to get you outside and do some living, dammit.

Rather than describe more of the book’s content, I’ll share how reading the book affected me and why I consider it to be distinctly different from other fitness books I’ve read.

In sum, I was awestruck, inspired, humbled, and terrified. All at once, more or less.

Awestruck by the incredible things the human body and mind are capable of, as evidenced by the stories in the book. Inspired, because I thought to myself, I could do some of this.

Humbled when I read through the 30-day program and realized that as fit as I am currently, I’d be absolutely obliterated by it. Pick up and carry a 115-pound stone? Not yet, thank you. And terrified, because I began to get the nagging idea that I just might want to try a Spartan Race someday.

But what got me so into this book? Here are three things I believe make Spartan Fit! different from the rest.

Training for adaptability. Spartan Race training is designed for competing in Spartan Races, obviously, but each race is different in the obstacles that the athletes will face. So basic techniques such as running, crawling, and lifting are stressed over specific challenges (such as climbing over a slippery wall).

Adaptability allows you to face any unexpected obstacle – physical, mental, whatever – that you may face in the course of your day. It’s like the jazz musician who doesn’t practice improvisations directly, but all the skills needed to successfully improvise. If I get nothing else out of this book, improving here would make it worth it to me.

Focus on simplicity. This training is meant to be done with things found all around us, or are readily available. VersaClimber in the gym? Run up that hill a few times instead. Kettlebells? Who needs them? Find a rock. Carry logs, drag tires, climb ropes, run and crawl through muck. That’s the essence of Spartan training.

Emphasis on training outside. DeSena points out that the original “gymnasiums” were outdoor athletic areas where the athletes trained together. He contrasts that with the “depressing dungeons,” air-conditioned, carpeted indoor gyms full of fancy equipment, and believes that the surfers on the beach would crush the bodybuilders in an obstacle race. So his workouts are outside, in any weather. And as a year-round, all-weather runner, I understand the benefits, and I agree with him.

Get outside and live, man!

Get outside and live, man!

And the book has already affected my life. This year I participated in the 22 Pushup Challenge – 22 pushups a day for 22 days (read about the purpose here). One day I forgot to do them. When I realized this the next day, I assigned myself the standard Spartan Race “failure penalty” of 30 burpees. Let’s just say I didn’t forget again. As much as I disliked doing them, I could tell how lots of them could make one that much stronger.

One more demonstration of how much I recommend this book; when the preview edition expired, I bought a copy. I suppose that’s really all I needed to say. But since I wrote the rest of this post anyway, guess I’ll use it.

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P.S. I was also provided with a discount code for a future Spartan race. If I ever use it, I’ll be sure to write about the experience here!

Searching for Shoes: Return to a Past Love

Ready to go - new shoes and matching shirt! (Yes, I am VERY fashion-conscious.)

Ready to go – new shoes and matching shirt! (Yes, I am VERY fashion-conscious.)

First run since the Gnaw Bone 50K tonight! Coming on the heels of two ultras, and having just recovered from the cold I caught last week, it was predictably challenging. It was also about 85 degrees out there – not easy on a body still used to winter temps. But one part of me was comfortable; my feet, shod in a pair of the new Saucony Kinvara 5.

(Disclaimer: as much as I would love to be, I have not been compensated by Saucony, its retailers, or its minions in any way for this review. I bought the shoes, and I like them, so hence this post.)

I’ve been shopping around for new warm weather road shoes for a while. At first I thought I’d replace my well-used Brooks Pure Flows, so I tried the Pure Flow 2 and Pure Flow 3 at a local running store during a visiting Brooks “Happy Island” tour. But as has happened with many “next model” shoes I like, they just didn’t fit well. (See my lament on this trend in my earlier post on minimalist running.)

Sorry, I'm having trouble associating running with deep-sea adventure.

Sorry, I’m having trouble associating running with deep-sea adventure.

Other brands I tried had the same issues. Either the toe box was too cramped, or the heel was loose, or the midfoot area was too narrow. But I liked my pair of Saucony Virratas, and I read good things about the Virrata 2, so I headed up to Running Lab to try some on.

Oops. “We don’t carry the Virrata 2,” the manager told me. “Too many people were bringing them back.” It seems the foam was breaking down too quickly, reducing the useful life of the shoes. But Coach Marie suggested the new Kinvara 5. I’d run my first marathon in the original Kinvaras, and liked the light weight and low heel-to-toe drop. But the Kinvara 2 and 3 had not been comfortable, and the Kinvara 4 was too narrow, so I wasn’t hopeful. But I said what the hell.

Left, the original Kinvara. Right, the new Kinvara 5. Slightly taller, slightly thicker, but lighter.

Left, the original Kinvara. Right, the new Kinvara 5 – slightly taller, slightly thicker, but actually lighter.

Pleasant surprise! They fit well all the way round, and didn’t squeeze my midfoot. A few strides on the treadmill, and I was sold. Tonight I tossed them on and went out for a moderately fast 6 miles. Yup, these are keepers. In many ways they remind me of the Trigon 5 Ride, the first running shoe I truly loved – to the point where I searched the Internet for weeks to scrounge up one more pair. (Please don’t ask about the Ride 2 and the Ride 3. You can guess.)

The Kinvara 5 have more heel padding and a more breathable mesh upper - both really nice changes.

The Kinvara 5 has more heel cushion and a more breathable mesh upper – both really nice changes.

For another, more comprehensive review of the Kinvara 5, check out this post from Runblogger. (Note: he got a free pair. How do I get a gig like that?)

The Amateur Chocoholic Reviews: Madecasse 80% Chocolate Bar

Madecasse 80 percent - front wrapper“AT MADECASSE we pay farmers a fair price for their cocoa. Then we do something unheard of. We make our chocolate in Madagascar. This creates 4 TIMES the impact of fair trade cocoa.”

Where I got it: Whole Foods, Ann Arbor MI
Price: $4.99 for 2.64 oz. (75g)
Cocoa percentage: 80%
Website:  http://www.madecasse.com
Reviewed by: T.A.C. (Jeff)  and Rachel (D.o.T.A.C.)

While signing over my paycheck at Whole Foods in exchange for lunch, I caught sight of this bar at the checkout counter. I am usually immune to the siren call of such things, but dark chocolate is the exception. And hey, how can I resist helping cocoa farmers four times more?

Story (from the website):

The founders of Madecasse were Peace Corps volunteers in Madagascar, who “fell in love with the country and people and wanted to do more,” and settled on making chocolate, with an extra twist. Africa grows the majority of the world’s cocoa, but very little (the site says less than one percent) is made into chocolate there, so they decided to go “bean-to-bar in Madagascar,” as the wrapper says.

“Our products represent that personal connection to the island,” the site says, “a deeper understanding of the rich and complex flavors hidden inside the varieties of cocoa, vanilla and peppercorns found exclusively in Madagascar. The result is unique, satisfying products unlike anything you’ve tasted before.” (The chocolate bar does not contain any actual vanilla or peppercorns, so I’m assuming the flavor notes are picked up from the soil.)

MORE: How Chocolate Gets Its Taste (from The Chocolate Life blog)

Appearance:

Madecasse 80 percent - back wrapperThe simple, rustic-looking wrapper with appealing green-on-cream easily caught my eye. An interesting feature of this wrapper is that it opens like an envelope, so you don’t need to tear it apart. The gold foil inside wrapper added a touch of elegance.

The chocolate has a subdued sheen, and a cocoa pod is stamped into each of the individual sections.

Texture:

A slow but even melt in the mouth that releases the intense flavor gradually (a good thing). Very smooth mouthfeel.

Flavor:

The wrapper claims “strong and complex” and the chocolate lives up to it. With an 80% cocoa content I expected, and got, an intense cocoa flavor. Sucking on a section allowed me to taste all the various flavors, while chewing one brought out the mild sweetness primarily. I am not sure which I prefer. I got a hint of vanilla as promised, but could not pick up any “peppercorny” flavors. I also got an intense fruitiness which ended in an almost sour aftertaste. I believe many people will enjoy this (and Rachel did), but I personally do not.

The Bottom Line

Jeff’s Rating:……..★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5 stars)
Rachel’s Rating:…★★★★☆ (4 out of 5 stars)

This is a very smooth and intensely flavored chocolate, as promised. If you prefer a “brighter” flavor profile, by all means give this bar a try. I give it three stars only due to personal taste preference, not to any flaws in the chocolate.

The maker’s approach to helping African farmers is laudable, and if that means a lot to you, that’s another reason to try this brand. The more support we can give to fair trade practices, the better, as far as I’m concerned.

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NOTE: The Amateur Chocoholic (a.k.a. “T.A.C.”) is my new moniker for such reviews. (This replaces the “Quickie Chocolate Reviews” postings.)

Did you like this review? How can it be made better? Would you like to see more? Let me know.

Quickie Chocolate Review: Peppano Stone-Ground Chocolate

“Stone ground, single source cacao beans handcrafted into world class chocolate. Made with care in Tecumseh, Michigan. We hope you enjoy!”

Peppalo - Wrapper

Where I got it: Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market
Price: $6.00 for 2 oz. (56g)
Cocoa percentage: approx. 75-80%
Website: http://peppalo.com
Reviewed by: Jeff (chocolate snob) and my Dungeons & Dragons gaming group (barbarians, but what can you do?)

My run this morning took me past the local Farmer’s Market, which is just starting to put out the spring flowers and, as usual, was loaded with the fare of local bakers – breads, cookies, pastries, and, as it turned out, stone-ground chocolate. A nice young lady named Rebecca at the Peppalo booth told me about their bars.

Story (from Rebecca):

Peppalo chocolate is made at the Boulevard Market in Tecumseh. They offer dark chocolate, sea salt, and smoked chocolate varieties. It’s just cacao beans, which they grind at the market, and sugar. Many chocolate makers, even higher-end ones, add small amounts of vanilla or extra cocoa butter to smooth out the texture and flavor. Not here.

MORE: The use of cheap vegetables oils by ‘Big Chocolate’

I bought one each of the dark chocolate and smoked chocolate bars, and coerced my weekly D&D gaming group into a taste test. It was hard to get them to put down the carrot sticks and whole-grain crackers, but I managed.

Appearance:

Peppalo - TextureThe wrappers are simple but distinctive, with vibrant colors (the sea salt bar is apple green) and a bold, clean font. The bulls-eye in the “O” is eye-catching. The bars are smaller than average – 2 oz. vs. a usual size of around 3 oz., which, I think, helped me decide to buy two types instead of one. And as the price per ounce is on par with the high-end bars at the nearby Zingerman’s, a smaller size probably has a better chance of getting bought at the outdoor market.

The chocolate does not have the polished sheen of other bars, and when snapped, the interior looks grainy. This is characteristic of grinding chocolate with stone, and expected. According to the Peppalo website, a bit of grittiness is left in “to enhance the natural flavor profiles of the cacao beans.”

MORE: How stone-ground chocolate is created.

Texture:

Mouthfeel is grainy. Don’t look for the velvety texture of a Pralus bar here. A couple of the D&D gang didn’t care for this texture. The smoked chocolate was a bit more smooth than the regular dark chocolate, although this could have just been due to differences between batches. It does not dissolve quickly on the tongue, but a little light chewing brings out the full flavor.

The gang takes a break from slaughter and pillage to taste-test the chocolate.

The gang takes a break from slaughter and pillage to taste-test stone-ground chocolate.

Flavor:

The regular dark chocolate has the intensity of a strong dark chocolate, but the sugar adds sweet tones that I tasted at the same time, but separately. I got more of a “burst” in flavor than with other bars, which I enjoyed very much.

The other bar had a pronounced wood-smoke aroma that we could smell without even opening the wrapper. The smoky flavor was milder than I expected but definitely subdued the sweetness, tasting at first more like smoked meat than chocolate. One of the D&D gang said it was very good with Coke. I tried both types with a cup of my favorite French roast coffee, which paired nicely with the dark chocolate bar but didn’t do much for the smoked variety.

The Bottom Line

Dark chocolate:
Jeff’s Rating:……..★★★★☆ (4 out of 5 stars)
D&D group Rating:…★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5 stars)

Smoked chocolate:
Jeff’s Rating:……..★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5 stars)
D&D group Rating:…★★☆☆☆ (2 out of 5 stars)

I enjoyed the regular dark chocolate, but I prefer a smoother texture for eating out of hand. I’d like to try it again as a drink, perhaps with some cinnamon and a pinch of cayenne pepper. The smoked variety was interesting but didn’t do it for me.

As for the D&D gang, reviews were mixed. Stone-ground chocolate appears to be an acquired taste. Both bars were completely consumed, however.

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Did you like this review? How can it be made better? Would you like to see more? Let me know.