Gear Guide #2

Welcome to Gear Guide #2, a continuation of Gear Guide #1’s breezy departure from running minimalism. Hailed by critics as “service journalism at its most salient,” Gear Guide #1 labored to make a difference in runners’ lives by raising awareness to meaningful tools, accessories and resources.

Gear Guide #2, on the other hand, is just an excuse to flaunt the crap I bought after Christmas.

Rare "startled ninja" sighting

So without further exposition, I bring you all the best in running gizmos for the 2011 winter season. Remember, the point is not necessarily to be unfettered, free and/or at one with your natural surroundings. The point is to make your body look like the getaway vehicle in a Lady Foot Locker heist.

SmartWool socks, $8-$24

I can’t be the only one who remembers a bygone era when wool was considered scratchy. But at some unnamed point in recent history, it would appear that smart wool rose to power, supplanting abrasive textile blends of yore and creating a new wool order rooted in comfort and shrink-resistant ease. SmartWool socks are the luxurious result of this uprising, and for that I give thanks.

Now I’m not going to pretend like this revolutionary technology doesn’t come at a steep price—a single pair of soft, supple SmartWools can run you anywhere from $8 to $24. Even the sparest Casual Cable-Knits mean sacrificing a week of morning energy gels, so the question you’re no doubt asking yourself is this:

“Should I invest my life savings in SOCKS, a simple foot-shroud rarely visible to others, which sit firmly at the totem base of daily clothing options playing perpetual bridesmaid to the more conventional money-siphoning footwear category known as ‘shoes’!?”

The answer, of course, is YES.

We’re not just talking about any grubby scrap of sweat-wear from the street. This is the LEXUS of foot encasements. Entering a pair of luxury merino SmartWool socks feels like sliding into a Jacuzzi filled with warm lotion. After you’ve tried it once, you’ll never put water in that hot tub again.

Trust me, your old dogs deserve this. They’ve surrendered years of toenail-having just so you can keep chasing that endorphin tiger. I’m not suggesting you throw out all your old “10 for $5” boring, white tube abominations. But mix it up a little; live for once. Add a pair to your weekly lineup and see what happens.

Alternately, you could poke a toe into a basket of sleeping kittens for the same cozy satisfaction. But you can’t run on kittens. So just suck it up and buy the socks.

Yaktrax Pro Traction Cleats for Snow and Ice, $30

Old Man Winter has really ravaged the Missouri tundra over the past week. More than 12 inches of snow fell in three easy installments, bringing the city of Columbia to a complete halt. The first round of delicious wintry mix created a frosty wonderland of sledding children, corpulent snowpersons and adorable, sweatered animal companions. The second and third rounds have been no less welcome, but the novelty is starting to wear a little thin.

As an undiagnosed S.A.D.ster, I finally broke down about the bitterly cold weather and decided buying Yaktrax would lift my spirits and get me out of my snowed-in apartment.

Yaktrax are like snow chains that hook onto running shoes—simple elastic bands with light metal coils for gripping onto the snow.

I bought the “pro” version because they have an additional security strap, and I read a review dubbing the non-pro version “Backtrax” because they slip off and get lost so frequently. I also read a review that said Yaktrax in general break easily, particularly if you’re a “larger” person and use them on roads where the snow has already melted. Without details about what “larger” means in this context (since everyone is technically larger than someone else), I’ll just say all Yaktraxers should exercise caution when running on concrete or solid ice.

God, I love saying “Yaktrax.”

Anyway, my first outing in Yaktrax was an unmitigated success. The thin layer of hard-packed snow left behind after a recent snow-plow Rapture proved ideal for Yaktraxing. I could tromp along at a respectable clip without fear of slippage, so my brain was free to focus its energy on reenacting the epic Siberian training montage from Rocky IV.

Stephens Lake Park left much to be desired in the way of bewildered Soviet bystanders, but rest assured that if any Russian super-soldiers enlist in the St. Louis marathon this year, they’ll soon find themselves on the wrong side of the mighty oak I’m about to fell. Better launch your log-toting, sled-pulling training routines now, you Commies. ‘Cause if there’s any snow still on the ground on April 10, be prepared to be mushed by THESE HUSKIES! (This is where I flex and pretend like “huskies” is a common metaphor for killer biceps. This is also where I add the disclaimer that I find non-Rocky-era Russians to be delightful.)

In conclusion, Yaktrax are legit.

Garmin GPS 405, $200

I honestly thought I was gonna look tough in this picture.

At $200, the Garmin GPS 405 was my most expensive non-car purchase of 2010. Before I surrendered the necessary scrilla, I spent a great deal of time googling and fretting about the necessity of owning a GPS watch. Then I realized my quality of life was suffering from not having the means to nerd out about jock stuff in obsessive scientific detail.

And much like “fantasy football,” that’s exactly what sports-related GPS technology is: an eclipse of two Venn diagram circles marked “Nerd” and “Jock.” I know, I know—stressful news for those who like to hold others to a strict hierarchy based on the five teen categories laid out in the Breakfast Club. But some of us don’t like to be put in a box, man.

Speaking of archetypal nerds, I used to tease my friend Angela about the fact that she follows the Indigo Girls around the country and logs the set list from each concert into an Excel spreadsheet, ostensibly to run Access queries contrasting regional gayness.

But now what I want to know is this: Is using a Garmin GPS to collect and analyze topographical details about RUNNING any less dorky?

Actually, don’t respond to that, because we all know the answer is YES.

So my new Garmin definitely puts me in the Angela ballpark, but let me cut to the chase about why I like it:

First, aside from sharing how fast/far you’re running (information I really had no clue about before), the watch uploads maps of your route into an easy-to-use computer program that provides countless hours of blissful analysis. Lap-by-lap pace, altitude gains, running vs. non-running time—all the information is right there in a series of ridiculously satisfying charts.

When I was using a (much more economical) Nike +iPod gadget last year, the resulting mileage was always highly inaccurate, even BEFORE it stopped working after less than a month of use. Because the Garmin runs off satellites, however, I feel much more confident it knows my distance and pace. Which can actually be a bummer sometimes because the Nike +iPod thought I was pretty hot shit.

Apparently, I’m nothing special. I find the accuracy of this comforting.

My favorite Garmin feature is the pace-setter, which allows you to personify an imaginary opponent for motivation. I’ve tentatively named mine “Will Shortz”—not because the New York Times crossword editor seems particularly fast, but because he’s probably a good sport and someone I enjoy being vexed by.

To conclude this epic review, the Garmin 405 watch is the greatest piece of technology I’ve ever placed against my skin. It turns the drudgery of training miles into a fight to the death against a mustachioed foe—Shortz, in this case, although the parallels to Mario Kart are certainly compelling.

Currently, Shortz is driving me to all-time record scores. Running feels like a video game I want to stay up all night to beat. Just don’t make me choose between sitting at the nerd table or the jock table tomorrow at lunch.