Gear Reviews That Don’t Suck: Pearl Izumi Fly Softshell Jacket



I’ve been looking for a decent cold weather running jacket for several years. But, it just never made much sense to buy anything more robust than a light wind jacket when my coldest runs in SC and AZ might have approached a frigid 32F. Sure, the occasional winter excursions back to northern MN might mean some chilly jogs, but if I had 99 problems, a good running jacket wasn’t one.

Alaska, on the other hand, has been a much different story. Running in the winter up here is quite obviously legit. Last year, I made things work with my old wind jacket and a Patagonia jacket I got on sale at REI. Nothing was ideal, but it was better than nothing. Both jackets breathed very poorly, which led to a lot of frost buildup on the insides of the jacket, the fit for both is a bit wonky, but they worked so long as I layered appropriately. I made it through a winter of running, didn’t freeze off anything.

This winter, I was lucky enough to get my hands on the beauty you see above, in red. MSRP is $165 but sometimes you can find markdowns at the end of winter on Roadrunner or Runner’s Warehouse. Pearl Izumi is a company better-known for their cycling apparel, but they also have a line of running clothing. Their outwear is pretty much sport-independent; items like jackets are designed to apply to cycling, running, and pretty much any other cold weather athletic pursuit.

As I write more of these gear reviews, I’m realizing that in order to keep up with the other cool kids out there, I should start structuring these things more predictably. Someday I’ll get on top of that. Until then, you’re stuck with my scattershot approach. Oh well. There are plenty of reviewers that judge gear based on a single run, or a watch’s appearance for crying out loud; I can guarantee that what I tell you is backed up by my basic approach:

1) Nothing gets a review without roughly 100 miles worth of use. Shoes, jackets, shorts, whatever. When I say it’s been tested, it’s been tested.

2) I have no sponsors, unless you include your and my tax dollars. So, nothing I push or bash is based on a relationship with a corporate entity.

3) No nonsense, no bull. Take it or leave it.

So, here’s what I think about the jacket.

Bottom Line Up Front: Hands-down, best high-aerobic activity technical jacket I’ve ever worn, and it just so happens to be affordable.

1) The breathability of this jacket is simply outstanding. I simply have no tolerance for running jackets that don’t breathe, and you’d be surprised at the number of supposedly high-tech, expensive jackets that don’t breathe. The purpose of a running jacket is two fold – for one, it keeps the outside stuff out. Rain, snow, wind: a running jacket should keep all that nasty stuff off you. The other purpose is to move what’s inside, to the outside…namely, the perspiration your body creates. A running jacket that doesn’t do both doesn’t belong in your closet. I ran in everything from -20F to the high 20s, in hard winds, to driving snow. I am convinced that there isn’t a hardshell on the planet that can compete with a softshell when it comes to breathability, and this softshell in particular performed better than any other jacket I’ve tried. My breathability test is simple – run in the cold for a while, then stop. If I can see steam rising from the jacket, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. Manufacturers want to throw numbers around, but they rarely mean squat outside the lab. This jacket steamed, and it steamed good.

I have another test for breathability: as soon as I finish a run, I strip off the jacket and look for signs of heavy condensation buildup. Are my forearms soaking? If it’s near zero, can I find large frost buildups inside the jacket? My experience is that most jackets struggle with the forearm sweat issue – the Fly solves this varying material density. The dense stuff is where you need it, the places most likely to be affected by cold wind. The chest, shoulders, and fronts of the arms are a nice, tightly-weaved windblocking material while the rest is more of a jersey-knit, allowing for greater breathability. Even so, I still found some condensation frost inside the jacket after a cold run. Just a touch in the forearms, and some in the lower back.

Now, I will say that in cold, wet regions, a hardshell would be more advantageous to keep heavy rain off you. I did not run in the rain in the Fly – but it’s billed as “water-resistant,” which means it probably won’t do much beyond a light drizzle.

2) Fit – A running jacket has to walk a fine line between too loose and too tight. Too loose, and excess material flaps around; more importantly, the jacket is too far away from the heat of your body to push your perspiration outside the jacket. Remember my basic maxim of cold-weather running: you are the heat source. Everything else serves to insulate and evaporate. Conversely, a jacket fit too tightly is constrictive, uncomfortable, and leaves your skin too close to the fabric blocking the wind, snow, etc.

That being said, the manufacturer describes the Fly as “semi form-fitting,” and I found that to be accurate. The drop-tail hem design, a nod to muddy/wet feet and rear bicycle tires, is appropriately loose, but the rest is *just* the right balance between tight and loose. I have large shoulders, and very un-runner-esque arms and chest for the time being, and I found the jacket to be perfectly comfy for running. Galen Rupp might have something else to say, but this stocky runner found that it fit as needed.

Other high points of the jacket include the hi-vis reflective piping, which got high nods from sleepy mates driving past me in the cold, dark AK mornings. Storm flaps on zippers and pit-zips are de-rigeur these days for any performance jacket, so nothing special there. If I had one complaint about the jacket, it was the internal fist mitts in the sleeves, which I found too short to be of any use to anyone without child-like appendages.

So, there you go. The jacket is priced competitively against other running softshells, but I’ve also noticed that when they go on sale, the discount is typically less steep that some of the other competitors. I’d recommend one, even at full price.

Gear Reviews That Don’t Suck: Lifeproof iPhone Products

I have two confessions:

1) I used to hate on iPhones something fierce. Now I own one and love it.

2) I used to deride anyone who ran with an MP3 player. Now I rarely run without music.

Not too long ago, I had a phone, and I had an MP3 player. I tried a couple of times to use a phone as my MP3 player, but it just never worked. In the end, I settled on a player that supported music subscription service, which is far more economical than actually buying the music in digital or physical forms, provided you download more than an album a month (which I do). But when my last MP3 player was phased out by the manufacturer, I realized it was time to combine the two functions. Smartphone tech has blown up over the past couple of years, so I figured I’d take a shot. I tried it out on my Samsung Captivate, and boy did it suck. I used a Rhapsody app, which crashed my phone repeatedly. When the phone finally quit on me, Jen talked me into an iPhone. I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back at this point. I’ve had no problems with using the Rhapsody app, and iTunes works just fine for music you actually own.

One of the clear draws of the iPhone/iPod has been the wide propagation of peripherals. For crying out loud, you can’t go to a Walgreens without finding a whole endcap of products. Enter LifeProof, which makes cases that are water/dustproof and impact-resistant. Anyone who knows me will vouch for my ability to destroy phones. I drop them, drown them, throw them into oblivion, and sweat profusely into them when I run. In fact, I deposited so much salt in my last MP3 player that it actually warped and broke a portion of the casing.

So LifeProof made sense for me. Additionally, they make armbands compatible with the case, so it made even more sense, considering the transition to using my phone as an MP3 player as well. I picked up the iPhone 4S case and armband back in Feb/March, and I’ve put each through the ringer over about 1000 miles or so of winter/spring/summer AK running. I’ll address the case (~$80) first and the armband (~$40) system second.

The case’s nearest competitor has to be OtterBox, which uses complementary silicon sleeves and ruggedized plastic skeletons to provide impact resistance. But unlike OtterBox, LifeProof is completely waterproof, and much lower volume. One my main complaints about OtterBox is that they take slim-engineered technology and double the volume to the point that you can barely fit it into your pocket. LifeProof’s impact-resistance likely falls short of OtterBox, which makes sense. Put a boy in a bubble and he can live through just about anything. Put a boy in a bubble wrap, and he can survive some bumps and bruises and that’s about it. LifeProof’s slim case is supposed to be able to take a drop of a couple of feet, but that’s contingent on the phone falling on its edges. The face is protected only by a thin sheet of plastic, so I’m confident that a good hit on the faceplate will shatter the glass.

Once you snap the case together and screw in a little widget that secures the headphone port, you have a completely functional, waterproof iPhone. Before you go scuba diving with your phone, you are supposed to to do an hour-long dunk test, which I’d advise you do if that’s your angle. For me, I just need the phone to survive a good rain and my sweat, and I can vouch for the case’s performance under those parameters. After 1000 miles, I’ve had no issues with moisture finding its way inside the case. I’ve also managed to drop it a few times with no ill-effects. 80 bones seems steep, but worth safeguarding your investment if you ask me. I think a new iPhone 4S runs about $600 off-contract, so you have to do your own math. For me, running with it all the time and being pretty clumsy, it’s a no-brainer.

The armband emerges as one of the better-designed systems I’ve seen. It’s got thin neoprene, and addresses a complaint I’ve had with every single armband I’ve ever used: buckle slippage. Most systems, as you tighten them, are apt to cause the buckle to slip from its intended orientation, which is uncomfortable and annoying. LifeProof uses a metal buckle and semi-rigid, thin neoprene to keep the buckle from slipping. With the phone in its case, it simply mounts to a bracket on the armband, which makes it the slimmest armband setup I’ve used outside of an old Rio MP3 setup. If you don’t have Bluetooth headphones, you have to screw a little adapter cable into the headphone port, which keeps the system water proof. Instead of plugging your headphones straight into the phone, you plug them into the adapter cable.

I do have three complaints about the armband. One is that after a month of use, I tore a surface layer of the armband neoprene while tightening the armband. It didn’t go all the way through, but still, it’s either a design flaw or an isolated case, and unsatisfactory if you ask me. My second complaint is that the bracket can dig into your arm, depending on how you orient your setup. On a long run, I actually caused some bruising on inside of my arm, which wasn’t too comfortable. Finally, unless your earbuds are also designed for talking or you have Bluetooth headphones, it’s a pain in the butt if you have to to take a call in the middle of a workout. Maybe it’s not a problem for you, but some calls I have to take regardless of what I’m doing. So I would have to stop my run, unscrew the adapter cable, call the person back, then screw everything back together and continue on my way. I solved this by getting a Bluetooth earbud setup, which I will address in a separate gear review.

In the end, going with a LifeProof setup will set you back about $120, and while far from perfect, it’s the best setup I’ve seen in nine years of running with music in my ears.

Gear Reviews That Don’t Suck: Ibex Zepher Wind Boxer Brief

Gear Reviews That Don’t Suck: Ibex Zepher Wind Boxer Brief

Wear these bad boys to your next undies party!

Yes, I am reviewing underwear. If you are faint of heart or have delicate eyes, maybe you should skip this post.

When you occasionally find yourself running in -20 to -40 windchill factor, you will find that your choice of layering can make or break the run. Take for example, the case of the poor fellow whose story I am about to share. One day in the Pipeline, we all went out for a run in Albuquerque. It was a colder than normal day, and one of the guys forgot his sweats and opted to simply go out in his “PJ panties,” i.e. the shiny blue, uber-short nylon running shorts. I recall I separated from the group in order to get in a few extra miles, so I didn’t regroup with them back at the Cone Ops Center for a good hour after they finished. Upon entering the room, there on the floor, was said fellow, in writhing agony, because he froze his junk. The PJ panties, while alluring to the ladies, did little to protect his nether-regions, and so, he suffered a good hour of the screaming barfies as sensation returned to his, well, you get the idea….

I too have paid the price on occasion, but I am afraid no more. Ibex, if you aren’t aware, is a high-end manufacturer of merino wool sports apparel. Everybody knows wool is Nature’s favorite form of insulation. It traps heat in the cold, even when wet, and dissipates it when it is warm. It also has naturally-occurring anti-bacterial qualities. But, for eons, wool was also bulky, stinky when wet (you know, that old kinda wet dog smell?) , and itchy itchy. These days, companies like Smartwool and Ibex are pushing the envelope of wool engineering. I’ve found the Ibex layers, in particular, are thinner than their synthetic counterparts, yet typically warmer, least stinky, and way more durable.

The Zepher Winds (find them here) run a pretty penny ($60), but boast Ibex’s thickest Merino wool layer, and some kind of magical wind shield where it matters most. They call it a “wind panel with poly micro denier.” The coldest paces I’ve put them through were about -30F, under just some thick running tights, and I was perfectly comfortable. I have to admit that upon seeing the picture to the right, I was a little hesitant, mostly because they look just ridiculous. But, it’s not like these were designed for the runway. So, I punched it, and I haven’t been disappointed in the least. I should also mention I’ve tested them in warmer weather (20-30+), curious as to whether they would roast me in warmer climes. True to form, the merino wool kept me warm, but nowhere near overheating. They do make another version minus the windproof material, which is probably most ideal if you’re looking to sport these in the summer. But, I have to say that the Zepher Winds will perform in all winter conditions.

Well, I’m not sure what else to review about these undies. They get the job done, and I highly recommend them for anyone who lives and trains in the any kind of cold climate. See you on the catwalk!