Forget carb-filled bars, runners gaga for goo

Published Jan. 3, 2003|Updated Aug. 31, 2005

A peculiar sight will unfold Sunday at the Hops Marathon around the 14-mile marker.

Some 2,000 runners will pass yet another aid station stocked with the usual water and Gatorade. Only this station will offer something else to help brave the latter stages of a 26.1-mile journey through downtown Tampa.

A 1.1-ounce packet of something. It's not a liquid and far from a solid food. But runners will tear it open with hands or teeth, suck out an oozing product, discard the packaging and, supposedly, continue running enriched with enough energy to make it to the finish line.

Meet the "goos" and "gels," the latest hot product in the endurance-sport world. It may be a welcome power burst in a hand-held package or a nuisance depending on who you talk to, but like the myriad sports drinks and energy bars that have flooded the sports market, it appears here to stay.

"I would recommend it," Tierra Verde's Lisa Valentine said. "It gives you an advantage.

"Replenishment is a huge thing now."

That's what the gel-like products promise, in a package smaller than a sports drink bottle and, supporters say, easier to consume than an energy bar.

The products _ battling for market share with names like PowerGel, Carb-BOOM, GU, HammerGel and Clif Shot, to name a few _ offer the same important carbohydrates available in run-of-the-mill foods like bananas and figs.

Only fruits, of course, do not come in fancy foil packaging.

"The body needs two things, water and energy. There's nothing magic about any of these products; they just offer carbs," said Dr. Nancy Clark, a Boston-based nutritionist. "They're convenient, prewrapped, portable."

Sports energy gels date to 1986, when a product called Leppin Squeezy was created in Britain. George Altieri, a Clermont-based triathlete and representative for Clif Shot, remembered seeing it at the Hawaii Ironman triathlon in 1988.

"It was a cult product in clear packaging," Altieri said. "Not pleasant looking."

Yet, Altieri said, a number of professional athletes got behind it and in the 1990s other companies began introducing gels. The gels have yet to approach the $1.5-billion energy/snack bar market, but they are appearing at more races and getting racier in their variety.

Clif Shot, the sponsoring gel at the Hops Marathon, comes in flavors such as Viva Vanilla, Razz Sorbet and Mocha Mocha with caffeine. PowerGel offers a chocolate that tastes a little like pudding, while its raspberry cream tastes like well, it's probably an acquired taste.

To get the maximum benefit over long workouts, manufacturers recommend using several packets. On the packaging of a PowerGel (made by the makers of the popular PowerBar), it is suggested athletes "consume with H2O every 30-45 minutes during intense activity."

Valentine, 41, follows that advice, using them during training and bringing her own to marathons where she is unsure if aid stations will provide them. She'll pin two packets to the inside of her shorts, sometimes stash one inside a glove for a cold race.

Most gels cost between 99 cents and $1.29, and many avid users buy them in cases of 24 (shelf life is about one year). Altieri said around 60 percent of Hops Marathon runners will have a gel at the mile 14 aid station.

Not all runners have bought into the gel craze, but some are contemplating it.

St. Petersburg's Joe Burgasser, a 2001 Boston Marathon age-group winner, said during his younger years the final miles of a marathon were his strength. At 64, he is thinking about more of a boost.

"The old method was to do your long runs purely on water," Burgasser said. "I'm not skeptical of gels. I'm always ready to try something new."

Runners and gelmakers agree that practicing with the gels is the safe way to introduce them to the body, instead of popping one for the first time, say, Sunday. Still, the Hops Marathon likely will include a few half-consumed gel packets along the roads.

Extra volunteers will be on hand around the gel station to pick up spent packets and clear the course. One major drawback _ gels are plenty messy.

"They're slippery," Gasparilla Distance Classic Association race director Susan Harmeling said. "We have to get out there and clean up quickly."

Maybe popping a gel could help that effort, too.