To GU or Not To GU?

The other day I met up with some friends at a bar. One of them, let’s call him Tim, has run in several marathons, and I mentioned my plan to run in the Vermont City Marathon in May.

“Great!” He said. “You want to hear my advice?”

“Oh, sure,” I replied, bracing myself and ordering another drink. Tim is the kind of person who breaks down his daily intake to the fraction of a calorie and logs his mileage with enough detail to shame Shackleton. One time he asked me if I had beat my PR at a 5K race we’d just finished, and I shook my head vigorously. Not that I have a Public Relations agent, but why would I want to assault one? It took about six months for me to happen upon a Runner’s World magazine at the doctor’s office and realize that he’d been talking about breaking my Personal Record. Whatever he was about to tell me now was probably going to take time and a lot of explanation.

“I always eat those gel packs they hand out for free at races. Those will give you an incredible boost, especially when you need it near the end.”

Gel packs?” This was a surprise. They give out hair products? And you’re supposed to eat them?

“You know, energy packs,” he explained. “Like GU. They’re packed with the carbs you need to finish the race.”

Ah, yes. Those things. I’d seen them before in the checkout line at Eastern Mountain Sports, and I’d always assumed that they were what you got for your 13-year-old cousin for his birthday if you didn’t know him very well. I’d never considered consuming one myself. Why would I want to eat something that comes in the same packaging as acrylic paint? Never mind the various product names (ShotBlocks, Carb-Booms, Honey Stingers, and Sharkies, for example) that sound like they’ve been lifted from the top-10 list of Christmas toys for preteens.

I nodded politely and changed the subject back to the beer on tap. Better to discuss the drinkable carbohydrates I’m already familiar with, I decided.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about Tim’s advice. The next day, I texted my nutritional advisor/sister, Sofi, and asked her to weigh in:

Mari: What’s your stance on GU? Good? Bad? What alternatives are out there?
Sofi: It’s maybe OK for an actual marathon. Not like you can stop for trail mix and Gatorade. For giving birth they recommend lemon honey water with a crushed calcium tablet. Similar situation (can’t eat, working hard).
Mari: What do you think the original marathoners did?
Sofi: Died.
Mari: Oh, snap. I forgot about that.

My father also offered advice based on his limited knowledge of the subject: “I Googled up Goo. It is an acronym for gastric outlet obstruction. Definitely bad.”

Then I looked up the ingredients in GU’s Chocolate Outrage, and decided that they weren’t as scary and obstructive as the flavor name would suggest. A little fructose, some unsweetened dark chocolate, and nothing over four syllables. I asked my sister about the primary ingredient, Maltodextrin, and she replied that it’s a “crazy giant sugar molecule made in a lab.” So it is kind of scary, but at least it doesn’t contain trans fats and no puppies were harmed in the process as far as I can tell. And anyway, I’m not going to lie and tell you I won’t have a bacon burger, a milkshake, and a half-sleeve of Oreo’s after the race. Part of the reason I admire long-distance runners and hikers is because they do stuff like consume whole sticks of butter and it doesn’t seem to make a difference in their weight or constitution. Why put up a fuss about the nutritional validity of what I eat during a race if afterwards it won’t matter at all?

So maybe I owe it to the hardworking makers of GU to at least try their product on an upcoming long-distance training run and see how it makes me feel. And if it doesn’t feel good, well, there’s always that teddy bear jar of honey in my kitchen cabinet.

Mari Zagarins

When Mari isn't running, biking, hiking, or jumping-jacking in and around her home in Montpelier, she is practicing her facial expressions in the mirror and contemplating whether she should learn to swim.