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How a biophysicist who just wanted to take care of his daughter reinvented sports nutrition.
Back in 1989, while running the Western States 100, the wheels came off Laura Vaughan as she crossed the 80-mile mark. Dehydrated, in desperate need of sustenance, the PowerBars she was eating were causing problems. Luckily for Laura, her dad, Dr. Bill Vaughan, was a member of her support crew and, with background in biophysics, he had the skills to help.
Using a KitchenAid mixer, Dr. Vaughan began playing with formulations that would be easy to eat and digest, yet provide the energy needed for his daughter to complete and win ultramarathons. The result was the world’s first sports nutrition gel and the moment an entire industry began to emerge from the nutrition dark ages.
“Drinks are good in that they empty the stomach quickly, solid foods are good in that they provide nutrients, but they both have limits,” says Laura’s brother and Dr. Vaughan’s son, Brian Vaughan, GU’s cofounder and CEO. Dr. Vaughan’s “gel” was simpler than a solid, more complex than a liquid, required no chewing, diverted very little blood flow, was easily portable and got to work immediately.
“When Laura wanted to hang out after the race and dance and party with her friends we knew we were on to something,” Brian remembers. “You don’t need to destroy your muscles, provided you can supply the right nutrients at the right time—simple and complex carbohydrates, amino acids, muscle buffers, electrolytes.”
Word spread quickly in the trail-running community that the Vaughans had a new secret weapon, so they began mixing the gel for friends to test, pouring it into big Ziploc bags. When those friends would come back asking for more of that “gooey stuff” the Vaughan’s realized perhaps they had done more than just solve Laura’s nutrition needs—they had created a new sports nutrition product. It wasn’t a bar, it wasn’t a drink, but it needed a name and they brainstormed more than a few possible names—Go Jam, Sports Jam, Main Squeeze, E2—but kept coming back to the name those early testers gave it as they poured it from Ziploc bags: “gooey stuff.” In 1993, GU was born.
It wasn’t long before triathletes like 1999 Ironman world champ Lori Bowden discovered GU. Ironman-distance events require the same type of sustained effort that ultramarathoners do, making digestion on the go a priority and GU the perfect product. In fact, the Ironman organization came courting GU. It saw athletes using GU finishing more consistently, with faster times and having a better experience—exactly what it needed to grow its events.
The list of athletes foundational to GU is long and impressive. It begins with Laura Vaughan and includes athletes such as John Stamstad, the godfather of endurance mountain biking. When Stamstad entered the 24 Hours of Canaan solo, he had to use four variations of his name since it was thought impossible to complete the event with anything less than four people. GU powered him on that journey.
GU Energy Labs has been mixing up its energy gel at its headquarters in Berkeley, California, since 1996. Keeping production in-house allows GU to be nimble and flexible, ensuring it can react quickly to the needs of athletes, while ensuring quality in its products. Magda Boulet, a 2008 Olympic marathoner and 2015 Ultrarunner of the Year, is not just an important athlete for GU, she is also the VP of innovation, research and development. She says, “The tools that I feel fortunate to have on my doorstep are the ability to make the product in-house and having a team of food scientists and developers on site. It takes your quality to the next level.”
Boulet and the team at GU use these resources to develop some of the tastiest and most out-of-the-box flavors in the industry but, as she explains, flavor is a real science. “We approach flavor from a purposeful standpoint. We’re looking at challenges athletes have from flavor fatigue to the kind of weather they are exercising in. What problem are we solving for them or is it just another fun flavor? But fun is important too! You want to have fun when you’re dedicating hours and hours to exercise.” We’d expect nothing less from the team behind Campfire S’Mores, Salted Watermelon and the just-released Birthday Cake to celebrate the brand’s 25th birthday.
Looking back on those 25 years of GU—the invention of the gel, the launch of hydration, chews and stroopwafels—its clear that Dr. Vaughan, Laura and Brian did more than just solve Laura’s nutrition needs at Western States. They did more than launch a new nutrition-product category. Their company, GU, revolutionized sports nutrition, 100 calories at a time, in little 32-gram pouches.