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BUSINESS

4 MIN

Marathon Racing Buddies Run With an Idea That Really Gels

Toronto's Endurance Tap siphons into the energy gel trend, using maple syrup as a natural running performance enhancer

When Pat Stark was forced to languish on his couch to recover from knee surgery, he did what any obsessed amateur runner would do: He obsessed about running. He read running magazines. He relived memories of participating in the Tokyo marathon. He listened to podcasts about running. One podcast discussed the possibility of using honey as a natural energy gel. Stark wondered: What about maple syrup? Could a little pouch of Canada’s signature sticky carbohydrate be used as a mid-race refuelling aid?

A running gel delivers a jolt of energy – in the form of sugar – that you squeeze out of a little sachet and into your panting maw while running. As Stark explains, you can’t digest food properly while the greater portion of your body’s resources are dedicated to putting one foot in front of the other. Gels provide basic, easily digested nutrients to an athlete – 100 quick calories’ worth of sugar, give or take, plus sodium as an electrolyte – as a sort of stop-gap nutrition solution to push the body forward until the next time it can get a proper refuelling with an actual meal.

(And if the idea of squeezing a pouch of sugar into your mouth while running seems dubious or faddish, legitimate sports doctors and other trustworthy sources say energy gels are generally sound, scientifically speaking.)

Stark’s research suggested maple syrup had just about the right nutritional profile to work as a gel – it just needed to have sodium added. Globs of flavoured maltodextrin and fructose currently dominate the energy gel market; a natural base like maple syrup might sweeten the appeal. And tapping into maple syrup to fuel runners looked like an unexplored opportunity. “I was searching for a maple syrup gel,” Stark says, “and it didn’t exist.”

Barely two years after that lightning bolt struck him on the sofa, Stark is a partner in Endurance Tap, a growing, uniquely Canadian sports startup. He and an old high school buddy make and sell their maple syrup gels through running retailers in Canada and the United States – including, as of recently, Mountain Equipment Co-op, a cultishly popular chain for Canada’s outdoor sporting enthusiasts.

Courtesy Endurance Tap

The ranks of the Endurance Tap faithful include everyone from elite Canadian runner Reid Coolsaet to weekend warrior friends of Stark and partner Matt Smith. And while contractual obligations forbid them from publicly revealing the details at the moment, Endurance Tap is now part of the training regime for a major Toronto sports team.

“We’ve had a lot of people say, ‘You had me at “maple,’ ” Stark says. But to bring such a product to market isn’t so straightforward. Not knowing where to begin, Stark immediately enlisted the input of his longtime friend Smith – who is, if anything, even more of a hardcore runner than Stark (“I run 50-milers,” Smith says, with deadpan intensity).

On weekdays, Smith works in marketing and consulting, and he helps startups. Stark is an industrial designer. They figured their skills in launching a product would complement one another, with one hitch: As Stark notes, neither had a background in food production. “So there was a steep learning curve in terms of figuring just what the hell we were supposed to do,” he says.

"The gel industry has athletes convinced that it’s a very complicated thing, nutrition"

The pair tried to enlist local partners, including community colleges with food production programs, to help them develop a recipe. But they felt a rather runner-like itch to just get going, so they just started experimenting and muddled through it themselves. “It was us in the kitchen mixing up pots and stuff and just tasting it,” Stark says. Things got complicated before the recipe got simple again. After many attempts, Smith and Stark ended up with a three-part formula: Canadian maple syrup, sea salt and ginger. The product is now made at a facility in Toronto.

It dawned on the partners of newly christened Endurance Tap that their product isn’t just uniquely Canadian, it’s unusual among running gels because it isn’t full of maltodextrin and other cheap and/or artificial ingredients. “Having real food in [a gel] is almost unheard of,” Stark says.

Smith and Stark seem to have developed something of a disdain for Big Gel, as it were, since that realization. “The gel industry essentially has athletes convinced that it’s a very complicated thing, nutrition, and they have laboratories and scientists who have figured out what’s going to make you perform – when in fact it’s just sugar,” Stark says.

When Toronto shop BlackToe Running put the first test batches of Endurance Tap into the hands of actual runners, they discovered another key benefit: Some people insisted the Endurance Tap gels don’t upset their stomachs the way other brands can. Stark and Smith figure it’s the inclusion of ginger – a natural tummy-settler – that does the trick.

“We actually get these thank-you emails from people,” Stark says, shaking his head in delighted disbelief.  

“A lot of people like to evangelize it,” Smith says. “Other [gel] brands don’t really have that.”

Where to take that momentum next? Like anyone with a competitive streak, the Endurance Tap duo are exploring new races to enter. One potential avenue involves extending the use of energy gels beyond running, for example by persuading more sports teams to adopt them.

Then there are the international markets. Endurance Tap has a small foothold in the United States. The United Kingdom and Japan are next on the horizon. “In Japan, running is their hockey,” says Smith, who believes the potential for growth is huge, not least because maple syrup – not really an everyday product outside of Canada or the Northeastern U.S. – enjoys a certain luxury cachet abroad. (This is obvious to anyone who has spotted a bottle of the stuff for $20 or something ridiculous in a foreign grocery store.) Outside of North America, Endurance Tap’s pricing could be viable well above the $3.50ish a pop that a pouch goes for in the domestic market.

“Maple syrup is well-known all around the world,” Smith says. “We’re going to leverage the notoriety of Canadian maple syrup to help push the brand forward."

This article was originally published Aug. 4, 2016.

Published Tuesday, July 11th 2017

Header image credit: Matt Smith, left, and Pat Stark of Endurance Tap. Adam McDowell/Billy

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