When Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon in 2 hours and 25 seconds on May 6, 2017, most people saw one of the world's fastest long-distance runners trying, and almost succeeding in, crossing an elusive milestone in human performance.
Geoffrey Woo saw an inspiration.
"It was a combination of that's-awesome-slash-I'm-jealous,'' says Woo, co-founder and CEO of HVMN. If Nike could use its R&D muscle to help an athlete smash one decades-old record in a project it called Breaking2, he thought, why couldn't HVMN, which makes nutritional products designed to boost cognitive and physical efficiency, do something similar?
On September 12, in Aguascalientes, Mexico, it will. That's when Italian pro cyclist Vittoria Bussi will attempt one of her sport's most daunting challenges. Known simply as "the hour," it's the record for how far a cyclist can ride on an indoor track in 60 minutes. Cyclists have been competing at the hour since 1876, although advances in equipment technology have necessitated several adjustments to the rules.
In October 2017, Bussi, who holds a mathematics doctorate from Oxford University and had only been competing as a cyclist for four years, tried to break the existing record of 47.576 kilometers and came up 404 meters short. She is hoping HVMN's new product, a drinkable ketone ester, can help her close that gap this time around.
Ketone bodies are compounds released during the metabolism of fat. Sports scientists have long been intrigued by them for a number of reasons. As a fuel for the muscles, they are more oxygen-efficient than carbohydrates. Moreover, they use a different metabolic pathway, meaning the muscles can burn ketones and glucose in parallel, overcoming the energy-production limitations of glucose alone. "Basically, you have a separate fuel tank of ketones that only can burn efficiently," says Woo.
There are just a few problems. The body only releases ketones on its own when deprived of carbohydrates, which athletes like Bussi need for intense efforts, they have historically been expensive to synthesize, and they taste like nail polish remover. HMVN has made some headway in overcoming these obstacles, but it still charges $30 a dose, and the taste, as several of us here at Inc. can attest, is a couple degrees beyond off-putting.
But for an athlete like Bussi, whose sport requires forcing herself to tolerate extreme suffering on a regular basis, a little--or a lot of--yuck is nothing. "It feels against human possibility, knowing you're over the limit of physical endurance and needing to overcome it," she says. "The workouts often end with tears of tension and pain because you're so exhausted and you have to get used to pushing your body to go further."
During her previous record-setting attempt, inflammation of her diaphragm caused by the extreme aerodynamic position required on the bike flared up, slowing her progressively as the trial went on. "You have the feeling of having blades stuck under the ribs," she says. "The pain was so strong that I even threw up."
In previous trials, cyclists supplementing with ketone esters were able to increase their distance on a 30-minute track ride by 400 meters on average, meaning Bussi's hope of adding at least 405 meters this time around seems reasonable. Bussi says the first time she trained using HVMN's product, "a 50-minute time trial felt like 30 minutes. I experienced enhanced mental lucidity and physical power. The combination made the effort seem much more feasible to me."
However Bussi fares in Mexico, Woo says HVMN hopes to support more high-profile endeavors in the future--in addition to the quieter work it already does with military special forces operators, NFL teams, and Tour de France cyclists. "We're excited about making her sort of our template HVMN project," he says.
What other records might the company take aim at next? "I think," Woo says, "the two-hour marathon is really interesting."