Somehow it seems appropriate to be posting this interview the morning of the City of Lakes Loppet. While Jan Guenther, 48 of Mound, is an excellent runner, she’s probably better known for her triathlon and cross-country skiing performances. Wrap them all together, along with her highly successful business, Gear West and you have perhaps the most highly recognized endurance athlete in the region. [Please note: Jan finished 134th overall (8th woman) at the City of Lakes Loppet with a time of 1:33:43 - winning her age-group by nearly 15 minutes.]
What was your first endurance sport? When and how did you first get involved with endurance sports?
Triathlons. I may have done some 10Ks first, but I quickly moved into triathlons. That was in 1983 and I was in Illinois at the time. I quit work, finished business school, and bought a couple of bike stores.
Was buying a bike store your plan all along?
No. I had no plan. I was tired of what I was doing and I didn’t think my employer was going to move me along where I wanted to go. About that time, I ran into some people who introduced me to the Border-to-Border race. Then, when I finished grad school, I bought two bikes shops in Elgin, Illinois with three other people.
What brought you to Minnesota and when did you move here?
I moved here in 1991. By that time I had started skiing and I was dating our ski rep, Brian Knutson, who I’m now married to.
What is your favorite sport?
It’s been a good winter for that.
Thank goodness. It’s been a steady season and it’s probably the best winter in 9-10 years.
That’s a good thing considering you just expanded your store.
Sometimes luck works out. If we were this busy last year at our other location, we wouldn’t be able to fit everyone in the store. Best of all, everyone’s happy. It’s hard to sell skis if no one can use them.
It’s been said that cross-country skiing is the best cross-training exercise for runners. What advice would you give runners that are interested in skiing, but are not sure how to get involved or are intimidated by things like waxing?
You really don’t have to make the whole waxing thing that difficult. You don’t want to talk to anyone that takes the waxing thing too serious. If you end up really loving skiing, you make a ton of time for it. And there are a lot of runners who’ve done that. But you do end up not running because it’s hard to do both unless you have a lot of free time. And once learn the technique you’ll find it’s a great aerobic compliment and it easier on the legs. If you can get the technique to the point where you can get a workout, you will realize that it’s incredibly beneficial. In fact it tones up your whole body more than running will. It really does. The only problem is that you end up being really fit in March and you have to be really careful getting back into running to make sure you don’t get injured.
How long would you say it takes someone to get the skate skiing technique down?
We’ll I’ve done a lot of coaching and it seems like it helps adults if they have some experience with roller blading, ice skating or even downhill skiing – anything with that side-to-side motion. It’s the person that’s never done those things that has the most difficult time learning.
You mentioned coaching, are you coaching at the high school level or adults?
Once in awhile we’ll coach high schools, but actually for the past 12 years we’ve had a program on Wednesday nights from 6-7:30 PM. We meet at French or Elm Creek, depending upon the snow. We’ve had anywhere from 85-95 people, along with about 7 coaches and we primarily focus on skating.
I also have a women’s weekend up north in the Hayward/Cable area that I do with another coach. That’s always the second week in December and we had 91 women this year.
Do you find the number of skiers is growing?
There’s always a lot of interest in skiing when there’s snow. It’s all about snow.
The sport of triathlon seems to be growing too.
Triathlon is super solid for many reasons. First thing, it’s not like skiing where it’s dependant on the weather. You might have some rainy weekends, but overall it doesn’t really affect the sport. Plus, it’s an Olympic sport now and there are so many clubs so it really is encouraging for all different levels to learn. So you can build on that. You can create clubs and training groups and you know what is going to happening – you can count on consistent growth. Whereas, if you can keep skiing going, you’re lucky. We can’t organize too many skiing race series because so many end up being cancelled. Some are picking up this year, but you can’t build on it for obvious reasons.
When did you first open Gear West?
We first opened in 1992. Since then we’ve move 5 times. By the third time, we split the skiing shop and bike shop – moving just down the street. Then we added running shoes, so that we’d have some business in the summers. At that time Brian was running the ski/running store and I was running the bike/tri store with Kevin O’Connor. Brian and I were getting so busy with kids that we convinced Kevin to buy the triathlon store. Our first love is skiing no matter what, so he bought the bike store and uses our name as long as he owns the store.
So you don’t own any part of that?
No, not the bike and tri store. But we own the name.
And now with your new location, you’re back together again?
Yeah, it wasn’t until they build the by-pass around town that we were able to convince the gas station to sell us their land. It was about a two-year process. By the time we were able to build this new building, Kevin needed more room. So now we’re all in the same building. They’re still two separate business and you can’t walk through one store to get to get to the other, but we’re in the same building.
That should be the last move. We started with 500 square feet. Now between the two stores we probably have 20,000 square feet.
I know you have a catalog business too. How important is that?
For us it’s really important. For us to have our ski inventory, we have to be able to sell them outside the area – anywhere there’s snowfall. The catalog is almost like it’s own business. It has its own challenges, its own employees, its own life.
Any thoughts in opening another store, like Gear East, that would be closer to, say, my house in Apple Valley and eastern metro area?
No! It’s very easy for me to say No. We can’t stretch ourselves any thinner. It’s already hard enough to find good employees and to balance it all. We can’t do it.
What is your training philosophy and how do you balance all your different endurance activities?
I think it changes depending on where you’re at in your life cycle. The balance changes. I was probably more involved with sports when the kids, and I, were younger. Honestly, I’ve been cutting back more as I get older, the kids demand more, and the store grows. It’s a fight because I always want to do more than I have time to do.
What are your goals for 2008?
I’m really focusing on the store. It takes a long time to settle into a new store and implement all our ideas. The catalog business is like a black hole, you can grow it forever and ever. That’s exciting, but also challenging. I’m not real technological, so I have to work on learning it and I have to rely on the people I hire. That’s a huge challenge and it keeps me on my toes. But it’s fun, it’s not like you open a store front and wait for people to trickle on by.
Although I’m focusing more on the store, I’ll try to ski as much as possible. I’ll do the Vasa Loppet, the Birkie, the Pepsi Challenge, the Seely Classic, all the local races.
What are your PRs?
Well, skiing is all dependant on the snow. I maybe have a 3:07 marathon. I don’t know if it was broken this year, but I held the amateur course record at Ironman Wisconsin. [Note: Jan won the 40-44 age group at the 2002 race with a 10:24:42, which included a 3:26 marathon].
What do you consider your strongest and weakest sports?
My strongest is skiing. Weakest would be swimming. To be a really good triathlete, you have to be a really good swimmer from high school. And you have to have the time to practice.
Obviously, there’s a lot of technique involved with both…Skiing just comes a lot easier for me.
What is your fondest endurance sport memory?
I have so many wonderful memories. One of my most interesting memories is from a triathlon I did in Colorado called the Mountain Man Triathlon. It’s not around anymore but it was about a 7-hour race that consisted of cross-country skiing, speed skating, and snowshoeing.
That’s probably what got me into a lot of this stuff – I remember seeing a woman on the cover of Outside magazine when I was in my cubicle at work. She was the queen of this particular sport and I thought God if I ever quit this, I’m going to go do that.
Do you have a favorite local and/or national race?
The Mora Vasaloppet is always a wonderful one. I’ve gone to Mora, Sweden to do the Vasaloppet from winning the Mora, MN race. It’s just fascinating because the Minnesota race is almost exactly like the one in Sweden. It’s patterned after it. The townsmen have that Swedish heritage and the land is like Mora, Sweden.
If you could train with any Minnesotan, past or present, who would it be?
All my women friends – depending on who can fit my schedule and what I’m training for. I have faster people that I try to train with when I’m training for triathlons. Then my longer distance people if I’m trying to train for an Ironman. And there are some older friends when I’m tired and have to go slow [laughs].
Finally, what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first got started?
I wish I learned to ski really early, so I could have taken it further than I was able to take it. Other than that, I feel really fortunate because it pretty much shaped my life in terms of where I took the business. It got me out of the cubicle and the direction I would have gone, which was probably banking or accounting. And, for the most part, I think it has made it a more colorful life than it might have been.