Weekend Warriors: Jan Guenther Can Do Just About Every Sport
Jan Guenther has raced outrigger canoes in California and Hawaii, done a three-day cross-country ski race in Greenland and completed six Ironman triathlons. She has trekked across Finland on skis just for the experience, and paddled in flat-water canoe races across the Midwest. In nearly 30 years of competition she has tackled both the serious (the 1994 Olympic cross-country ski trials) and the odd.
One of those oddities was the Mountain Man Triathlon in Colorado, a now-defunct one-of-a-kind snowshoe-ski-speed skate winter race at more than 7,000 feet. She never won it, but it used to leave her with a smile affixed to her frozen face. It might be her favorite event ever. "It was just very colorful, very different," she says. "It was fun."
At 56, Guenther continues to be serious about having competitive fun. The woman for all seasons skis in the winter and runs, cycles, swims and paddles the rest of the year around her home in Long Lake, Minnesota.
In January, she added another experience to her resume by winning the Winter Triathlon national championships in St. Paul, Minnesota, a USA Triathlon event that features a 5K run on snow, 15K ride on fat-tire bikes and a 7K cross-country ski course. She was eighth overall and beat the female runner-up by more than two minutes. She'd never done an event like this, and definitely didn't expect to win.
"I don't necessarily think I have a chance to win anything anymore," she says, laughing while citing her age. "But I did go into it thinking, 'I better stay up with the girls on the fat-tire bike,' only because [the event] was really aimed at triathletes, and triathletes don't ski."
Once she was on skis, she was in command, saying she felt "super powerful" while some other athletes -- relative novices to Nordic -- "flailed." She came out of it not only with a victory, but a new interest in fat-tire bike racing, a growing winter sport she calls "a blast."
"If I had more time, I would do it," she says.
Time is an especially precious commodity for a working athlete such as Guenther. For the past 25 years she has fed her athletic habit while operating Gear West, the sporting goods business she and her husband started in Long Lake -- all while raising their two sons.
She oversees the entire Gear West operation, meaning her hours are long and stretch into the nights and weekends. Retail is always challenging, and she admits it's especially tough in this era when new online operations can disrupt longtime successful ones like hers, which happens to be the largest cross-country ski retailer in the U.S.
"If you're not constantly trying to be better, you sink," she says. "We're probably the best retail shop we've ever been, and it's twice as hard now as it was 20 years ago."
She knows if she tries to fit in her training during the workday or after hours she'll fail. Something will disrupt her plans. So, she rises early and works out each morning for an hour or two, and gets into work at 10 or 10:30. On the weekends, she'll wedge in a three-hour workout.
Most of her training is done with a group of friends. She'd rather be out running, cycling or skiing than lifting weights in a gym, and she avoids burnout by changing activities and being outside with friends. As she has aged, she has added more gym time to strengthen muscle groups. "I have to keep parts of me strong enough so long-term aches and pains don't overtake me," she says.
To combat three decades' worth of wear and tear from triathlons of all distances, she also gets a special deep-tissue massage with stainless steel tools called the Graston Technique. She says it "breaks up some of the adhesions" in her body -- particularly in her back and glutes. She also has tried yoga and can feel its benefits but can't seem to squeeze more into her jam-packed schedule.
"But I think the more restorative activity you can do over 40, probably the better off you are," she says.
As an athlete, Guenther seems to have the capacity to push through pain and operate more efficiently than others. "She could easily have been a pro but she always said she doesn't want to be a pro," says her longtime friend Jilly Whiting, who used to train and compete with her. "She wants to enjoy her life, she wants to have kids, she wants to be a normal person. I remember the first year of the Ironman Wisconsin, I want to say she was third or fourth [woman] overall, so she beat most of the pros there. Phenomenal athlete."
She was also a late-blooming athlete. Guenther grew up in Chicago and wasn't involved in sports, other than riding horses. She went to Duke and received a degree in psychology, then returned home to get her MBA in finance and marketing at Northwestern.
It wasn't until then that she was introduced to cycling and triathlons. She was an instant convert. At 25 she started Nordic skiing and became very good, eventually qualifying to compete in the Olympic trials at Anchorage, Alaska, in 1994. "Nordic skiing is something I wish I head learned years earlier, because I liked that more than anything," she says.
Her passion for sports changed her life. She abandoned her corporate path and bought a bike shop with friends, married a sales rep for cross-country skis and they opened up Gear West in 1991.
Ever since, she has been training and competing. She has done 10 hours, 24 minutes in an Ironman, and has a best time of 3:07 in the marathon. She once finished as the second woman overall in the American Birkebeiner, the nation's biggest cross-country ski event, and has won several overall and age-group triathlon titles.
Perhaps the biggest challenge has been maintaining a balance in her life among work, family and sports. She knows she has sacrificed some things. Her social life is hanging out with her training partners after a workout, having coffee. She doesn't sweat getting the Christmas cards out on time or worry about housework.
"There's certain things you have to say, 'I don't do that. I can't do that,' " she says. "It's not top priority in my life. It's just a trade-off."
At one recent cross-country race, a woman her age approached her to say she's amazed at what Guenther can do. "I thanked her, but she probably does a bunch of things that I haven't had time to do."
Yet she's grateful for what sports have given her.
"It's exciting, it's fun, it's the wonderful people I've met over the years," she says. "I've seen as many places as my time and my ability would allow me to see, and I really wouldn't trade it. There's a lot of times when I think it would have been easier in a normal work world, but when I look back at it, I'm very lucky."