There may have been faster female runners in the Chattanooga area in years past, but none have been more dominant than Jan Gautier.
And chances are good that no lady has won more races in this area than the 48-year-old former qualifier of the 2000 Olympic Trials Marathon.
Gautier, pronounced Go-Teer, has been a competitive runner for a long time, but her athletic career really didn't start out with running.
Growing up in Chester, Illinois at the youngest of six children, Jan played volleyball for seven years and basketball for four before joining the cross country team as a junior. There was nothing spectacular about her beginning, but she did go to the state track meet as a senior where she had times of 5:35 in the mile and 12:32 for two.
"I didn't qualify for the finals in the mile and I wasn't last in the two-mile, although I was close," the slender Gautier said Wednesday afternoon in the friendly confines of her classroom in Barks Hall on the campus of Baylor School.
Jan later went to Southeast Missouri State where she decided to run cross country. It turned out to be a life-changing experience as her husband-to-be was hired as the coach when she was a junior. The rest is history.
"I bit off more than I could chew when I went out for cross country. Bill came there when I was a junior and he was desperate for runners. My first race was at Murray State and I was so nervous. I came back so upset that I hadn't run better, so I went out and ran seven miles when we got back from that trip. I had a lot of work to do as I had joined the team in mid-season and started out training with the managers," she smiled when recalling the very start.
It didn't take long for Bill and Jan to fall in love. They dated several months before becoming engaged and she was on his team as a runner and his wife.
The Gautiers moved to Chattanooga in 1991 when Bill was hired at UTC. Jan's first road race was the Riverbend 5K that summer.
"I think my time was 16:45 that day, but the course was short. Taylor was nine months old and that's when I realized that having babies would make you run faster," she laughed.
Riverbend is just one of the many races that Jan won for many years in a row without being seriously challenged by any other female. Missionary Ridge, Signal Mountain, Chattanooga Chase were other races where she won virtually every time.
When asked about the highlights of her long and productive running career, she listed two.
"Winning a national championship at Fargo, North Dakota in the Indoor 3,000 meter run was a big deal for me," she recalled another college highlight when she was working on her masters.
"We rode a bus up there and it took forever. I wasn't even sure I would be included in the field, but somehow I qualified. I was ranked last and still won. I was in the middle of the pack and they were running my pace. Bill wanted me to start my kick with about 800 meters to go.
"I took off and nobody went with me. I really didn't know what to think when that happened, but we were so excited when I won as all the hard work fell into place at the same time," she explained.
Another came in 1999 when she qualified for the Women's Olympic Trials Marathon, which were held in Columbia, S.C. that summer. It was one of her slowest marathons, but on a 95-degree day and a hilly course, she was thrilled with a 2:58.
"Going to the Olympic Trials was my ultimate goal as a runner. To be able to run next to my idols was an incredible experience. Joan Benoit Samuelson has always been the example I tried to follow and I got on the same elevator with her at the motel where we were staying. She was so down to earth as she was very friendly and encouraging," Jan recalled.
Gautier has now run 17 road marathons and none have ever been slower than three hours. Her personal best of 2:45 came at St. Louis in 1992 when she ran her second one.
And while she's had a touch of running experience on a national level, living and competing in Chattanooga has also been a wonderful thing for her.
"Chattanooga is a great running community with a lot of quality races. Part of my success was the fact I am married to a very good coach. It wasn't that bad with Bill being my coach as it was a perfect combination for me. It helped with my discipline and motivation as it did nothing but help me be a better runner. Bill laid out all of my workouts and I didn't even have to think about it.
"It seems like I ran the Riverbend Run every year, but Missionary Ridge was always my favorite. It's a tough course, but I loved the scenery and I liked all the residents along the way who would come out on their porch and cheer for us.
"Signal Mountain is my second favorite race for the same reason. Running along the brow on an early Saturday morning is a wonderful experience and it's also a tough course. It was just something different from the downtown races," she explained.
Jan has been doing more trail running in recent years as she's been a regular in the River Gorge races as well as the Scenic City Trail Marathon. She says that she isn't as fast as she used to be, which may be true, but she's still much faster than most women half her age.
Just last weekend, she went to Dayton for the Strawberry Chase 10K. Her time of 40:59 wasn't even close to her personal record at that distance, but she was still second overall and the first female.
"It's nice to run a race out of town where nobody knows you," she responded to a question about that last race.
She still does at least one speed workout on the track each week and she's still logging between 65 and 70 miles a week. But she's been teaching sixth-grade science at Baylor for the past 13 years and she's also been the boys cross country coach for the past five, so she doesn't have as much free time to train as she once did.
"I really like running on Stringers Ridge, but I also enjoy going to Enterprise South and to Raccoon Mountain. Occasionally, I'll do some trails behind the high school on Signal. I've been doing trails for the last seven years and they're great because you still feel like you're running fast, even when you've slowed down some," she explained.
Jan has done three 50K races, the last being one in Anniston, Alabama in February where she was proud to finish in 6:09.
"It's much tougher than Stump Jump as there's a mile-long hill that took me 30 minutes to climb last year. This year I made it in 20, so I was happy about that. Those longer races are fun, but I will not go further than a 50K. I have no desire whatsoever to do a hundred miler," she said quickly.
While their oldest daughter Taylor will be 24 in August, Sydney will be a rising senior at Baylor and will turn 18 in July. Time coaching others, serving as a dorm parent and spending time with her family don't leave much time for anything else.
"I'm not as competitive as I once was, but I still believe in doing my best. I spend a lot of time and energy working with other people. Teaching and coaching at Baylor for the past 13 years has been a dream job for me. I get to work with motivated kids, parents who are involved and we have a budget that's very generous.
"These guys are dedicated and motivated to get better and I've really enjoyed being part of their lives. It's harder to run in the heat as I've gotten older, but I'm thinking about doing Stump Jump again and maybe the Rock Creek Stage Race. If I'm going to run slow, I may as well go long," she concluded.
Life as a runner has been very good for Jan Gautier. It's obvious that she's a very talented individual and she's still bone-thin with nary an ounce of fat on her body.
She'll be 49 on July 23rd, which means she'll be a Grand Master next summer.
And even though she doesn't compete on the same level like she once did, she's still pretty darn fast and she's enjoying it as much today as ever before.
That's what running is all about.
(This is the 12th in a series of runners in the Chattanooga area, including members of the Chattanooga Track Club. If you have an idea of someone deserving of a similar story, email John Hunt at nomarathonmoose@Comcast.net)