It has been busy year for Lanni Marchant. This summer alone, she zigzagged across the continent – from Atlanta to Vancouver – to race. Her off-season is no less nomadic. She’s either commuting daily across the state line from Georgia into Tennessee where she’s trying to keep her career going as a criminal lawyer in Chattanooga, or training in the Rift Valley of Kenya.
The most significant race of Marchant’s life takes place in August. At the iaaf world championships in Moscow, she will try to become the fastest female marathoner in Canadian history. But all of this comes with significant risks and many sacrifices – those of a promising career, relationships and something resembling an ordinary life.
Growing up in a family with seven children in London, Ont., Marchant’s idea of ordinary is different than most. From an early age, she learned to improvise and adapt in less than ideal situations. “I slept on the sofa in the living room until I went off to college,” Marchant says matter-of-factly. This has prepared Marchant for the less-than-glamorous life of an elite runner: cheap, connection-laden flights, little-to-no appearance money and shared hotel rooms with a competitor, often a stranger.
After attending and running for Michigan State University, her career brought Marchant to the American South. She now calls White, Ga. home, although she doesn’t get to spend much time there. Being one of Canada’s best distance runners, Marchant competes around North America most weekends, often north of the border. “Because of my lifestyle, I don’t train with a group,” Marchant says. “I do most of my runs alone, even when I’m back in the U.S., so I’m used to fitting workouts in at weird times and in strange spots.” Nevertheless, Marchant makes it work in her own unique way. “I specialized in business law in school,” Marchant says. “But I prefer the hours that criminals keep. They’re more flexible, and that fits better with my running schedule.”
Marchant chooses to carry half the caseload of the typical criminal attorney so that she can continue to explore her potential as a runner. “It’s taken me a long time to find what works for me, both as a runner and as a lawyer,” she says of her seemingly sudden rise on the Canadian running scene and her struggle to find a law firm that would accept that running was her first priority. “The last firm I worked at didn’t get it. I went to Kenya and I thought everything was fine. I came back and didn’t have a job anymore.”
Marchant’s path to success as a distance runner also took a bumpy, circuitous route. “I was a steeplechaser for a while in university, but I kept getting injured. I have had a laundry list of different stress fractures.” Oddly enough, her perceived frailty is what motivated her to try longer distances.
Injuries kept Marchant from gaining much attention when she transitioned to the road racing scene after university. “I placed fourth at the Canadian 10k championships in 2011 and it seemed like no one even knew who I was. Female runners in Canada don’t really get much notoriety unless they do something really big.”
In 2012, Marchant did just that. She and 35-year-old Krista DuChene travelled to the Rotterdam Marathon in the Netherlands in search of a fast race. “We were at the press event and the announcer was going through the elite start list and their previous PBs,” Marchant says, beginning to crack a smile. “He read Krista’s, which at the time was pretty good, a 2:39, but he didn’t seem too impressed. Then he got to my name and hesitated before saying my time, as if he was reading it wrong.”
Marchant entered Rotterdam with a 2:44 PB from Chicago in 2011. Her entry time was passably fast for most elite entry standards at any Canadian race, but concerning for a Dutch race official hoping to see many of the top women break 2:30. But that was exactly what DuChene and Marchant were both there to do.
Running into a tough headwind in the second half on an exposed course, Marchant and DuChene worked together to a shocking set of finishes: DuChene ran an impressive 2:32:06, while Marchant stunned everyone with a 2:31:50. Suddenly, the running establishment in Canada had to take Marchant seriously.
Marchant and DuChene have become close friends since their battle in Rotterdam, and subsequent failed appeal to Athletics Canada over just missing the Olympic “A” standard for a berth in last year’s Summer Games. “We’re an unlikely duo – I’m a lawyer in the American South and she’s a mother of three in Paris, Ont. We don’t seem to have anything in common, but we get along so well.”
Perhaps one of the reasons why Marchant and DuChene get along is that they are both unflinchingly honest in a sport where many elites speak cryptically of their intentions and goals. “I am not going to run a marathon for a year after Moscow,” DuChene candidly responds when asked about her plan, particularly if neither she nor Marchant break Sylvia Ruegger’s elusive Canadian marathon record of 2:28:36. “I’m 36 years old. I’ve ran a lot of marathons. I need to be careful what I do next.” Marchant is just as straightforward and shows a complete disinterest in hedging on the looming question as to whether or not she believes she can become Canada’s greatest female marathoner. “I’m going after a sub-2:30, and I’m going after the record in Moscow. Then I’m hoping to run a fast fall marathon.”