Canada’s best marathoner remains in conflict with her country and the U.S.
Lanni Marchant enters a Nashville coffee shop dressed like a rock star: black motorcycle jacket, blue hair, and silver ballet flats. It’s her 30th birthday, and before she reached it, she became the best Canadian distance runner in history. Next Monday, she’ll line up with the elite field at the 118th running of The Boston Marathon.
In October, Marchant broke the 28-year-old Canadian marathon record at Toronto, running 2 hours, 28 minutes even. After spending six weeks in Kenya training with Desiree Linden this winter, Marchant then set the national record in the half marathon, 1:10:47, in March in Nashville. Canada, where she’s a citizen, should have put her face on a stamp, and the U.S., where she lives, should have thrown her a parade. Instead, Marchant enters her 30s a woman without a country and trapped between two.
“I think [Canada] loves me now,” Marchant says. “But it was an acquired taste for both of us.”
There are a number of reasons why Canada has difficulty embracing its best distance runner. Part of it is because the nation can’t embrace her: Marchant has mostly lived in the U.S. since college. Another is that she’s been openly critical of Athletics Canada, her country’s governing body of sport. But the biggest reason Canadian running fans have no need for Marchant is because Marchant has no need for them or for running in the first place: she has a job, and it’s being a lawyer, not a runner.
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Though it’s happened for years to their best athletes, Canadians still turn sour on preps who are wooed from the motherland by the temptations of the NCAA.
“There’s a certain level of pride, rooting for an athlete that’s come up through the Canadian system more than someone who goes out to the States,” says Simon Bairu, the Canadian 10,000-meter record-holder. Bairu left his home of Regina for the University of Wisconsin, winning NCAA titles and following coach Jerry Schumacher to Portland after graduation.
Michael Doyle, Editor-in-Chief of Canadian Running Magazine, agrees: “It hurts their marketability. If they go to school in the U.S., we can lose track of them for a few years.”
Marchant expatriated to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and then disappeared further into the NCAA system, spending much of her five-year career on crutches. She finished college as a 34-minute 10K girl—good but not great—and went to law school, debuting in the marathon in 2011 to pay rent.
“I always thought if I could get on a level playing field with the other girls, I could be good,” she says about her 2:49 debut. “Good” was defined as dipping under 2:40.
Running for Marchant has always been about balance. “I’d been a student-athlete my entire life, so I didn’t know how to be a student without being an athlete,” she says. “I tried just to be the student and to go to the pub with my friends—be a ‘normal person.’ [But] I didn’t know how to handle my school workload without having the timeline of get up and run in the morning and run after class.”
But it was in 2012, after running a massive PR of 2:31:51 in the Rotterdam Marathon, that she really grabbed national attention after crying foul on Athletics Canada, the country’s governing body of sport. AC refused to let her and compatriot Krista DuChene compete in the 2012 Olympics despite the fact that both held times well under the Olympic “A” standard of 2:37:00. Marchant and DuChene weren’t under the AC standard of 2:29:55, which was designed to produce athletes that wouldn’t be merely decorative in international competition.
Marchant called them biased and unfair in legalese, but it did no good: AC refused, sending no female marathoners to the 2012 Olympics, and it further strained a distant relationship. “It didn’t make sense to me to have nobody line up to compete,” she says. “From the athletes’ standpoint, having that experience, lining up in 2012, who knows what that could have done for me in terms of my confidence later on. I wasn’t a fan of AC after that appeal.”
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But the most vulnerable Marchant has ever been was in the fall of 2013, just before her record-breaking run at the Toronto Marathon. She was coming off a poor performance months earlier, limping through the finish line of the 2013 IAAF World Championships Marathon. “If I crapped out at Toronto, OK, well then Rotterdam was a fluke, I have my law degree, I have my debt to pay off, my family expects me to be this lawyer, I guess I’m going to be a lawyer now,” she says. “But then I didn’t.”
Rotterdam wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t there in Toronto, where she broke the national record, and it isn’t now as Marchant approaches the 2014 Boston Marathon. After six weeks of training with Linden in Kenya—Marchant’s third trip in as many years—she’s fitter than she’s ever been. But though she remains a product of Canada and a resident of the U.S., she still occupies the No Man’s Land in between.
“If I do really well [in Boston], nobody in the U.S. is going to care—I’m just some random white girl who displaced the Americans,” she says. “I live very much like a professional athlete. The difference is, some days I have to get up and put on a pencil skirt and high heels and go to court.”