Marchant enters Boston in-between
Lawyer, Canadian record holder not embraced by home or adopted countries
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, but before she reached that day Marchant became the best women's Canadian distance runner in history. On 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 women's marathon record at Toronto, running 2:28:00. After spending six weeks in Kenya this winter training with top American Desiree Linden, Marchant set the Canadian record in the half-marathon, running 1:10:47 in Nashville in March.
Canada, where she's a citizen, should have put her face on a stamp. The U.S., where she lives, could have thrown her a parade. Instead, Marchant enters her 30s as a woman without a country.
There are a number of reasons Canada has difficulty embracing its best distance runner. Part of it is because Marchant has lived mostly in the U.S. since college.
Another reason is that she's been openly critical of Athletics Canada, her country's governing body of sport. Finally, Canadian running fans have no need for Marchant because she has no need for them or for running itself. After all, her job is to be a lawyer, not a runner.
Though it's happened for years with their best athletes, Canadians still turn sour on prep runners who are wooed from the motherland by 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 in Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, for the University of Wisconsin. There, Bairu won multiple NCAA titles before 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 chose the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and more or less disappeared into the NCAA system, spending much of her five-year career on crutches. She finished college running around 34 minutes in the 10K -- good but not great -- and then went to law school, taking up marathons in 2011 to help 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 time. "Good" was defined as dipping under 2:40.
Running has always been about balance for Marchant.
In 2012, after shattering her personal record with a 2:31:51 in the Rotterdam Marathon, she really grabbed national attention after crying foul on Athletics Canada. The governing body 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. But Marchant and DuChene weren't under the Athletics Canada standard of 2:29:55, which was designed to produce athletes who would be competitive and more than mere participants in international competition.
Marchant used legalese to call Athletics Canada biased and unfair, but it did no good. Canada sent no female marathoners to the 2012 Olympics, and AC further strained an already 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."
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, nor was Toronto, and nor is her upcoming start in Boston. After training with Linden -- Marchant's third trip to Kenya in as many years -- Marchant is more fit than ever, but she still occupies a no man's land of sorts between her home country and her adopted country.
"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."