True Grit: Lanni On Finding Her Edge
Lanni Marchant gets candid about women’s running, recovery and drawing strength from her peers.
The past few years haven’t been easy for Canada’s women’s marathon recordholder Lanni Marchant. Following a historic dual performance in both the 10,000m and marathon at the Rio Olympics, Marchant has faced an uphill battle with illness and injury. Thankfully, she’s found strength and support within the female elite running community on her road to recovery.
I would start this article with a quip along the lines of “phoning one your heroes is scarier than it sounds.” In fact, it is exactly as terrifying as it sounds. In the age of social media, our athletic heroes can seem even larger than life, like superhumans.
But social media wasn’t quite as big seven years ago, when I first began tracking Lanni Marchant’s career. There was less written or broadcast about Canada’s female elite runners at that time. As a teenager getting more serious about the sport, I recall having to actively search out women who were having success on the road and the track.
Coming from a family of lawyers, I latched onto Marchant, partially because I understood how crazy it was that someone could balance both a legal career and elite running, given the immense workload both require.
On the phone, Marchant sounds like the kind of lawyer you’d want: poised, thoughtful and articulate, but not afraid of dropping the occasional f-bomb. Given that the theme of this issue is “finding your edge,” the first thing I asked Marchant is what that phrase means to her.
“Find the one thing you have that makes you better than your competitors,” Marchant responded. “For me, in college, I was told that I wasn’t super talented, just super stubborn. Rather than getting upset, I just kind of adopted that as my mindset. I refuse to give up when things get hard.”
What Marchant refers to as her stubbornness manifested at an early age. In fact, it’s what led her to running in the first place.
“I was a figure skater when I was younger. I guess I didn’t have any talent for that,” says Marchant with a laugh. “My sisters were always better, and I was always a bit more rebellious. The punishment for perceived infractions at skating practice were laps around the parking lot – I turned that punishment into a career.”
Marchant began taking running more seriously in high school, when she joined her local club, the London Western Track and Field Club, where she began working with Dave Mills, who still coaches her today. Marchant says running was a means to an end – a way for a girl from a family without much to get a scholarship to university. She received one from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Marchant describes her collegiate career as “OK” and characterized by the elements of the sport that no one likes to talk about, such as the pressure to be thin and the cycle of perpetual injury.
“It seemed like every year, I would break, mentally and physically, and then I’d go home for the summer, and Dave would have to put me back together,” Marchant says. While Marchant’s experience happened in the ncaa, she knows it isn’t distinctly American, but something that occurs at Canadian schools as well. “One girl gets a bit skinny and runs fast, then another, then another. And the coaches either encourage it or turn a blind eye. Meanwhile, we’re f*cking up our endocrine systems and bone health,” Marchant says.
I mention that in my own brief, injury-ending university running experience, it was a sort of an unspoken norm that few of us were having normal menstrual cycles. And when it was talked about, it was considered a normal sign of “training hard.” “My mindset back then used to be ‘if you get one period, you’re slipping. Two in a row, you’re getting fat.’ It’s only now when I’m old that I realize how messed up that was,” Marchant says. “Now I try and make sure that I talk openly about reproductive and bone health in front of my nieces, in front of girls at track meets and, hell, clearly even with strangers over the phone!”
We chuckle somewhat darkly about the fact that Stacy T. Sims’ book, Roar, which argues that coaches need to acknowledge that female athletes are “not small men,” was only published in 2016, yet treating women like small men and ignoring differences in our physiology is the modus operandi for many coaches.
Marchant reminds me that the women’s marathon is, in fact , t he same age as she is. “It seems like a long t ime to us because our generation is the one doing it, but my grandma was only allowed to run one lap on the track. They’re just now adding a women’s 50k race walk to the Olympics.”
Several years ago, when I was still in undergrad, the cis (now U Sports) went through a half-hearted attempt to pose the question whether the male and female cross country distances should be made equal. Currently, the women run 6k and the men run 8k or 10k. Acting as a notetaker at a coaches’ meeting, I was shocked to hear comments along the lines of “No one wants to stick around and watch the girls run another 2k.”
Marchant sympathizes, but isn’t surprised. She’s been
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