Lanni Marchant’s run for gender equality

Lanni Marchant photographed in Trinity Bellwoods Park where she often trains.

Mostly dirty running shoes and mostly gold running medals – these are the first things you see when you walk up the stairs into Lanni Marchant’s stacked Toronto townhouse in the trendy Liberty Village neighbourhood.

But you’ll be mistaken if you assume that running is all that’s on Marchant’s mind. From afar, Marchant appears to be a walking contradiction. A diplomatic trial lawyer by day and an aggressive marathon runner by night. In between, she’s an unapologetic activist.

A record-holding, Canadian long-distance runner, she splits her time between Chattanooga, Tennessee and Toronto. With six siblings, her assertiveness became a survival technique from a young age.

She grew up in London, Ontario in a typical Canadian sports family. Her two brothers played hockey. The five girls figure skated, with their mother as their coach.

“She started bringing us to the arena because it was easier than wrangling us and sending us to a babysitter,” Marchant remembers.

“I was always getting in trouble in figure skating. I was an opposite foot jumper so you rotate clockwise and most of my jumps would take off and land on my left and the majority of the skating population was the opposite. So I was a little bit different and I always would get into trouble or stir the pot in some way,” she adds. “The punishment would be to go run laps around the parking lot at Jacob Hespeler arena in Cambridge. I got to where I liked the runs better.”

And there was an abundance of runs.

“We always had to do off-ice training to stay little and petite for skating. Like gymnastics, there are a lot of body image and eating disorder issues. There I was in elementary school in the trial run and I’m keeping up with guys who are 18 years old,” she said. “By Grade 10 I told my mom, ‘I think I want to run. I like skating, but I definitely like running better.”

To watch Marchant run is like watching a bat leave hell (if the saying is accurate). She’s a ball of kinetic energy shot out of a cannon. She attacks the course with an urgency you don’t often see in more stoic and pristine long-distance runners. Most middle-to-long distance runners have a grace to their stride as they glide by you. Marchant looks as if she’s simultaneously trying to break course records and her opponents’ wills.

Marchant is petite – five-foot-1 and 105 pounds, but her frame is highly tuned to maximize stride length. One foot in front of the other for as long as possible.

Lanni Marchant photographed in her home in Toronto, Ontario

Her biggest issue is that her body is often celebrated for its sex appeal rather than its efficiency. She moved away from a judged sport, only to find judgment in another. Her experience of having to tone down her sexiness while doing magazine shoots, while male athletes readily appear topless inspired her to write in her blog about the double standard.

Sadly, she says the sexist treatment bleeds into her profession as a lawyer.

“In court, I’m often called just “miss” not Miss Marchant not attorney Marchant,” she said.

“You wouldn’t think it matters but when I’m already a petite female and I’m representing my client and they are seeing my petite stature in there against a big, strong, tall guy in the room and I’m being called ‘Miss’ and he’s being called ‘Sir,’ even if the jury doesn’t necessarily pick up on it, I have a client who might think ‘I want an attorney I don’t want a secretary or a paralegal,’” she said.

“I promise you might be bigger than me, but my arguments might be louder and stronger.”

As she retells a story about a male fan wishing her well and a male training partner assuming the fan recognized her from the way she looks from behind, and not from her stride, she’s clearly annoyed.

Running gives her a platform to raise issues that she and other females face. Last October, she travelled to Ottawa to speak to the Canadian Women and Girls in Sport parliamentary committee about Canadian gender issues in sport. She was joined by boxer Mandy Bujold.

For Marchant, it was a dream come true.

“I have the ability to be well-spoken [and] not necessarily be very intimidated going in to that setting. I thought it was a perfect way to take the background that I have and advocate for the women in my sport and other sports who don’t have the same voice and might be too timid or just didn’t have the opportunities that I have.”

The message she hoped to convey – “don’t comment on my body, comment on my performance” – was received in Parliament but discredited by many online because of magazine covers she had done in the past wearing running singlets and baring skin.

The message she received was, “You are asking to be sexualized if you present yourself in a less than modest way.”

It was textbook victim blaming. All she wants is to be on equal footing as her male counterparts.

In the past, Marchant was sponsored by Asics and Saucony, two companies she suspects paid male athletes more than she was paid despite the fact she had a bigger profile.

“You’re not supposed to know about it but everybody talks,” she explains.

Since then, Marchant has signed on with Under Armour, making her the brand’s first professional runner in Canada. Marchant’s new deal with the brand, who intentionally looks for underdogs as their ambassadors, will see her sponsored through the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games but will also give her the ability to help craft gear that is catered to women – both physically and aesthetically.

It’s always bothered Marchant that sports bras are padded, sending subtle messages to women that they need to look sexy while working out. As we rifled through her training gear, she pointed out that just the ability to remove padding from a sports bra gives women another area where they have the right to chose.

She laments the fact that despite her results, she receives less funding now from the national program because of her age.

“In 2012, I was left off the Olympic team because I was too young and came out of nowhere. In 2016 I was almost too old for funding. I can’t help that the Olympics are every four years and I aged four years. Because I was a bit later coming to this level of sport I get compared to the girls that are 22. The assumption is I’m going to run out of time and flatline and not make it to the next Olympic games. Myself, Krista Duchene, Natash Wodak, we are all over 30 and none of us were funded for this next cycle.”

Lanni Marchant trains in Toronto, Ontario.

The first year in that cycle, 2017, has been a tough one. Her father, Roly, died just before the new year and she has dealt with an assortment of injures since including a kidney stone. The lack of consistent training culminated in a poor showing at the Canadian Track and Field Championships in the 5,000 metres, finishing 13th.

If she retired today she’d have a strong case for being labelled one of the greatest Canadian distance runners of all-time.

To go with a 1:10:47 in the half-marathon and 31:46.94 over 10,000m, her growing list of accolades includes a bronze medal at the 2015 Pan Am Games and a fourth-place finish at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

But she has not spent one second thinking about retirement. Her work is not done. On or off the track.

When you hear her talk about the goals she still hopes to accomplish, she talks more about changing minds then winning medals.

She is the Canadian record-holder in the marathon, and doubled in Rio, but that’s not the legacy she is trying to forge.

“I’m very proud to be an Olympian, It’s a huge goal. But we are going to have more Olympians. If that’s what I think is my contribution to sport, well it’s a club that is ever expanding,” she said.

“I don’t necessarily care to leave sport faster or with more accomplishments. Those are things that I did that’s not who I am. Adding to my list of accolades, that’s selfish. I want to add to the sporting world around me.”

Gold medalist Brenda Flores of Mexico, center, silver medalist Desiree Davila of the United States, right, and bronze medalist Lanni Marchant of Canada pose to photographers during the medal ceremony for the women's 10,000 meter run at the Pan Am Games Thursday, July 23, 2015, in Toronto.

Gold medalist Brenda Flores of Mexico, center, silver medalist Desiree Davila of the United States, right, and bronze medalist Lanni Marchant of Canada pose to photographers during the medal ceremony for the women’s 10,000 meter run at the Pan Am Games Thursday, July 23, 2015, in Toronto.