For most practitioners, a law career is a proud professional end in itself. For Lanni Marchant, it’s merely a back-up plan for when her legs give out.
The 29-year-old from London, Ont., holds down a day job as a criminal defence counsel in Chattanooga, Tenn. She’s also the reigning Canadian record-holder in the women’s marathon — a crown she captured in October at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, running the race in two hours, 28 minutes [2:28:00] and breaking the previous Canadian record of 2:28:36, which had stood untouched for 28 years.
How Marchant manages to juggle the demands of her legal work, while also competing among the elite ranks of the world’s long-distance runners, is a marvel of self-discipline and a mystery only she can truly explain.
But this much is clear: while most young associates would be happy enough honing their skills, winning cases, and impressing their law firm bosses, Marchant views her law career as a kind of Plan B, something to fall back on — “to keep my brain busy,” as she puts it — when her legs finally tire and her body gets too worn out for running 42-kilometre races in under two-and-a-half hours. “Running is my priority,” Marchant says. “But there’s a time limit on being able to run at this level, and I’m well aware of that. So I really want to keep practising law because, well, that’s what I’m educated in. And I’ll need something to keep me busy for when I’m not training anymore.
“I think I’d stir the pot, get in trouble,” she laughs, “if I had all the free time in the world.”
Chrissy Mincy, Marchant’s fellow associate at Speek Webb Turner & Newkirk PLLC in Chattanooga, describes her Canadian colleague this way: “She’s a pint-sized, little package of ferocity,” says Mincy. “Imagine what she’ll be like in the courtroom, when she focuses 100 per cent on being an attorney.”
After finishing high school in Ontario, Marchant was lured to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on an athletics scholarship. After scooping up handfuls of both academic and running awards at UTC, Marchant attended law school at the University of Ottawa, and eventually picked up a dual law degree with Michigan State University.
Her connections in Tennessee convinced Marchant to write the bar exam there — scraping together the exam fees by doing run-a-thon fundraisers — and in 2011 she began practising full time with a job at the Chattanooga firm Davis & Hoss PC.
By this time, Marchant had set her sights on the 2012 London Olympics. Her firm agreed to let her work flexible hours while also pursuing her training. It worked for a while; she spent three months in early 2012 training at high altitude in Kenya, running alongside the world’s best, while also doing legal research and writing briefs on her laptop, and e-mailing the work back to Chattanooga.
The arrangement fell apart in April 2012 when, on the eve of her departure for the elite-level Rotterdam marathon, Davis & Hoss asked her to not get on the plane, but to choose instead between her running ambitions and her job at the firm. Marchant boarded her flight to Rotterdam, placed fifth in a world-class field with her personal best time of 2:31:51, and returned to Chattanooga as an unemployed lawyer.
Although her Rotterdam time was under the international Olympic qualifying standard for women’s marathon, it wasn’t fast enough for Canada’s much tougher qualifying standard of 2:29:55 — considered by Canadian sports bureaucrats the kind of time necessary for a podium finish in London.
Jilted out of her Olympic ambitions, Marchant used her legal skills to write a full-blown appeal to Athletics Canada, but the gatekeepers there refused to bend, insisting Marchant wasn’t a serious medal contender and therefore didn’t deserve a place on the team. Because of this standard, no Canadian women ran the marathon at the London Olympics.
Rather than lick her wounds and return to Canada, Marchant persevered in Chattanooga, eventually finding work with Speek and Webb, a small, boutique criminal defence shop whose partners — with full, daily court schedules — needed an associate who could handle occasional trial work, but also do research and write appellate briefs. The firm’s partners didn’t care whether Marchant filed the briefs from the office or from Japan, Kenya, or wherever she might be running — only that the work was done well and submitted on time.
“I’m very fortunate now,” says Marchant. “The firm I work for, they’re really flexible with me. If I have two workouts in one day, or sometimes three, they just understand that I’m going to be working from home that day. Sometimes I’ll go to court in the morning and handle what I need to handle, then I’ll take the afternoon and go home in between training sessions.”
Says Mincy: “It’s been a good fit for everybody. Lanni’s obviously very disciplined as a world-class marathoner, but she really applies that to tasks we provide her as well. I think it was key that everybody here knew she was focused on running. She filled a specialized need for a small firm like ours, and we filled her need to keep her foot in the door of the legal community.”
It also doesn’t hurt that some of the judges and district attorneys in the Chattanooga courts are amateur marathoners or triathletes themselves, many of whom enjoy rubbing shoulders and talking athletics with Marchant when they see her in the courthouse.
A year after being spurned from Canada’s Olympic team, she was invited to run the marathon for Canada at the 2013 world championships in Moscow. Soaring summer temperatures and oppressive humidity there forced dozens of world-class runners out of the race. But Marchant managed to limp across the finish line, in spite of severe cramping, which she coped with by repeatedly stabbing a safety pin into her contorted and cramping quad muscle. She followed up the Moscow event with her breakthrough triumph at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in October, placing third overall, behind two African runners, while breaking the Canadian women’s record. She also won the 2013 Canadian 10K road race championship.
Alan Brookes, race director of the Canada Running Series, which organizes the Toronto marathon, calls Marchant a “rock star” whose meteoric, three-year rise to the elite levels of the sport is nothing short of astounding. If she can maintain her speed, focus, and determination, and also stay healthy, he says she’ll be well placed for a trip to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
A Canadian woman has not run the marathon in the Olympic Games since 1996. Marchant hopes to end that 20-year drought — a tall order, she knows, especially with her legal career competing for time and attention with her running. On the other hand, she says the one ambition probably sustains the other.
“Being a lawyer, and being a runner — each requires discipline, preparation, and intensity,” she says. “I don’t think I’d be this focused as an athlete, if I didn’t have to be as focused in my professional life as well.”