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'I was so tired of being in pain:' Runner Lanni Marchant's long road back from hip surgery

Canadian marathoner Lanni Marchant, who needed only two races in her comeback from hip surgery to remember how much fun it is to compete, is running pain-free for the first time in years and may attempt to reach the Olympic standard later this year.

Former Canadian-record holder may enter fall marathon with eye on 2020 Olympic return

Lanni Marchant, who formerly held Canadian records for women in the half marathon and marathon, has returned to competitive running following May 2018 surgery on her left hip to repair a torn labrum, bone spur and nerve impingement. (Submitted by Under Armour)

It's June 22, 2019 and Lanni Marchant, a seasoned runner and 2016 Olympian, is a bundle of nerves on the start line at the Toronto Pride and Remembrance Run. She also feels the nervous energy from others in the field.

Racing for only the second time since May 2018, Marchant accelerates for the opening 500 metres of the five-kilometre event rather than trying to outrun the field. Soon, she wages a battle with two local runners who attempt to test Marchant's surgically repaired left hip.

"We pushed each other and that was fun. They definitely kept me honest throughout the race," says Marchant, who spent the final 1.5 km trying to stay ahead of the two Toronto women and gain on leader and fellow Canadian marathoner Rachel Hannah. Marchant finished second, 15 seconds behind Hannah's winning time of 16 minutes 55 seconds.

"It felt great to be out there. I had no pain in my hip," says Marchant, who had surgery 14 months ago to repair a torn labrum, bone spur and nerve impingement. "Racing is hard but I forgot about how much fun it can be."

Marchant says her time of 17 minutes 10 seconds over 5K at last month’s Toronto Pride and Remembrance Run was “a pleasant surprise to myself, my coach and my rehab team.” (Submitted by Pride Run TO)

After speaking with "close to 15" sports medicine experts who missed a substantial injury from 2013 until her surgery, Marchant experienced a breakthrough in the winter of 2017 while attending a media event hosted by her sponsor Under Armour in Portland, Ore., where sport scientist Michael Watts noticed something was off with her gait.

'A pleasant surprise'

When initial testing determined Marchant's left foot didn't push off with power, doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota did gait analysis with nerve conduction and discovered her gait problems cleared when the hip was numbed.

"Getting that close to breaking 17 minutes [in Toronto] was a pleasant surprise for myself, my coach [Dave Mills] and my rehab team," says Marchant, who spent eight days in hospital in May 2017 with sepsis when an infectious cyst was ruptured during surgery to remove a kidney stone. "We're still dealing with some of the compensation [issues] and building my volume [in training].

"My legs were a little heavy the following day, but the following week was my highest mileage week since the summer of 2017 at 130K."

Marchant spoke to CBC Sports about everyday life post-surgery, how differently she treats her body these days and the possibility of competing at the Olympics next summer in Tokyo.

CBC Sports: Describe the first few weeks after your surgery on May 15, 2018?

Lanni Marchant: I was on crutches for three to four weeks and the first week or so you're pretty immobile. They get you up on a spin bike, but otherwise you don't put weight on the leg. Outside of spinning my legs with no resistance for 20 minutes a day, I was staying seated or lying down.

I was in a basement apartment at the time [in London, Ont.] with six or seven stairs to get into it, so I wasn't able to go outside for the first two weeks on my own. My roommate at the time would come home for lunch and take me for a walk like a puppy.

I did stem cell [treatment] so that required a little bit of extra time to make sure everything was healing properly. It was a while before I was bending at the waist on my own and having any kind of range of motion in the hip.

WATCH | Hip surgery vastly improves Lanni Marchant's quality of life:

Lanni Marchant is ready to run without pain

3 years ago
Duration 2:39
After recovering from a potentially career-ending injury, Lanni Marchant is ready to run again on the world's biggest stage.

'I had a really high pain tolerance'

CBC Sports: Have you wondered why something wasn't detected earlier to prevent surgery?

LM: There was a moment of frustration when I got the diagnosis. I knew all the pain I had been [experiencing], told doctors and it was missed. I don't think it should have been missed but … I've made my peace with the fact that everyone's responsible for their role in it and that includes me.

I had a really high pain tolerance but maybe I shouldn't have been pushing [my body] and understood discomfort from pain [since 2012 when I dealt with cramping in the left calf during competition and training]. It's a life lesson for me.

CBC Sports: Since the surgery, did you think about recovering fully and turning your focus to practising law rather than returning to competitive running?

LM: A little. Fixing the hip was about getting back my quality of life. I was so tired of being in pain and wanted to run pain-free, whether that meant going for a 10K run every day before work or getting back to 150K weeks and put a bid in for another Olympics.

I think every athlete going through a major injury wonders if it's worth it but I think I'd be more disappointed if I didn't try.

Marchant, who was known in recent years to put her head down and forge ahead despite discomfort in her left hip or calf, says she has learned the importance of rest. (Submitted by Under Armour)

CBC Sports: How do you treat your body nowadays and build it to be race-ready compared to two or three years ago?

LM: I'm a lot more patient. Coming from some bad eating patterns in my 20s, I thought I was fully recovered and doing everything I could do to treat my body well in my 30s, and I wasn't. I certainly wasn't fuelling adequately to accomplish what I wanted my body to accomplish.

I've learned the importance of rest. That doesn't mean if I'm tired I don't do a run. It means that sometimes the only workout for the day is to do a stretch and mobility and [having days when you don't run] doesn't make you any less tough as an athlete or a failure. It's been a very different mindset for somebody with Type A [personality] and go, go, go.

'It was hard being the hunted for so long'

CBC Sports: How determined are you to take back the Canadian half marathon and marathon records Rachel Cliff broke during your recovery from surgery?

LM: I was actually thrilled, especially when she got the marathon record, because now I'm just like any female marathoner in Canada chasing records and [national] teams. It was hard being the hunted for so long, I guess.

I still think I'm fully capable of running faster than I had before. I just appreciate it more. I wish I had celebrated a little bit more when I was setting records and making teams because you don't realize how easily [it can be taken from you].

CBC Sports: You're close with your mom who also runs 5K races. How important has it been to your recovery to live in the same city?

LM: Most of my family is here [in London] so it's been awesome to go around the corner and play with my nephews or go to my sister's and play with her two kids. Being home and near family has definitely made this part of my journey a lot more tolerable because it's still been a crappy period in my life.

CBC Sports: When will you have to decide if the 2020 Olympics is a realistic goal?

LM: We haven't picked a particular race or cut-off date to say we're not trying. We're going to try to do some longer races later in the summer and hopefully by August can say let's try a fall marathon, wait for one in early winter or go for a spring one. I want to make sure if we put a bid in that my body is ready to do it and do it well.

The qualifying window [for the marathon] doesn't close until May so it gives me a few options. I know how quickly I went from being a 2:44 girl at the end of 2011 to a 2:31 girl by April 2012.

I definitely didn't leave Rio [after the 2016 Olympics] feeling I had accomplished everything I ever wanted to do with my career. It's been a long road but I'm making chunks of progress now.

This is paid content produced on behalf of Under Armour. This is not CBC journalistic content.


Doug Harrison has covered the professional and amateur scene as a senior writer for CBC Sports since 2003. Previously, the Burlington, Ont., native covered the NHL and other leagues for Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc