You might think that setting Canadian records would be career-turning points for Lanni Marchant and Natasha Wodak.
Marchant broke Sylvia Ruegger’s 28-year-old marathon record in 2013, running in two hours, 28.00 minutes, while Wodak set a new 10,000-metre mark of 31 minutes, 41.59 seconds this past April at the Payton Jordan meet in California. Marchant ran 31:46.94 in the same race, wthin a hair of the previous national record.
But what happened on the streets of the Ottawa Race Weekend 10K -- a road distance not contested at the world track and field championships or Olympics -- was perhaps more telling.
On that morning in May, Marchant and Wodak chose to race with the powerful Kenyans.
“Natasha and I went out with the Kenyans,” Marchant recalls. “And I remember being in that race thinking ‘this is really cool.’ I don’t think I’ve ever seen Canadian women in distance events, just go.”
Both Wodak and Marchant dipped under the 32-minute barrier again in that race.
“We wanted to be competitive with the Africans and we both just went for it and hung on as long as we could,” said Marchant, 31, who is from London, Ont., and continues to train solo with her high school coach Dave Mills.
“You’re going to world championships, you’re going to Olympics -- you need to run with these girls,” said Wodak, 33, who trains with several of the country’s best male long distance runners at the B.C. endurance project, under coach Richard Lee in Vancouver.
“Even though there are many African runners that I’ll never be as fast as, you can’t be there unless you go for it,” Wodak added.
Marchant has learned a lot about ‘running with the Kenyans,’ and the discipline required to succeed at the highest level in her sport. Since 2013, she has regularly attended high-altitude training camps in Kenya’s Rift valley, home to the majority of the world’s best long distance runners.
These training camps have become a training destination for top North American runners, including Canada’s top male marathoner Reid Coolsaet.
Big strides for women’s distance program
It’s no longer about just making Team Canada. It’s about asserting yourself on the global stage. That means running for the medals at the Pan Am Games, where Marchant took bronze. Being competitive at worlds. And then the Olympics.
Marchant and Wodak will compete in the 10,000m at the world championships. Wodak plans to run that event at the Olympics as well. Marchant is undecided if she’ll do the 10,000m or the marathon in Rio.
Heading into the 2016 Olympics, Marchant and Wodak don’t have to worry about chasing standards -- they’ve already hit the qualifying mark in the 10,000m and Marchant simply needs to run a fall marathon in the ballpark of her personal best to secure a spot in that event, too.
It’s a far cry from where Canadian women’s distance running used to be. Just a few years ago, Athletics Canada cancelled the women’s 10,000m at its national championships due to a lack of entries. Now, there are five women running under 33 minutes, and two under 32.
Peter Eriksson, Canada’s head track and field coach, is impressed at the impact Marchant and Wodak are having on the elite women’s running scene.
“More women are going to see that you can actually come up to the level they are at,” he said. “I think they [show] others how good you can be. And that will encourage others to train harder to get there.”
Until Marchant’s triumphant day in Toronto in October of 2013, it seemed as though Ruegger’s marathon record might last another generation. High school girls were opting for shorter distances. Canadian universities weren’t providing competitive opportunities for women to run anything further than a five-kilometre cross-country race.
At the time, a senior Athletics Canada official lamented the lack of desire to run, and coach long distances among young girls.
“They’re being told it’s too far,” Alex Gardiner, former national team head coach, said in 2009.
But the performances of Marchant, Wodak -- and Krista Duchene of Brantford, Ont., who also ran under Ruegger’s record in Toronto -- seem to have flipped a switch, inspiring young girls and elite athletes to take the long distances seriously. “I think it’s a great sign for women’s running,” Ruegger said of losing her record.
Thanks to Marchant, Wodak and Duchene, Canada will be on the start line in both the women’s 10,000m and the marathon at the Rio Olympics.
Canada was absent from both of those races at the London Games, with a nasty court challenge finally going against Marchant and Duchene in their appeal to the get on the team. Both had made the international qualifying standard, but hadn’t satisfied the stricter criteria of Athletics Canada.
Rather than crushing Marchant’s spirit, it motivated her.
“I deserved to be [in London three years ago],” Marchant said. But she knew that to achieve her Olympic goal, she had to take her health and her training even more seriously.
“If I wanted to go and do it well, I had to come to terms with my eating demons,” said Marchant, who, in addition to track, has a background in figure skating. She knows both sports are riddled with eating disorders with cases of women starving themselves to stay thin and light.
“They weren’t built like me.” But she also knew that running more mileage -- 140 to 160 km per week in some stretches -- would keep her light and efficient, so skimping on calories would only lead to trouble.
Then, her marathon record came with a healthy $36,000 prize, allowing her to reduce her hours at the law firm she practises at.
Marchant is hitting her stride at the right time, in the final year of the Olympic cycle. And she’s pushing Wodak to reach further.
“[Lanni] is always is a little more confident than I am and it’s so helpful,” Wodak said, remembering some words of encouragement just before the Payton Jordan race.
“She said, ‘I think you will set the Canadian record this summer,’” Wodak recalls.
Wodak went on to have the best race of her life.
“I remember going through halfway [of the 10,000m] thinking when’s this going to get hard, when’s this going to get hard.
“With one mile to go, I looked over at [Marchant] and said, ‘we got this.’
Social media builds connection, inspiration
With great results, comes great responsibility, and neither woman avoids the spotlight. Marchant and Wodak are well known in the national running scene, and their camera-friendly bodies have been featured in shoe advertisements, magazine covers and social media. As elite road runners, they often lineup alongside tens of thousands of recreational runners and high school athletes building a connection between top athletes and the masses unique to the running world.
“When there’s a real crappy hairpin turn on the course, we all get to complain about it. So being on social media makes you more accessible and it humanizes me,” Marchant said.
Marchant and Wodak, who are the closest of friends, have an active social media presence. Wodak also writes a blog, “Life in the ‘Tash Lane,” chronicling her training as well as the highs and lows in her personal life.
“It’s a great way to get other people to know you without actually knowing you,” Wodak said with a laugh, joking that it annoys her boyfriend. “That’s kind of neat that I’m able to inspire other runners through Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And I love being able to go on social media and learn about other athletes and see where they are.”
They’ve been nicknamed the “Betty and Veronica” of Canadian road racing, and while they play up the drama for sponsors, there’s really no rivalry between these two friends. They’re always pulling for each other to succeed.
Although there’s no substitute for running with the Kenyans -- and the commitment that comes with that -- being an elite athlete is a well-rounded venture that is more than physical.
Don’t be surprised if that friend-to-friend support and 360-degree inspiration between them, plus the overall running community helps take them to greater achievements on the road to Rio.