As a 3-year-old, Alana Hadley begged to join her father on his runs through their Charlotte, N.C.-area. When he relented, thinking she would give out and he would have to carry her home, he was surprised to hear her giggling as they completed the mile run.
At 9, Hadley decided to “get serious” about becoming a marathon runner.
And now, at 17, the Ardrey Kell (Charlotte, N.C.) senior is preparing for her fourth marathon — and already has run a time that qualifies her for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, the second youngest female to qualify and the youngest since 1984.
Hadley, who turned pro last year, says it’s hard for some of her high school classmates to understand her pursuit, which includes awaking at 5 a.m. for the first of her two-a-day 5-mile runs she does six times a week and a long run on Sundays.
“What they hear is a 17-year-old running over 100 miles a week. They think I’m insane and that I’m going to hurt myself,” she said. “But don’t look at me as a 17-year-old. Look at the fact that I’ve been running for 11 years.”
There is another motivation as well, particularly as Hadley prepares for Saturday’s Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, where last year she placed fourth overall with a Trials-qualifying time of 2:41:55. Her goal is to break the 2:39.22 women’s course record set last year by four-time Olympian Colleen De Reuck.
The $1,000 bonus for attaining a U.S. Olympic Trials qualifying mark of 2:43:00 is a dangling carrot. Hadley wants the money. But not for material purposes. Her 10-year-old sister, Rose, is autistic. So Hadley would donate 25% of the bonus to the Autism Society of Indiana, and the race would match the amount.
“I want to use the fame that I hope to acquire through running as a platform to make people more aware of autism.” -Alana Hadley
“What is surprisingly unique about Alana is her maturity and compassion for others,” said Blake Boldon, the executive director for the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon. “Even at her young age she understands that elite athletes serve as role models.”
When Hadley announced she was turning pro last year, she forfeited her eligibility to compete in collegiate athletics. She’s confident she made the right decision and doesn’t feel robbed of the experience.
She hopes to found a charity and build therapy centers for children with autism. She even has a name for her future organization, Alana’s Hope for Autism. But she needs a lot more funding first, and she intends to acquire it by running professionally.
“I want to use the fame that I hope to acquire through running as a platform to make people more aware of autism,” she said.
Mental toughness the challenge
A list of the last year’s world fastest marathon times for women is taped to Hadley’s pink bedroom wall. Rita Jeptoo of Kenya is first at 2:19:57. Hadley hopes to rank among the top times in the near future. Indianapolis gives her a shot.
“I can’t wait to go back,” she said of this weekend’s race.
She’ll miss a day of school but says she’ll do homework during race weekend so she doesn’t fall behind in AP calculus: “It can be stressful if I miss school, but bringing work along also helps occupy my mind.”
The Indianapolis Monumental Marathon will perhaps be more of a mental than physical test. Hadley said she has struggled with confidence since she dropped out of the Virginia Beach Rock ’n Roll Half Marathon in August. She has been working on managing her nerves during training runs since.
“I blanked in my mind,” she said of her race performance. “I brought myself down during the race to the point where I just mentally gave up.”
She intimately disclosed her frustrations to a GoPro camera as part of an ongoing video diary series posted on flotrack.org. The video entry has been viewed more than 11,000 times.
Hadley said she feels the pressure to succeed the more she achieves — and it becomes increasingly intense when she doesn’t meet her goals.
She is conscientious about the need to be mentally tough, especially if she wants to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and potentially other Olympics. “Quick and light,” she constantly tells herself.
Sometimes when Hadley runs she crosses her fingers, as during her three-mile repeat workout, finishing the sets in 17:30, 17:41 and 17:50, a 5:50 per mile pace. Her times, when converted to 5Ks, would have placed her in the top five of last year’s North Carolina 4A state cross country championships — the winner, Kayla Montgomery of Tabor High (Winston-Salem, N.C.), clocked 17:29.
“Don’t look at me as a 17-year-old. Look at the fact that I’ve been running for 11 years.” -Alana Hadley
“From an individual standpoint she would have had many accolades at the state, regional and conference levels,” said Ardrey Kell cross country coach Brian Zelk. “Any time you have a talent like her, it’s obviously going to better your chances of being successful as a team. As to how successful, we’ll never know because she never got to run for us.”
Zelk and Hadley’s father, Mark, who has coached her since she was 6, had discussed whether she should participate on the high school cross country team before her freshman year. In the end, Hadley chose not to, deciding it wouldn’t give her much of an advantage as she was set on running longer distances.
“Our kids have been nothing but happy for her,” Zelk said. “I think everybody’s reaction for Alana over the past few years has been impressed by her accomplishments and ability at such a young age.”
Adds her father, who has completed five marathons: “I should write a book about the emails I get. Everybody assumes that I’m a big supporter of kids running marathons. I’m not. Alana is an incredibly rare situation where she happened to develop to a point where she was ready to run marathons at a young age.”
Adds marathon Olympic bronze medalist and American record holder Deena Kastor, “It is so impressive that Alana has the physical maturity and the mental fortitude to do so well in the marathon distance. Most distance runners take years to develop the strength to compete well in the marathon.
“Alana has inspired the running world with her tenacity and her performances at such a young age. We shouldn’t be anything but impressed to see her take to the distance with such grace and excitement.”
No pressure from parents
While Hadley played soccer in kindergarten and swam in third grade, she said she wasn’t good at either sport and didn’t find them as fulfilling as running. The oldest of three siblings, she said she initially enjoyed running for the one-on-one time with her parents. Now, running is her stress relief and a way to escape from her busy life.
Hadley ran her first 5K, the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, when she was 6. She finished in 29:13, on a 9:25 per mile pace. At one point during the race her shoe was knocked off after an adult stepped on her foot.
But what she remembers most about the race was Jake Delhomme, then the Carolina Panthers quarterback, who was the official race starter. Hadley was mesmerized by the atmosphere, which she compared to a festival.
What felt like “a fun thing to do on the weekend” eventually became a way to relax and unwind. These days she runs up to 110 miles a week. Most of the time her father rides his bike alongside her, prepared to hand her a water bottle when necessary.
“I’ve never found a conflict,” he said of the father-coach role. “Maybe I’m not as hard on her as another coach might be.”
But Hadley is self-motivated. She said her parents haven’t pressured her pursuit.
“My parents constantly asked and let me know that if I wanted to stop at any time, I could,” Hadley said. “They wanted to make sure what I was doing made me happy and what I wanted to do.
“When I’m out doing a long run, I get locked in and feel like I could go forever. It’s nice and peaceful.”
Inspiration for girls
Hadley rotates three pairs of Mizuno running shoes depending on the workout. She said her feet are sensitive and she feels the brunt of the pounding if she doesn’t have enough cushioning. She gets new shoes every three months and donates her old shoes to the Good Samaritan Society.
She said it’s “weird” to be in the spotlight: “But I’ve gone with it.”
She doesn’t go on message boards. She doesn’t want to know what people say about her — nor does she care.
“There’s always going to be a naysayer,” Hadley said. “It doesn’t matter what people think. This is my choice. It’s not theirs.”
At 13, Hadley was given the choice to run in the New York Mini 10K, hosted by New York Road Runners and the first race invitation she received. The race included 11 Olympians, including Kara Goucher and women’s marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe.
Hadley crossed the line with a personal best time of 37:31 and placed 33rd overall. She recalled being overwhelmed and in awe of the experience and being around professional runners. The feeling of “being on top of the world” is one she hopes to inspire in young athletes as she works to achieve her professional and personal goals.
“Right now in the U.S. there is an extraordinary wave of young talent in women’s running, but that alone won’t benefit the sport,” Boldon said. “Alana’s personal attributes uniquely position her as an influencer in the industry because she understands how to connect with the broader community and create an engaged audience.
“Alana has the potential to inspire young girls to follow their Olympic dreams, like young boys have for generations.”