“I was done, I didn’t find joy in running anymore and wanted to get myself put back together. Something that my dad had shown me, a love that we shared together was utterly destroyed by a bunch of people who use their free time to destroy people and tear them down...”
These are the words of Alana Hadley, in a blog post on Jan. 20.
At one time, Hadley was the talk of the local running community because she was so darn young, so darn fast – and because her training was so darn unorthodox for a kid her age: By age 13, she was logging an average of 55 miles a week, winning races, rarely taking a day off, and being coached by her father, Mark Hadley.
She had just turned 13, in fact, when I first met her back in 2010, for a front-page Observer profile. She was still playing with Legos, still keeping dolls on a shelf in her pink bedroom, still watching “Dora the Explorer” with her then-5-year-old sister – and also beating almost every adult she lined up against in local 5Ks.
Already, there was skepticism. Most was some variation of this:
“When a kid has a special talent, it’s really difficult for parents to back off and to keep the right perspective because they want to push and push, and make sure their kid gets the most out of that talent,” Greg Dale, director of sports psychology and leadership programs at Duke Athletics in Durham, told me at the time. “We’ve seen many times where athletes burn out and don’t do well, and get injured, and are washed up as a result of parents pushing them way too hard.”
Of course, much of the feedback the family was getting via the Internet – not surprisingly – was far less civil. As awareness of her talent spread, anonymous posters on running-related websites such as LetsRun.com slammed what was perceived as helicopter parenting/coaching. Mark Hadley would often fire back defensively, which just seemed to add fuel to the fire.
That was back near the beginning. By the time she was a sophomore at Ardrey Kell High School, in 2012, Alana Hadley was running 95-100 miles per week. (At the time, four-time Olympic distance runner Bernard Lagat tweeted, “Alana, that’s high. U r doing 20-25 mi more than me.”) That same year, she won the Dasani Myrtle Beach Half Marathon in a course-record time of 1 hour, 16 minutes, 41 seconds.
She never ran for her high school, by the way, instead doing much of her training solo, or with her father biking alongside.
Hadley also forwent the opportunity to earn a full Division I athletic scholarship, which with her talent would have been a virtual sure thing.
In an interview with espnW.com in 2015, she explained: “I turned down prize money because I ... wanted to save that eligibility. Eventually, I was starting to turn down, like, $500 – decent amounts of money. I started thinking about it and was like, I enjoy the longer distances. I’m not going to enjoy racing 5Ks every week during college because 5K seems really short for me. I run because I enjoy it. I don’t want to be stuck having to race something that I don’t enjoy. So it made more sense to keep training for marathons rather than run for college. I figured I will use my prize money – doing the races that I actually enjoy doing – to pay for college.”
For awhile, Hadley successfully proved her doubters wrong. In 2013, at age 16, she finished fourth at the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon (in 2:41:55) to become the second-youngest female to ever qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Then in 2014, at 17, she came back and won the Indianapolis marathon, setting a new course record for women along the way.
But cracks were forming beneath the surface.
Between September 2013 and February 2016, with her father coaching her full-time, she withdrew from an alarming number of big races: two half marathons and five marathons.
In September of 2014, she admitted on her Facebook page to dropping out of a half marathon in Virginia Beach “more from personal disappointment of not being in a situation to run a fast time than any real physical issue.” She also created a video diary in which she opened up about her challenges with mental toughness.
But the slide continued. In November 2015, she entered the New York City Marathon as the youngest female elite runner ever to toe the start line amid deafening media buzz – she was the second-most popular runner being tracked via the race’s website, eclipsed only by Hollywood actor Ethan Hawke – but left the race around Mile 15 due to an injury, she’d said at the time.
In the comments section of a column I wrote on Nov. 6, 2015, titled “Why does Alana Hadley keep dropping out of races?,” a reader wrote: “Her coach is not doing her any good, as she has plateaued in pretty much every distance for years now. YEARS. Not to mention the mental aspect of training that he proposes and/or shares with her. They seem to believe she is the future of american marathoning. There’s absolutely no indication of that, no matter how delusional you are.”
Three months later, Hadley withdrew from the Olympic Trials race midway through due to heat exhaustion.
Then last June, she penned a blog post that said, “I’m going to just come out and say I am currently dealing with anxiety in my running and losing confidence in myself. The stress of following my own passion for longer distances and having people constantly wish for me to fail made me doubt I was actually cut out to run marathons.”
She hasn’t run one since.
So where do things stand now? Alana Hadley just turned 20. She’s a sophomore at UNC Charlotte, studying exercise science. She doesn’t have an athletic scholarship; she works as a server at Dave & Buster’s at Concord Mills to help pay for her education. Her parents recently moved to Oregon.
Look, there’s a TON to unpack here. A ton of questions. What if her dad had given the reins to someone else? What if she’d run with her team in high school? What if she’d declined prize money and gone for a college scholarship? How much did she really love running? Did her parents push too hard? (I’ve spoken to her multiple times and read many interviews with her; she’s always maintained running was her love and her choice.)
I don’t have any of those answers. And neither do you.
Here’s what we do know: Naysayers predicted this outcome for years. They’re saying she blew it, or dad blew it, or the family blew it. They’re saying “I told you so.”
Except this doesn’t feel like a time to say “I told you so.” This feels like an opportunity to reflect on meanness, on negativity, on being judgmental.
In our sound-bite-driven, 140-characters-at-a-time world, where even the president of our country is praised (by some) for pithy put-downs, we feel free to throw our judgments – however vitriolic – in other people’s faces. Often in the faces of people we don’t even really know.
And while it’s not always dramatic or tragic, there can be a human cost. A personal example: Last month, I reviewed a concert and compared a singer’s voice to a “dying cat.” Good for a laugh, I thought. Well, his wife wrote me a respectful message in which she basically asked me to think before criticizing. I took it to heart.
Her letter popped into my mind over the weekend as I read these words from Alana Hadley:
“I’ve hit as low as I can go and all I can do is go up from here. I refuse to let people bully me and talk bad about my parents any longer. It will be a long journey for me to get back into the shape I was in before but I am stronger mentally than I’ve been before with this new attitude. I’m tired of being broken and I’m tired of hating something I used to love all because of some jerks on the internet who think it’s okay to tear people apart and crush their dreams, all because they fear change and people who think outside the box.”
It’s all awfully sad. To consider that she might have lost her love for the thing she loved more than almost anything not because of overbearing parents, but because of overbearing criticism. I’m not saying I know for a fact that her parents aren’t overbearing (it’s not an accusation – once again, it’s “I don’t know,” just like you don’t know), but I know for a fact that the criticism was overbearing.
But there’s still hope here. A new chapter is beginning. She’s an adult now. She now gets to succeed and fail on her own merits, based on her own decisions. I asked her if I could interview her for this column (I used to route requests through her dad), but she declined – saying she felt she’d said everything she wanted to in her blog.
The last paragraph of that recent entry reads: “I’m getting back into running and I’m honestly not sure where it will take me, if I’ll go back to marathons or just stick with some shorter races. I just want to go back to that time when I was excited to go to the track with my dad and have long chats with my mom on long runs. While my parents maybe in Oregon now and I’m still in Charlotte I can’t wait to go home over spring break and once again share with them the joy of running in which they showed me all those years ago.”
In other words, she’s ready to start from scratch, with a more positive outlook.
Perhaps – when it comes to our preconceived notions about her and her running – we should all do the same.