Upon learning Sunday that Alana Hadley had dropped out of the New York City Marathon, the many skeptics who have watched the Charlotte teen make her unorthodox way to professional-running stardom were no doubt thinking the same thing.
Here we go again.
Hadley has had extraordinary success since forgoing NCAA eligibility three years ago while a sophomore at Ardrey Kell High School. The highest of the highlights: a win at the 2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in a time – 2 hours, 38 minutes, 34 seconds – that made her the youngest qualifier for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.
But for a variety of reasons, since September 2013 she also has withdrawn from an alarming number of big races: four marathons and two half marathons. And by her own admission, one of those DNFs (as runners call them; it’s short-hand for “Did Not Finish”) is coloring the way her critics view the rest of them.
Let’s start with just a little bit of context, since this is a complicated story.
Hadley ran her first 5K at age 6. By age 13, she was running 55 miles a week. Now 18 and a freshman at UNC Charlotte, she logs weekly mileage of about 110 miles.
The only coach she’s ever known has been her father, Mark, who has spent years defending the choice to prescribe all those miles for a young girl; the choice to not let anyone else guide her; and – more recently – her decision to forgo a lucrative college scholarship, for what so far has amounted to about $10,000 in pro winnings.
The Indianapolis race was the biggest break of her young career, but New York City was to be her coming-out party. It boasted live coverage by ESPN2 as the world’s largest marathon, and a $705,000 prize purse as one of the richest.
With the country’s very best marathoners saving themselves for February’s Olympic Trials, Hadley had the fastest marathon time of any American woman entered in the race.
Also, Hadley’s youth made for good headlines, so ESPN.com, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, Runner’s World and of course the Charlotte Observer helped her grab them.
We’d later find out that, of the 50,235 people who started the New York City Marathon, she was the second-most popular runner being tracked via the race’s website – eclipsed only by Hollywood actor Ethan Hawke.
But on the other side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, just two miles into the course, Hadley felt her ankle pop. Ten miles in, she stopped to get it wrapped. And around Mile 15, she was pulled from the race due to what she said later was diagnosed as a muscle and tendon strain.
“The guy (in the medical tent), once he unwrapped my ankle and he looked at it ... he told me, ‘You’re either going to tear something or break something if you continue. I cannot allow you to finish,’ ” Hadley said during a phone interview Friday morning.
“I was like, ‘You don’t understand, I need to finish this race’ – because I knew what everyone else was going to be saying, with this being the third marathon this year that I didn’t finish.”
No-go. Just like that, she was 0 for 3 on the year: In February, she dropped out of 26.2 With Donna in Jacksonville, Fla., because of a strained Achilles tendon; in June, she withdrew from Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., due to illness.
These were particularly confounding outcomes because in September of 2014, she admitted on her Facebook page to dropping out of a half marathon in Virginia Beach – at the time her third DNF in 12 months – “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.
So, within an hour after she disqualified herself last Sunday, someone posted a comment on popular running message-board site LetsRun.com: “Received word Alana dropped out of NYC marathon...why does she always drop out?” The post generated nearly 300 replies, many of which were not very complimentary toward her or her father, to put it lightly.
Not surprisingly, all of this is a significant source of consternation for Hadley.
“Putting the video out there that I was having a tough time mentally with races, it makes people think that I’m not really getting hurt – that it’s not actually something physical,” she said. “They think I’m just making an excuse to hide the fact that I’m mentally having problems. ... So that’s really frustrating to me, because I don’t enjoy people not wanting to take my word for things and assuming that I’m lying to them and hiding what has actually happened.”
No, Hadley said, she’s not running too much. She virtually never gets injured in training, and in the two weeks before marathons, the amount of running she does drops sharply. (She and her father are closely examining pre-race and travel habits to identify possible triggers.)
She also said – with authority – that no, she doesn’t need a new coach.
“I know (my dad) is a good coach because he doesn’t think about things so one-dimensionally, he thinks about every single aspect of you and your life and running and what works best for you,” she said. “For anyone to suggest that he isn’t good enough would just set me off.”
But clearly something isn’t working. Either that, or Hadley has some of the worst luck of any elite professional runner.
And approaching quickly is another big test: February’s Olympic Trials in Los Angeles, where there’ll be more media, more hype, more skepticism and more pressure. Or, maybe not?
“Because this year has gone so terribly, I think a lot of people are going to have written me off as burnt- and washed-out, just because it has been over a year now since my last good marathon,” Hadley said. “So I think that actually means there’s going to be less pressure on me, because people aren’t going to be looking at me.”
She continued: “I want to be able to go into LA the strongest and fastest that I’ve ever been, have a redemption race, and prove to everyone: I had a crappy year, but I’ve fixed it. I know what I’m doing wrong. I know how to make myself stronger. I know what to do now. I want to prove that I am a marathoner, I belong here, and I’m not done.”
I wrote a story on Hadley for the Observer in 2010, and in the headline, we asked: “This seventh-grader can outrun most adults. But what will happen when she becomes one?
We don’t have an answer yet, but this seems pretty clear: She’ll keep running, and people will keep watching – whether they like what she’s doing or not.