At 5:30 a.m. on the campus at UNC Charlotte, it is dark and quiet.
Most of the school’s college students are asleep. But Alana Hadley has an 8 a.m. class, so she is already planning to sneak out of her dorm room and lace up her running shoes.
Hadley is 18 , a freshman and one of the best marathon runners in America. She will run in the elite women’s field at the New York City Marathon on Sunday morning. ESPN2, which will broadcast the race, plans to run a feature story about her during its telecast. Someday, perhaps in 2020 or 2024, Hadley hopes to represent the United States in the Olympics marathon.
The 5:30 a.m. wake-up call comes because Hadley wants to run 5 miles before that 8 a.m. class. Then she will run 10 more miles after her classes that afternoon – all at a pace of seven minutes per mile.
She calls that “one of my easy days.”
“I’m not a morning person,” she says, “so I don’t really want to get up at 5:30. But I also don’t drink coffee. So I need my run to wake me up enough to go to class.”
One of the best athletes on campus, Hadley plans to wear Charlotte 49ers gear during the New York City marathon as a shout-out to her new school. But you will never see her actually compete for Charlotte in a track or cross-country meet.
Hadley turned pro in 2013. She skipped out on a sure college scholarship to pursue her dream of running 26.2-mile races instead of the much shorter competitions that are standard in college. She and her family instead pay her way to college, helped by the approximately $10,000 she has made so far as a running professional.
It’s an unusual path that Hadley and the only coach she has ever had – her father – have staked out together.
Hadley never ran competitively for Charlotte’s Ardrey Kell High – although she would have been a star there. She will never run in college, either. While most elite runners her age first enjoy the camaraderie of several teams at various levels and eventually graduate from 5Ks and 10Ks to marathons in their late 20s, Hadley skipped all those steps to individually train for one of the most grueling races in sports.
She runs every day and logs about 110 miles every week – farther than the distance from Charlotte to Asheville. She does 13 separate runs each week, with her father/coach supervising the three most difficult training sessions. Alana – who is 5-foot-5 and 110 pounds – does the other 10 runs on her own.
“I’ve had people say, ‘It’s not too late! You could give back the money you’ve taken and run in college,’ ” Hadley says after a recent workout at the UNC Charlotte track (she uses the school’s track sometimes when the 49ers’ teams aren’t practicing). “There are always going to be those people who go against you, especially when you’re doing something outside of the norm, those people who say that’s not the way to do it. I like to say, ‘Just because it hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done.’ ”
Toughing it out
Hadley’s parents, Mark and Jennifer Hadley, were once part of the running establishment. Both are from North Carolina, but they didn’t meet until the 1980s while in college at Ole Miss, where they each ran competitively. Alana is the oldest of their three children.
They both continued running after college. By age 3, Alana was sometimes asking to go. At age 6, she ran in her first road race – tagging along in a 5-kilometer alongside her mother. At age 9, she set the North Carolina record for a 5K for her age group with a time of 21 minutes and 5 seconds.
By then, her father was formalizing her workouts. She has never had another coach. Once a financial analyst, Mark Hadley quit that job and became a full-time running coach several years ago.
“I’m making a fraction of what I did in the corporate world,” he says, “but enjoying it a heck of a lot more.”
As Alana became faster, her parents accompanied her on training runs on a bicycle. Both she and her parents are adamant that she was never pushed into running but instead kept asking for more runs, more mileage and more “festivals” (what she called road races when she was young because of their carnival atmosphere).
Her results were so good that people started noticing. The Observer first wrote about her when she was 9, in 2006. The New York Times featured her in a story in 2013, at age 16. Now comes the New York City Marathon, what she calls her “biggest race yet,” and its accompanying spotlight.
Why the marathon instead of shorter distances? Hadley says the race just fits her better.
“For my personality and then physically, the longer distances work really well for me,” she says. “I excel at endurance races. I’m just not a very aggressive person. So having to be aggressive in the shorter races – I struggle with that. I’m better at getting into a rhythm and being able to tough it out.”
The New York field includes a number of international female runners with better career times than Hadley, so it’s unlikely she will be in the top five. But it’s quite likely she will finish in the top 30 among about 25,000 female runners – and also among the top three Americans.
There have been critics every step of the way, and the Hadleys are quite aware of them. The critics ask, often online and anonymously: Isn’t she running too much? Isn’t she losing out on lifelong friendships by not running on a team in high school or college? Isn’t she going to burn out by the time she’s 22?
Says Mark Hadley, who laughs that he has been called a “terrible father” online more times than he can count: “Anytime somebody sees that the parent of a successful young athlete is also their coach, the ‘Little League Father’ or ‘Pageant Mom’ scenario comes up in their brain. A lot of times they naturally assume that’s the case unless you can prove it otherwise. And after awhile, you just get tired of trying to prove it and you just sort of do your thing.”
Trouble finishing races
Hadley’s dream of running marathons at a world-class level has been deferred several times. She has had trouble finishing races for the past two years. In 2014, she dropped out of one marathon because of injury and also quit during a half-marathon because, she admitted later, she was upset at how slowly she was running. That performance made Hadley realize she was being too much of a perfectionist.
“For a race now,” she says, “I have an A, B and C goal. When one goal doesn’t necessarily start happening, instead of freaking out and going, ‘Why isn’t this working?’ and mentally crashing again, you’ll have something else to focus on.”
But Hadley not only finished a marathon in Indianapolis in November 2014, she won the race in 2 hours, 38 minutes and 34 seconds. That victory ranked as the second-fastest marathon time ever posted by a U.S. high school girl and provided nearly half of the money she has won.
In 2015, Hadley has performed well in a few shorter races. But she has dropped out of both marathons she attempted – once because of injury (a strained Achilles tendon) in February, once because of illness in June.
Hadley is viewed nationally as an up-and-coming runner, albeit one on an unusual path. Deena Kastor, now 42 and still one of the best American marathoners around, starred for her California high school and then went to the University of Arkansas and was a standout there.
While Kastor has never met Hadley personally, she is familiar with both her story and her choice. Kastor lauds Hadley for finding “joy” in distance running at an early age.
“There is no safe path when we make big decisions,” Kastor says. “No matter our route in running, going pro or taking a scholarship, we are on a path of improvement and with that improvement comes forced growth from challenges and expectations. Our sport highlights progress, winning and finishing time, so no matter the circumstances we are measured by these; the most important factor, usually overlooked, is following the path that is desired and joyful in the moment.”
Adds Jill Geer, a spokesman for U.S. Track and Field, the sport’s governing body: “If you have a college track scholarship, you are going to race a lot, and the longest distance you are ever going to run is 10K (6.2 miles, or about a quarter of the marathon distance). If an athlete really wants to run marathons, college track may not be helpful to them.”
‘I belong here’
Hadley’s biggest goals are a few years down the road. For now, she is enjoying college and has found a group of academically minded friends in her honors dorm. She attends Charlotte 49ers football games. She wants to eventually go into occupational therapy. Inspired by her sister, Rose, who is autistic, she says she would like to focus that therapy on special-needs children.
As far as running, Hadley already knows she can’t compete in the 2016 Olympics no matter how well or poorly her next few months go. The U.S. Olympic Trials are in February in Los Angeles, and she has qualified to run.
But even if she did finish in the top three in L.A. to technically qualify for the Olympics – quite unlikely considering her current times – she is too young by eight days according to the Olympic rules (you must be 20 years old in the calendar year in which the Olympics are held to run the marathon).
Hadley will have several more Olympic cycles – most marathon runners peak in their late 20s and early 30s – to try to make the team.
But she still has major goals for that February marathon, which ultimately might be an even bigger race for her than New York.
“I want to see where I stand,” Hadley says. “I will be running against the best U.S. marathon women. My goal would be to get a Top 10. I want to kind of make my mark and say, ‘Hey, I’m here. I’ve made it. I belong here – and you better watch out.’ ”
Want to watch?
Alana Hadley will race among a field of about 50,000 runners at the New York City marathon Sunday. She will be among the field of about three dozen elite female runners who get to avoid the crowds and start the race early, at 9:20 a.m.
Hadley's goal is to finish with a time of 2 hours and 37 minutes, which would improve her personal best by 94 seconds. The race will be televised on ESPN2 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday.