Alana Hadley Is Racing Ahead

Alana Hadley, who turns twelve in January, is clocking some of the fastest cross-country times in the country, leaving the local running community spellbound by her success but worried about her future 

 

 

 

Five women and Alana Hadley separate from the pack of runners. It's early May, and thank God it's a night race. The early summer's heat still rises from the asphalt, meeting the racers' shoes.

The last mile of the Twilight 5K comes into view, and everything quickens: the racers' breathing, the swing of their arms, the cadence of running shoes slapping the pavement. Alana glances over at her father running beside her. "You're in the top three," he tells her between measured breaths. Behind the tinted lenses of her glasses she sets her gaze and pushes forward. Father and daughter cross the finish line at the same time.

Twenty seconds ahead of them an exhausted man finishes. Hands on head, he looks around. "Did I beat her? Did I beat the eleven-year-old?"

Alana looks at her time: 18:39 — a respectable time for any runner. The only woman to beat her is Megan Hepp, a twenty-six-year-old Charlotte marathoner who finished twelfth at the Olympic marathon trials just days before.

Of the women in the top six, former college standouts abound. Their average age, not including Alana: twenty-eight. Alana, on the other hand, at four-foot-ten and seventy-five pounds, is ready for a summer break before starting middle school.
"I can't keep from smiling after races," Alana says. She knows she's competing beyond her years. "It feels so good to be doing this well at this age." Running is fun, but the success is sweet.

For the past three years, Kimberly Spano, a senior at North Mecklenburg, has dominated North Carolina high school cross country, winning three state championships in the 5K races. In November she won with a time of 18:04. In early June, Alana crossed the finish line of the King Tiger 5K with a time of 18:14 (only thirty seconds off the national record for an eleven-year-old female). The races and conditions were different for sure, but the disproportion of their times and age are jaw dropping. Alana's future reign over North Carolina's high school long-distance running seems inevitable.

Our nation loves young athletic phenoms. They carry the excitement of success now, and the enticement of even more success in the future. But we have learned that success never comes in such neat, simple packages, and talent must be weighed against the many years awaiting the young athlete. Those uncertain years ahead have conditioned us to foresee the fall. Yet our attention lingers because of "the chance," the possibility that this one could be the next future star.

Alana's running dreams don't stop at the North Carolina border. Visions of future Olympics run through her mind. And as she runs each race faster and faster, the Charlotte running community takes more notice. Yet along with the hope of seeing America's next great runner flourish comes uncertainty. No one knows what's going to happen to Alana Hadley.

Alana unbuckles her seatbelt and climbs out of the back seat of her dad's sedan. Outside the car her head doesn't reach the top of the door. She and Mark start walking toward the trail. It's Monday, the easiest day of Alana's seven-days-a-week training schedule. She only takes a day off on the eve of a race.

They shake out their legs and begin some dynamic stretching: butt kicks, high knees, lunges, things runners do. Then they're off for an easy four-mile run at McMullen Creek Park. Alana's form looks like that of a seasoned runner: solid arm movement, pivoting at the shoulders, and a long stride even for her short legs. Her petite frame moves effortlessly. She looks like someone who's done it all her life — which is almost the truth.

Alana's been watching the Olympics. She rattles off her favorite runners: North Carolinian Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, and marathoner Deena Kastor. She talks about them the way most kids discuss NBA or NFL stars. "I like them the most. They always put their best effort in," she says as her legs start to move a little faster. Dad and daughter keep time on synchronized watches, but they really don't need to. They can feel the pace. Mark, who retains the same athletic build from his collegiate running days, senses it quickening. "Alana, let's slow it down," he says. They ease up, but only another trained runner could tell.

"When I start talking I start running faster," she grins, her brunette ponytail bouncing up and down.

"I never have to tell her to go faster, but I'm constantly having to tell her to slow down," says Mark, who looks a little like Mr. Clean with a short-trimmed, red beard. They share a glance and a smile. It's training, but also family time.

"Usually a coach won't have this close of a relationship with a runner," says Mark. "They won't know all the tendencies of the individual. By being her parent I know her well, her personality and motivations." Mark gets to see what most coaches don't: the full person. Behind the child-size Under Armor running clothes and size seven and a half Asics, he sees his daughter. He and his wife, Jennifer, see a girl who loves to run—counts-down-the-hours loves to run — but they also see a girl who gets wrapped up in The Chronicles of Narnia, a girl who takes care of her eight-year-old brother and four-year-old sister, a Girl Scout who one day wants to be a veterinarian, and a daughter who says her prayers before going to sleep.

"Running is such a small part of who Alana is," says Jennifer, Alana's mom and Girl Scout leader. Mom sees Alana as the world's greatest big sister before she sees Alana as one of North Carolina's fastest female 5K runners.

Everything about Alana seems beyond her years. She talks about her running being a "release." And when asked why she pushes herself so hard she replies that she knows it brings glory to God. It's as if Chariots of Fire has been instilled in her.

But there is no denying it. Alana is fast. Very fast. And she's been fast almost since the first day she put on a pair of running shoes. At age nine, she broke the state 5K record in her age group with a time of 21:07.

It can be difficult to be a prodigy and a little girl, but the Hadleys approach that relationship the best they can to provide balance. Mark, who holds a coaching license for long-distance running, says having dad as coach helps. "I can make sure that what she is doing running wise is not overly interfering with what she wants to do as a little kid."

Alana has had to decide between time with friends or time out on the track, but she understands that to be part of the cost, and she doesn't regret it. She looks forward to each run, each day. The running has become a part of who she is. The night before her hard workouts she almost squeaks with anticipation, "We're doing 800s tomorrow. I love 800s!" Hearing an eleven-year-old beam about 800-meter runs never sounded so normal.

Alana seemed destined for a pair of running shoes. Jennifer and Mark Hadley met and fell in love at Ole Miss, where they were both on track scholarships. Jennifer's running career began at West Mecklenburg High School, where she was conference champion and all-state. Mark, a fellow North Carolinian, placed second in the 1A-2A state championship his senior year in both cross country and track. On athletic scholarship at Ole Miss he placed second in the Mississippi Intercollegiate Cross Country Championships his junior year. While there, he set a 5K personal record (PR) of 15:06. That's almost like sprinting for fifteen minutes straight.

Alana tried soccer and swimming, but running trumped all. It took hold at six. Most kids run to stay in shape for their main ball sports — those other sports you "play." Megan Hepp, Charlotte's top female long-distance runner, didn't start running seriously until late in high school, and then only to keep in shape for soccer. For most kids, running feels like a punishment or a chore.

At three years old, Alana watched every day as her father went out in the evening to train for a marathon. One day she piped up, "Can I go with you?" Mom and Dad looked at each other. Why not? They thought she would only make it a few steps. She made it a mile.

At six she ran her first 5K, and she did it well, running it in twenty-nine minutes. "I was surprised she could run three miles," says Mark, "let alone in twenty-nine minutes."

That time has been shaved considerably due to Alana's talent and passion for running, but also due to what many would consider a grueling training schedule—particularly at her age. Now in her fifth year of running, she puts in forty miles of training per week. It's a number difficult to swallow, even for the inner running circle of Charlotte. This elite enclave of runners has been hypnotized by and critical of Alana's success all at the same time.

In Charlotte, saying you've run a 5K is much like saying you eat cereal. Everyone does it. In the midst of this, there is an enclave of elite runners, the ones there for more than a free T-shirt and Powerade lanyard.

Being a top long-distance runner in Charlotte sometimes means living a double life. You go to work, you meet deadlines, you get the rare after-work drink with coworkers. But beyond that your life is running. It determines your sleep, the fuel you put in your body, even your friends.

Several groups of men and women, sponsored by Charlotte's running stores, all find time during the week to go in search of their runners' highs. They gather in groups at 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday for ten-mile runs, or at 6 a.m. on Saturday for twelve-mile runs. At 5:30 a.m. on a ten-mile run, a lot of room exists for conversation. It tends toward inner group relationships (though they get hard to keep track of), what happened on Grey's Anatomy, how they think an upcoming race will run, but "it always comes back to Alana," says Kelly Fillnow.

Fillnow, twenty-five, who ran on a Duke cross-country team that ranked first in the nation during the 2005 season and finished third at nationals, lives the double life like many other elite runners. She works, and she puts in more than sixty miles a week on her thin, muscular frame. Lean and cut, she routinely finishes her 5Ks in just over eighteen minutes. Other racers comment on her focused countenance during races. She's a runner other runners want to be.

Still, Fillnow, like most other top runners in Charlotte, is right in the thick of the predawn conversation about Alana. "Everyone in the running circle talks about her," she says. "She's eleven, and her times are just ridiculous."

In a way, the reaction of Charlotte's elite runners mirrors that of everyone else who has heard of Alana: a "WOW!" followed by a more concerned "oh, wow," the latter focusing on Alana's potential. But Charlotte runners also react to Alana as a fellow competitor. In a year, Alana has cut almost two minutes off her time. She has begun to top veteran runners in 5K road races. Place is not everything, but finishing behind an eleven-year-old can play with your mind a bit.

Coming off the Boston Marathon, Fillnow ran a slower-than-usual time and lost to Alana early in the summer. After that she faced a solid amount of teasing from other people in the running community. "My whole motivation in the next race," she says, "was simply to beat Alana." (Which she did, she says, by seventy-five seconds.)

When other runners—especially the ones Alana's beaten — talk about her it comes out as admiration and denunciation all at once. They recognize her amazing times, yet can't help but feel that somewhere around the corner pitfalls await. Providence Day Cross Country coach Ben Hovis explains, "It's not what people want, it's just what they foresee. Everyone is just kind of waiting. It's just not usual to see girls her age putting in this kind of work."

If you were to hear of an eleven-year-old running forty miles a week, you would automatically think the mileage excessive. Some people don't put that much on their cars in a week. If a five-year running vet told you she ran forty miles a week, you wouldn't give it another thought. But if you conflate the two, an eleven-year-old with a five-year running history now putting in forty miles a week, well, that's something different entirely.

Runners refer to their miles as "work." They wear those miles like Army generals wear stars. Alana runs about ten to twenty miles less than her older counterparts. The fact that she is putting in fewer miles and competing at the same level stands out. Yet Hovis notes that his top female runners don't put in forty miles a week, and he finds it hard to comprehend an eleven-year-old doing so. "I don't know anyone who has put in this type of work at her age and has times like this," says Hovis.

Every few years, somewhere in the United States a girl about Alana's age begins running times that grab attention. Names like Julie Stamps, Carrie Garritson, Erin Davis, Lindsey Scherf, Kathy Kroeger, and Jordan Hasay—the sixteen-year-old prodigy who last year competed in the 1,500-meter Olympic qualifier—all once carried the same promise and uncertainty. All were seen as the next potential Mary Decker; all went on to varied running careers filled with highs and lows. Stamps ran a 16:41 5K her sophomore year of high school to win the Foot Locker Cross Country Championship—the high school national cross-country title. Her junior and senior years, she didn't finish the race. Now in her late twenties, she is a top marathoner in New York. Erin Davis, who as a freshman became the youngest woman ever to win the Foot Locker, went on to a college career marred by injury. Carrie Garritson set and still retains the national 5K records for both ten- and thirteen-year-old-females with times of 17:36 and 16:08, respectively. Her times at nationals as a high schooler never broke eighteen minutes.

The key to their early success comes from a tenacious drive coupled with the perfect running vessel — the prepubescent female body. Lightweight with narrow hips and a large V02 max — a measure of how well the body utilizes oxygen during exertion — young females have the ideal running physique. Brad Herbster, the UNCC head cross-country coach, explains that a V02 max is like a runner's gas tank. And for these excellent, young runners, their gas tanks are huge for their size. "It's like having a V8 engine in a coup," explains Herbster.

The problem is that many of these young females hit adolescence like a brick wall. The national 5K records for twelve- and thirteen-year-olds are seconds faster than the fourteen- and fifteen-year-old records. Even Jordan Hasay, America's rising long-distance hope, is subject to the leveling off. She won the Foot Locker as a freshman, the first since Erin Davis did it in 1991. But in her sophomore and junior years she ran slower times, taking tenth and second, respectively. (Alana's PR would have placed her twenty-fourth in the nation last year at the high school Foot Locker Championship.)

Dr. Hodges Davis specializes in foot and ankle orthopedics at OrthoCarolina. He is not Alana's physician, but he has a history of working with young athletes, particularly with young dancers and gymnasts. Before moving to Charlotte, Davis acted as assistant orthopedic consultant for the New York City Ballet. He has become accustomed to seeing the overexertion of young, talented athletes. He notes that many young athletes push too hard at an early age, especially those who have been spotted with talent early on. "There is a no-pain, no-gain mentality for some of these kids," says Davis. "And it really shouldn't be happening." The mentality, he explains, contributes to a weeding-out process. "Darwinism of dance" they used to call it.

With the onset of puberty, the female body begins producing estrogen, becomes prone to weight gain, and becomes much less suited for bouts of physical activity. The bones take on more pressure, and injury becomes more likely. The athletic weeding-out process begins. At the highly competitive levels, those fit for the sport continue on, and those less equipped typically get injured or simply fall out of the top ranks.

It doesn't happen to everyone, of course. "There are no generalizations you can make," says Davis. "It's only specific to the girl."

Some can handle it and some can't.

A Darwinism of running also exists, many times coming from parents pushing their children to their breaking points. Mark Hadley realizes that because of Alana's success, and because he is her coach, the same stereotype follows him. Mark knows many people see a father living vicariously through his daughter. If they only knew the truth they wouldn't see that, he insists. "I've won my road races," says Mark. "I want Alana to fulfill her own goals. Not mine. I'm just trying to give her the guidance I wish I had."

"It's unfortunate that people don't know of Alana's slow and natural progression," says Mark. "It's unfortunate that they don't know we do workouts that don't go above 85 percent effort." The idea is to engender steady progress. Because Alana has been running since age six, she has had time to build up to the daily training schedule. Furthermore, she has never been injured.

For an elite runner like Alana, says Davis, "forty miles spread over seven days is not that much." Davis explains that injury occurs most readily when athletes increase their workload prodigiously and suddenly, or by pushing past their threshold for long periods of time. Mark and Alana are doing the best they can to steer clear of those pitfalls. And they're trying to keep it fun.

Right now for Alana, running is a release, not a chore. But dad and coach Mark knows the possibility of burnout exists. "We always keep things in pencil," he says.

"The biggest question," says Davis, "is does she enjoy it?" The answer is an emphatic yes. Alana talks about her workouts the way most young girls talk about a trip to Carowinds. (She turns twelve in early January.) Competing once a month in the festival environment of road races helps retain that green sense of fun.

Still, it's fun to win. This amazing year has opened Alana's eyes to how talented she is and could be. With each race she runs, a competitive spirit grows within her. "I hope I keep getting faster and faster," she says when thinking about the future. "And I'll probably become a little more competitive."

"Running is all about attitude," says Hovis. It is the competitive drive that has upended many talented, young runners. They become their own worst enemy. Alana will face the same challenges in the next several years. Her attitude toward running and her body's ability to maintain will determine whether she ends up on an Olympic podium or simply somewhere else.

On this Monday, Alana and Mark near the end of the four-mile run. Alana is still talking, and her legs have found a consistent pace. She stops listing off her favorite runners, and begins to think about what's fun in her life right now. She's immersed in The Silver Chair, the second-to-last book in the Narnia series. She can't wait to get home to finish it.

"Running, animals, and family," proclaims Alana. "Those are my favorite things."

The sound of footfalls on a dirt path fills the air after the statement. Mark looks over at her. "But not in that order, right?" he asks.

More running shoes on dirt resonate while she mulls it over.

She grins, and her braces gleam. "No. No. Of course not."

Preston Davis is a freelance writer. He recently moved from Charlotte to New York City.