Alana Hadley: Fast, and Mature, Well Beyond Her Years
By: Cait Chock
Alana Hadley is among a select group of female distance runners: record-setting, running professionally, and still in high school. She's in good company, Alexa Efraimson and recent high school graduate, Mary Cain, make up a new class of females foregoing college as the median step before professionalism. In a sport that often hinges upon times, take age out of the equation and if you're running professional times, why wait?
Alana Hadley, VA Beach 2014, photo by PhotoRun.net
What makes Hadley's case even more unique is her preferred choice of race: the marathon. Her first was last year when she was just 16, her most recent the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon this past November, a race she won in 2:38:34. A time which broke Colleen De Ruck's course record and is the second fastest marathon recorded for an American high schooler. Hadley may only be seventeen, but she's already qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials.
Young harriers, especially females, can come under scrutiny sometimes for running fast at a young age. Critics almost seem to twist things to the point where the faster they run merits being deemed more of an offense. A common argument is that young runners become so used to winning, for winning to be easy even, that when they are faced with a higher level of competition and winning isn't always a given, they can't mentally 'handle' it. In short they've never learned to struggle and thus the critical mental tools to overcome 'failures' or bad races and come back are never established.
The thing is, Hadley has faced struggle and proven triumphant. This past year in particular has led to valuable learning experiences and a shift in her perspective going into each race. Dealing with her first major injury, she was forced to usher in the New Year taking time off. Come June she thought all systems were go for the Grandma's Marathon but had to drop out at mile 20 when tightness in her hamstring and hip flexor flared up.
Feeling the frustrations every runner has with injuries, she looked next to the August Rock 'n' Roll Virginia Beach Half Marathon. Unfortunately, this proved to be another race she wasn't to finish. Rather than injury, what became more of a factor to her dropping out, Hadley admits, had to do with her outlook going into the race and how she reacted to the far from ideal conditions during. Hadley took the DNF as a wake-up call and bravely looked the issue dead in the eye.
Alana Hadley, FootLocker 2011, photo by PhotoRun.net
It must be noted, the courage to do so speaks volumes to her maturity, a level of which even harriers four times her age don't always possess.
Hadley realized she'd come to look at races too black and white: they were perfect or not worth running. She changed her outlook and learned tools to keep herself mentally engaged and giving it her all despite being in the middle of a race that was in no way going to be perfect. Hadley soon discovered while those 'perfect' days come far and few between, there are plenty of non-perfect races that, when fought for, can still be quite spectacular.
"I had a good mental attitude headed into [the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon] and felt strong the whole way through the race... For this race I changed what I focused on during the race somewhat," Hadley speaks of her renewed spirit and change in perspective. She also made an incredibly generous move to run this race for an even greater cause than only a personal best. Running to raise funds to benefit the Autism Society of Indiana, Hadley feels especially passionate about this cause in particular because both her sister and cousin are autistic. Having this second mission also helped her keep her focus, "To help keep me pushing instead of thinking about wanting to win, I thought about what would come out of me winning. Instead of thinking how I would benefit, it helped to take myself out of the equation and focus on the people I could help instead. For this race in particular I thought about the money I would be able to donate to the Autism Society of Indiana. It helped to keep me positive, motivated and pushing at the end."
Hadley has demonstrated she's capable of turning a previous off race into an invaluable learning experience; one which today makes her that much stronger. Critics be damned, maturity and age are not intrinsically linked.
A key to maintaining the proper mind space going into a race comes by properly managing the amount of pre-race energy going into each event. "I think it is best for me to try not to over think the race in the days before. I create a solid game plan the week of the race but then don't dwell on it at all," explains Hadley. "I try not to get into the mental race zone until I go to start my warm up as to not psych myself out. I like to rest but keep my mind busy before a race either by listening to music, reading, or doing my nails."
There is not an endless well of emotional energy, the energy which runners rely on to hype themselves up and elevate their performance come race day. By not wasting that mental energy in the days leading up to the race, come time for Hadley to check 'back in' during her warm-up she's ensured that well hasn't run dry. A common trait of the most successful athletes is their ability to channel all of that energy in a way to feed off the anticipatory excitement of race day to then rise to the occasion. They make adrenaline work FOR them rather than the runners who have become so wrought with nerves their stress levels cause them to perform below their abilities.
The marathon in particular is, quite frankly, a grueling event. Even a perfect race is going to be painful, "A key thing to know is that you are stronger than you think. Your body will always tell you it's time to quit and stop, but your body will listen to what your brain tells it. I struggle with this, as I'm sure many other people do," Hadley is refreshingly honest in speaking of the pain of running. Everyone hurts, it's how you manage that pain and overcome the body's pleas to stop that mark you a tough racer. Hadley explains the confidence to refute those negative thoughts and not relenting comes from her training. "It's hard to be so mentally strong as to tell your body to keep going even when you are tired and hurting. But I like to think that each workout and race you do makes you mentally stronger and puts you one step closer to your dreams. I know my training gives me good confidence heading into a marathon race, so it's helpful knowing you have done the work and are ready for it."
Recounting her race in Indianapolis, "Those last 6 miles were definitely very tough though as I ended up being by myself, but I definitely felt the strength I gained in training come into play and didn't fall off pace, my pace from 30k and the finish was equal to overall average for the race. I was extremely happy with not only my time but the fact I ran a smart race and negative splitted it (1:19:28/1:19:06)." A shining example of expert focus amidst the pain.
Back from her post-Indianapolis Marathon break and back into training, Hadley eagerly looks forward, "My goals for the upcoming year is to keep lowering my marathon time as to put me in a good position for being as competitive as possible in the 2016 Olympic Team Trials. I believe that in order to do that the National Junior Record will have to be taken down, probably in 2015. While that is not the ultimate goal, it is something I would love to do." She and her coach, father Mark, are currently working on her racing schedule and which marathon will be her next.
Beyond that and looking to the Olympic Marathon Trials, Hadley is correctly viewing them as an invaluable experience, the first of many more to come. "I will be competing against the best marathoners in the country and I think that will be a great learning experience for me competition wise. I would love to be able to represent the USA in as many Olympics and World and other Championships as I can during my running career, so might as well get started now."
Hadley is young, her career stretching out far before her. She's proven her road hasn't always been easy; facing struggles she's demonstrated she's capable of overcoming them and coming out even more fierce of a competitor. Which, to this humble journalist, is indicator enough we're only just glimpsing what Hadley's marathon legs are capable of.
Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004 and previously ran for Nike. A freelance writer, artist, and designer she writes about all things running and founded Ezzere, her own line of running shirts (www.ezzere.com). You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.