Alana Hadley is 18. On Sunday, she will be the youngest runner in the professional field at the New York City Marathon.
It's been a long time coming.
The upbeat freshman at UNC-Charlotte ran her first mile at age 3. She ran her first race at age 6 (a local 5K in North Carolina). At 16, she went pro. And at 17, she won the Indianapolis marathon and broke the course record in 2:38:34 -- in just the fourth marathon of her career.
Her father, Mark, is her coach and three days a week, he helps her train not only for New York (Hadley's first marathon major) but also the Olympic marathon trials in February -- even though her age renders her ineligible to run the distance in Rio. An international track federation (IAAF) rule says that next year's Olympic marathoners must be at least 20 by December 31, 2016.
"I turn 20 eight days later," Hadley says. "It doesn't make sense to me. The race walk and the marathon are the only ones where you have to be 20."
For all other running events except 10,000 meters, it's 16. "The rule seems to come out of nowhere," she says.
Yet many critics would agree with it. (More on that below.) Hadley's whole career has been scrutinized through the prism of her age. The "too-much-too-soon" brigade has even included four-time Olympian Bernard Lagat. In August 2012, Hadley reported running 95-100 miles a week as a high school sophomore, and Lagat tweeted "Alana, that's high. U r doing 20-25 mi more than me."
"I was all excited because I just ran 17 miles for my long run," Hadley says. Then her heart sank. "I'm like: 'Dad, why is a runner telling me I'm running too much?' I was so confused. ...
"My dad helped put it in perspective. 'Well, you're training for half marathons, Alana. He's training for 1,500 and 5K. Of course you're doing more than he does.'"
Mark Hadley remembers a U.S. club team coach "screaming at me, that I was ruining my daughter's life and she was going to be in a wheelchair by the time she was 16."
"On message boards," he continues, "they've said this is my passion, that I'm forcing Alana to run, that I'm trying to live vicariously through her, which is the classic thing people say about a parent-coach." (Mr. Hadley says he actually prefers the 800 meters.)
Elsewhere, Alana says, people were betting at what age she would burn out. Yet she perseveres.
Amid training 110-120 miles a week and juggling classwork as a pre-kinesiology student leading up to New York, she was eager to explain her approach to running and rebuke some of the skepticism. Here are nine things she commonly hears, and what she wishes people understood:
1. You Run Too Many Miles
"I've been running consistently since I was 6. It really annoys me when people are like: 'No 18-year-old can run that much mileage.' Well, not a lot of other 18-year-olds have been running for 12 years. If you look at the breakdown, I've just added 10 miles a week every year. ... It's been a very slow progression."
2. You'll Break Down
"The longest I've been sidelined for an injury was one month. The timing actually worked out pretty well. It was from December to January. I didn't have any races planned then anyway. It was a stress reaction in the third metatarsal of my right foot. That was the only big injury I've ever had."
3. You'll Never Hit Puberty
"Someone actually said on a message board, 'I just saw a picture of Alana Hadley for the first time and I was shocked to find out that she's actually developed.' I was like, 'Really?' I went through puberty at the same age that my mom [did]. It was the same time that my doctor said I was supposed to. Running has not stopped that or harmed that in any way."
4. All you do is run
"I take breaks -- not too long, because I get really antsy. I'm so used to running. I have so much energy that I actually get really, like -- I just -- I need to go and run. I have that feeling of: I need to do something. After a marathon, I take two or three days off completely. For the next two weeks, I do strictly easy jogging and build my mileage back up to where it was. It would probably start with three miles for a few days. By the end, I would be back to running twice a day."
5. You Should Have Stayed Eligible For The College Team
"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."
6. You Went Pro Because You Didn't Have The Grades
"I'm in the honors program at UNC Charlotte as a freshman. I'm in multiple clubs and organizations -- and have been through the years. I'm a part of Autism Speaks U. I'm also in the kinesiology student organization. We do social and community-service events around campus that deal with having a healthy lifestyle."
7. Running Is Selfish
"I give away 10% of my prize money [and bonuses] to an autism charity. Not the same one every time; I try to make sure that everyone gets some. My little sister, Rose, is 11 and she's autistic. So is my cousin Ben."
Sometimes race organizers match the contributions. When Hadley won a $1,000 bonus for setting a course record to win the 2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, she pledged 25% to the Autism Society of Indiana. The marathon did the same.
The commitment isn't just monetary.
"I really enjoy working with special-needs kids because of [Rose and Ben]. I plan to get a Master's degree in occupational therapy because I know I need to have a back-up plan if, heaven forbid, something happens and I can't run. You can't run forever."
8. You Shouldn't Bother Running Olympic Trials
While USA Track & Field allows Hadley to compete in the Olympic Trials because it also serves as a US national championship, a top-three finish won't put her on the 2016 Olympic team because an international age rule prohibits her from running the Rio marathon. But trials are still important to Hadley.
"I want to get in the top 10. I want to see where I stand among the best US marathoners -- and that'll show me where I need to be for 2020."
9. Your Dad Makes You Run
"People attack my parents, like I'm the victim in this. I just enjoy running longer [distances]. Honestly, I can't picture myself not running, no matter how difficult it got. I've never thought of not running. I don't think I could just stop.
"[Why] discourage someone from following their dream? Just because [it's not] the path that you would take, doesn't mean that path is wrong. Just because it's different, doesn't mean it's wrong. Just because it hasn't been done before, doesn't mean it can't be done."