By Theoden Janes
The Charlotte Observer
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A very thoughtful article on the consequences of posting hurtful comments on social media. While this piece is crafted through the experiences of a young marathon runner, the lessons learned are universal.
“I was done, I didn’t find joy in running anymore and wanted to get myself put back together. Something that my dad had shown me, a love that we shared together was utterly destroyed by a bunch of people who use their free time to destroy people and tear them down. People who are cowards and (don’t) even have the balls to post with their own name.”
These are the words of Alana Hadley, written in a blog entry she posted last Friday.
At one time, Hadley was the talk of the local running community because she was so darn young, so darn fast … and because her training was so darn unorthodox for a kid her age: By age 13, she was logging an average of 55 miles a week, winning races, rarely taking a day off, working out under the watchful eye of her father, Mark Hadley.
Alana Hadley had just turned 13, in fact, when I first met her back in 2010, while writing a front-page profile about her for the Charlotte Observer. She was still playing with Legos, still keeping dolls on a shelf in her pink bedroom, still watching “Dora the Explorer” with her then-5-year-old sister, but also beating almost every adult she’d line up against at a local 5K.
And already, there was skepticism. Most of the cynicism was some variation of this:
“When a kid has a special talent, it’s really difficult for parents to back off and to keep the right perspective because they want to push and push, and make sure their kid gets the most out of that talent,” Greg Dale, director of sports psychology and leadership programs at Duke Athletics in Durham, told me at the time. “We’ve seen many times where athletes burn out and don’t do well, and get injured, and are washed up as a result of parents pushing them way too hard.”
Of course, much of the feedback the family was getting via the internet, not surprisingly, in this day and age, was far less civil.
As awareness of her remarkable talents spread, anonymous posters on popular running-related websites like LetsRun.com took countless jabs at the perceived helicopter parenting/coaching. On top of that, Mark Hadley often would fire back, leaving a trail of defensive replies that sometimes seemed to just add fuel to the fire.
That was back near the beginning. Eventually, Alana Hadley was running more than 110 miles per week. Eventually, she decided to pass up opportunities to lead high school and college teams so she could run large races in other large cities for large purses. Eventually, she started winning some of those races. Eventually, she qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
All the while, Hadley maintains, she loved running. Loved it. And loved her parents even more. Hadley topped her blog entry last Friday with a photo of her smiling at the finish line of the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, between her smiling mom and dad. She wrote:
“This is a photo of one of the best days of my life so far. It was just hours before I qualified for the Olympic Trials at the age of 16,and the 2 people with me, well those are my parents. They are 2 people who mean the world to me. We have your typical young adult, parent relationship, where we love each other but don’t always see eye to eye and we do have our arguments. They are the people who first introduced me to this wonderful world of running. It was our special thing growing up, sharing the joy of running and being able to go on runs and talk about anything my heart desired during it. I lived for those moments when growing up. They are also my biggest supporters; no matter what i decide to do with my life they will always love me and support me. It’s a thought that makes you feel lighter.”
But from a performance standpoint, cracks also eventually began forming. In 2014, Hadley admitted 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.”
In 2015, she dropped out of the New York City Marathon, then in 2016, she dropped out of the Olympic Trials race.
Last June, she penned a blog that said, “I’m going to just come out and say I am currently dealing with anxiety in my running and losing confidence in myself. The stress of following my own passion for longer distances and having people constantly wish for me to fail made me doubt I was actually cut out to run marathons.”
The haters had a field day. At that point, she was an adult, so she started taking more-direct hits. “She’s making a mockery of the sport,” someone wrote, anonymously, after she dropped out of the Trials. “She needs to stop going out there and pretending she’s an elite marathoner.”
But her father, Mark, was still coaching her, and was still being second-guessed constantly. After I interviewed Alana Hadley in November of 2015, following the failed New York effort, a not-anonymous poster took a shot at dad in the comments section of the story I wrote.
“Having dropped out of 3-4 of her last races, sounds like he is not ‘qualified’ because the main criteria is getting your athletes to the line and racing well not how good trianing (sic) is going,” said Jud Brooker, the women’s cross country and track coach at Columbia International University in South Carolina.
Anyway, there’s a great deal more re-hashing we could do, but at this point, I think we need to establish where things stand now.
Alana Hadley just turned 20. She’s in the middle of her sophomore year at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she’s studying exercise science. She doesn’t have an athletic scholarship; she’s working as a server at Dave & Buster’s at Concord Mills to help pay for her education. Her parents, Mark and Jennifer, recently moved to Oregon.
As for running, she wrote in her recent blog, plainly: “I’ve hit as low as I can go and all I can do is go up from here.”
Taking all of this into account, it’d be easy to say she’s reached a place mentally, when it comes to running, that naysayers had been predicting she’d end up in for years. It’d be easy to say she blew it, or dad blew it, or the family blew it. It’d be easy to say “I told you so.”
Except this doesn’t feel like a time to say “I told you so.” This feels like an opportunity to reflect on meanness, on negativity, on being judgmental.
In our sound-bite-driven, 140-characters-at-a-time world, where even the president of our country is often praised for his pithy put-downs, we’ve grown accustomed to feeling free to throw our judgments, however vitriolic, in other people’s faces.
Often in the faces of people we don’t even really know.
And while it’s not always dramatic or tragic, there can be a human cost. I’ll give you another example: Last month, I wrote a harsh review of a concert in which I compared a singer’s voice to that of a “dying cat.” Good for a laugh, I thought. Well, his wife wrote me a very respectful message in which she basically asked me to think before criticizing. I took it to heart; you really should read it.
Her letter popped into my mind over the weekend as I read these words from Alana Hadley:
“I am writing this blog as my stand against people who think it is okay to tell people they will never succeed. To put out the truth about my running struggles and to let everyone know just how wonderful my parents are. I refuse to let my parents be hated any longer all because they support me on following my dream. No one should be hated and talked down to just because they support those that they love. If you have a goal or dream go after it, chase it down, no matter what anyone says. Because it is your life to live not theirs and if people spend their time tearing down someone else’s dream it’s because they are too scared to go after their own.”
It’s all awfully sad, if you think about it. To consider that she lost her love for the thing she loved more than almost anything in life not because of overbearing parents, but because of overbearing criticism. I’m not saying I know for a fact that they aren’t overbearing parents (it’s not an accusation, it’s “I don’t know,” just like you don’t know), but I am saying I know for a fact that the criticism was overbearing.
And as I said, that’s profoundly sad.
But there’s still hope here. A new chapter is beginning. She’s an adult now. She now gets to succeed and fail on her own merits, based on her own decisions. I asked her directly if she would let me interview her for this column (I used to route requests through her dad), but she declined – saying she felt she’d said everything she wanted to in her blog.
The last paragraph of her recent blog entry reads: “I’m getting back into running and I’m honestly not sure where it will take me, if I’ll go back to marathons or just stick with some shorter races. I just want to go back to that time when I was excited to go to the track with my dad and have long chats with my mom on long runs. While my parents maybe in Oregon now and I’m still in Charlotte I can’t wait to go home over spring break and once again share with them the joy of running in which they showed me all those years ago.”
In other words, she’s ready to start from scratch, with a more positive outlook.
Perhaps, when it comes to our preconceived notions about her and her running – we should all do the same.