On the Road Less Traveled with Mark and Alana Hadley

Mark and Alana Hadley on the eve of her marathon debut!

It was one of the most anticipated American female marathon debuts ever. On May 19th, North Carolina high school sophomore Alana Hadley toed the line at the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon looking to run somewhere in the neighborhood of 2:40 for her first crack at the 26.2 distance. Would she turn those 1:16:xx half marathons into marathon greatness? Would the 111 mile weeks pay off? Or would she crack under the pressure or crumble under the controversy that swirls around her?

Sixteen year-old Alana Hadley isn’t like most young American runners. She didn’t wait until middle school to pick up the sport; instead she began formal training at the ripe old age of 6. Unconventionally, she decoupled her running from her studies, choosing to forgo high school cross-country and track in favor of training on her own for road races under the watchful eye of her coach and father, Mark Hadley. Mark is the coach behind Molly Pritz’s debut 2:31 in the 2011 ING New York City Marathon and has coached many elite, sub-elite and average-Joe athletes. (You can read more about his coaching on his websites: Maximum Performance Running and Elite Marathoning).

Chances are you have a strong opinion about whether it was wise for such a young runner to attempt to race a marathon at such a high level and I invite you to share your opinions in the comments. I honestly wasn’t sure what I thought, but since Alana and Mark were going to be right in my neck of the woods, I headed to downtown Cleveland  with Ginger the day before the race and sat down for a chat with them about being a young runner, about the controversy surrounding Alana’s jump to the marathon and about Mark’s training theories. Later, after the race, we discussed how her debut went and what’s next for Alana on the road less traveled.

With a half marathon PR of 1:16:41, Alana is fast, and she loves long distances!  She is proud to admit the goal is an Olympic Trials A Standard performance (sub 2:37). With that in mind she and her dad agreed a spring marathon, before the qualifying window opened, would give her a chance to experience the marathon without the pressure of going for that goal right off the bat.  To anyone who says Alana Hadley isn’t able to be a “normal” teenager, I’d like to note she passed on Grandma’s Marathon because of a One Direction concert the night before, with dad in full support.  Instead, they chose the Cleveland Marathon as her inaugural race.

Here is the transcription of our conversation. Following that conversation is an email follow-up I did with Mark about the race and how he and Alana felt it went.

Alana and Mark in 2008, when Alana was “only” averaging around 45 miles per week.

Salty: Your ultimate running goals revolve around the marathon; a lot of people wait until they’re older to start marathoning. Do you think you just shifted your running career younger?  How do you look at it?”

MH: It’s not typical to see a sixteen year old marathoner.

AH: I feel like it’s more that I loved watching the marathon, and I guess when I wanted to experiment with the 10k, I enjoyed that race jump.  I loved the distance.  And after it was like, well, if I like the 10k, what happens if I go longer and do the 15k? There was a race in Charlotte with a 15k, and I liked it even more.  It was more that I was trying to find the distance that I liked the most.  When I was ready to do it, training-wise, I would just do it because I always want to see if I liked it.  If I didn’t, I figured I wouldn’t do it anymore.

I just want to see what I’m good at. And it seemed like the longer [the distance], the better I got and the more I enjoyed it, so why not keep going?  After being in the half marathon for a while, and I loved the half-marathon–

MH: Alana’s done eight half marathons.

AH: –I decided I wanted to try a marathon.  I like running longer races, and I love running on the road as well.

MH: Everyone has a predisposition to whether they’re going to be an 800 runner or a sprinter or a miler…and if you look at all the different components of that, there are some personality traits and there are physical traits, what with muscle fiber and your makeup and all that.  All of Alana’s traits match up with a strong long distance predisposition.

And what that means is, in the 5k, the 10k and the half marathon, the average runner will slow down 4.5% every time the distance is built, and that’s normal.  People with a strong middle distance predisposition might slow down 5 to 5.5% because they’re stronger in the shorter races. People who are your typical marathoners may slow down only 4 or 4.25%. Then you have some outliers who hold records and such.  Alana had a very strong distance predisposition. If you look at the her times in the first half of 2012, she was training specifically for 5k, 10k and half marathons, so we got to see a good representation of how her times compared, and she only slows down 3.5% when the distance jumps.  She just naturally and psychologically (with her motivations and such), will enjoy and do better on a competitive level in the longer races.

From your perspective, Mark, do you think she’ll peak at the same amount of marathons as most elite runners, or do you think that because she’s younger she can run more marathons?  Should you be stingy with how many marathons she runs?

MH: I don’t know that there’s a cap, really. There are people who run their best marathon in their 20th marathon, etc. But I don’t think physiologically there’s any limit, as if you only have so many marathons in you and then you’re somehow used up.

What’s been different about Alana is that she started running when she was six on a regular basis, and just always wanted to keep doing it, week after week, all year long for ten years.  She’s a veteran runner in her tenth year of running, not your average sixteen year old, who has three or four years at the most.  Because of that she’s built up an aerobic capacity. She does the same level of mileage as Molly Pritz or Stephanie Pezzullo [one of Mark’s current trainees]  does.

She peaked at 111 miles per week this cycle, right?

MH: Yes. When I was looking back through my notes, basically she added ten miles per year to her weekly mileage, which is not much at all when you think about it.

Am I right that you’ve never really been injured?

The scene of our interview: the Cleveland Arcade.

AH: No.

MH: She stepped in a hole last fall and strained her Achilles, but other than that, no.  And I don’t know of any other runner who over ten years hasn’t had some type of injury.  One of the things we try to do is, she likes running and wants to do more and more, and like with anyone you start to wonder if she should be doing this.  We looked at all the running phenoms in the past and when something didn’t work, we tried to figure out why.  Was there something they didn’t do that we should be doing?  We haven’t run into any of the hurdles because I think we’ve addressed all the issues.  Luckily she’s a Hadley, so she’s got a great appetite.

AH: (laughing) That is not an issue!

MH: So we make sure she gets the extra calcium she needs to help her grow, and the extra iron, especially as the mileage gets higher and higher.  We ensure there’s enough Vitamin D and take a multivitamin every day, and just make sure everything’s covered on the nutritional front.  And then make sure that any changes-you see, a lot of people got really good really fast, and then jumped up [in mileage] really quick and then that caught up with them.  So we say any increases we do are going to be small, and there will be a lot of time in between them so she can gradually build up.  The result is a sixteen year old that can run 100 to 110 miles a week without any problems.

And she’s taller than her mother and grandparents, so there’s no growth issues.  I’ve heard it all on that argument.

AH: I’m 5’5″!  I went through puberty at the same time as my mom! I’m fine!

You’re taller than me!  And I’m sorry you have to talk about your puberty with the press…

Alana Sprint
Alana’s commitment to the ancillaries, like drills, strides and strength training, keeps her healthy.

AH: The way I look at it is I’m not doing this for anyone but myself.  And so if I’m happy with where I am and if I feel like I did the best I could that’s all that matters.  It doesn’t really matter what everyone around me is saying because everyone’s gonna have their good and bad opinions.  You’re never gonna do something everyone’s going to agree with, there’s always going to be at least one person who has to say something.  And if you listen to that one person every time then you’re never going to be happy or satisfied.  You just have to accept that if you’re happy along the way that’s what really matters.

MH: Alana is intrinsically motivated. She’s very diligent.

AH: I’m not too competitive of a person, which is something that a lot of people don’t understand. “How can you be an athlete and not be that competitive?”

I noticed on LetsRun and even in the comments on the Cleveland.com article about your debut, people seem to think you’re going to crash and burn out.

AH: At this point I’m used to it. It’s been there the whole time.  The only time I hear about something said on LetsRun now is when somebody tells me.

My youngest showing a clear interest in journalism at the ripe old age of 5 months.

As a parent, I’ve noticed that a lot of parents are very worried about their children being anything other than normal. They want their child to follow the standard progression in athletics, through high school and college, and it seems anything other than that conventional path really scares them. 

MH: They never get extraordinary that way.

Part of what I touched upon in the interview in the New York Times about Alana is that, even though this is an unconventional path, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it.  And isn’t that how breakthroughs are made, in training and in sport?  It’s good to approach things from a different angle to find out what works or doesn’t work.  I’ve always told people that if Alana decided she was done with this tomorrow, she would have learned so much from having run all this time and setting goals and working toward them, that it will help so much in all aspects of her life.  I’ve always thought as a kid who grew up running, that running is a great microcosm of life that can teach you a lot of good lessons.  As a parent I’ve found it a very good way to help raise a child.

Have you ever felt like it would be so much easier to do the normal thing?

MH: My primary concern has always been what was best for her, and what she wants to do. Knowing her, she likes her schedule racing 8 to 10 times a year.  It would drive her crazy to have to race every week or twice a week in short races.  I think she probably would be out of the sport after a few years if she had to follow that path.  It’s always what makes sense for her.

AH: I wanted to see what it was like, so I tried it in seventh grade.  And after seventh grade I decided I was done with that.  At the conference they wanted me to run three events so they could get the points they needed to win.  So I ran the mile, the 800 and the 400.  I was annoyed because I came in second in the 400 and everyone was like, “why did you get second?”  I was like, “uh, because the person who won the 100 and 200 beat me? I told you guys I’m not a sprinter. I don’t like the short races.”  Was it a good experience? Yes. I enjoyed all the people that I got to meet.  I loved the experience.  But I didn’t want to do it again the next year.

What about college? Do you think you might like to run on a college team?

AH: No. I don’t think so. Especially with women, they have much shorter races.  For the men they would race the 8k and 10k in cross country, but for women it’s mostly 5k and 6k. They make it shorter for women, and that bothers me. I don’t like the shorter distances…I’ve pretty much made it clear that 5k is the shortest race I’ll do.

MH: One of the criticisms that I get is “he’s pushed her to the marathon because that’s what he coaches.” When actually I coach the marathon because it’s where the business is.  If it had been up to me, if she had a completely neutral predisposition and could run any distance, my first love in the sport was the 800 meter.  I always thought it would be cool to coach someone in the 800, so if I was going to push her somewhere I would have pushed her to that.  That wouldn’t have worked at all, given her personality.  The people who say that about me obviously don’t have teenage daughters, because you can’t force a teenager to do anything when she’s got a strong personality.

AH: They don’t know the whole story and they make assumptions.  That’s one of the reasons I have my blog.  I put out there what I do, because otherwise people start making up things.

A well-studied coach and a dedicated athlete sharing their passion for the sport.

MH: Yeah, they ask what kind of kid has a blog?

AH: Um…most of them.  Most of the people in my school have blogs and websites.  My English teacher from last year actually follows my blog.

It seems the criticism mostly comes from parents who are afraid of that kind of thing. And I think also it seems like there’s a lot of jealousy of the support you have, or people wish they had the knowledge you do at such a young age.

MH: I hear a lot from parents whose kids are in the standard system, and they don’t like someone doing something different from that.  But then I hear from coaches too; a lot of high school coaches think this is setting a bad example for other kids.

AH: Yeah, following my dreams is a bad example apparently!

MH: They don’t think of it that way.  They learned it one way, and if you’re doing something different they think it’s wrong.  I have to say, a lot of the coaching clinics still teach a lot of very bad, false, pseudo-science.  Things that are outdated.  Jonathan Beverly wrote a good article in Running Times about a year ago called, “Should Kids Run Long?” and he talked to a lot of doctors who basically said there was no reason not to, as long as it’s done properly.

I’ve noticed if I try to coach other kids, people say “he’s gonna have your kid running a hundred miles a week next year,” but I’m exactly the opposite.  One of the things I worry about is that kind of perception. People see what Alana does, and if Alana is successful tomorrow and runs a good race, there will be people whose kids start running at twelve and want to run a marathon at thirteen, and I’m not for that at all.  This is where she’s progressed to over ten years, so it’s good for her. [Mint interviewed Mark about coaching Winter Vinecki. Her training is vastly different from Alana’s.]

AH: People forget about that. They look at my age as a person and not my age as a runner. If you compare two runners’ running lives, and don’t say if it’s a boy or girl and don’t say their age…if you put me side by side with someone who’s in his or her mid-twenties and started running in high school, it’s not going to look that much different.

I read somewhere that a lot of the problems adults have is that, by not running and not being active for so long, they get weird muscle imbalances, so that when they do start they’re prone to injuries.  Maybe by starting young, you kept your body moving and strong?

MH: One of the things we’ve learned when we look at [other runners’ histories], wondering why they stagnated or eventually quit, is that it’s important to have some type of strength component. So we developed a drill circuit and a core circuit that she does multiple times a week for the last three years now.  But she’s also just blessed with a natural great stride, from the first time she ran.  When she was three!

She ran a mile at three, is that right?

MH: Yeah! The first time she ever ran, I was training for a marathon. She’d see me go out to run and ask, “Can I go, Daddy?” And I’d say no, no.  But she kept asking, so finally one day I figured what the heck.  I thought she’d make it down to the end of the cul-de-sac and I’d have to carry her home dead tired, but she kept going.  She ran a whole mile through our neighborhood–and she was three!–laughing and giggling the whole way.  I thought, “Whoa! That’s different!”

Are you the middle child, Alana?

AH: I’m the oldest. I have an eleven year old brother and an eight year old sister.

What’s your relationship like with your brother and sister? Do they look up to you as a runner? Or are they ever jealous of how your running has brought you so close with your dad?

AH: I don’t think so.  My brother tried running, and he was like…no.  He’s the football person.

MH: I try to do a good job of giving each of them individual attention.  My youngest, Rose, is autistic, so she’s a little oblivious to [our running relationship].  She’s very comfortable at road races, it’s a fun environment for her, but all three of our kids are very different so we try to give each of them their own special attention.

AH: We have different ways that we have to connect with each other. We’re all a good number of years apart, so I feel like it’s a good mix. We don’t really fight at all, we tease each other of course, but it’s always been a good relationship.

[pullquote] If you compare two runners’ running lives, and don’t say if it’s a boy or girl and don’t say their age…if you put me side by side with someone who’s in his or her mid-twenties and started running in high school, it’s not going to look that much different.[/pullquote]

What do you like about the longer distances?

AH: I feel more comfortable with the pace.  And in the longer races you find a pace and you’re not pushing the whole way.  Instead you find a pace and you lock in.  I feel more comfortable in that same pace, mile after mile after mile.  A half marathon is so different from a 5k or a mile, where you’re constantly pushing and your legs are burning the whole time.  That intense, tired feeling when you’re constantly having to push yourself is totally different, physically and mentally than when you’re naturally getting tired because you’re holding for a while.  I’m more comfortable with that.

MH: In races under an hour, the primary limiting factor is lactate fatigue, buildup of lactic acid in the muscles that causes you to have to work harder and harder the more it builds up.  The limiting factor in races longer than an hour is energy system fatigue, burning higher percentages of fat.  Some people just have natural physical predispositions that make them better at one than the other.  But you also have mental predispositions, just personality, and because Alana’s very diligent and enduring, it makes her handle the endurance component, the energy system fatigue, a lot better, where the lactate fatigue is a little too intense for her personality sometimes.

What kind of things do you think about when it’s getting tough in a longer race?

AH: I try to focus on things I do when I get tired. I try to remember to relax my arms, because I know they’re one of the worst things about my running form; my arms get tense. And since that restricts your breathing, I try to relax my upper body, stay nice and tall, and I try to focus on what’s happening right now.

One of the things that’s screwed me up is thinking ahead I need to do something later and then not making myself doing it when I get there.

Do you focus on splits or do you just run?

AH: In the longer stuff I do try to stay on pace.  I give myself a range and if it’s a hillier section I’ll change it up depending on the course.  Every course has a different strategy.  For [the Cleveland Marathon], because it’s a flat course, my pace range will stay the same the whole way.

How do you feel when you see a bad split?

AH: I try to jumpstart myself and get back on pace.  I’ve seen in a race where I just had a bad patch, a horrible mile, so I jumpstarted myself and got right back on pace the next mile.  And then I maintained for two miles and it went down again.  I find if I can just stay in that moment and say “Yes, that was a bad mile, but there’s nothing I can do to change that mile.”  You just have to make yourself do it, because you know through your training that you can.

Are you nervous about the marathon tomorrow?

AH: Not really. I’m more excited. I can’t wait for it to happen!

MH: The best races happen when you go in at the start line with a calm confidence. You know you’ve done the work; you’re more anxious to get it started than you are nervous or worried. I think she’s in a good place for it. The marathon’s a long race, but she did a fifteen mile simulation run three weeks ago that went really well, so that gives us confidence.

AH: If you know you can do fifteen miles at race pace, that gets you over the halfway point.  And I’ve done 20 mile steady state runs, so I know I’m good up to 20 miles.

MH:  I laid out her training schedule for the last eight weeks, and I showed it to her, and said, “This is what I’m planning…what workouts in here make you nervous, or scare you the most?” She said it was the simulation run and the 20 mile steady-state run, and she was very surprised at how easy the steady state run was.

Alana doing a tempo on her regular neighborhood course.

Did you do the 20 miler after the simulation in training?

AH: No, before.

MH: And then the simulation went really well.  I think the simulation is great because, in long races and especially the marathon, you’re going to hit good spots and bad spots. The thing is you can’t pace too high or too low.  And she got to see that in the simulation run, where she started to feel pretty tired around seven or eight, but then felt pretty good around twelve or thirteen.

Isn’t it amazing how you can bounce back, or how sometimes speeding up can make you start to feel better?

AH: It does!

MH: Any time you increase speed you increase the percentage of muscle fibers that you’re using in your legs.  So when you speed up you may be draining all the muscle fibers that you have, but it activates new muscle fibers and they’re storing glycogen too.  And that’s why speedwork is important as a marathoner, because you can get more muscle fiber storing glycogen.

Hadley has taken all of Alana’s speedwork to the roads now rather than the track since she’s focusing on road races. Mark often riding his bike alongside her for support.  She doesn’t train with his other athletes often, but occasionally does speed workouts with 2:32 marathoner, Stephanie Pezzullo.  Even though Pezzullo is a faster runner, “it’s nice to know someone’s out there with you,” Alana says.


The next morning, Alana ran a 2:58 marathon. A little past the halfway mark, she tripped and strained her hamstring. She managed to finish, albeit much slower than she had hoped. Here’s what Mark had to say about the race.

When did you find out what happened? How did you feel?

What happened is she made the turn after the half way point (13.5 miles approx.), she rounded the corner near the curb and looked up to see where the next corner was so that she could run the best tangent (like I taught her), and as she was looking up she stepped in a pothole what she hadn’t seen because it was on the other side of the corner.

I didn’t know what specifically had happened until the end of the race, but saw from her 30k split that something was wrong – her pace had slowed dramatically more than just fading or not feeling well.  I had no way of getting back onto the course so it was a long and nerve-racking wait in the finishers area.  I knew there were plenty of medics and aid stations on the course, and I also know how fit and tough she is, so I wasn’t too worried but if it had gotten past 3 hours I think I would have done something – what I am not sure what – but I couldn’t stand around any longer. 

[pullquote]For Alana’s personal take on her marathon debut, read her race report on her blog. [/pullquote]

Because she didn’t do as well as anticipated her critics are now claiming the pothole thing is an excuse for her not meeting the high expectations or to cover up her crumbling under the pressure. Although she didn’t seem like someone under a lot of pressure  to me, how do you answer those critics?

That is pretty silly to me, but people love to second guess and try and find conspiracies I guess. Alana has had lots of great performances under pressure (such as winning college meets against older college athletes) and outright winning road races.  She is not one to let that type of stuff bother her much.  If anything the media stuff (interviews, articles) was a nice distraction for her.  Like I was saying when we met on Saturday, Alana’s motivations are more intrinsic than extrinsic, so she doesn’t even think much about what other people expect or want.  I understand people assuming she is very extrinsically motivated because the vast majority of people are, but that is just not who she is.  Alana was ready to do well and wanted to do well and if not for misstep into a hole she would have done that.  I guess we can’t convince anyone of that, all she can do is show them the next time she has the opportunity.  That is how she is looking at it.

What’s Alana’s recovery plan? How’s the hamstring feeling? 

Alana is pretty sore today, especially the hamstring, but it only appears to be a strain.  We are going to work on it with some massage, ice and rolling and see it how it responds the next few days.  The plan originally was for 3-4 days off and then active recovery (short easy runs) for 2 weeks and then gradually ramp back into training with a couple of transition weeks.  We’ll have to monitor it and see if we need to change that for the hamstring.  We have some professional friends (chiro, massage, doctors) we can call in if we need any help, but at this point don’t anticipate that.

Was the heat or wind a factor? 

The morning of the race we adjusted the goal pace range by 5 second per mile (2 mins for the marathon) to adjust for the heat, and she was on pace through half way with the new goal paces.  She said the heat wasn’t a factor to her.  I think it might have slowed her down some in the second half had she not gotten hurt and was trying to run at goal pace, as it was hotter than we anticipated during the last hour of the race.  She said the crowds and volunteers were very supportive and that 1 aid station with medics tried to take her out of the race because she was limping and grimacing some but she refused and said she was “Ok”.  The race staff and race director treated her/us very well all weekend.  She wanted to finish if she could because she knew lots of kids where tracking her and following her and looking up to her and she did not want to to DNF and set a bad example (in her mind) by quitting.

Do you have a fall race in mind?

We do not have anything in mind yet, but she does intend to race a marathon this fall.  She talked about it on the way home yesterday that she can’t wait to race another one and redeem herself with a fast time this fall.  We will be looking around and trying to decide on summer and fall race schedule over the next few weeks as she takes her break.


I hope Alana does redeem herself and snag that OTQ this fall! Good luck and thanks to Alana and Mark for talking with us!

So readers, what do YOU think about Alana’s marathoning at 16?  

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. Mr. Hadley isn’t on the road less traveled.
    But he’s on the road never traveled.
    Because it goes right over the cliff.
    Why not have his daughter run versus age appropriAte competittion in safe distances? Because she is not the best.
    Solution: do longer and longer racing, hoping she’ll be #1. They’re running out of distances. Maybe he’l have her doing crazy ultramarathons and 100 milers next.
    Really feel sorry for her.

    1. It doesn’t sound like you actually read the interview. Whether you would make the same choices as a coach or parent is one thing, but to assume Mark has some sinister motive is another. During our conversation I never got the sense that he was anything other than a loving dad who wanted the best for his daughter. Alana did not seem at all under pressure to perform – in fact, I’d say strangely calm about the race the next day!

  2. If Alana is happy and her medical team is supportive, then I say – good on her and may the road ahead bless her as much as it’s blessed so many of us. She clearly has a strong support team, and from what I can gather from the interview, is happy and enjoying herself. I also think it’s notable that she spoke for herself; this wasn’t just an interview with a coach speaking for her.

    Life moves quickly, and hindsight is 20/20. This story reminds me in some ways of the 14-year old who climbed Mount Everest some years ago (obviously much more dangerous) and the discussion that surrounded that. Ultimately, we are each an experiment of one (thank you, George Sheehan), and we must each seize our own destinies, make our own mistakes, and learn our own lessons from both the highs and the lows. Some people go through three careers in a lifetime; others know from age three that they want to be a veterinarian. So yeah – if she’s happy and medically safe – go for it!

  3. Wow. Sub-3 for a 16 year old. I understand she was going for faster, but still, that is amazing. I think she is awesome and it sounds like she is a very well balanced, happy and fun young woman with a very supportive dad/coach, which is key. I am thrilled for her. As you all know, I am a big advocate of breaking the age barrier and encouraging youth to run. Of course not every young person can run at this level – either speed or distance – but truthfully – not every adult can either. Alana is clearly a gifted girl who loves to run. And she is lucky enough to have an awesome, supportive, and highly knowledgeable dad to help her along this path. I can’t wait to watch her in the years to follow. Go Alana and well done Coach Hadley!

  4. Where does her training advance to in the next 5-10 years? She’s already got an amazing aerobic base. What’s going to help her drop her times as she begins to plateau? It would be great to see her experience what being on a team is like and racing for teammates in addition to herself.

    No running in college either? It’s ok to learn to be uncomfortable in races that are short. I feel like it developes a well rounded athlete.

    Cudos for dad to brining her this far, most people focus on an event until they stop getting better, than move them up. Wonder if she really hit a 5k peak yet.

  5. Awesome interview… what a different life, but to me they sure both sound totally balanced and sane, and she sounds adorable (I loved her blog!)

  6. I definitely have mixed feelings about this, but it seems like they’ve both good good heads on their shoulders. However, it is interesting to see where the next 5, 10, even 20 years will take her. Many marathoners peak in their mid-30s, meaning she will have potentially 20 years to develop speed… or burn out. Like I said, it will be very interesting to watch, but I wish her the best