Tiliamuk at her home in Santa Fe
Tiliamuk at her home in Santa Fe
Tiliamuk at her home in Santa Fe (Zaakiyah Brisker)

Marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk Is Setting the Pace

Tuliamuk had secured her spot in the Tokyo Olympics—then 2020 happened. Fortunately, she’s always run for more than just the medals.

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Aliphine Tuliamuk visualized the finish line of the Olympic Trials marathon long before she touched down in Atlanta in February 2020. The 32-year-old Kenyan American had won road races before, but she was the tenth seed going into this one—a long shot, or at least an underdog. She would toe the start line with more than 400 other women, hoping to finish in the top three. She’d thought about this moment for 12 years.

On the morning of the marathon, Aliphine is feeling stressed and physically off. Her right leg hurts. By the time she emerges from her hotel room, her coach, Ben Rosario, sees that she looks frightened. He gives her a pep talk and reminds her to smile. (“A happy Aliphine is a dangerous Aliphine when it comes to racing,” he says later.) Once she arrives in the lobby, the spectators milling around see an entirely different runner. Dressed in her team’s signature Diva Blue, she strides across the street to Centennial Olympic Park. Standing at the start, she’s self-possessed, elegant, hungry. When the race begins she takes off, her homemade red, white, and blue beanie quickly disappearing around the bend.

Throughout the race, there are only two nonwhite women at the front of the pack: Aliphine and Sally Kipyego, who is also Kenyan-American. During the TV broadcast on NBC, they’re almost always in the frame, but they are rarely talked about. The commentators—all of them white men—discuss the athletes to watch: Des Linden, Emily Sisson, Molly Seidel. Aliphine’s name doesn’t come up.

Aliphine has no idea what the commentators are saying, of course. She’s in the middle of a race, focused on winning, and the first 20 miles of a marathon repay steady patience. By mile 21, she and Seidel have broken away to become the front-runners. Mindfulness, Allie T., mindfulness, Aliphine tells herself. She’s an efficient engine, no movement wasted, her long stride smooth as she glides toward the finish.

Even as Aliphine steadily pulls away from Seidel, the commentators say very little about who she is or how she got here—about her Kenyan village, her American hometown, her multiple national championships. Yes, Aliphine was an underdog, but she didn’t come out of nowhere. She’d been consistently winning road races and placing in the top ten at major competitions for more than 15 years.

The 26.2-mile course is relentlessly hilly, and the final stretch is brutal. At the end there’s pain, but perhaps a reward, too. Aliphine arrives again at Centennial Olympic Park, an arch adorned with five gold rings above her head. She runs across the finish line, arms up, a miniature American flag in her hand flapping in the breeze. She’s won, with a time of 2:27:23. As the crowds cheer, Aliphine immediately turns around to applaud her future teammates as they cross, Seidel in second and Kipyego in third.

During and after the race, journalists and running experts called it many things: unexpected, brilliant, heartbreaking. These descriptions were accurate, but they missed the historic nature of the new Olympic marathon team. In punching their tickets to Tokyo, Aliphine and Kipyego were set to become the first Black women ever to represent the U.S. in the event at the Olympics. Aliphine emphasized what this meant during the small number of post-race interviews, talking about her adopted country with reverence, appreciation, and a deep understanding of the American dream. (She earned her citizenship in 2016.) “I’ve always said that making the Olympic team would be my way of showing my gratitude to this beautiful nation that has given me so much,” she told one interviewer.

The Olympic Trials took place on the last day of February. No one knew then that for many the race would be the first in a series of lasts: the last time watching sports in person, or boarding a flight, or hugging friends goodbye. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and normalcy stopped all over the planet.

Aliphine’s flight from Atlanta to Flagstaff, Arizona, where she trains part of the year with Hoka’s NAZ Elite team, would be her last for a while: the pandemic would force her to postpone plans to visit family in Kenya. As things began to shut down, uncertainty set in around the Tokyo Games, which had been scheduled to begin in July. To quell her worries while she waited for a decision, Aliphine did her best to keep busy.

Aliphine often dreams of her home mountains, a range called the Cherangany Hills in western Kenya. Posoy, the village where she’s from, sits at 10,000 feet and is often wrapped in mist. Sometimes she shares photos of it on social media. She wants her followers to see the Kenya she knows; her memories of her homeplace are of a lush, thickly forested green.

Aliphine knows that the resources she had as a child would be considered spare by American standards, but it never seemed that way to her. “My village, it was a beautiful life,” she says with exuberance. “I did know that there was a different world out there, but I was very happy with what I had.” For Aliphine, family was everything. She remembers feeling loved. She often spent her evenings with her grandparents as they told stories late into the night, until she and her siblings fell asleep. In the mornings, she would rush home and get ready for school.

She also credits her traditional upbringing as a major advantage in her athletic development. Walking was how you got from here to there. But when you’re young, why walk when you can run? She ran to school in the mornings and into the forest to collect firewood in the afternoons. When her family needed water, she ran to the river and sometimes climbed back up the hill to the house with one of her aunt’s babies strapped to her chest. “I guess we were just training without realizing it,” Aliphine says with a laugh.

One of Aliphine’s relatives, Geoffrey, saw her potential and convinced her to start running competitively. By the time she was a preteen, she was the best 10,000-meter runner for her age group in West Pokot County. Geoffrey gave Aliphine her first running uniform—a little see-through singlet and some hunter-green men’s boxer shorts decorated with soccer balls. On her feet, she wore what fit—loafers, sandals, whatever. Her kit wasn’t much to look at, but there wasn’t much to see: Aliphine was fast, a blur, and that’s what mattered. That’s what won her medals. At 11, she was ready to compete at provincials in the 10,000. And to really compete, she would need proper shoes.

“A happy Aliphine is a dangerous Aliphine when it comes to racing,” her coach, Ben Rosario, says

In 2000, Tegla Loroupe, the first African woman to hold the world record in the marathon, delivered an inspirational speech at the stadium in Kapenguria where Aliphine was set to compete. Loroupe was fresh off her third Olympic Games, and that day at the stadium she gave Aliphine a life-changing gift: racing flats. They were white and red, and Aliphine wore them for as long as they fit. “I think she saw a sister in me,” she says of Loroupe.

To pay this kind of generosity forward, Aliphine regularly sends running gear back home to Kenya. After she won the Olympic Trials, she visited an elementary school and told the children that they had the power to decide who they would become.

Even with encouragement from an Olympian, Aliphine’s journey would not be easy. Her village was small, and it didn’t have a hospital or a doctor’s office. The roads were bad, and to find medical care people had to walk more than an hour to a nearby dispensary. Many never got there, which was the case for Aliphine’s infant brother. When Aliphine was ten, her brother fell ill, and she took off running, searching for help for hours, to no avail. He died. Later she would lose another brother to similar circumstances. These experiences taught her a lesson: running could fix some things, but not everything.

These preventable deaths seeded an interest in public health, and Aliphine dreamed of pursuing a career as a nurse. But in Kenya, the government decided where you’d go to college, who you’d become. Aliphine says now that this inability to choose her own destiny in her home country is one of the reasons she believes so deeply in the ideals of America. She understood that if she endured, she could shape her future. But that would mean moving away from the mountains she knew.

Competing in the 2020 Olympic Trials in Atlanta
Competing in the 2020 Olympic Trials in Atlanta (Adam Hagy/NAZ Elite)

Aliphine’s first stop was Iowa State University, where she was awarded a full athletic scholarship. As she worked her way through school, she kept running, racking up NCAA All-American titles in multiple events along the way. (She later transferred to Wichita State University.) But she eventually realized that she’d need to pick one focus: training or studying. She chose running. She could always go back to school later for a nursing degree, but her athletic career had an expiration date. She graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in public health, then moved to Santa Fe to join an elite training group and pursue running professionally.

Throughout her steady athletic rise, Aliphine understood that she had a larger purpose—something to hold close after running was over. There would come a time to stop racing, and she’d seen so many athletes end their careers with little confidence about the future. She knew that her post-running mission to bring medical care back to her home village could save lives.

Many elite athletes in their prime are hyper-focused on their sport, leaving little room for other pursuits. Aliphine’s fiancé, Tim Gannon, says that’s not the case with her. “Allie is not one of those people who believe running is their life,” he says. “She looks at it as her job.” She always does what’s required of her, but she has cultivated a life—friends, family, and hobbies—outside the sport.

In the summer of 2019, a femoral stress fracture gave Aliphine an opportunity to test the strength of her non-running identity. She was ordered to rest for six to eight weeks, and she desperately needed an outlet for her ever flowing energy. She taught herself to crochet by watching videos on YouTube. Soon she was crocheting as many as eight beanies a day, and she started selling them on Etsy. She named her online shop AllieResiliencyHats, and once donated some of the proceeds to a mudslide recovery effort in the county she comes from. Her new hobby kept her mind occupied while her body slowly healed. When it came time to train again, she’d be reinvigorated and ready.

Aliphine first saw the broadcast of the Olympic Trials when she got back to Flagstaff. “I finally had a chance to watch the replay, to see what people at home saw,” she wrote later on Instagram. “I didn’t hear my name mentioned even when I was right there, while everyone around me was talked about.”

Disheartened, she stopped watching. Aliphine’s upbringing in Kenya had not prepared her for the slights she would experience because of her skin color. Racism wasn’t part of life in her village, where she was surrounded by Black faces.

Soon she understood that she was making history another way, by joining a long line of Black athletes who were overlooked or underexposed. Women had competed in the Olympics as far back as 1900, in Paris, but it would be decades before Black women made their debut. The 1936 Olympics were the first to include an African-American woman, U.S. hurdler Tidye Pickett. Black athletes frequently became the face of American struggles for equality, and Aliphine was now carrying two banners of representation: one for Black people, and another for immigrants. Still, even after winning the Trials as an American citizen—after proving herself and earning the right to represent her chosen country—she learned that some people would always see her as something other than that.

Black athletes frequently became the face of American struggles for equality, and Aliphine was now carrying two banners of representation: one for Black people, and another for immigrants.

“We do have a problem, whether we want to admit it or not, with welcoming people who are naturalized citizens,” says two-time Olympian Kara Goucher. “It’s just a fact in our sport. There’s no reason why Aliphine shouldn’t be a giant star. Her personality is infectious, she’s so funny, she is really smart. There’s no reason why the media shouldn’t be fawning over her.”

In the end, Aliphine refused to linger on what she couldn’t change. After speaking out on Instagram, she refocused, buoyed by the responses she received from followers. “I definitely embraced being Black after that,” she says. “I got a lot of messages from Black women and Black girls saying how inspired they were, how I made them feel represented.”

When the Olympics were postponed in late March of 2020, Aliphine was crushed. On Instagram, she wrote about the sadness of completing a 16-mile run without her teammates, because they were all following social-distancing rules. She did her best to stay focused on the things that mattered: her friends, her dreams, and Gannon.

People close to Aliphine describe her as strong-willed. When she puts her mind to something, not much can be done to stop her. Aliphine always knew she wanted to be a mother, and now she had time. So in late spring, when she and Gannon approached her agent, Hawi Keflezighi, and Rosario about having a baby ahead of the Olympics, it was obvious that the decision wasn’t rooted in restlessness or boredom.

Until recently, pregnancy was considered “the kiss of death” for female runners, as former Nike athlete Phoebe Wright once put it. In the running world, a large portion of an athlete’s income is tied to sponsorship deals with shoe companies. Pay is often contingent upon performance. In some cases, female athletes have faced steep pay cuts, or no pay at all, after becoming pregnant and taking a break from competition. In May 2019, several former Nike athletes—including Goucher, Alysia Montaño, and Allyson Felix—opened up to The New York Times about their experiences negotiating with Nike. All three were stars in the sport, and all experienced intense pressure from their sponsor to keep racing late in their pregnancies and soon after childbirth.

In August 2019, following widespread backlash from the Times coverage, Nike announced that it was removing pregnancy-related penalty clauses from its contracts. A handful of other athletic brands, including Brooks and Nuun, updated their policies around the same time. Hoka, Aliphine’s sponsor, already had a supportive maternity clause in place. “There’s an understanding that we don’t have to choose between trying to pursue professional running and starting a family,” says Stephanie Bruce, who also runs for NAZ Elite. “You can do both. It just has to fit the timeline of all parties involved.” Bruce had two babies in two years while on the team, and has remained highly competitive. She placed sixth at the 2020 Marathon Trials.

With the full support of her team and her sponsor, the only thing left for Aliphine to do was try. She and Gannon gave themselves two ovulation cycles. If their plan didn’t end up working, they would have to wait more than a year before trying again.

Several months went by. In December of 2020, Aliphine told the world her news in an Instagram post. Against the dry, sandy backdrop of the desert, Gannon sits on his knees, wearing a shirt with RESILIENT across the front, kissing Aliphine’s protruding belly. They were expecting a baby girl in January 2021.

Underneath the photo, the caption read: “If anyone would have told me this would be the case 10 months ago, I would have called them crazy, but this is 2020. PS: we planned this knowing that we would have 6+ months to get ready for Tokyo Olympics!” With that, Aliphine had joined the chorus of pregnant athletes dragging women’s sports into the 21st century.

Throughout her pregnancy, she continued to run, working with Rosario to follow a plan that made sense. At first she trained hard, consistently logging 80 or 90 miles a week. But as the months wore on, Rosario dialed things back. Aliphine didn’t have to stick with specific mileage goals or intense workouts. If she felt good and wanted to run, she could. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t. Three days before Zoe was born, she went for a final run. Then it was time to prepare, as she put it, for the “longest and most painful marathon of my life.”

Aliphine’s labor lasted 50 hours. At hour 34, she hit her pain wall and asked for an epidural, but the shot wore off before the baby arrived. Zoe Cherotich Gannon entered the world on January 13, 2021. As Aliphine realized, the pain of childbirth, like the pain of a marathon, is the kind of suffering you soon forget. The result changes everything.

It’s February 2021, one month after Zoe’s birth, and Aliphine is still dreaming of her home mountains. During the day, when the baby is awake, she sings to her in Pokot, Aliphine’s native language. As she works out on an ElliptiGo, she listens to Kalenjin music—the sounds of her home people, who have populated the Great Rift Valley for centuries. She wants Zoe to know the rhythm of her upbringing.

Sometimes she tells her daughter of her family in Kenya, and of her ambitions to go back to school and become a nurse. Once she has retired from running, Aliphine will work toward bringing sustainable medical care to Posoy. She says that having her own baby has strengthened her resolve to help the women from her village. Running will never be all that Aliphine is, because she knows she has more to offer. There is so much more to do. One thing at a time, one day at a time. Mindfulness Allie T., mindfulness, she tells herself.

Three days before Zoe was born, Aliphine went for a final run. Then it was time to prepare, as she put it, for the “longest and most painful marathon of my life.”

She peers down at Zoe, wondering what sort of world she has brought her daughter into, realizing she must work to make it more equitable for Zoe’s generation. “I feel like I am so unprepared in terms of helping my daughter be a Black woman in America,” she says. She wants her baby to understand that she has value, that she doesn’t need the external validation—that she can change the world, if that is what she wants.

Becoming an Olympian was Aliphine’s way of showing children that their dreams were possible, that they had the power to choose who they would become. It was always about that, for the Black girls in America and for the ones back in Kenya. But things are more personal now. So she runs—for all those who didn’t make it this far, for those who can’t. For the ones like Zoe, who will inhabit this world after her career is finished.

When all this is over, when the Olympics are done and it is time to return home to Santa Fe, she understands that the ones who love her will still be waiting. That’s one of the few things she knows to be true. Regardless of how it turns out, there was an Aliphine before running, and there will be an Aliphine after. She understands that as long as she’s alive, there will be another mountain. There will always be pain. And sometimes, if she can endure, a reward.