The American marathoner shares how she is staying strong in hope and in wait of a fall marathon, and how Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge has been her great source of inspiration.
Winning the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials booked Aliphine Tuliamuk a ticket to the Tokyo 2020 Games.
It meant the realisation of a long-time dream that began in her native village in West Pokot in Northern Kenya, where the track and field athletics discipline was a way of life.
“Running was something that we had to do to go to school, to go get water, and when we went to herd the animals,” she told Olympic Channel from Sante Fe.
The 31-year-old’s running career was kick-started in 2000 after Tegla Loroupe gifted Tuliamuk her first pair of running shoes for winning a school championship.
In 2005 Tuliamuk, one of 32 siblings from a polygamous family, qualified for the Kenyan Cross Country team alongside Eliud Kipchoge, a memory that continues to inspire her.
“I think very few of us from that 2005 Kenyan cross country are still going strong today and knowing that I have that in common with Eliud, that's something,” said Tuliamuk who became an American citizen in 2016.
“Eliud is incredible. You see a lot of marathoners come and go. But Eliud has been in the sport for a very, very long time. And he has been very consistent. He's always improving and continues to get better.”
She spoke to the Olympic Channel about her Olympics Trials experience, how the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games has delayed her family plans, and why she is looking at the coming Games as a chance to write a great chapter in her career.
The interview has been edited for clarity and slightly condensed.
Olympic Channel [OC]: What’s the difference between your normal day and now, during the Coronavirus pandemic?
Aliphine Tuliamuk [AT]: It hasn't been too bad for me.
I am lucky that I can still be able to do the things that I usually do. I still can run outside. You know, I can still do my crocheting.
If this was a normal year, I would be doing some serious workouts now. But because we won't race anytime soon, I am doing easy workouts. So that is the only change that we've made so far. Some days I can say I'm going to take a day off, or I'm tired just because there's no race on the horizon.
OC: How did the Olympic postponement settle with you? Were you disappointed?
AT: I was very disappointed in the beginning. It was hard. But then, you know, once I got over that, a lot of things came into perspective. I realised that my problems were not so big compared to what a lot of people are going through.
But I was torn. I was torn between following my career goals and family. As an athlete, your life revolves around the Olympics. My goal was always to make the Olympic team so bad. - Aliphine Tuliamuk to Olympic Channel.
My partner Tim and I had also talked about, starting a family.
AT: A lot of female athletes who want to have families, normally do right after the Olympics, because then they will give themselves at least three years to train and get ready for the next Games.
So I had to choose between whether to follow my dreams and run at the Olympics. You never know if you're going to make another Olympic team, and maybe this is the best shot of running well and medalling.
I also didn't want to look back in future and have regrets.
I feel like I'm almost at the peak of my career, but maybe I can have another chance to make Paris 2024 Olympics.
OC: How easy was it for you to switch your mind from competition ready to just training without knowing when you will be competing next?
AT: I think as an athlete, as a professional athlete, most of our motivation and everything revolves around our racing. In the beginning, it was hard. Training, but we don't know where we are, when we are going to race. How does that even work? Then for somebody like myself, running is not just a job. Running is something that I need to function. I need running to relieve stress. I need running to be a normal human being. It's part of me.
This is probably the first time in my life, that I'm not too worried about my pace.
I'm running very easy and I'm comfortable with that. Usually, I don't like running very, very easy every day, but now it doesn't worry me too much. I'm telling myself this is the opportunity to learn new tricks.
OC: Do you plan to try to run a marathon during Autumn in the US [September-December], if there will be competitive running allowed then?
AT: Yeah, definitely! I am planning on running a fall marathon. And I'm excited about that, knowing that I want to go and run a really good race in the fall, so I have to continue training and be disciplined for that.
OC: You qualified top from the U.S. Olympics trials race. How exciting was this moment?
AT: It still feels like it's a dream that I am going to wake up from. I don't think it's completely sunk in that I didn't just make the team but I won the race.
I've watched the race four times. When I start watching the race I feel excited. I get the nerves like you would when you are watching somebody you know running. I’m like, ‘I am in the race!’. When the race is finished, I feel like somebody needs to pinch me because I feel like I'm in a different world. It feels like that’s not me. It doesn't feel real.
I went into the race with a lot of very strong women. And my PR [2:26:50] in the marathon was nowhere close to some of those women. This was the first time that I was racing against all these U.S. marathoners.
AT: There were so many uncertainties over how the race was going to go, how I was going to perform.
But deep down, I believed in myself. I trusted that I’m fit enough and my training, had gone well, and I had a chance to just not only make the team but even win it. Still, when I won the race my system was in shock.
Even today when I was running, I was just smiling and thinking, 'there's nothing I'd rather be doing right now. I am so grateful that I have the opportunities, I won the Olympic trials and I now have my spot to go to Tokyo.' It just makes me so happy.
OC: How much has your life changed since you won the Trials?
AT: More people now know my name. I've done a lot of media interviews.
Even when I go around our little city, some people recognise me and say, ‘hey, congratulations!’
And my crocheting went off the hook, I sold a lot of hats. And aside from that, I don't think a lot has changed.
OC: How much are you crocheting right now?
AT: My house is filled with yarn. The first time when I came back from the trials, I had 179 orders. I am working very hard to clear the orders. My arms get tired of too much crocheting. You know, my goal is to have so many people wear my hats.
People need resilience right now. I chose the name allieresilencybeanies because when I started crocheting I had a stress fracture and I just didn't know what to do. So I taught myself how to make hats. And that was my way of picking myself up, not giving up and losing hope in my running or recovery. That was my way of being resilient.
OC: What keeps you going?
AT: Number one, running, when I come back from running, I have a lot of energy. Running makes me very happy. I am like new. It makes me alive.
And knowing that I have the opportunity to inspire people as a result of my performances, to provide some positivity when they listen or watch me talk, that also keeps me going.
OC: How did you start running?
AT: I am from the highlands of Pokot, West Pokot that lies at about 10,000-11,000 feet of elevation, It’s a cold area and very, very hilly.
Running was something that we had to do to go to school, to go get water, when we went to herd animals. We had to run everywhere.
In 1999 I ran a two-kilometre race for kids. I won and they gave me a small blanket. And I was so excited about it. I took it to my grandpa, and he loved it.
And in 2000, during the track season, I started running to represent my school. My older sister, Lucy, was such a good runner. And I think my sister and I went 1-2 during our national school, my first ran on the track. And then we went to the neighbouring school and I ended up winning the 10,000m.
OC: What got you hooked onto running?
AT: In 2000 in Kapenguria, I met Tegla Loroupe on our way to the provincial competition.
It was amazing. She was getting ready for the 2000 Olympics Games. She was told that I ran the 10,000 meters and won. She was happy for me and gave me a pair of shoes.
Tegla talked to us and told us she was training for the Olympics. I hadn't even heard about the Olympics back then. I wanted to be like her. And for somebody to give me a pair of shoes, somebody I had never met before, I got very inspired. I think that was the turning point of me wanting to pursue running for as long as I could.
OC: Five years later you qualified for the Kenya Cross Country team. How special was this?
AT: From 2000 to 2005, I was trying to make the Kenyan team. Every time I came in short. In 2005, I was fifth place at the National Cross Country. Making the Kenyan team is very hard.
I was so excited; a dream had come true. And then we went to France. It was one of the best races of my life.
I was young and super excited, and we were given some allowances. And that was just so cool. That was the first time that I had made some money, like more than 1,000 Kenya shillings [$10]. I bought clothes for my family. I even bought my mum, some furniture. After that I was like, I want to keep doing this!
OC: Did you continue running after high school?
AT: Running kind of took a backseat. I came from a village at that time girls were not going to college.
I knew that I had the opportunity, and I wanted to utilise that. I disappeared from the running scene and never made it to the Kenyan team again. I started training seriously to get a scholarship to come to America.
OC: How easy was it for you to settle in the US?
AT: It was hard. But let me take you back a little bit, my first trip to Nairobi, I believe it was again in 2000. I saw so many cars and it blew my mind. I had never seen so many cars like that. So imagine that was from Pokot to Nairobi, then from Pokot to America.
I had a rough idea what abroad might look like after going to France for the World Cross Country. But living abroad, it was so different. First of all, like there was no noise, the roads are so clean. I had a twin-sized bed, a thick stack mattress.
I remember I went to a grocery store with my friend and we bought some stuff. And then when we were getting to check out, she paid with a credit card. But I don't remember seeing her paying. I mean, they call it stores here and back home we call them supermarkets, I thought it was a store for our school. We just go over there, get what we need, and then go home.
When I went for my classes, my first few weeks I didn't hear anything because of the accent.
OC: What did you study?
AT: When I left Kenya. I wanted to be a nurse. But I ended up doing Public Health. I was the first girl to graduate from college from my area.
OC: You were in the same team for the 2005 World Cross Country Championships with Eliud Kipchoge who was then a World champion and Olympic silver medallist.
AT: Yes, he was running the 8km race, and I was running the 6km race. We were in Kigari, Embu [central Kenya] for a month training as a group. Of course, back then I was young and very shy. I wish I had known what I know now. I would have asked him a lot of questions and got all the wisdom from him.
But I'm still grateful that I'm where I am today. I think very few of us from that 2005 Kenyan cross country are still going strong today and knowing that, hey, I have that in common with Eliud, like he was in the team in 2005. He's going strong. I was on the team in 2005. Still going strong. Hey, that's something, right?
AT: I saw him again in 2017 in New York. I went and introduced myself. ‘Hey, Eliud, you and I were on the same team in 2005. Do you remember me?’ He was like, ‘yes, of course, I remember you.’
Eliud is incredible. He is down to earth. Very humble.
You see a lot of marathoners come and go. But Eliud has been in the sport for a very, very long time. And he's been very consistent. He's always improving and continues to get better. It just tells you the discipline that he puts into his work.
It’s reflected on his results too. And I think that a lot of us athletes and especially younger athletes, can watch what Eliud has done over the years, and they will know what it takes to be a good athlete and the discipline needed.
We have seen videos of him at his training camp, cleaning, doing his laundry the humility that Eliud shows all of us is something that a lot of people need.
We've seen a lot of our Kenyan athletes, for instance, who rose into fame, and because they came from nothing to fame, and didn’t know what to do with the fame, it destroyed them.They also didn’t stay in the sport long enough to realise their full potential. Seeing what Eliud has done and his humility throughout the process is definitely something to be emulated.
I hope he gets to run all the major marathons. One day hopefully when he gets to run the Boston Marathon, I'd be running, too. To say that I shared a start line and course with him would be incredible.
OC: Do you think it’s possible to run a 2-hour men’s marathon?
AT: The problem is we need 10 people who want to break two hours and not only Eliud.
If the 10 runners woke up one day and they were ready, I think that two-hour barrier can be broken without it being like in Vienna.
It can be done. It would have to be a perfect day where the temperatures are perfect.
It would be nice to see that happen. I hope we get to see that in our lifetime.