On a cloudless 46-degree February afternoon in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, Aliphine Tuliamuk was a vision of cool.
Comfortably dressed for the weather in aquamarine knee highs, a matching NAZ Elite long-sleeve, shades, and a crocheted red, white, and blue beanie, there was no missing her on the starting line for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Yet few saw her coming.
Her racing résumé earned her a front-line position at the head of a 450-woman field. But to her right and left were Jordan Hasay (who then held the second-fastest marathon time in U.S. history), Sally Kipyego (a silver medalist at the London Games), and Des Linden (2018 Boston champ and two-time Olympian). Running experts forecasting a too-close-to-call race barely gave the 30-year-old Kenyan émigré an honorable mention. In their defense, this was Tuliamuk’s first Olympic Trials. She was also barely six months recovered from a femoral stress fracture in her right leg. And she still seemed to be transitioning from a road-race specialist to the longer 26.2-mile distance. She’d also never run a marathon under this kind of pressure, or without pacesetters to rein in her aggressive tendencies that drove her to road victories but sunk her early marathons.
The trials course in Atlanta was full of undulating, washboard- like city streets culminating in a total ascent of 1,389 feet—nothing like the flat (maybe 300 feet of climbing), fast Rotterdam Marathon course, where she set her PR in 2019. But after she finished third there in 2:26:48, no one could say she didn’t belong on the sharp end of the pack here. It was a heady moment, her jangling nerves betraying her outer chill before yielding to an inner audacity. “I was pretty certain I would make the team,” she says.
When four runners including Hasay jumped the gun, she didn’t even flinch. “I wasn’t too worried about getting left behind,” she says. Once underway, Tuliamuk shrewdly hung with a pod of 20 or so frontrunners that included Hoka Northern Arizona Elite teammates Stephanie Bruce and Kellyn Taylor. All the while her coach, Ben Rosario, tracked Tuliamuk’s splits, which started around 5:36 minutes per mile before settling just above 5:40. “She was always in a good spot, but never actually crossing the [timing] mat first,” Rosario says.
Then around the 20-mile mark, Tuliamuk broke away from the pack with marathon rookie Molly Seidel, and the world leaned in for a closer look. As Tuliamuk barreled down the streets of Atlanta toward her Olympic dream, long-sleeve and beanie gone, steam wafting from her head, the world couldn’t help but wonder: Who is this Aliphine? How did she dust the deepest trials field in decades? And also, that hat: Does it come in a large?
Aliphine Tuliamuk is crocheting. She’s been at it almost the entire time she’s been on the phone with me from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But Tuliamuk—the kind of bright, inquisitive soul who delights in converting social media followers into offline friends—makes no mention of this renowned hobby of hers. That is, until I do, about an hour into our first conversation in August 2020—when she should’ve been running a marathon for the United States at the Tokyo Olympics.
In June 2019, she was diagnosed with that femoral stress fracture in her right leg. Looking at eight to 12 weeks for the bone to heal, she was desperate for a mental escape from not running that could also fulfill her need for disciplined habits. She started a garden with green veggies and corn, “but I needed something else to occupy my mind,” she says with a lilting accent. After a brief stint as an Uber driver—the income was nice, but the sitting was too much—she found her way to crocheting through YouTube. And after one how-to video, she was, well, hooked. There was something in the monotony of all that laying and looping and twisting and threading that was as relaxing as a gentle runner’s high. And soon those crochet hooks were tugging at her competitive side, with Tuliamuk making a game out of how many she could crochet in a day. One hat became five, became 10, became 20. “We could be watching a movie,” says her fiancé, Tim Gannon, “and by the end she’d might have a hat and a half.”
Twenty became hundreds. Giving some away to friends only temporarily solved the problem of her “alarming” (her word) production rate. Selling them presented other complications. She considered pitting her wares against street vendors who do business inside Santa Fe’s famed downtown historic plaza. But in the end, opening an Etsy shop was a lot less work.
Early sales numbers were nothing to write home about, but that was just as well. On September 1st, Tuliamuk was healed but only jogging 16 minutes for her third run back. By the 15th she was back to 10-plus miles. Two months later she was racing her second New York City Marathon and, on a lark, wearing one of her beanies—a fashion choice that caught the attention of 2017 winner-turned-commentator Shalane Flanagan, who promoted the beanies on the air. “After that,” she says, “I had a lot of orders.”
Tuliamuk finished in 2:28:12 as the third-fastest American, and 12th in a stacked field. Rosario was gob-smacked. “I actually didn’t think she’d be able to come back for New York City in that short period of time,” he says. “At her fittest, of course, she could’ve done much better. But she needed that marathon to gain confidence for the trials.” That her rapid result was a product of patient racing is almost too ironic.
Person to person, Tuliamuk couldn’t be sweeter, more generous, or more welcoming. And though on a racecourse, she might appear a slight 5-foot-5 as she glides along with a gentle forward lean, make no mistake: she’s a shark, poised to attack. That mentality and a “monster engine” (Rosario’s words) would help shape her into one of the nation’s most productive runners of the last decade, fueling her to seven national road titles (at seven miles, 5K, 10K, 20K, and three at 25K) and the 2016 USA Track & Field Running Circuit Season championship. But it also held her back at much longer distances.
“She had gotten used to putting in really hard moves quite early in short races,” says Rosario, who began working with Tuliamuk in 2018. “But if you move that early in a marathon, a lot of times it comes back to bite you.” To make the jump from fearsome road racer to world-class marathoner, Tuliamuk needed to learn to not burn out early—in her three marathons before joining NAZ Elite, she was flying at 13 miles and crawling by 26. Rosario got to work developing her ability to pace herself. Among other things, he had her practice her marathon speed with NAZ Elite pacer Ben Bruce, a track-and-field veteran. Rosario would make a point of getting Tuliamuk to run more evenly over the course of a marathon than she did at shorter distances, where she liked to drop big midrace surges. The arrangement set her up for success in April 2019 at the Rotterdam Marathon—where, to Tuliamuk’s great fortune, Bruce was among the pacesetters. “I went to Rotterdam with one job, and that was to follow coach’s orders and literally follow Ben,” she says. Her rewards for doing both were six minutes off her personal best and a bronze medal.
Still, Rosario wasn’t ready to pencil her in for Tokyo just yet. “Rotterdam was essentially a time trial,” he says. “And the Olympic Trials are a race. You don’t have a pacer. There’s a lot of uncertainty.” And then there was that stress fracture. But seeing her bounce back so quickly and turn in such a strong performance in New York with just two months of training had Rosario feeling upbeat about Tuliamuk’s chances heading into the trials.
The last four miles came down to her and Seidel, a four-time NCAA champion who was certain to test Tuliamuk’s patience. “[Aliphine] knew that if she was gonna get away from Molly, she had to do it earlier, she couldn’t wait until the very last second,” Rosario says. “Molly’s pretty quick.” Her beanie and long-sleeve long gone, Tuliamuk kept a 5:36 per mile cruising speed with Seidel trailing by a stride, her pained visage a marked contrast to Tuliamuk’s poker face—placidity she credits to her work with NAZ Elite sports psychologist Shannon Thompson to remain focused and engaged during races. As the two reached the final hill around mile 25, Tuliamuk looked over her shoulder. “At that moment, I knew that Molly and I were both making the team,” says Tuliamuk. “No doubt the earlier surge that Molly made was a big reason.” But then Tuliamuk’s thoughts turned back five weeks, to a late-race move Seidel made on her in the Houston Half Marathon—where she wound up finishing six places behind Seidel, in 19th. That’s when the shark came out. “It was time to make the last move and see what happens,” Tuliamuk says. And she charged into the last-mile hill leaving Seidel in her wake.
Entering the homestretch into Centennial Olympic Park, Tuliamuk’s lead had opened to eight seconds. It was enough time to celebrate early, enjoy the crowds, and coast in—her tactics and patience paid in full. Instead she found another gear and sprinted to the tape with a small American flag in hand, as fans 10-plus deep urged her on. Shooting her hands up in victory, Aliphine broke the tape at 2:27:23, then turned around with open arms to greet Seidel. Next across the line was Kipyego, the other native Kenyan, who rounded out the podium in Atlanta and with Tuliamuk made history as the first Black women set to represent the U.S. in the Olympic Marathon since the women’s event debuted in 1984.
Back in her beanie for the postrace news conference, Tuliamuk would admit to reporters, “I did not see this coming.” She was still reconciling the lofty vision for herself with the actual reality of her most significant career achievement to date. She’s still reckoning with what it would mean to represent the United States in the Olympics as a Black woman who wasn’t born here.
East Africa’s legendary reputation for churning out super-elite distance runners was lost on Tuliamuk in girlhood. Such was life in Kongelai, a small village in the Rift Valley Province near Kenya’s western border with Uganda.
“Imagine this: You don’t have radio. You don’t have a cell phone. You don’t have any way of getting news. No one knew anything about running in my immediate community. We didn’t even know what was going on in Kenya, let alone the world,” she says. That community includes her 31 siblings. Her father, Lisoreng Longuranyang, kept four wives, including Tuliamuk’s mom, Koo Ruto Lisoreng. His business was sheep trading, and Tuliamuk remembers him spending a few days with her family when he wasn’t making deals in the city or visiting his other families. “He didn’t really interact with the kids, especially the girls,” she says.
Tuliamuk ran, but it was simply how you got around. By age 6 she was logging six to eight miles a day—to the river for household water, to the market for groceries, and one day to a pharmacy after an infant brother had fallen ill. “[My mother] walked with the baby while I went ahead to make sure the dispensary was open,” she recalls. “I went to four dispensaries, and they were all closed. My brother died without medical care. And then my mother had another child after that, and he also died because he never had access to medical care. That really broke my heart.”
In the fourth grade, Tuliamuk followed an older sister onto the school track-and-field team. By the eighth grade she had earned a starting spot in a 10K state meet, her first big race, but nearly backed out because she didn’t have proper running shoes. Until then she’d gotten by with loafers or sandals or whatever else came to hand. Thanks to her coach Geoffrey Ptormos, two-time New York City Marathon champ and Kenyan hero Tegla Loroupe dropped by Tuliamuk’s school to speak to students and gave Tuliamuk her first running shoes. She would take second against a field of older kids and begin to dream of a career as a professional runner.
Even so, Tuliamuk never though that path could lead her to America. But Ptormos did—so much so that he brought her into his family home in a nearby village to train for the next eight years. The 2005 Under-20 World Cross Country Championships in Saint-Galmier, France, opened her eyes to the professional possibilities. Modern conveniences, too. “I was surprised by how smooth buses and flights were and that some of them even had TVs,” she recalls. A ninth-place finish there at age 15, along with her stellar grades throughout high school, earned her a scholarship to Iowa State—where a different kind of culture shock awaited.
Ames, Iowa, is a far cry from Kongelai—flat, cold, and whiter than white. And when Tuliamuk arrived on campus in the fall of 2009, she could shrug off the microaggressions she encountered. “Unless somebody literally told me something to my face, that would be the only time that I’d be like, Oh, wow, that person was racist towards me,” she says. “Honestly, I felt like the people I was hanging out with, 99 percent of whom were white, were good to me. I’d forget what my skin color is because that was not something I grew up focusing on.”
Tuliamuk has fond memories of living on an Iowa farm with her host family and going on camping trips with them in the summertime. She might’ve stuck around longer if the dynamic on her Cyclones team wasn’t so cutthroat. “We had a very solid team, I think we all wanted to be the best one on the team—and in the country—and that lead to unhealthy competition at practice and races,” says Tuliamuk, who’s too polite to get into specifics. Also: At the time, Iowa State didn’t offer any degree program in nursing—something Tuliamuk had been driven to pursue since the death of her infant siblings. When she started looking around at programs more compatible with her twin goals of making the Olympics and becoming a nurse, she decided Wichita State was the best fit. Though she’d switch from nursing to public health, the result was nine first-team All-America honors in cross country and track and a prized degree. A shark was born. That self-determination carried Tuliamuk through her early pro years when her winning efforts were too often rewarded with second- tier results. A supremely disappointing seventh-place finish in the 2015 New York City Half Marathon nearly convinced her to walk away from running altogether. “There are many ups and downs in this sport,” she says. “The emotional investment is 100 percent, and when you don’t realize the results that you feel are achievable, it can bring you to pause.” But the following 2016 season delivered Tuliamuk’s first three national road titles at 5K, 20K, and 25K.
On the other side of those disappointments was this new, more challenging phase of her long-distance running career—a 26.2-mile puzzle that she had long yearned to put together. In 2018, she began spending chunks of the year in Flagstaff, Arizona, to train with her team NAZ Elite. And the hats-off moment in Atlanta was the culmination of an American dream. But she never imagined that someone could lose their life on an afternoon jog less than 300 miles away.
While Tuliamuk, who was naturalized in 2016, has embraced her new home country with a passion she proudly wears and crochets, she’s had to reconcile her lot against that of the alarming rise of unarmed Black people killed at the hands of police in this country. For millions, the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer lit a fuse. But hitting even closer to home for Tuliamuk was the tragedy of Ahmaud Arbery—the Brunswick, Georgia, runner who was gunned down while jogging by a trio of white vigilantes.
Now she looks back on her lonely miles logged down unfamiliar roads and neighborhoods and thinks, My god, I could’ve been shot. She didn’t hesitate to speak out against anti-Black racism on social media, even as her fiancé, who is white, fretted over the trolls it might bring to her otherwise sunny feed. But she had to. The idea that something as simple as running could be perverted by bigotry and racism is just so completely unfathomable to her. “Running is roaming,” says Tuliamuk of the sport she had long considered a vehicle for freedom and exploration. But racism has made running an inherently suspicious activity for Black people. And in the last year she’s spent more time prepping for runs than she ever had. “Especially if I’m doing a road trip by myself, I have to make sure it’s a neighborhood I know, that there will be people around. I might even dress up in a way and act in a certain way so that people I’m running by feel secure and know I’m not a threat. It’s really crazy to even think about running like that.
“I might even say, ‘OK, I’m just not gonna run that day.’ I just don’t want to put myself in a situation where I have to be scared.”
As a woman who also wanted to start a family, Tuliamuk saw more worrying in her future. “Part of me is like, I hope I have girls because their chances of survival are more,” she said during our August 2020 call. “And as a parent to prefer one gender over the other is really sad, right? I hope that by the time I have my children, the world will be a better place.”
In April 2020, as a slate of canceled major races followed the postponement of the Tokyo Games, Tuliamuk sized up the great swath of potential idle time on the horizon and decided, Now’s a good time to start a family.
She and Gannon figured they had about a year to make it happen and get her back into form for the rescheduled Olympics, leaving little margin for error or delay. “I think any working mom has a lot of different issues to consider with family planning,” says Gannon, whose work as a physician’s assistant during COVID introduced another set of concerns. “But being a professional athlete is such a physical contradiction to the whole pregnancy and birth process. There’s no guarantee that if you wait, an equal opportunity is going to present itself.” At 13 weeks pregnant, Tuliamuk briefed her team. Rosario had worried the couple might not conceive as quickly as planned. “Sometimes nature doesn’t cooperate,” he says. But he had trusted her instincts and her career commitment.
She held off making a public announcement until December 2020. “Once I got pregnant, I was terrified I would have a miscarriage,” she says. “I always thought, What if something’s wrong? I don’t want the world to know…” She was induced 1.5 weeks early, out of concern for her relatively small fetus, and labored for 50 hours before giving birth to a healthy girl named Zoe, “which means Life,” she says. On her Instagram feed she marked the occasion with a photo of her new family in matching red, white, and blue beanies and made a point of noting that their special delivery had come just two days shy of Martin Luther King Day—“So close!”
Tuliamuk now had roughly seven months to prepare for Tokyo. And though she may be the newest mother at the games, she would be in good company among elite marathon moms. Britain’s Paula Radcliffe won the 2007 New York City Marathon nine months after having her daughter. American Kara Goucher set a PR while finishing fifth in the 2011 Boston Marathon seven months postpartum. And Tuliamuk had support from fellow moms on her team in Taylor and Stephanie Bruce.
Likewise, motivation wasn’t a problem. She’s a shark, after all. While pregnant, Tuliamuk strung together an 18-week streak of 20-mile runs—a personal best—before throttling down to six miles, and then just a couple, as her due date approached. All the while she worried that her 80-miles-a-week regimen might be stunting the baby’s growth. But Zoe came out perfectly healthy—5 pounds and 8 ounces, 18 inches—while Tuliamuk escaped with little more than intermittent sciatic nerve pain. By the spring of 2021 she was back to logging 10-mile runs and working with a physiotherapist and a pelvic-floor specialist to accelerate her postpartum healing and rebuild her core muscles. Feedings and diaper changes now fill the downtime that Tuliamuk used to reserve for naps and crocheting.
When we catch up again in mid-March, nine weeks into motherhood, she’s beaming. “I’m so, so happy,” she says.
Not long after Tuliamuk and I hung up last summer, she texted me a photo of a beanie she had all but completed as we spoke. And being that this was the first interview I’d ever done during which the subject created an entire garment from start to finish, man, I had to have that beanie. A few days after a quick Venmo exchange, it showed up on my doorstep—a perfect fit. Turns out she may well have sent me a collector’s item.
After some 1,700 Etsy sales, most of them stoked by her breakout performances in New York and Atlanta, Tuliamuk put a pin in her beanie business. She has an Olympic Marathon to prepare for. She’s still operating under the assumption that it’s going to happen, even as Tokyo and other parts of Japan remain under a state of emergency because of the coronavirus and (as of press time) just 3 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. When I asked Tuliamuk if she could see herself staging some kind of demonstration on the podium akin to the Tommie Smith tributes that hammer thrower Gwen Berry and sprinter Noah Lyles drew headlines for in the pre-COVID lead-up the Games, Tuliamuk takes a beat. “The general idea of letting athletes protest in the biggest stages of their career, I’m on board with 100 percent,” she says, echoing the USOC opposition to the IOC’s ban on podium protests. “We should be able to protest against police brutality. But I don’t see myself doing anything specific.”
She might not have to if she’s on the podium again in Tokyo, as seeing her draped in the American flag and basking in the moment with her biracial family would make for its own powerful statement. And if anything else should happen to come up that would prompt a more urgent response, rest assured: She's unlikely to keep it under her hat.