She was thrilled and gracious and complimentary of the athletes who pushed her along and who will—eventually—go to Tokyo with her: Molly Seidel in second and Sally Kipyego in third. Tuliamuk doled out hugs and bubbled over during a charming NBC interview, before melting into tears of joy.
She wrapped up in a giant embrace with the two women who trained almost every step of the way alongside her, Steph Bruce, who was sixth, and Kellyn Taylor in eighth. She talked about how meaningful it would be for her to represent the United States at the Games. Born in Kenya, in a tiny village near the Ugandan border, she grew up one of 32 siblings, running to school at 10,000 feet of elevation. She came to the U.S. for a college education and a shot at pro running. Now to represent her adopted homeland? The honor meant everything.
But what no one could have seen coming that day was how Tuliamuk, 31, would also be the perfect champion for the unprecedented moment that followed.
As COVID-19 swept across the world and postponed or canceled one sporting event and race after the next—the NYC Half, the Boston Marathon, then the Olympic Games—Tuliamuk sat at home and devoted herself to an unlikely pursuit for the best marathoner the country has right now.
She crocheted. Hours a day she crocheted, from Sante Fe, New Mexico, where she lives with her boyfriend, Tim Gannon, when she’s not training in Flagstaff, Arizona, with her teammates on Northern Arizona Elite. She made beanies, all for her admirers who had sold out her Etsy shop, AllieResiliencyHats, in the 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 23 seconds (5:38 pace) it had taken her to complete the Trials course. Charging about $20–$25 apiece, she barely makes a profit after yarn and the time it takes her to make each one.
In the five weeks after the race, she steadily worked, fulfilling 179 orders, many with multiple beanies per order, and got them shipped out. Her agent, Hawi Keflezighi, said she hasn’t wanted to take her fans for granted. She didn’t expect them to realize that she’s been overwhelmed with media requests since race day. No, she wanted to finish the orders, make good on her promises, maintain a link with customers who, as it turned out, were craving that humanity more than ever.
And now, with her backlog cleared and after a three-day long weekend off from crocheting and media, Tuliamuk has good news for restless and worried track fans, cooped up on orders to quarantine.
The Etsy shop, which began as a distraction when she was injured last summer, will be reopening for business by the end of this week.
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Tuliamuk is a master at connecting, and these days, it’s increasingly part of the job description for elite runners. Colleen Quigley does it through braids; Des Linden through hashtags, coffee, and quotable wisdom; Shalane Flanagan through cookbooks; and Jared Ward through coaching.
But Tuliamuk is a natural. People in the running community have known this about her since she joined the pro circuit after graduating from Wichita State University in 2013. She’s an exuberant extrovert who presents an honest version of herself to the world. Keflezighi said from his first phone call with her in 2016 he was won over by her personality.
Alice Wright joined NAZ Elite a few months after Tuliamuk in 2018 and instantly adored her. “I have never met someone who is so true to herself,” she said. “Peer pressure and things like that, they just don’t seem to get to Aliphine. She always stays so true to what she thinks and believes. That’s part of her charm, honestly. She doesn’t fall into any traps with confidence and self esteem. She’s very honest and down to earth.”
That includes honesty about her shortcomings—especially about getting anywhere on time that’s not a race finish line. At NAZ Elite, teammates can tease and take teasing, and they’ve come to expect an almost daily chuckle as they see Tuliamuk charging up to practice in her red Toyota RAV4 10 minutes late, then struggling to park her car straight. (Which makes it even funnier that Tuliamuk drove for Uber during a period when she was injured in 2018.)
“Growing up in Kenya, we’re just not very good with time,” Tuliamuk said. “Almost every day, I never give myself enough time for an emergency. If it takes me 10 minutes, I probably leave with 8 minutes to go.”
Wright concurs. “Time means nothing to her. She’ll take six-hour naps in the day. She sleeps when she wants to sleep. You know how people have this routine? Breakfast, lunch, dinner, bed? We feel like it’s set out for us? Not Aliphine. She’ll have dinner at midnight if she wants to.”
Every trip to the airport is a mystery—will Tuliamuk make her flight? And will she remember where she parked? One trip to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport is legendary. “They have this train in Phoenix to get you to parking and the different terminals—the Sky Train,” Wright said. “We just couldn’t work out where to get off for the parking. We kept getting off and getting back on again and Aliphine would be like, ‘I think it’s the next one.’” They rode round and round on the Sky Train for an hour.
But don’t make Tuliamuk stop during a training run, even for a 30-second pee break. Once she gets going, she’s hates to stop for a moment. While a teammate ducks into the woods, she’ll jog up the road and back. She’s afraid she’s losing fitness if she stops. Now that she’s won the Trials? Wright wonders if she’s on to something.
Teammate Taylor, moments after her race had ended and she was just beginning to come to terms with her own disappointment, had nothing but joy for her friend. “I couldn’t be more proud of her,” she said. “I feel like we made the team. She made it, she gets to go, but it was certainly a collective effort through the whole process.”
And then she launched into her own Aliphine story, trying to imitate Tuliamuk’s inimitable voice. “We make fun of her. Every time she shows up to practice, she goes, ‘Oh, ladies. I don’t know how this is going to go today. I don’t think I can do this workout. I had a little tickle in my throat last night. I feel kind of tired.’ There’s always one thing after another, but we’re like, ‘Okay, Aliphine. We fed into this the last five times.’ She’ll go out and crush the workout and repeat again in two days.”
I think Aliphine is going to win, could see it coming. He told reporters that Tuliamuk was in the best marathon shape of her life, and he hinted that she was doing unusual things in practice.
“They’re competitive intrinsically, not against each other,” Rosario said six days before the race. “A couple of times, I think maybe Aliphine has picked it up a little bit more than maybe we wanted at the end of a couple of sessions. But it wasn’t a competitive thing against Steph and Kellyn; it was more just within herself.”
The NAZ Elite marathoners usually maintain about 120 miles per week, and their training is marked by long, difficult workouts: 15 times a mile. Ten miles at a steady pace followed by 10 miles hard. Alternating pace workouts that go on for hours and miles. Anything to prepare for what might happen in a race.
When Rosario got to Atlanta, he let it slip to a few friends before race day: I think Aliphine is going to win.
The race went out conservatively, with a large group of women together through 21 miles, and most of the favorites hanging on, all with impressive credentials. The three NAZ women were all right there until Tuliamuk and Seidel, in her debut marathon, threw in a 5:17 for the 22nd mile and left the field strung out in their wake. While Seidel grimaced her way through the final 20-some minutes, Tuliamuk betrayed no effort on her face. She strode away from Seidel in the final mile, opening up a 6-second gap, and pushed all the way to the finish.
On the hills of Atlanta, and in swirling winds, she was only 33 seconds off her personal best, 2:26:50, set one year ago in Rotterdam.
“I knew I had a chance to win,” she said, “but you can never be sure until you actually do it. But with the course, and the wind, and the training I had had, I knew I had a chance. I haven’t run a fast marathon, but some of my best races have been on courses that are hilly. I knew that I could handle it. We were closing workouts very very strong.”
The marathon, she says, is her event, despite her nine previous U.S road championships at races from 5K to 25K. She’s definitely still learning. “But I think I am meant for it,” she said.
The day after the race, Tuliamuk and four of the others who made the team for the Games (all but Galen Rupp) turned out at 7 a.m. to start the Georgia Marathon, the people’s version of the race. Then Tuliamuk posted on her social media she’d be available to meet with fans at the Olympic rings in Centennial Olympic Park until it was time for her to leave for the airport. People were sending her agent, Keflezighi, pictures they took with her on MARTA. “Party all the way to the airport,” he said. Once again, she almost missed her flight.
The podcast and interview requests since then have been relentless, and she’s taken them all, sharing her story, sharing her joy. So it was a surprise for her—and not a happy one—when she finally turned on her recording of the NBC broadcast a few days after she got home.
She kept waiting to hear her name. She was right there at the front—at one point after coming back from commercial break, the commentators mentioned everyone around her: Taylor, Laura Thweatt, and a barely visible Linden. But Tuliamuk’s name was never spoken, even though she was sharing the lead.
It took more than 2 hours and 5 minutes, about 22.3 miles, before the three men calling the race finally said her name. Only when she broke away with Seidel did Leigh Diffey, Tim Hutchings, and Craig Masback mention her. Deena Kastor, on a truck leading the women’s pack, was experiencing technical difficulties but managed to quickly fill in a little background. But the voices in the booth kept raving about Seidel, who was having a dream debut.
In Sante Fe, Tuliamuk watched her recording and cried.
“There would be a time, I’m running, I’m in front. They’re talking about everybody around me but not me,” she said. “I’m like, really, you don’t need to just mention I’m in the race? Just to mention? Once we broke away, I still felt like they didn’t give me that much credit, I guess. I was not prepared to see that.”
Finally, when the race hit the 25-mile mark, the focus fell to Tuliamuk. “Molly Seidel is really suffering now, back in second place, or is it that Tuliamuk has just accelerated?” Hutchings asked.
Rosario said the commentary was “borderline shameful.” Tuliamuk has watched the broadcast four times and has come to terms with it.
“I don’t need validation from anyone,” she said. “All I need to do is do what I do best and be the person that I am. It’s worked out great for me so far. It doesn’t really matter what the media say, it’s fine. Maybe I don’t put myself out there enough.”
Doesn’t put herself out there enough? She’s got yarn beanies all over the world, made by hand by an Olympic Trials champion. In what other sport would that happen? Would Michael Phelps be knitting for fans? Would Chloe Kim be baking homemade pies?
For better or for worse, Tuliamuk now has an unforeseen extra year to connect with people. As long as fall marathons are happening, she’ll likely run one, Rosario says. She’s back to 65 miles per week of running and starting short workouts again. She was barely sore after Atlanta.
When events return, she’ll have a full calendar of appearances. Keflezighi said she reminds him of his brother Meb.
“Early in his career, he did have to overcome those disadvantages,” Keflezighi said. “Not having the most common name, not being considered a full American, whatever that means.”
The similarities don’t stop there. “They are both charismatic, funny, they love to laugh, they love to make people laugh,” he said. “They’re super loyal. They take the responsibility of the platform they have seriously. It’s not just themselves; it’s what they can do.”
In the days of the novel coronavirus, there’s not much to do just yet. But Tuliamuk’s got yarn, she’s got patience, she’s got time. One creation at a time, she is connecting across the divide.