She’s a nine-time national champion on the roads, but Aliphine Tuliamuk’s greatest marathon might still be ahead of her.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series leading up to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, highlighting the top athletes contending for the U.S. Olympic team.

To put Aliphine Tuliamuk’s talent into perspective, consider the condensed training period she had going into the 2019 New York City Marathon. After recovering from a femoral stress fracture, she was jogging only 15 minutes a day just eight weeks before the race.

Still, she finished New York in 2:28:12 for 12th place, healthy and with fitness gains that set her up for the Olympic Trials preparation—what she’s calling “one of my best, if not the best, training blocks” she’s ever had.

“This was the third time I had a training block with [Northern Arizona Elite coach] Ben [Rosario], so my body was not in a shock with the high-volume workouts,” Tuliamuk said. “But more importantly there were three of us doing the same thing and that helped a lot.”

She’s referring to her teammates Stephanie Bruce and Kellyn Taylor, who are also competing at the Olympic Trials on February 29 in Atlanta. The top three finishers of the race will make the 2020 Olympic team competing in August in Tokyo (or, more specifically, the Olympic marathon will be held in Sapporo). 

The trio ran most of their miles around their Flagstaff, Arizona, home base at 7,000 feet above sea level on plenty of hills to prep for the difficult Atlanta course. 

“There were days where I didn’t feel great, but having Stephanie and Kellyn there it was so much easier. If I couldn’t do the work, they would just help,” Tuliamuk said.

Tuliamuk grew up in Kenya and came to the U.S. to attend Wichita State University, where she was the NCAA runner-up in the 10,000 meters two times. She gained U.S. citizenship in 2016 and immediately won three national titles on the roads from the 5K to the 25K. Over the next two years, she took five more U.S. championships, but it wasn’t until 2019 that she had her biggest marathon breakthrough, placing third in Rotterdam in a nearly six-minute personal record.

During her injury recovery last year, Tuliamuk took up crocheting, which she’s since turned into a side business, selling her hand-crafted beanies to fans everywhere. She’s putting the yarn aside temporarily to focus on making her American dream come true.

 

Age: 30

Olympic Trials Qualifying Time: 2:26:50 (2019 Rotterdam Marathon)

Marathon PR: 2:26:50 (2019 Rotterdam Marathon)

Peak weekly mileage: 120 miles

Favorite workout: During the last weekend before tapering, Tuliamuk and her teammates ran a 15-mile steady state on the undulating terrain of Lake Mary Road in Flagstaff. She felt strong during the last four miles, squeezing the pace down to 5:20s.

“I thought that was really cool,” she said. 

Best part of training for the Olympic Trials: This was the first time that Tuliamuk’s marathon racing plans aligned with Taylor’s and Bruce’s—they ran nearly every mile together for the past three months.

“I’m a sucker for people to train with, especially the hard sessions,” she said. “This segment was so easy knowing that we’ll always be there for each other—it made it so much easier and so much fun, too. I still can’t believe that it’s over. I feel like we just got started.”

Worst part of the training for the Olympic Trials: Before she traveled to Houston for the half marathon in January, the group was meeting for a workout in Campe Verde, Arizona, which is lower elevation than Flagstaff and about an hour drive. On the way, Tuliamuk got in a minor car accident. She still ran the 15 x 1 mile on the schedule that day—but it wasn’t her shining moment.

“It was a hard day for me,” she said. “We ended up delaying by an hour and a half and by the time we got there, the workout was the last thing on my mind. I was like, ‘I don’t even care.’ I was just being dramatic.”

Best piece of advice or encouragement given: She admits she’s still working on practicing it, but Rosario likes to tell her to have more patience in racing the marathon distance.

“If we’re 10K in and I’m feeling really good, there’s no need for me to go up front and push the pace,” Tuliamuk said. “In Atlanta, it’s an incredibly hard course and I think the course itself will whittle the field down, so I just need to be patient.”

Taper tantrums: Tuliamuk has put in all the work and is tired, she said, but she doesn’t fully enjoy the reduced volume the taper brings.

“I don’t like feeling like I’m out of shape and sometimes the taper makes you feel like you haven’t done anything,” she said. “Sometimes it makes you question whether all that hard work was for nothing.”

Race-day shoes: A new Hoka racing shoe that hasn’t been released to the public yet

Looking forward to most on race day: Tuliamuk wants to “experience every moment,” and hopes that the majority of those moments are good ones.

“Hopefully I never experience a lot of pain and it’s very smooth,” she said. “I look forward to those last few miles when I could put myself in a really good spot and come home with a win. But most importantly making the team—oh my God, I can already visualize that.”

Dreading on race day: The biggest challenge might be the night before the race, trying to calm down enough to get a good night’s sleep.

“Also on race morning, thinking that I have to race 26.2 miles,” Tuliamuk said. “That’s a lot.”

Impressions of the Olympic Marathon Trials course: She ran 10 miles on the course in the fall and like most of her competitors, she found it difficult. Tuliamuk believes that she and her Northern Arizona Elite teammates are well-prepared for it, though.

“It’s hard—I haven’t done a race on such a hard course so it’ll be interesting to see how it actually feels coming down from altitude,” she said. “Hopefully not as hard as I remember.”

Support crew in Atlanta: Tuliamuk’s boyfriend, Tim Gannon, will be at the race, as well as her Northern Arizona Elite teammates and their families.

Morning routine for a late start time:  The later start time is made for Tuliamuk, who is not a morning person. She plans to sleep as late as she can—hopefully until at least 9 a.m. She sometimes has a night owl habit though, not going to bed until midnight or later.

Olympic Trials breakfast fuel: If the sleeping plan falls through and Tuliamuk wakes up earlier than planned, she’ll eat some oatmeal then follow it up a little closer to race time with a bagel or a couple of slices of bread with butter and a cup of coffee.

Race-day mantra: Tuliamuk doesn’t use mantras during her races.

“Everything goes blank, basically,” she said. “When I’ve tried to use mantras in the past, they didn’t work for me. It stresses me out and gives me anxiety—I like to plan and visualize, but as soon as the gun goes off, everything goes out the window.”

Walk-up song, if you had one as a pro runner:  “I Gotta Feeling,” by Black Eyed Peas

Slow and strategic or fast and furious: She’d prefer a fast and furious competition because it forces everybody to work hard.

“I like it when a race is fast, because the contenders who are supposed to be there will be there,” Tuliamuk said. “In the end, whoever makes the team knows that they worked hard and deserve to be on the team. If it’s slow and it becomes a 5K race, anybody can do that. I like fast and honest.”

How she’ll know that she did everything she could, even if she doesn’t make the team: If Tuliamuk can stay focused and present in the race, she’ll be pleased with the outcome.

“If I can concentrate until I get to that finish line and give everything I have when I need to, I’ll be proud of what I’ve done,” she said.

Celebration beverage of choice: Either a glass of wine or a cocktail. But more importantly, she wants to dance to country music in a bar with her boyfriend.