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High winds whirled around an unrelenting course on Saturday in downtown Atlanta as the largest women’s field in U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials history competed for the top three spots to make the 2020 Tokyo Games. In the end, Aliphine Tuliamuk won the race in 2:27:23, followed by Molly Seidel (2:27:31) and Sally Kipyego (2:28:52).
After a slow start that allowed many competitors to hang near the front of the race, Tuliamuk and Seidel finally broke away at mile 21 from a group of about 15 women who had stuck together up until that point. That group included all of the pre-race favorites, like Molly Huddle, Emily Sisson, and Sara Hall, who all dropped out between miles 21 and 22. Jordan Hasay, the fastest entrant in the field, fell behind earlier, ultimately finishing in 2:37:57 for 26th place.
The surge to the lead was a surprise move for Seidel, a 25-year-old Boston-based athlete coached by Jon Green, who had never run a 26.2-mile race before—she qualified for the Trials with a “B” standard 1:09:35 half marathon.
The duo encouraged each other through some of the most difficult miles of the course, which featured 1,389 feet of climbing and 1,382 feet of downhill running.
“Just having Aliphine there, I wouldn’t have been as calm in that breakaway with anybody else,” Seidel said. “Aliphine is someone I look up to so much…to be able to feel like, this is a friend of mine who I know and trust, it was a feeling of working together. If we went down, we were going down together.”
Tuliamuk, 30, is based in Flagstaff, Arizona, and a member of Northern Arizona Elite. Seidel trained for the last several months in the thin Flagstaff air (it’s at 7,000 feet of elevation) and shared some miles with Tuliamuk on occasion.
“I kept looking back and said, ‘Molly we’re going to do this together,’” Tuliamuk said. “I thought if we worked together, we’re actually going to accomplish the mission of the day, which was to make the team.”
Kipyego, 34, found herself running solo in third place, which she ultimately sustained, but with the threat of Desiree Linden, a two-time Olympic marathon qualifier, coming for her. Linden finished fourth, 11 seconds behind Kipyego.
“The last 10K was challenging, that was when things were starting to fall apart,” Linden said. “And then just knowing that those last three miles was just a real grind—it was daunting. I feel like I got soft for about a half mile, which maybe that’s it maybe it isn’t, but I fought all day long, I gave it everything out there.”
Kipyego trained for the past three months in her native Kenya, where family could support her by babysitting her 2-year-old daughter, Emma, and she could take advantage of the altitude. She won a silver medal in the 10,000 meters at the 2012 Olympics, representing Kenya. Kipyego is a member of Oregon Track Club Elite and became a U.S. citizen in 2017, with a home base in Eugene, Oregon.
The raucous spectators lining the eight-mile looped course seemed to play a role in Kipyego’s success on Saturday.
“The crowd was absolutely crazy,” she said. “Personally, I wanted to stay calm and remember we had 26.2 miles to go and stay within myself. Those last miles when everything starts hurting and the pain is setting in, to have people cheer you on, screaming, just motivates you to give a little bit more.”
Although Tuliamuk may have surprised many with her victory, she is a nine-time national champion at various distances on the roads since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2016. She also grew up in Kenya, one of 32 siblings.
“I did not see this coming,” Tuliamuk said, later adding, “Women are ruling the world of running right now and it was so awesome being a part of that. For most of the race there was at least 10, maybe 15 women running together. For the three of us to be sitting here is a privilege…U.S. distance running right now is on fire.”
It was a good day for Northern Arizona Elite, a training group started in 2014 by Ben and Jen Rosario. Tuliamuk’s training partner Stephanie Bruce placed sixth and Kellyn Taylor, suffering a shin injury, was eighth. The three women ran nearly every workout together leading up to the Trials and shared an emotional embrace at the finish line.
“The three of us cried, for one,” Tuliamuk said. “We just thanked each other, because we’ve shared so many miles together over the past three months…it’s just a testimony of how hard we’ve worked as a team.”
Ben Rosario, their coach, said he knew that Tuliamuk could contend for the victory.
“I was trying to keep my mouth shut about it, but I felt very good about her chances for sure,” he said. “All three were incredibly fit and she was just the fittest. That’s just the bottom line. It’s no knock on the other two, but when it came down to the last miles of the biggest sessions, she just looked the best. It didn’t mean I didn’t think the other two had a chance—I certainly did—they almost made it. Steph was only 19 seconds away.”
Tuliamuk takes home an $80,000 paycheck for her efforts. Seidel wins $65,000, and Kipyego takes $55,000. Prize money is awarded through eighth place.
The 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials featured the largest women’s field in history, with 511 who qualified to race and 450 who started. In order to earn a place on the start line, women had to run an “A” standard of 2:37:00 or faster or a “B” standard of 2:45:00 or faster (or a 1:13:00 half marathon).
The women’s Olympic marathon is scheduled for August 8 in Sapporo, Japan.