Aliphine Tuliamuk, who won the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on Feb. 29, is due with her first child, a daughter, in January and plans to race at the Tokyo Games on Aug. 7.
Having a full pregnancy between qualifying for and competing in an Olympics is, of course, rare. The one-year Olympic postponement from July 2020 to July 2021, announced four weeks after the marathon trials, made it possible for Tuliamuk.
“My family plans were to race the Olympics [in 2020], and then run the New York City Marathon in November of this year and then, after that, start a family,” she said.
The Tokyo Olympics postponement to 2021 was announced on March 24. As the days went on, the 31-year-old Tuliamuk realized that fall 2020 marathons were more and more likely to be canceled (she was right). Tuliamuk and partner Tim Gannon decided to move up the family plans.
“It was a risky move,” she said. “The window we had was very small because we had to make sure [to have enough] time, after having the baby, to train [for the Olympics].”
Tuliamuk will make a rare turnaround for a top-level marathoner. Many others returned from pregnancy to race 26.2 miles, but most after a longer break.
Notably in recent years, American Kara Goucher had son Colt in September 2010, then finished fifth in the Boston Marathon nearly seven months later. (Goucher also raced a half marathon less than four months after childbirth.)
Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe had daughter Isla in January 2007, then won the New York City Marathon that November.
In diving, Pat McCormick had son Tim in March 1956, then, eight months later, repeated as Olympic champion on the springboard and platform.
“One thing that I’ve been craving in this period is to hear stories of women who were having families and still planning to get back into competitive sports,” Tuliamuk said, “and I’m so excited that I’m going to be one of those women that other women will look up to because we need role models.”
Tuliamuk, born in a tiny Kenyan village near the Ugandan border, is one of 32 children on her dad’s side and eight on her mom’s side. She moved to the U.S. to attend Wichita State. She earned a public health degree in 2013 and was a nine-time All-American for the Shockers.
“When I came here over 10 years ago, I didn’t even think that I wanted to stay here,” Tuliamuk said after winning the trials in Atlanta. “When the chance came [to become a U.S. citizen], at that point I realized just how fortunate I am. I didn’t even second-guess myself. Now I get to live the American dream.”
Tuliamuk made her marathon debut in May 2015 and earned citizenship in April 2016.
Her 2020 Olympic Trials hopes were put in doubt in June 2019, when she was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her right femur. Tuliamuk barely ran until late August last year, instead developing a side business selling hand-made beanies on Etsy.
In her first race back that November, Tuliamuk established herself as an outside Olympic team contender by placing 12th at the New York City Marathon (and third among American women).
“I knew that was a performance that was not indicative of her ceiling. That was more a performance indicative of her floor,” said Ben Rosario, Tuliamuk’s coach with Hoka NAZ Elite in Flagstaff. “This is what she can do off of nothing [in training]. Imagine what she can do with a whole segment under her belt.”
Three months after New York City, Tuliamuk came to Atlanta seeded 10th of 510 qualifiers for the deepest U.S. women’s marathon in history. On Leap Day, she conquered the Georgia hills and wind gusts, emerging from what had been a leading group of 12 in the 21st mile.
She ran with Molly Seidel, then pulled away in the last mile into Centennial Park, winning by eight seconds, the smallest margin in U.S. women’s trials history (since the event debuted at the Olympics in 1984). Sally Kipyego, who had daughter Emma in 2017, rounded out the three-woman Olympic team.
Soon after crossing the finish line, Tuliamuk grabbed a red, white and blue hat from Gannon. She crocheted it specifically for that day.
“I’ve always said that making the Olympic team would be my way of showing my gratitude to this beautiful nation that has given me so much,” she said on NBC.
Fast forward to early spring. Tuliamuk told her coach, agent and sponsors about her new family plan. She was grateful to receive supportive responses from everybody.
“She was going to give it a couple months, and I think she called me a couple of weeks later that she was pregnant,” Rosario said.
Tuliamuk’s training is shared publicly as part of NAZ Elite’s group. The data shows she logged four runs last week, all between 6.5 and 7.2 miles, and averaged slightly quicker than eight minutes per mile. She plans to continue running as long as she feels comfortable as her due date nears.
“When I’m running, I don’t even feel like I’m pregnant,” Tuliamuk said two weeks ago. “It’s mostly just running for the love of it.”
Rosario hasn’t written a workout for Tuliamuk in months.
“Wake up every day, try to get a run in,” he said. “If your body tells you not to, then don’t.”
Rosario leans on experience from coaching another NAZ Elite pro, Stephanie Bruce, who twice returned from childbirth to marathoning. Bruce was sixth at trials and is racing another 26.2-miler, The Marathon Project, on Dec. 20, before turning focus to the Olympic track trials 10,000m.
Bruce stressed that every pregnancy and return to elite running is different, but she is confident her teammate can run well in Tokyo.
“When you begin pregnancy already at a high level, which Aliphine did, it becomes easier to get back to baseline fitness,” said Bruce, who had sons Riley and Hudson in 2014 and 2015, then qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials 10,000m six months postpartum. “It seems like a big ask, but I don’t think so. I think she’ll be just fine.”
Tuliamuk otherwise kept busy with her Etsy business. She recently completed a crochet marathon, making 400 beanies in a two-month span to put up for sale at the start of December. She announced last Tuesday morning that they were sold out.
The baby’s name is chosen: “Zoe, which means life,” she said. “For Tim and I, this is going to be the beginning of a new chapter of our lives.”
Tuliamuk hopes to be back in full-on training on May 1.
“Between January and May, we’ll just go with how my body responds to it,” she said.
She will join a growing list of female athletes taking a break from competition to start a family, then returning to sport: Allyson Felix, Alex Morgan and Serena Williams are just a few of the other Tokyo Olympic hopefuls.
“It’s not like in the past where women were told, well, you can just race until you’re done racing, and then you can start a family,” said Tuliamuk, who recently re-signed with apparel sponor Hoka One One for the next four years. “You can do both of them.”
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