In late April, Aliphine Tuliamuk’s hopes of running a fall marathon started to fade as she read a news story about the cancellation of the Berlin and Chicago Marathons, scheduled for Sept. 27 and Oct. 11, respectively. Race organizers offered deferrals to 2021 as they weighed their options amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Tuliamuk had planned to run the New York City Marathon this year, but she knew that would also likely be canceled.
Tuliamuk’s fame on the American distance running scene skyrocketed when on Feb. 29 she won the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, the race that selected the three men and three women who will represent the United States in the marathon at the Summer Games in Tokyo. It was considered a surprise victory since her 2:26:50 didn’t put the 31-year-old near the top of the elites entered in the race and she was coming off an injury-stricken buildup to the 2019 New York City Marathon.
When the Olympics got postponed in March, Tuliamuk looked at the extra year as an opportunity to continue improving on her marathoning ability. She wanted to improve upon her 12th place finish from last year’s New York City Marathon (which came about five months after she was diagnosed with a stress fracture) and an early 2021 marathon like Boston or London would have been a springboard for the Olympics.
However, the Olympic postponement also led to a difficult family decision by Tuliamuk and her partner, Tim Gannon, to hold off on plans to start a family until after the Summer Games in 2021. But the fall race postponements gave her the idea to reverse course on those intentions.
“When I saw that news, I thought to myself, ‘You know what? Maybe we do have time to start a family,” Tuliamuk says. “I remember texting Tim who was at work and not even discussing it but telling him, We are going to have a baby.”
When Gannon got home, he asked repeatedly if Tuliamuk was sure about this decision or if they should wait a few weeks. Tuliamuk knew that the longer she waited, the closer a possible nine-month pregnancy would be to the Olympics, and she wanted ample time to prepare. She planned to not just compete—but contend—for a medal.
“When I saw that positive pregnancy test, it was basically the highlight of my year,” Tuliamuk says. “Looking at the place I am emotionally and mentally, I am very happy. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.”
A baby girl is due in late January.
How a Family Grows to 32-Plus
Aliphine Chepkerker Tuliamuk was born in the tiny village of Posoy in Kenya’s West Pokot county. She was the fourth child in her family—or maybe the fifth. To this day, it’s hard to keep track even for her as one of 32. (Editor’s note: One of her younger brothers died last month so 31 are still alive.)
Don’t ask her to name them all—even that’s a challenge since she has not met all her brothers and sisters, with the youngest being born in late 2016. She picked up her own first name “Aliphine” when she overheard someone using it and decided that she liked it enough to take it on as her own
“When you’re born, your parents give you a name that resonates with the season, time or place that you were born,” Aliphine explains. “I was born outside and just behind the house. That’s what my name means in Pokot. Someone else could be born very early in the morning and they’re given a name that relates to that time of the day. If someone is born when they’re milking the cows, their name could relate to that.”
In her rural village’s culture, Tuliamuk says a man can marry as many wives and have children as long as he is able to afford taking care of them. Her father, Lisoreng Tuliamuk, was considered one of the wealthy people in her village because he owned a lot of land. Women did not have much of a choice in who to marry and men simply had to exchange a dowry in the form of cows, goats or sheep before the arrangement was made. When a man married a woman, the wife would manage the household, tend to the land, watch livestock and have children.
Lisoreng married his first wife and had two children. Years later, he married Tuliamuk’s mother, Koo Ruto, but also continued having children with his first wife. A third and fourth wife entered the picture and all four were soon having kids. (Aliphine notes that her father married a fifth woman but she is no longer married to him but has a half-sister from them.)
In Tuliamuk’s family, it was fairly common for a child from one mother to be sent to another mother’s home to help raise children and take care of the property. Tuliamuk remembers the most children in her household were five siblings, herself and her mother. Although all the wives lived within a four to five mile radius, Christmas gatherings were the rare occasions when three wives and their children would get together. Lisoreng would slaughter a sheep as part of their holiday celebration.
When Tuliamuk was about eight years old, she was sent three miles away to live with her aunt Helen Lotolim in the village of Kokwopsis. Her aunt went on to have nine children (some now have children of their own) and so her family saw an even bigger extension.
“Just thinking about even raising one child here in America feels a little overwhelming to me,” Aliphine says. “In Kenya, there’s a community. It’s so much easier to have a community helping raise a family. It’s not like if you have eight children then that’s a lot of work. The biggest job is maybe paying their tuition, buying them clothes or feeding them. In terms of raising them, it’s not that big of a deal. I never saw my parents exhausted from taking care of children.”
Aliphine has often told the story about how she met Kenyan legend Tegla Laroupe, the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon, while at a provincial track meet and received her first pair of new running shoes as a gift from her. It got Aliphine motivated in the sport and led to an eventual ninth place finish at the 2005 World Junior Cross Country Championships in Saint-Galmier, France. Her running drew the attention of Iowa State, which offered her a full athletic scholarship. After two seasons there, she transferred to Wichita State, where she thrived and finished second in the NCAA 10,000 meter final twice. In 2013, she became the first woman from her village to graduate with a college degree and became an American citizen three years later.
Aliphine has a WhatsApp group with 10 of her siblings that she uses to keep in touch with everyone. Many of her siblings are married with children but spread apart around about a 40-mile radius. Some are teachers. Some are attending college in Kenya, although one brother, Augustine Lisoreng, followed her lead and is running in the NCAA for Northwest Missouri State. Her father is in his early 70s (which she thinks means he might be done having children). Her mother no longer needs to keep track of 200 sheep but just takes care of a small vegetable and potato garden.
She admits that some of her siblings were surprised she could still run fast, because they know she’s been doing it since she was six years old. Similarly, they’ve wondered if she was getting too old to start a family.
“I told one of my younger sisters that I was pregnant by showing her some photos and she thought it was a prank at first,” Aliphine says. “I only told my mom about a week ago. We don’t have words for excitement in my language but she was happy for me.”
Maternity Leave After the Sport’s Policy Change
Tuliamuk will be one of American distance running’s biggest stars to go on maternity leave since Olympians Alysia Montaño, Allyson Felix and Kara Goucher spoke out to The New York Times about their former contracts with Nike that did not guarantee protection for pregnant athletes and new mothers. The sportswear giant came under fiery criticism and later updated its athlete contracts to support their female athletes during pregnancy.
Tuliamuk has been sponsored by Hoka One One since January 2018. The company’s global director of sports marketing Michael McManus says last year’s stories didn’t surprise him as a veteran in the industry but “it’s a non-story for us.” HOKA One One never enforced reductions or pay suspensions for pregnant athletes because there was never any language specific to athletes starting a family in their contracts
“It’s sad that it took so long for it to come to light and it sounds like the rest of the running community was reacting the way we need to react and say, ‘This is not good,’” McManus says.
Before getting pregnant, Tuliamuk called her agent, Merhawi Keflezighi, and asked for his thoughts whether any possible race opportunities could be salvaged from the pandemic in 2020. Keflezighi thought that all major fall marathons would be scrapped and was in full support of her decision to start a family.
The next call went to Ben Rosario, who heads the Northern Arizona Elite training group based in Flagstaff. For months, he had been aware that Tuliamuk’s plan was always to have a child and then resume her professional running career. Even after she got pregnant, Tuliamuk kept running workouts and did a brief training stint in Flagstaff with her teammates that included a 20-mile hard long run on Aug. 1. She returned to Santa Fe, New Mexico, before a sacroiliac joint injury popped up in mid-August and put an end to hard training. Rosario has not written a workout or set any mileage plan since then and allowed for her body to be her coach.
Rosario coached Tuliamuk’s teammate, Stephanie Bruce, through her two pregnancies and she has returned to the sport better than ever. Bruce finished sixth at this year’s marathon trials just four years after missing the last Olympic selection race. Bruce’s remarkable comeback provides a template for Tuliamuk’s possible road back but Rosario acknowledges that every woman’s body is different and some returns take longer than others.
“There’s a lot of work to be done right away but it’s not necessarily running,” Rosario says. “It’s pelvic floor work and preparing the body to prepare for the race. It’s all about making sure that the entire chain is where it needs to be before we even think of doing something difficult. It’s going to take time. We’re not going to rush it.”
On Sept. 9, HOKA signed a new four-year sponsorship agreement with NAZ Elite for 2021 that will offer health insurance to each of its athletes, which is not very common among major club team contracts. Tuliamuk’s contract has also been renewed for four more years and there is no timeline or rush for her to return to action.
“We’re hoping for the best that she will come out of the pregnancy and birth in good shape and we’ll support her,” McManus says. “If she and her partner decide to have another one, that’s OK too. That’s part of the long-term commitment we’re making to these athletes.”
Tuliamuk has not done a long run farther than 13 miles since October. She’s spending some of her free time crocheting beanies that she sells as a passion project on Etsy (the latest batch sold out in three hours) and occasionally letting herself fantasize about her race on Aug. 7.
“I have dreamt about how I’m going to have my baby and she’s going to be in Tokyo with me,” Tuliamuk says with laughter. “She’s not going to know what’s going on but she’s going to be my main motivation. I am going to be in that race, and God willing if everything goes well.
“I am going to be very fit. I am going to defy all the odds. I am going to have an amazing race. It is going to be an inspiration for so many other professional athletes who would like to be moms while they’re still at the peak of their careers. I dream about that a lot.”