Aliphine Tuliamuk on Making the U.S. Marathon Team for an Olympics That May Be Canceled
In our What It’s Like series, we speak with people from a wide range of backgrounds about how their life has changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For this installment, we spoke with pro runner Aliphine Tuliamuk, who finished first in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials at the end of February. This secured her a spot to compete for Team USA at the Olympic Games, which were scheduled for this summer in Tokyo.
Born in the village of Posoy, Kenya, as one of 32 siblings, Tuliamuk, 31, started running to and from school when she was 10 years old. In 2005 she represented Kenya at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships and soon caught the eye of NCAA coaches for her long-distance prowess. In 2009 she moved to the U.S. to join the Iowa State University track team but later transferred to Wichita State University, where she graduated as a 14-time All American.
In April 2016, Tuliamuk became a U.S. citizen and has since won 10 national titles in distances ranging from 10K to the marathon. Heading into the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in February, the Hoka One One–sponsored runner had the 10th fastest time out of the 510 women who qualified for the race. She ran arguably the race of her life that day, navigating the brutal, hilly course in Atlanta to finish first in the marathon with a time of 2:27:23.
This meant she’d be representing Team USA in Tokyo this summer. But in the weeks following the Trials, COVID-19 spread rapidly, which prompted major sports season cancellations and the postponement of the Olympic Games in Tokyo to 2021. Then, at the end of May, the president of the International Olympic Committee told the BBC that if the Games were not able to be held in summer of 2021, they would be canceled.
Here, Aliphine Tuliamuk explains how the Games postponement affects her career as a professional athlete and her plans going forward. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
SELF: You made your first Olympic team when you won the marathon trials in Atlanta. What did that victory mean to you?
A.T.: That meant everything to me. I went into the race as one of the dark horses. I had a very long shot of making the team, but that’s just what other people thought. Personally, I really believed that I had the chance to not only make the team, but to win.
The course was very hard, and it was a windy day. Going into a marathon, I don’t worry too much about my competition. You have to compete against the distance before you can worry about your competition, and I really believed that the training I had done leading up to the trials went really well. I definitely felt like I was ready. And once it actually happened, I was lost. I knew I could do it, but I was in shock. It was incredible.
Now that I look back, I can’t believe that actually happened. That was me! And I’m finally beginning to feel how I should have felt then—so proud. Sometimes I find myself smiling and just being like, Wow, I made the team and I won the trials. I’m going to go to Tokyo, and just thinking about that makes me so happy.
Three weeks later, the International Olympic Committee made the decision to postpone the Games to 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you feel about that decision?
At that point I was still going through the shock of winning the trials, but that definitely turned my world upside down. It crushed me. For a few weeks I was just so emotional. I needed to cry, but I never got myself to the point where I could cry. And every time anybody asked me about the Olympics being postponed or said anything, I would get this lump in my throat that would not go away for a long time. I would go run, and then it would go away. But I’d have it again the next day. For days, I would have that.
Finally, one day I was actually doing an interview and talking about it when I finally broke down. I feel like crying that day kind of helped me let out some of the emotions. It was definitely hard. You put your life on hold. Basically, you plan your life around this major event that comes every four years, and then when it’s postponed, even just for a year, it turns your world upside down.
When you think about it in the grand scheme of things, in light of what’s happening, people losing their families, people losing lives, and the economy going down, the Olympics are not a big deal, but then, at the same time, it is a big deal. Where do you find the balance? You just never know what’s going to happen next year. You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Yet you plan your life around this event because it’s your job, because you know that you only have that opportunity once.
How are you balancing that perspective?
I’m crocheting a lot thanks to my business [AllieResiliencyHats on Etsy]. I’m beginning to see the brighter side of things, and honestly, I’m doing okay. I am beginning to accept that next year is not really that far.
Once they said the Olympics were postponed I was like, Okay, there’s an opportunity here. I can go run a fall marathon. I could do some appearances this summer, this fall, and then next spring, and capitalize on that from a financial standpoint, and also expose myself more to sponsors and other races. But now that I saw the Berlin Marathon was canceled [Editor’s note: It was originally scheduled for September 27], and they’re talking about this virus probably having a resurgence in the fall and in the winter, and it’s like, holy crap, now we are in a limbo. We don’t know if we will have the rest of this year for racing. We don’t even know what next year will look like.
How has the postponement affected your training?
I’m not doing top-notch training or anything. I’m actually still doing my building very slowly. And so I’ve been running really easy. I’ve had a couple of workouts here and there. I’m not too worried about how fast I run. I’ve been running by feel, basically. Unless I feel like I want to push. But I don’t have any races on the horizon, so therefore I am not in a hurry to get fit.
Some days I’m like, I’m just going to take a day off. Some days I don’t feel motivated to go run, to go do this workout or run fast, just because, why? Do you want to get fit now when you don’t even know when you’re going to race again?
How do you handle the days when you don’t feel motivated?
If I really feel like I don’t want to go run right now, I just take a day off and don’t feel guilty about it. Then I get super motivated. I can’t wait for the next morning so I can go do my run. Sometimes, if I wake up in the morning and I don’t feel like running, I just wait until the evening, and hopefully in the evening I feel a lot more motivated.
For me, running is not just my job. Running is something that I need. Being able to go outside and still be able to run knowing that there are people in other parts of the world who cannot even go outside, that motivates me to run and take advantage of the opportunities that I have. I really need running. Even when I crochet in the morning, by the afternoon, I am losing my mind. When I go out and run, I just come back and feel fresh. My mood gets good, and I can cook good food and stuff just because I have my runner’s high.
Your partner, Tim Gannon, is a physician’s assistant. What is that like during the pandemic?
I think that was one of the things that overwhelmed me in the beginning. When we didn’t know how many cases were going to happen, I was so overwhelmed. I thought, There’s a chance Tim could go to work [Editor’s note: He works in an outpatient clinic] and we could both get sick.
There were times when I just felt trapped. My career was affected, but my partner is also on the front line, and he could be affected too. I kept seeing news of some providers who had passed away from the virus, and some were pretty young. There were times when it really freaked me out. But he hasn’t actually had to treat a COVID-19 patient yet. In our city and state [Santa Fe, New Mexico], we don’t actually have a lot of confirmed cases, so we’ve been very lucky.
I read on Twitter that you considered renewing your nursing assistance license. Have you given more thought to that?
I love working with people. I love being useful. Running is a part of my life. It’s so much part of my life. It almost defines me in a lot of ways. Now that I don’t get to do that with racing, sometimes it feels like I’m not being useful. I’m not helping people.
I thought, If this continues to happen, I would love to go volunteer. So I thought about doing that, especially if we had more cases. I told myself I was going to wait until the end of May to see what’s happening.
But then again, I guess the longer we don’t have any races, the more opportunities like that might actually creep into my mind, because I like to be useful, and I want to help people. Nursing is something I’m very passionate about. Working with people is something I’m very passionate about. And if the opportunity presents itself, I don’t think I would hesitate.
You earned your degree in public health science from Wichita State University. Were you thinking about nursing?
I did all my prerequisites classes for nursing school. And actually, last spring I took the nursing school entrance exam and I passed. So one of my options that I gave myself was that if I didn’t make the Olympic team I was going to go to school this fall for nursing. I was just waiting to see if I would make the team or not, but now that I made the team, I realize I can’t really be a nursing student and an Olympic-caliber athlete at the same time.
For now, I’m definitely not going to apply to go to nursing school, just because I wouldn’t be able to do both, but it also sucks because I think about what’s happening right now. If we didn’t have any races, then I could have a fall semester where I go to school and then maybe even a spring semester where I could still continue to go to school and train. But realistically, I don’t think I could do both at the same time.
How has the postponement affected your family on a personal level?
Tim and I have been together for about three years now, and from the beginning we talked about having a family. We decided that 2020 was the year to probably start to try to have a family. We thought we could go to the Olympics and maybe run a fall marathon and then start a family. And we were so excited about that, and when I won the trials, it became even more evident that we were on track.
This is something that’s been a dream of ours for a long time. I’m not super old or anything, but I also know that I have a chance of possibly trying for the 2024 Olympics. We thought if we tried to have a family right after the 2020 Olympics, then we would definitely have the opportunity to maybe try again for the Olympics in 2024. And so right now we don’t know. It feels like that opportunity has been taken away from us. We don’t know what we want to do.
It’s the uncertainty that keeps me up at night. Do we want to wait to have a family until after the 2021 Olympics? But what if the Games don’t even happen in 2021? That’s one of the hardest things for me to try and figure out. I know it’s a personal decision, and I don’t need permission from anyone or anything, but it also impacts a lot of people around me. It impacts my career. It impacts my sponsors. It impacts the opportunities that I have at the Olympic level. It’s definitely been hard.
How have you been coping with those struggles and moving forward each day?
I have some really good people around me. I’ve surrounded myself with people who care about me for who I am. My partner, Tim. He’s an incredible person. My manager, Merhawi Keflezighi; my coach Ben Rosario; my teammates.
I think also knowing that I am not the only one who is affected. The entire world is affected by this. I think there’s some consolation that comes from that, knowing that you’re not the only one in this, and that there’s nothing you can do about it. And so I do the little that I can do to make the world a brighter place. Thank goodness for my business. At a time like this, I can send people hats and they get excited. Every day I get up to make as many hats as possible so I can send them out to as many people as possible. Most of my time is spent crocheting, especially when my partner is at work. I’m just home and working and running and working, not paying too much attention to what’s happening, not overanalyzing things, and just letting it be.
What advice would you offer to runners right now?
The simplest advice I’ll offer is find a hobby in addition to running. I think that’s the only way to find a distraction right now. I think, more than anything else, we need a distraction. We cannot go see our families. We cannot go see our friends. It can be really hard. So the only thing that you can actually do is find yourself a hobby that will occupy you. And if it’s a hobby that you can share [virtually] with other people, even better.
Beyond that, we just have to continue practicing, because at some point we will be able to run races again. We’ll be able to race again, and hopefully that’s sooner rather than later. And talk to your friends. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean that you can’t call them and talk to them.
If possible, find some sort of therapy, because this could be very challenging. I think it’s strength if you can recognize that you need help and go after that help.
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