Aliphine Tuliamuk reacts at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials on Feb. 29, 2020 in Atlanta.
ATLANTA – It was hats off to Aliphine Tuliamuk, who pulled away from a stellar pack to win the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Marathon on Saturday.
Tuliamuk started the race with a beanie she crocheted, threw it away during the race, then retrieved another red, white and blue hat from her boyfriend to wear after she crossed the finish line.
“I wanted some Team USA colors,” said Tuliamuk, 30, who started crocheting last summer when she had a stress fracture. (She sells the beanies at AllieResiliencyHats on Etsy.) “Wearing the American colors is a way to say, ‘Thank you, America, for giving me the opportunity to be who I am today.’”
Tuliamuk, a native of Kenya, became a U.S. citizen in April 2016 after competing for Wichita State in college.
She has 31 brothers and sisters (her father had four wives) and has been able to help pay for her siblings’ education.
“Being an American citizen is an opportunity to give back to my community, to inspire people through running,” said Tuliamuk, who earned $80,000 with her victory. “I’m so grateful that I was able to make the team today. Now I can live the American dream.”
Tuliamuk held off Molly Seidel, 25, who finished second in her first marathon. Wearing bib number 139, the NCAA champion from Notre Dame at multiple distances was not expected to be in contention.
Sally Kipyego, 34, hung on for third place, keeping Des Linden, who placed fourth, from making her third straight Olympic team in the marathon.
Tuliamuk finished the hilly course with a time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, 23 seconds, with Seidel at 2:27.31, marking the closest margin of victory in women’s Olympic trials history.
Kipyego clocked 2:28:52 and Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon champion, finished in 2:29:03.
The trio are the first women to qualify for Team USA in track and field for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The marathons will be held in Sapporo because the weather is expected to be cooler.
Tuliamuk said she was emotional the morning of the race and cried. Her coach, Ben Rosario, told her to smile.
“He said, ‘A smiling Aliphine is a dangerous Aliphine,’” she said, “and I guess that is true.”
The women’s race was tight most of the way on the hilly course with wind gusts of up to 20 miles per hour.
At 20 miles, 12 runners were in the lead pack, then Tuliamuk, Seidel and Kipyego broke away.
“Today was amazing,” said Tuliamuk. “I did not see this coming. The course was hard. It was windy and there were so many of us. I felt like I was an underdog.”
Tuliamuk forged a comfortable lead despite the cool temperature and the wind.
Less than a month after becoming a U.S. citizen, she won the USA Track & Field 25-kilometer title and was eighth in the 10,000-meter at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field. She has now won 10 USATF titles from 5K through the marathon.
Seidel qualified for the race based on a half-marathon time.
“The entire field is made up of people I look up to,” she said. “Going into it, I was trying to keep a clear head. I wasn’t thinking a lot in the first part of the race. My coach and I have a little saying of ‘No brain, no pain.’ I was trying to float through it. I wasn’t paying attention to miles or pace, just going off feel.”
And yet, Seidel, who won $65,000, found that she had left behind favorites such as Kellyn Taylor, Jordan Hasay, Sara Hall, Emily Sisson and Molly Huddle.
“All of a sudden it was just the two of us,” she said of Tuliamuk. “It definitely hurt the last part. One of the things going through my head was, “It’s supposed to feel like this. It’s OK to hurt. It’s not OK to stop.”
They said they were urged on by the crowd lining the streets of the 1996 Olympic host city as they made three circuits.
“It was basically a 26-mile scream tunnel,” Seidel said.
Added Tuliamuk, “I think I might be a little deaf right now. The cheering on the course was so loud, I remember thinking, ‘This is unbelievable.’ A lot of times I felt like my ears were ringing because of how loud the cheering was.”
But she feared that she and Seidel had broken away too early.
“For a second I thought we might be in trouble. Are we trying to go too soon? I said, ‘Molly let’s do this,’ and there was a time she said, ‘I’m OK.’ We had six miles. The last four miles were really hard. I said if we work together we can accomplish the mission to make the team.
“Thanks, Molly. Seriously, I couldn’t have done this without you.”
Seidel replied, “There’s no one I would rather share those miserable last five miles with than Aliphine.”
Like Tuliamuk, Kipyego was born in Kenya, representing her native country at the Olympic Games London 2012 and winning the silver medal in the 10,000-meter.
Kipyego, who earned $55,000 for third place, became a U.S. citizen in January 2017. After she gave birth to her daughter Emma in July 2017, she planned to make a comeback but was sidetracked by malaria and pneumonia. This was her third marathon.
“When they took off, I kind of held back a little bit,” Kipyego said. “I figured I need to finish this race. Let me hold a little bit and not go too crazy.”
A record field of 444 women toed the starting line with the temperature 46 degrees and wind gusts of up to 20 miles per hour.
A total of 511 women had qualified, more than double the number in 2016, and a record 390 finished. The previous record was 196 in 1984 when Joan Benoit went on to win the first Olympic marathon for women.
Amy Cragg, the 2016 Olympic trials champion and 2017 world championships silver medalist, had the No. 1 bib, but withdrew due to illness.
“Women are ruling the world of running right now,” Tuliamuk said after her sixth marathon, “and it was so awesome to be a part of that. There were 10 or 15 women running together – any of them would have made the team. I feel very privileged and I think U.S. distance running right now is on fire.”