Aliphine Tiliamuk reacts as she crosses the finish line to win the Women's U.S. Olympic marathon team trials on Feb. 29, 2020 in Atlanta.
Aliphine Tuliamuk made the mother of all choices following the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
She had a baby.
Zoe Cherotich Gannon was born on January 13, giving her mother about six months to be ready to compete at full strength on August 7.
Almost exactly a year ago, Tuliamuk won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon. That was on Feb. 29, which was Leap Day. She then took what some people might consider a leap of faith upon learning there would be an extra year before the Games would be held.
If the pandemic wouldn’t allow Tuliamuk to start a race, she and her fiancé Tim Gannon would start a family. The original plan was for Tuliamuk to get pregnant after competing at the Olympics, but the postponement meant a one-year delay.
They seized the moment, knowing Tuliamuk didn’t have a moment to spare. She kept her pregnancy a secret – known only to friends and family – before breaking the news via Instagram on December 6.
With her gurgling baby in her lap during a Zoom call with media on Thursday, Tuliamuk, who will turn 32 in April, said, “I think I could run now if I wanted to, but I’ve been advised to wait a couple more weeks.
“I’m very happy right now. I’m very joyful. To have my daughter go with me to the Tokyo Olympics -- it’s something that’s a dream of mine that I’ve always wanted to have, but I really didn’t think that it was going to happen this soon.”
Although Tuliamuk’s doctor usually would have prescribed a 12-week layoff before resuming her regular training, she allowed that eight weeks was the minimum.
“I’m excited to get back to training and go about Olympic business,” said Tuliamuk from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she and Gannon live part of the year. “I should be able to get up to things quickly.”
She told Runner’s World that even into her eighth month she was running 6 to 9 miles a day at about an 8-minute pace and would ask her unborn baby “if she is enjoying it as much as her mother is.”
After the delivery, Tuliamuk said on Instagram she was “up and walking around a few hours after she arrived, like give me a race right now,” with laughing emojis. “Kidding. We anticipate & hope for a quick recovery.”
Tuliamuk has begun strength training, and is doing cross training on the elliptical machine and biking with only minor discomfort. In April, she expects to move to her base in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“I feel like when I’m in Flagstaff I’m in training mode,” Tuliamuk said, “and if I were there right now I probably would be sneaking out at midnight and going out for runs, even though I’m not supposed to be running.”
However, she’s still on her feet. Taking care of a newborn, Tuliamuk said, “Some days I don’t know where the day went to – I feel like I’m just walking back and forth between the living room, the baby’s room, changing diapers and before I know it, the day’s gone.”
Tuliamuk is used to being around babies. Growing up in Kenya, she was one of 32 children. Her father had four wives and each had eight children. Tuliamuk attended Iowa State University and Wichita State University and became a U.S. citizen since 2016.
She said Zoe, a name she and Gannon chose because it means “life,” has not brought too many surprises. “My daughter is a very good kid,” Tuliamuk said. “She eats well, she doesn’t really fuss much, but she has her moments.”
She said when Zoe can’t sleep well, “Those times it’s incredibly hard to wake up and function, and she lamented that if she were in Kenya, she would have a lot more help. “But here it’s just me and my fiance,” Tuliamuk said. “Aside from that, it’s been pretty smooth.”
She is grateful for the support of her sponsors, coaches and management who “were on board with me right away from the get go.”
Tuliamuk recently got a grant from the USATF Foundation and said she can use that money towards babysitting.
She has taken Zoe out in a stroller, but said, “I almost dropped my baby a couple of times just because it’s really hard to balance running and moving a stroller around. I probably won’t be doing that a lot. Maybe I’ll just do it on days where I don’t want to run too fast.”
Tuliamuk said she sought out stories about other runners who are mothers, and found both encouragement and counsel.
In 2007, Paula Radcliffe won the New York City Marathon just 10 months after giving birth to her daughter, Isla. Kara Goucher was fifth at the 2011 Boston Marathon only seven months after having her son, Colt.
Tuliamuk said Goucher has advised her to “listen to your body, be patient.”
Sally Kipyego, who placed third at the Olympic trials and is the mother of 3 ½-year-old Emma, has also been in touch.
“I told Aliphine to just enjoy motherhood,” said Kipyego, 35. “Somebody else’s body is different, so the best way is just to let your body guide you.”
After giving birth in 2017, Kipyego had a difficult road ahead. She contracted malaria and pneumonia, but by September 2019 had dropped 3 minutes from her personal best in the Berlin Marathon.
“My experience, it wasn’t easy to come back,” she said. “It’s just different because you’ve never gone through that. Your body changes, your priorities change. And so it’s challenging. It’s not easy, but obviously it can be done. A lot of women have done this. She says she tends to get fit quicker, so I think she’ll be fine.”
Tuliamuk demonstrated her resiliency in 2019. After a stress fracture forced a long layoff, she had only 10 weeks of training to get ready for the 2019 New York City Marathon. She placed 12th, finishing in 2 hours, 28 minutes, 12 seconds. Her winning time four months later in Atlanta was 2:27:23, edging Molly Seidel by 8 seconds for the closest finish in U.S. women’s Olympic trials history.
Once she gets back in the swing of training, Tuliamuk plans to get in a race or two in the summer to assess her fitness. She said her dreams are filled with Tokyo and “doing things that no one can imagine that I’m going to be able to do, even myself. I dream about starting that race and being super conservative since it’s going to be a hard race and just picking up people who went out too hard.”
She also dreams about the last four to six miles “and feeling really good like I did in Atlanta, and just finishing really strong.”
Because of fears of extreme heat in Tokyo, the marathons will be held in Sapporo, where it is expected to be cooler. The course is flat compared to other major marathon courses.
“I think for me the mentality is that if you are fit, you’re fit,” Tuliamuk said. “If you train well and you prepare well, it doesn’t matter if it’s a hilly course or it’s a flat course.”
But she is trying not to dwell too much on the Games due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
“I’m actually more reserved just because I want to protect my heart in case the Games are cancelled,” Tuliamuk said. “It definitely worries me. It’s like, ‘You’re never going to be a full Olympian until you actually race.’
“I don’t know if I’ll have another opportunity to be at the Olympics again, so I’m really, really hoping that it happens, but I’m also trying to be not too super-optimistic about it just in case something happens and they cancel it.”
During the Zoom call, Galen Rupp, the men’s trials winner, reassured Tuliamuk. “Regardless, you still think of yourself as an Olympian,” he said. “ These are circumstances beyond any of our control and you made it. You qualified. You won the Trials, so I wouldn’t be too concerned about that.”
The father of four also gave Tuliamuk a pep talk.
While Rupp said he obviously can’t relate to what she’s going through after childbirth, he relayed the advice he and his wife Keara got from a nurse before their twins arrived in 2014.
“Find out what works for you and that’s the right decision for your family,” he said the nurse told them.
Rupp, who won the Olympic bronze medal in the marathon in 2016 and the silver medal in the 10,000 meters in 2012, added, “I have a saint of a wife. She really took the brunt of most of those sleepless nights to allow me to be able to train. Kids, there’s always challenges with them. There’s nothing that compares to the…”
Suddenly, Rupp was interrupted by one of his children screaming in the background.
“Right on cue,” he continued with a smile. “There’s nothing that remotely comes close to the joy and the strength that my kids have brought me as an athlete and more importantly as a person. I think it’s going to be a really positive thing for you. All I’ll say is that I just wish you luck. I think it’s incredible what you’re doing right now and just want to wish you all the best as you get ready, build yourself back up and get back to training.
“It sounds like you’re in a great spot. You’ve been doing all the right things, I’m sure you’ve got great people around you and there’s still a long time before the Olympics, so I’ve got no doubt that you’ll be ready.”
Tuliamuk responded, “You’re going to make me cry. Thank you.”