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Ahead of Marathon Trials, Defending Champion Aliphine Tuliamuk on Motherhood, Injury and What Matters Most

Life looks very different for 11-time U.S. champion Aliphine Tuliamuk four years after the Olympic Marathon Trials for Tokyo, where she became the first Black woman to win that event and secured a spot on her first Olympic team. When the Games were postponed to 2021 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuliamuk decided to use the delay to realize another dream: becoming a mother. She gave birth to daughter Zoe in January 2021 and competed in the Olympic marathon just seven months later while still breastfeeding.

While Tuliamuk had to drop out of that marathon, held north of the host city of Tokyo in Sapporo, due to a hip injury, she’s come roaring back since, running personal bests in the half marathon and marathon and recording a top-ten finish at the 2022 New York City Marathon. Tuliamuk will tell you it’s no accident that she’s running the best times of her life since becoming a mom.

While the buildup to her second Marathon Trials has been hampered by a hamstring injury, Tuliamuk still enters the Orlando Trials as the defending champion and a proven contender

The 34-year-old spoke with NBC Sports in early January about that hamstring injury and the status of her recovery, her unique experience in Tokyo, why she didn’t feel celebrated after her 2020 Trials victory, her thoughts on the depth of the U.S. women’s field, and what she values most from her upbringing in Kenya below.

The 2024 U.S. Marathon Trials take place on Saturday, February 3 in Orlando, Florida. Live coverage of the race will be available on Peacock at 10:00 AM ET with an encore presentation on NBC at 12:00 PM.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

For people that don’t really follow Marathon running outside of the Olympics, the last time they saw you was at the Tokyo Games. Your first Olympics, where you competed just 7 months after having your daughter Zoe. What has life looked for you since Tokyo? I know you’ve competed in two major marathons since but can you walk me through your competitive journey post Tokyo?

Aliphine Tuliamuk: Life has been actually up and down. I came out of Tokyo with an injury and healed from that and had a really good marathon in New York and then went to Boston last year. I finished 11th place but I did run really well. I ran faster than I’d ever went before so I made progress but then I had to pull out of Chicago this past fall because I had a hamstring injury. I’m actually still dealing with that injury even as I head into the Trials. Some days it’s great, some days I’m like are we going two steps back again?

I haven’t competed as much as I would have liked to because my body has just not allowed me to train at the level that I need to.

How are you feeling now and what has your training and recovery looked like?

Tuliamuk: Over the last eight weeks I have actually been training but I’m behind from where I would like to be right now. I don’t think I’m as fit as I would have liked to be. In fact, today [early January] I was supposed to do a workout but my hamstring wasn’t feeling good. This was the first workout that I had to miss out of caution... It’s one of those things where I’m going with the flow.

We are in a situation where U.S. marathoning—especially on the women’s side—is at such a high level. We have so many women that can make the [Olympic] team and in order to do so you have to bring your A-game and have a perfect build up to be very, very fit. I just don’t think I’m as fit as I would like to be. I’m running the miles, I’m doing the workouts but I’m just not running them as fast as I would like to be running right now. But that’s life. I’m going to be 35 in a few months and I think the mileage is catching up with me so I just need to probably train different.

I read your post on Instagram after the Boston Marathon last April where you said that thinking of your daughter made you smile and forget the pain during the difficult parts of the race. How difficult has your training and recovery been and how has Zoe been your motivation?

Tuliamuk: My daughter just turned three on January 13. Having her is the greatest thing for me in this whole world. Even as I [experience] ups and downs in my training, she’s always there for me smiling, excited, cheering me on and trying to actually out-compete me. She loves to run already and I don’t even take her to practices. She’s the joy in my life that I needed and I’m so grateful to have her. Even when I have a really bad workout or when my hamstring is not feeling great, she’s always there smiling.

[Being her mom] gives me a greater purpose. I love running. I’m very passionate about it, but it is my job. My greatest purpose in this life is to be Zoe’s mom and guide her to be the best daughter that she can be.

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On a day-to-day basis how are you balancing your career—running—with your purpose—motherhood?

Tuliamuk: I would have to say that I’m really grateful for daycare [laughs]. I grew up in Kenya where we had a large family, we are communal society, and everybody helps each other. Here in America, you’re just kind of on your own. Without daycare, I don’t really know how my husband and I would be able to manage our careers and raise her the right way. So it’s been nice that she gets to go to preschool and play with other kids and then we’re able to maximize the time we have together at home.

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We spoke with Betsy Saina this week and she talked about what a role model and inspiration you’ve been to her. Can you talk about your relationship a bit?

Tuliamuk: Betsy and I actually went to college together. We were roommates at Iowa State University... I remember throughout college wherever Betsy was, I was there. We were with each other until we graduated and then we took different paths. Betsy is somebody that I’ve known for a long time and whenever I go to Kenya, I actually stay at her place because she has a rental.

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The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials take place this February in Orlando. How are you feeling physically and mentally leading up to it?

Tuliamuk: It’s been a grind both physically and mentally. If I was 100% healthy, then it will be good and exciting. But when I have days like today, where I had to skip my workout, [I worry] that I’m losing so much and about whether or not I’ll be able to catch up. It’s exciting but also terrifying because if you [don’t finish] within the top 3, then it feels like you didn’t complete the purpose of the race.

It’s so tough, especially as the defending champion. I really wanted to go into this feeling very, very confident. I’ve had a lot of marathon build-ups where it was very abbreviated. This is one of them. I’m just hoping that what I have done is going to be enough to be to put me in a good place to compete with those women.

The depth of the U.S. women’s field is very exciting. We’ve seen U.S. women win marathons in Boston and New York and I think that if we continue to work together and uplift each other, one of these days we’re going to be just as good as anyone else in the world and I would love to see that!

At the 2020 Trials, your first U.S. trials for marathon, you came in as the No. 10 seed. For people who weren’t familiar with your many U.S. titles, you were probably considered an underdog, but you left as the champion. How do you think this experience will be different for you now that you have a bit of a target on your back?

Tuliamuk: There’s nothing that makes you more grateful than being injured. Even though everybody’s looking at me and I’m not an underdog anymore, I’m going into this race with a lot of gratitude. Two months ago, I didn’t think I was going to be able to do this race because of where I was with my injury and training so I’m just grateful. When I go into races with a lot of gratitude, it’s like I have nothing to lose and I have everything to gain.

I’m glad that I’m there to represent my family, my sponsors that have been there for me, and to hopefully represent my country if I make that [Olympic team].

I’m also experienced. I know how to run marathons. Marathons are not like a 10k. It’s a really, really long journey. Whoever gets to 25 miles gets to actually decide if they get to make the Olympic team or not.

Aliphine Tuliamuk

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 29: Aliphine Tuliamuk poses after winning the Women’s U.S. Olympic marathon team trials on February 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Going back to that 2020 moment, you were the first Black woman to win the U.S. Marathon Trials and I feel like you didn’t get your roses. I was watching an interview you did and you said when you came back from Atlanta, you felt like people didn’t celebrate your achievement and you wondered if it was because you were a Black woman. Can you talk about that experience?

Tuliamuk: Now that almost four years have passed since then... I think that Americans are very proud people. A lot of people feel that if you’re not born in America, then you’re not “American enough”. I feel like because I am an immigrant from Kenya, people just didn’t feel like I was American enough because they’re like, well, you’re not American born.

But then I’m like I’ve lived here now for like 15 years. My daughter was born here. My husband grew up here, I invest here. This is where I live, this is where I train. What do I need to do to be American enough? I pay my taxes. I do everything that every American does.

I think that people just didn’t appreciate the fact that I wasn’t born here. I don’t know how that would have made a difference. I don’t think that it had anything to do with me being Black as much as it had something to do with me being born in Kenya. In the last 15 years, I’ve only been to Kenya for a combined total of 3 months. In the last 15 years, this is my home. This is where everything happens for me.

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Thank you for sharing that! How are you different as an athlete and a person going into the 2024 U.S Olympic Marathon Trials compared to the last Olympic cycle?

Tuliamuk: I think with this one I’ve realized that I’ve had an amazing life and career in running. I’m going to do it for the people that matter to me— my family, my coaches, my team, my sponsors that have stood by me as I’ve gone through a lot of challenges. I want to go into this and do everything within my powers to perform to the best of my abilities to show them that I appreciate everything that they’ve done.

When I think about my daughter and my husband, they are at the receiving end of everything. If training is not going well, I come home grumpy and they have to deal with that. My husband has to rearrange his schedule to [accommodate] mine—sometimes even miss work—so that I can achieve my dream. So I want to do this to the best of my abilities to show them that I really appreciate and see what they do for me. Even with my family back in Africa, I don’t get to see them enough so I want to show them that I appreciate them.

Last time I was young and didn’t have a lot of responsibilities. Now that I’m a mom to a three-year-old I want to set an example for her. I want to show her that you can achieve your dreams when you work hard. Life will throw you punches but you don’t give up. Figure out a way to get through them and continue pursuing your goals.

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Tokyo was a complex and unique experience for you. Not only were you dealing with an injury and getting prepared to compete but you were also still breastfeeding and had to be an advocate for yourself to make sure that you would be able to continue to do that. Can you tell me about that experience and challenge?

Tuliamuk: When we decided to have a child, I never foresaw a situation where my daughter was not going to come with me [ to the Olympics]. I didn’t even know what it would be like to be a mom. I thought I would breastfeed for 2 or 3 months and then stop but once my daughter arrived, I was like there’s no way I’m going to stop breastfeeding [yet].

When the news broke that she was not going to be able to come, I was very, very heartbroken. I remember thinking there’s absolutely no way that I’m going to be able to go 11 days without her. Even today, the longest I’ve gone away without her is six days, and those six days were very hard. I don’t think I could go 11 days today, let alone when she was six months old.

My husband and I decided to write a letter to the Olympic Committee and it kind of spiraled. I didn’t intend to become an advocate but I was just trying to do what was best for me and my daughter. I am so grateful that by speaking it gained traction and something that had never been talked about before was talked about. Going forward, breastfeeding moms won’t have to choose between going to the Olympics and leaving their child behind.

There are few athletes that had such a big change between crossing the finish line at the 2020 U.S. Trials to actually running the Marathon in Sapporo. What are your memories of the Tokyo Olympic marathon? Are they positive or frustrating?

Tuliamuk: I think I might have been the first athlete to decide to have a child at the peak of my career, with the Olympics coming up. You can take that as bold and amazing, or dumb but ever since I decided to do it, we’ve seen so many high-level athletes have children. Someone called it a “baby boom” for the running community.

I didn’t want my running to stand in the way of me having a family and I knew I would be taking a risk having a child between the Trials and the Olympics. I couldn’t imagine waiting a year to have my baby. I’m really glad that I did that...As women in sports, your peak running years are your peak child-bearing years so if I had to wait until I retired, who knows, I may not have been able to have a child.

For me, success without my family to share it with has no value. I’m glad that I took that risk because even as I struggle with being injured right now, I have my family. At some point I will retire from running but I will always have my family.

Aliphine and Husband 1.JPG


In Tokyo, a lot of my experience was actually shadowed by my injury. It wasn’t that I had a child. After I [gave birth], I came back and trained really well and got really fit. I knew I probably wasn’t going to win the marathon but it was really exciting and I wanted to see what I could do. But then I injured my hip during my last workout before the Games. I was sad that I was letting my country down, letting my people down—the people that stood by me. A lot of people had been skeptical about whether or not I would be able to [make a] comeback and [in that moment] I felt sad because I was proving them right.

You became an American citizen in 2016. Everyone’s American dream and journey looks different but I was reading a tribute you posted on Instagram and your American dream and journey has given you: a paid college education, your husband Tim, your daughter Zoe, a way to provide for your family back home in Kenya. With all of that being said what would it mean for you to qualify for your second Olympic Games and represent the United States—a country that has given you so much?

Tuliamuk: Oh my gosh, I can’t even put that into words, especially now. Even though my daughter will not be able to remember it, just having her there and showing her the way will be amazing. Being able to represent this amazing country that has given me so much will mean a lot to me.

I feel like I never really got to represent it at the Tokyo Games in a way that I thought I would...COVID took away from some of the experiences. I never went to the Opening Ceremony because they weren’t allowing people to be there for that long. I didn’t get to wear the clothes that they gave us for it. I only went to the Closing Ceremony. We didn’t stay in the Olympic Village because the marathon was in Sapporo, so I feel like I didn’t really get the Olympic experience that every other Olympian has had. In a way, I actually feel like I have not even gone to the Olympics yet.

Watching Molly Seidel go on to win a bronze medal at the Olympics was super amazing. Anything is possible and I would love to get a chance to see what’s possible for me and for my country.

You were born and raised in Kenya and that’s obviously a huge part of who you are. I was reading about your childhood in an interview you did and it was filled with stories from your grandparents and chores. How did that upbringing shape you into the person you are today?

Tuliamuk: In the village, especially when I was growing up, school wasn’t really something that was emphasized so we would have sleepovers at our grandparents houses and they would tell us stories. Spending time with our grandparents, with nieces, nephews, and cousins was so much fun! It was a really cool childhood.

I’ve taken my daughter a couple of times to Kenya and I love to see her interact with her cousins. I hope that she will be able to have a little bit of that.

[My upbringing] made me really, really strong. We didn’t have a whole lot growing up but we were happy. We had each other. I’ve talked about the fact that I didn’t have shoes until I was in fourth grade but I didn’t feel like I missed [out on anything] because that’s what everybody was like. No one had shoes.

Now when I go through challenges or even when running is tough, I think about my upbringing. I think about how difficult life was and I think about all those children that are in Africa that are growing up without a whole lot, and I realize how much of a privilege I have to be here. I want to work hard so that hopefully I can help someone else and give them opportunities that I was given.

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A misconception about Africa is that it’s this poor and destitute place. Your parents were farmers. In an interview you did with Women’s Running I like that you said “the way you grew up is not considered poor”. Some countries within the continent may lack certain resources but are rich in other ways. What are some things that you are proud of about Kenyan culture—things that you would consider yourself “rich in”?

Tuliamuk: We were not poor by the standards of where I grew up. The fact that we didn’t have shoes or a lot of clothes doesn’t mean that we were poor. We had food. My parents were farmers but they had a lot of animals. We always had milk. We grew our own food. We didn’t lack food. We had a home and we have a lot of land.

When you think about the standards of the Western culture, you have an education and you have a job, then you look at people like that, and say they’re poor. But when I go home people are very happy. When I think about the Western life, you work so hard to make money and you use that money to buy stuff but the moment you lose that job, you’re completely poor. You can go from being a very wealthy person to being homeless in like a year. Whereas for us in Africa, you don’t have money but you have your land, you have your home, and you have your community. So we are really not poor.

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I’m very proud of the Kenyan culture that I grew up in where it’s about community. People come together to help each other. You don’t feel alone. You always have people to laugh with even when you don’t have food. You could be working and somebody invites you to share their lunch with them. Whereas over here, you don’t even know your next door neighbor. I feel like our Western way of life is poor in some things. We may have money, but I think there’s a lot of things that we don’t have, like community.