Feature03 Apr 2020

Tuliamuk continues idol Loroupe's running, philanthropic legacy


Aliphine Tuliamuk takes the US Olympic Trials Marathon title in Atlanta (© Getty Images)

Aliphine Tuliamuk still remembers the day she received her first pair of running shoes.

Nearly 20 years ago, the future 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials champion was just another promising young runner in the Rift Valley province of her native Kenya. Only 11 years old, she was selected to compete in the state meet in the 10,000m after outracing older girls in the arduous event.

On their way to the competition, her coach – Geoffrey Ptormos, a distant relative of Tuliamuk’s – arranged for Tegla Loroupe to come meet the team. The local Kapenguria legend was training for the 2000 Olympic Games as the favourite for the marathon and the 5000m, and by then had captured two New York City Marathon titles, three world half marathon titles, and was the world record holder in the marathon twice over, with her best effort of 2:20:43 standing until September 2001. 

But Tuliamuk didn’t know any of that quite yet. Instead, it was Loroupe who was quite taken with the young runner’s abilities.

“The athletes I had beaten in the 10,000 were way older than me, so Tegla was very impressed by my performances,” Tuliamuk remembers. “She ended up giving me a pair of shoes and she became my hero instantly.”

Tuliamuk didn’t race in the brand-new flats right away – “no way, I wasn’t used to wearing shoes and racing, I thought they would hold me back” – but she treasured the gift, saving the new shoes for special occasions. 

“It meant the world to me,” she says. “I was barefoot at the time, so to get this really beautiful, clean pair of shoes from her was awesome.”

Modest roots

Tuliamuk shrugs off her humble upbringing as normal.

She and her 31 siblings, all born to the same father from four different mothers under the culturally accepted practice of polygamy, ran two miles, barefoot, to and from school everyday, as did her friends. Running is so ingrained in everyday life that those with natural abilities in the sport are easily spotted. But of Tuliamuk’s immediate community, she was the only one to pursue competitive running.

Ptormos noticed Tuliamuk’s burgeoning talent and invited her to come live with his family in a neighbouring village after the state competition in 2000 so he could coach her. She lived with them on and off for eight years, until she finished high school.

Her best performance during that time came in 2005, when she placed ninth in the U20 race at the World Cross Country Championships as a 15-year-old. The World Cross was held in Saint-Galmier, France, where the beds were the size of three beds back home and the travel van was outfitted with mini TVs. At the post-race party, runners danced to music and chowed down on fancy French pastries.

The event opened Tuliamuk’s mind to the vast opportunities that running could afford her.

But as the idea of running professionally and competing in the Olympic Games lodged itself in her brain, Tuliamuk also wanted to succeed in the classroom. Athletics was not a big priority at her high school and by her last year, she had stopped running entirely.

“Running took a backseat and education became a priority because of the environment,” she says. “For other athletes, when they go to school, their main goal is to run well and education takes a backseat; whereas for me, it was vice versa.”

Adjusting to life in the US 

Tuliamuk planned to resume intense training upon graduation and hoped to pick up where she left off. She says now that if she had stayed in Kenya after high school, she likely would have quit the sport. But a chance encounter with Barnabas Korir of Athletics Kenya connected her to his alma mater, Iowa State University, where she was offered an athletics scholarship based on the strength of her 2005 World Cross results.

She had a long way to go to regain that form.

“I was really out of shape,” she says. “It was hard to shake off the weight.”

The culture shock of moving to the United States from Kenya didn’t make things easier.

“If you’re coming from rural Kenya, there’s a gap between six months to a year where you don’t know what’s going on,” she says. “The first year, I don’t even remember seeing the leaves change. For six months, I was in a dark place.”

But as she grew accustomed to life in the United States, her running improved and she realised she wanted to attend a school with a nursing programme. She ultimately transferred to Wichita State, where she ran well enough to earn all-American honours and, later, launch a professional running career.

Crossing paths with Loroupe again, this time in Kampala

She became a US citizen in 2016 and aimed to qualify for the Rio Games, where she heard Loroupe would be leading the Refugee Team. Tuliamuk fell short of that goal, placing eighth in the 10,000m at the US Trials. However, she was serendipitously reunited with her idol the following year at the World Cross Country Championships in Kampala, where she placed 15th as the top finisher for the US squad.

“It was one of the best moments of my life to be able to go up to her and tell her how grateful I was, how she inspired me,” Tuliamuk says.

Since retiring from the sport, Loroupe has dedicated herself to a number of philanthropic endeavours. She established the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation in 2003 to promote peace through athletics, and has hosted a series of Peace Races in African countries to mitigate conflict, with great success. She was named a United Nations Ambassador for Sport in 2006, and United Nations Person of the Year in Kenya in 2016 for her work organising the Refugee Team at the Rio Olympic Games.

And, of course, there’s the shoes she gave Tuliamuk, which influenced the young runner to one day carry on that Olympic legacy to the Tokyo Games. Tuliamuk now, too, sees it as her duty to pay it forward to the next generation of athletes.

Tuliamuk’s sponsor, Hoka One One, donated 24 pairs of shoes to the children in her village, which she was planning to deliver on a trip back to Kenya this spring. Those plans have been temporarily delayed due to the travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but she hopes to have the opportunity to gift the gear soon enough.

She also dreams of establishing a larger partnership with Hoka to continue giving back to her community.

“Knowing how much of a difference it made in my life, it’s something that I’d love to explore more,” she says. “Now that I have this platform as someone going to the Olympics next year, it’s a greater opportunity to give back to my community to inspire those kids, give them the help they need and encourage them to follow their educational goals and running goals.”

Johanna Gretschel for World Athletics