It will be Friday afternoon in New Mexico when a small, smiling 32-year-old woman named Aliphine Tuliamuk takes to the empty streets of Sapporo for the race of her life.
That’s Saturday morning there, the penultimate day of the 2021 Summer Olympic Games and the moment when, no matter what place she finishes in the women’s marathon, no matter if she finishes, she will make history.
She already has.
I’m no sportswriter, and I get winded just walking to my car, but I love the Olympics, warts, COVID-19 and all. I love cheering on the athletes who triumph over adversity and human foibles to prove they are the best they can be.
For me, you can’t get much better than our own Allie T.
Our own? Yup, she’s a New Mexican.
Tuliamuk is a resident of Santa Fe and has been since 2013, making her home there with partner Tim Gannon and their brand-new baby daughter, Zoe, born Jan. 13.
Yet Tuliamuk has largely been left off lists of Olympics competitors who hail from New Mexico. Her entry on the official Olympics website erroneously lists her hometown as Flagstaff, Arizona, and she talks often about her college days in Iowa and Kansas and growing up in her small Kenyan village.
Santa Fe gets little mention, though she does list the city as her hometown on her social media.
Flagstaff, actually, is the hometown of her coach, Ben Rosario, and the Northern Arizona Elite group she trains with.
A reader and long-distance runner brought Tuliamuk to my attention, disappointed that local media had not embraced the local Olympian. She herself hadn’t realized the local ties until she noticed that Tuliamuk’s social media posts include photos of her running through familiar Southwestern mesas, Gannon wearing a T-shirt with a Zia symbol and a green chile breakfast burrito he had waiting for her.
So, of course. New Mexico.
Like many other long-distance runners, Tuliamuk came to New Mexico to train in the state’s higher elevations. Then she fell in love.
“The higher elevation, rolly terrain, and never-ending dirt trails are a perfect combination for good training than going to the sea level for races,” she told the Journal’s Glen Rosales in a 2016 interview, the same year she became a U.S. citizen and the USA Track & Field distance runner of the year. “I liked running on the never-ending dirt trails, the beautiful yet unique adobe houses, the beautiful mountain terrain, which resembles my home village, though a bit dry, and the weather, which was so much cooler and less windy when compared to the Midwest one.”
Tuliamuk also fell in love with Gannon, a physicians assistant with a degree from the University of New Mexico and an outdoors enthusiast. They’ve been together since 2017 and became engaged New Year’s Day, two weeks before Zoe was born.
Folks at the Aspen Medical Center in Santa Fe where Gannon works say he’s on a leave of absence to accompany Tuliamuk – he was given an exception clearance to journey with her by serving as her personal coach.
Being from New Mexico already makes Tuliamuk pretty cool, but she’s amazing for other reasons.
She is one of the first two women of color to represent the United States in the marathon at the Olympics since 1984 when women were allowed to compete in the 26.2-mile race.
(The other is Sally Kipyego, who is the third member of the three-woman marathon team.)
For another, she’s largely credited with championing Olympian moms by persuading the Tokyo organizing committee to budge from its strict ban on allowing nursing mothers to take their children with them to the Games.
“If we want to support female athletes, part of being a female athlete is also having a family, and if you want to support me as a complete athlete, you should be able to make room for my family,” Tuliamuk said in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “You can’t just talk about supporting women and then not actually support them.”
About that family, that baby, that postpartum body. That Tuliamuk had a baby less than seven months ago, is still nursing and is in Olympics shape to run the most grueling endurance race is a testament to her training and determination. We mothers who struggled to do a couple of sit-ups after childbirth know just how huge that is.
“Coming back from pregnancy and childbirth is incredibly hard, it’s unlike anything I have ever done in the past, yet also very fulfilling to go home to my little one after any run whether it kicks my butt or not,” she wrote in a July 24 post on Facebook. “I don’t know what this means for my race but I am very optimistic.”
Various articles recount how Tuliamuk and Gannon had planned to start a family right after what was supposed to be the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, which she qualified for at the February 2020 team trials in Atlanta, where she came in first with a time of 2:27:23 (her personal best is 2:26:50).
Then came COVID-19, which postponed the games until this summer.
So Tuliamuk did the math.
“The rest of 2020 looked super-dark with everybody being quarantined and staying home,” she said in a video by Hoka, the athletic shoe company that sponsors her. “So my partner and I decided to create our own light at the end of the tunnel.”
Tuliamuk is quite a light herself, her story one of pursuing a dream wherever it takes you; of a little girl, the fourth of 32 siblings raised in a Kenyan village where running was the only mode of transportation.
It is the story of a young woman who received her first pair of running shoes from her own role model, Kenyan marathon legend Tegla Laroupe, and never stopped running, her journey taking her far from that village to college in the American Midwest on scholarships to the high country of Santa Fe.
This Saturday morning, it takes her to those streets of Sapporo, 500 miles north of Tokyo, where the marathon was moved out of concerns over the host city’s sweltering temperatures.
Cheering crowds that usually line the route have been asked to stay away over COVID-19 concerns. But I’d like to think that the cheers will come, from a distance, strong and sustaining from around the world and across the country, from women, from people of color, from mothers and from others who believe in human spirit and hard work.
Let those cheers be especially loud in New Mexico. She’s one of us.
Now you know that.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, email@example.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.