Some details from the life of Aliphine Tuliamuk are almost impossible to conceive, like how as a young girl growing up in rural Kenya, she carried 30 liters of water uphill with a baby cousin strapped to her chest every morning.
“That was not fun,” she said.
Others are a little easier to comprehend, like how the defending champion of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race sometimes doesn’t like to get up to run.
“The hard part is getting up and putting on my running clothes, and getting out of the house,” Tuliamuk said. “After running a few miles, I’m like, this isn’t bad.”
Tuliamuk (whose name is pronounced al-i-feen tull-e-ah-mook) will be at the starting line Wednesday morning, a favorite to win the women’s race, which will double as the USA Track and Field 10-kilometer championship. A naturalized U.S. citizen, she decided to defend her title for a number of reasons, one of which was the experience of winning the world’s largest 10K race on Independence Day last year.
Not given to emotion, she teared up after crossing the finish line.
“It was one of the most special moments I’ve had in my entire career, so I wanted to be able to come back and hopefully experience that again,” Tuliamuk said.
Given her humble roots, Tuliamuk would be a champion easy to applaud. Tuliamuk, 29, was one of 32 children (yes, that’s correct; her father had four wives) growing up in Kenya. Besides her water-fetching chores – she said she strapped a 20-liter container on her back and held five-liter jugs in each hand, a total of 66 pounds – she milked the family’s sheep and ran about two miles to school barefoot.
“It was never a big deal,” she said of the water toting. “I was never like, wow, I’m doing this, or anything. It was normal. It’s what I knew.”
When she was in elementary school – she thinks about fourth grade – two baby brothers died for lack of access to medical care, she said. It provided her motivation to go into the medical field, and she earned a degree in public health science from Wichita State.
“When this chapter of my life is over with, I want to go back to school,” she said. “I want to get my nursing degree and I want to go back to my village and volunteer my services to people who need it.”
Her gratitude to the nation where she earned her degree and has run professionally led her to seek U.S. citizenship, which she received in 2016. It also drives her to represent the country in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. She hopes to do so in the marathon, which she can do with a top-three finish in the U.S. trials held in Atlanta next February. (The chance to tour at least some of the course – which has not been finalized – was another reason Tuliamuk, who lives and trains in northern Arizona, wanted to come back to Atlanta.)
“Hopefully in the future, if things go well, like running in the world championships and making the Olympics, that would be my way of showing my gratitude,” she said.
Look for her charging up Cardiac Hill on Wednesday. It’s a lot easier without 20 liters of water on your back.
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