The inspiring story behind Aliphine Tuliamuk's rise to the top of elite running

Aliphine Tuliamuk is a favorite to win this year's TCS New York City Marathon -- and won three national road titles last year. Courtesy New York Road Runners

Aliphine Tuliamuk was 12 years old when she qualified for her first 10,000-meter provincial race in Kenya in 2001. She had focused all of her energy on getting into that race, but there was one glitch in the plan: She did not own a pair of running shoes. Until then, she'd run with any footwear she could lay her hands on -- loafers, flats, sandals. But she knew that wouldn't do for her first real competition.

As one of 32 siblings in her family -- her father had four wives, and each had eight children -- she couldn't just go up to her parents and ask for money for running shoes. She had almost given up on participating in the race when legendary Kenyan marathoner Tegla Loroupe stopped by Tuliamuk's school to speak about women in sports.

After the talk, Loroupe, who in 1994 became the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon, walked over to Tuliamuk and handed her a new pair of running shoes. They shook hands, and Loroupe continued giving merchandise to other kids.

Tuliamuk ran that first 10,000-meter race in the shoes provided by Loroupe -- and every race she'd enter until she grew out of them.

You might say Tuliamuk, now 28, used that footwear to follow Loroupe's footsteps. Tuliamuk, too, became a successful runner. And on Nov. 5, she will compete in the TCS New York City Marathon for the first time, hoping to join her idol among the famed race's pantheon of champions.

And like Loroupe, Tuliamuk has been using her running career to make a difference in her homeland, saving running shoes, T-shirts and other merchandise on tour and distributing the goods to children during trips back to Kenya.

"I want to kick-start kids' careers the same way Loroupe did with mine," she said.

Earlier this year, Tuliamuk reunited with Loroupe during the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Uganda and recounted the story of their first meeting.

"She didn't remember the incident at all," Tuliamuk said, "but that day changed my life."

Growing up in the remote village of Kongelai in the Rift Valley Province in western Kenya, Tuliamuk says she ran 6 to 8 miles a day by the time she was 6 years old. She ran to the river to fetch water for the house, to school so she could make it on time and to the market every evening for groceries.

"It is the way of life for us," she said.

Without realizing it, Tuliamuk was training to be a runner.

She started competing in track and field for her school in fourth grade, wanting to join an older sister in the program. She started training seriously in sixth grade, and by eighth grade she made her first nationals, placing second in the 10,000 meters. In high school, she represented Kenya in the junior race at the World Cross Country Championships.

While running seemed easy for Tuliamuk, life in Kenya wasn't. Two of her brothers died of illness, and she watched, feeling helpless, while others suffered because there was a lack of proper healthcare. She knew she would try to help her country in any way she could in the future.

To that end, she kept up her grades in high school and kept winning races. U.S. colleges took notice, and she received a full athletic scholarship to Iowa State University.

America was indeed a land of dreams for Tuliamuk. The dorm rooms, the roads, the grocery stores -- everything seemed grander. Are we in paradise?, she thought to herself during her first weeks in the U.S.

Tuliamuk competed at Iowa State for two seasons in 2009-2011, winning All-America honors in cross country as a sophomore, before transferring to Wichita State, which offered the major she wanted to pursue: public health science. By the time she finished her college career in 2013, she'd been a first-team All-American nine times in cross country and track.

To make the transition from college track and field to professional road racing, Tuliamuk started working with Ryan Bolton, a former professional triathlete who in 2009 had started a training program for East African athletes in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

During their first interaction, Bolton was surprised by how inquisitive Tuliamuk was. In his experience, East Africa runners usually didn't talk much, but Tuliamuk asked him at least 20 questions.

"If you meet Aliphine, you will remember her," he said. "She can talk to complete strangers for hours."

Despite her naturally upbeat demeanor, Tuliamuk started having doubts after struggling competitively during her first couple of years as a pro. While things were going well in practice, it wasn't translating to races. After she placed eighth in the 2015 New York City Half Marathon, she thought, "I am done. I don't want to run anymore."

But she dragged herself to practice the next day, and soon things started getting better. One race went well, and then another. With each positive result, her confidence increased.

Bolton says Tuliamuk has the drive that makes an athlete go from "good to great."

"When you put that goal in front of her, she chases it like none other," he added.

In 2016, Tuliamuk won three national road titles (25K, 20K and 5K) and wound up as the USATF Running Circuit season champion. It was a memorable year in other ways, too. She became an American citizen in April and competed in the U.S. Olympic trials in the 10,000 meters in July.

"I am Kenyan-American -- it still feels surreal to say that out loud," she said.

When not training or competing, Tuliamuk puts her education to use as a caregiver in Santa Fe, with an eye toward pursuing a masters in nursing after her running career. One of her big dreams is to launch a foundation to support a free clinic in Kenya.

Another, more immediate, goal is to win the TCS New York City Marathon.

"Winning a world major marathon, especially New York, would mean the world to me," she said. "That is how I give back to America for taking me in and making me the athlete I am today."

New York is one of her favorite cities for training. She loves getting lost in the running world of Central Park. It reminds her of Kenya -- at lower altitude.

Her long-term athletic goal is to represent her adopted country at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and win a medal.

"That would be the American dream," she said.