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Almost exactly a year ago, on February 29, 2020, in Atlanta, Aliphine Tuliamuk won the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. And after crossing that finish line, she thought she knew what the rest of the year would look like: training for the Tokyo Games, competing in August, and, hopefully, celebrating on the podium in Japan with a medal draped around her neck.
Of course, just after that life-altering Leap Day moment, the world shut down and the pandemic threw everyone—and everything—into upheaval. The Olympics were rescheduled for July 2021. Big races like the New York City and Boston marathons were canceled. And Tuliamuk wondered how much of the rest of her life she should put on hold as the weeks went by with no coronavirus relief in sight.
Making the Olympic team was a huge career goal, of course. But aside from professional running, Tuliamuk, 31, also dreamed of becoming a mother. And as it turned out, she wasn’t willing to wait to start a family. She and her now-fiancé, Tim Gannon, decided to get on with it. And on January 13, 2021, Tuliamuk gave birth to their daughter, Zoe Cherotich Gannon.
“A year ago, I definitely did not imagine this,” Tuliamuk said. “I knew that we were going to Tokyo and then maybe I’d run the New York City Marathon, and then take Tim to Kenya to meet my family. I stare at Zoe and I can’t believe I’m a mom. Sometimes I feel like I’m being pranked.”
Now Tuliamuk is about five months away from race day—the women’s Olympic marathon in Sapporo is scheduled for August 7, when she’s planning to join fellow Americans Molly Seidel and Sally Kipyego on the starting line. At six weeks postpartum, Tuliamuk spoke with our sister publication, Women’s Running, by phone about giving birth, motherhood, recovery, her gradual reintroduction to training, and more.
(The interview is edited for length and clarity.)
Women’s Running: How are you feeling?
Aliphine Tuliamuk: I feel good. You know, I feel so ready to start running, but I’m supposed to wait for a couple more weeks. I feel as good as anyone can six weeks after giving birth. The birth was just as easy, I think, as you can get. My recovery should be fast. A couple days after birth I was feeling good and I’ve continued to feel better. The only thing I have is discomfort on my lower abdomen. I was talking to my doctor and it’s normal. It’s not going away right away. I thought at six weeks you are completely pain-free, but that’s just not the case. It’s something that can be managed. I’m thrilled and so ready to start running.
WR: How is Zoe? Tell us about her.
AT: Zoe is so cute. Zoe is growing like a weed. Oh my God—like a weed you put too much fertilizer on. She’s growing so fast and changing. I’m kind of like, “Where is my baby?” But she’s such a sweet girl. I don’t think she’s a cry baby. Of course she has her moments where she can’t be consoled right away, but for the most part she’s a really great kid. She sleeps for two hours and she eats like a marathoner. I wonder why? [laughing] She’s getting ready to wear size two diapers and she’s only 43 days olds. Geez. Slow down. She’s outgrowing all the newborn stuff. We had so many clothes that people in the running community sent us.
She’s really sweet and so cute. I look at her and I’m like, “Is that really our baby? For real? We’re not dreaming?” She’s an awesome kid. I don’t really have words to describe Zoe quite yet. It doesn’t feel real. And she has such beautiful hair. I’m all about the hair—I want her to have better hair than mine. It’s beautiful. She has that going for her.
WR: What was the birth like?
AT: It definitely wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t know what to expect. I was terrified. Seriously. I honestly didn’t believe I would be able to birth a baby. We ended up getting induced at 38 and a half weeks because Zoe was a small baby. She weighed 5.5 pounds when she was born, which was perfect for me. I worked so hard when I was pregnant to grow her, but she just wanted to be small. I came to find out that my mom always had small kids and I was a small baby, too. She was just destined to be small.
Eventually they advised me to induce at 38 weeks. I was so naive. I thought I’d get induced and in 12 hours I’d have my daughter. It ended up being 50 hours. That was the longest marathon I’ve ever ran. I don’t know how people have natural births. I will never do that. I don’t think I have what it takes. After 34 hours I said, “Give me the epidural.” That was much better.
My doctor was amazing. I was worried about getting a perineal tear, but my doctor was incredible. My pelvic floor specialist advised me on what position to try to give birth in that will prevent chances of getting a tear…I avoided a [perineal] tear but for some reason I ended up with a tear on my cervix. I guess it’s very rare. That was the advantage I had.
I don’t know how my mom gave birth to 11 children. No. Everything with pregnancy was easy for me—I was able to run for most of it. And now having the baby, I still haven’t felt like it’s a lot of work, and maybe it’s because I grew up in Kenya and had a lot of kids around who I babysat. It gave me a different perspective. Of course there are days where she doesn’t sleep and I haven’t slept a lot and that’s difficult. But I’m not stressed. I’m lucky for sure.
WR: Is motherhood what you expected? What are the surprises?
AT: You will never know what it feels like to be a mom until you are a mom, honestly. I look at my daughter and the feeling I get I can’t describe it. I’m just so happy. I didn’t realize how good motherhood is. Thank god I didn’t know—I probably would have had a kid at 17. I would go to a friend’s house and their kids would be fussing. I love kids, but I thought, “Thank god I can give them back.” Now I do things for her, like wake up at 3 a.m. when I’m so sleepy and I’m just like, “Yes, m’am. I’ll do whatever you need me to do.” I get up and feed her and change her diaper and then she poops again. It’s just so different. I didn’t think you could love someone that much. It doesn’t feel like work. It’s not a chore. It’s just so automatic. Whenever I heard people talk about the love of their children, I thought it was very cliche because I’m a very skeptical person. You know what? They were right. I was skeptical for no reason.
The only thing I feel is difficult and overwhelming is trying to go somewhere. You know how you wrote about me always being late? Now I can’t imagine how late I’m going to be. It feels like a huge undertaking to go somewhere with a baby.
WR: How is the sleep going? Have you been able to get any?
AT: Yes. As an athlete I can sleep any time. I’m not a night sleeper. Last night I went to bed at 2 a.m. The last two nights I didn’t sleep well and then yesterday I had a lot of stuff going on, so I took a nap at 7 p.m. Imagine that. I woke up at 9 p.m. and I felt good, so I did my strength training, core work, then I finished my ElliptiGO at 11 p.m. Then I took my shower and ate my dinner. There are days when I’m really sleepy and we sleep until 3 p.m. We get up and feed then go back to bed. Even though I’m not sleeping hours straight, I’m still getting a lot of one-hour and two-hour sleeps that I’m basically caught up. I think for people who can’t sleep during the day, it’s very difficult.
WR: Have you gotten any really valuable advice from other pro-running moms that’s been especially helpful?
AT: The best advice I’ve gotten is to be easy on myself coming back. I want to go for a run right now. I just want to cheat and go for a run even though I’m advised to not do that for two more weeks. But I know that the advice is valuable. Just seeing my teammate Stephanie [Bruce] and Kellyn [Taylor] who took their time and how strong they came back is awesome. I am very ambitious and I feel that I’m going to come back very strong, but you also have to let your body tell you what to do. I’m trying. I’m going to be cognizant and listen to my body more—train hard, but train smarter, not run myself into the ground. The last thing I want to do is get injured.
The one disadvantage we have in our sport is that people don’t talk a lot about their experiences. It would be nice if we were all open and so you could read what happened to others. That’s why I’m trying to share my story. It’s not always easy but I want a future mom to know that I started running again at eight weeks and it went excellent. I hope that’s what happens.
WR: You’ve said that you’re working with a few specialists, including a pelvic floor therapist. What guidance are you receiving?
AT: I ended up having a diastasis recti—a small one. I was kind of shocked because my daughter was very small. Some of the core exercises I’d usually do, my therapist advised me not to do. She’s given me alternatives and different exercises to strengthen my pelvic floor muscles, which will eventually hold everything together. The issues we end up having is not necessarily that we can’t run is that the pelvis is just so messed up. By strengthening that, you have a better chance of not having complications. I’m doing core exercises that don’t strain my front so I don’t make the diastasis recti bigger. I need to get strong but not make it worse.
Just having somebody who’s a woman, an expert, and also had kids, clear you to do some things is awesome. I started doing cross-training a few weeks ago and I wouldn’t have known I could do that before six weeks. It’s awesome to have somebody to guide me.
WR: What does “training” look like right now? How does it feel? Is it what you expected?
AT: I can do everything except running. I can go to the gym and lift weights as hard as I want. When I do the ElliptiGO, I don’t feel anything. When I ride the bike at the gym I don’t feel anything. It’s really good. I’m also walking, which is kind of awful. I never considered walking exercise. Thank god for Zoe. She distracts me. I walked 4.4 miles the other day and it didn’t feel as daunting as I thought it would be because I had her with me.
I don’t have a routine per se, but I’m focusing on the weights because I just know that if I come out of this stronger in my joints and bones, there’s less chance I’ll get injured. With cardio I’m trying to do it every day. I skip a day here and there because I still get exhausted. The first time I did 30 minutes on the ElliptiGO, I was so tired. Yesterday I felt good. It’s not very structured yet. I never believed I could get fit doing anything but running. I’m doing these things because I have to and people have said it will help.
WR: Does the thought of the Olympics currently excite you or stress you out? Do you feel like you have enough time to prepare?
AT: It excites me. There are times I lay in bed and dream about doing amazing things that nobody expects me to do. It excites me when I see articles that say it’s going to happen, but I’m also kind of not 100 percent optimistic because I know it could change. I’m trying to protect myself from being super disappointed. I’m not as naïve as I was a year ago, for sure.
I’m going to have four months and I feel like I’ll have enough time to get my fitness back and be ready. How ready? We’ll have to see. I hope I’ll be as ready as I was in Atlanta. I’m excited about potentially having a very good experience there. A lot of female athletes who want to be moms in the thick of their careers will be able to say, “Well, she did it.” I’m excited about that. A lot of athletes are pushing back having families because they don’t know how it’s going to happen. You don’t know if you’ll come back. Having examples of people who came back quickly will potentially alleviate that stress. I’m very grateful I’m going to be one of those people. I’m rooting for myself to have a really good experience if for nothing else than to inspire other athletes to choose to have families and continue to pursue their running goals.
WR: If all goes according to plan, what does your buildup look like?
AT: The plan right now is to start running again in two weeks and then continue to go to the gym and cross-training. I don’t think I’ll run a lot right away. The hope is that by May 1 we are back to real training. If I have May, June, and July to train, I should be fine. March will be introducing the body back to running, taking it slow, and not going too hard. Then hopefully in April run more. That’s just me talking. I don’t know what my coach [Ben Rosario] will have on the schedule. But by May we’ll start having some workouts.
WR: I know that the International Olympics Committee (IOC) has put out some guidance on the COVID mitigation strategies they’re going to use. What are your thoughts on how it’s going to shape up? Does it change the way you imagine your experience?
AT: I glanced at it at the beginning. It was reassurance that if they have these protocols, then maybe the Olympics will happen. It is definitely sad that it won’t be the normal Olympic experience that everybody else. But nonetheless, it’s going to be an experience.
I read that you cannot go on public transportation or go in restaurants, which kind of sucks, because originally we thought after the Games we could spend a week or two in Tokyo and hang out and be tourists. We probably won’t have that. And they’re encouraging athletes to not come more than five days before they compete and leave immediately after their event. That means we won’t be able to go to the Opening Ceremonies. Initially I wanted to take in all the experiences, because it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. A lot of things won’t go as normal.
WR: You and Tim also got engaged not too long ago. Are you wedding planning, or do you have enough on your plate right now?
AT: Yes, we got engaged on January 1. It couldn’t have been better. I mean, I don’t know what he was thinking. But we are planning on going to Africa when COVID is gone. Maybe in December? We’ll have the big marriage celebration. I want him to get a taste of what an African wedding is like. I’m dreaming about that. Zoe won’t really know yet but she’ll still be part of the wedding and I really like that. When it’s an African wedding you don’t really have to plan anything. The community comes together to give you a wedding, so there’s not a whole lot of planning that will happen. We’ll have an American wedding in 2022, so I’m not planning for that now. Right now I just want to keep this little girl alive and go to Tokyo. Then we’ll worry about the wedding.