In a Wildly Unpredictable Race, Aliphine Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel, & Sally Kipyego Earn Olympic Marathon Spots

February 29, 2020

ATLANTA — American dreams became reality in Atlanta.

Aliphine Tuliamuk, the now 10-time national champion immigrant from Kenya and one of 32 siblings, pulled away from Molly Seidel over the final mile to win the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials today in 2:27:23. Seidel nabbed second to make her marathon debut a smashing success, while London Olympic 10,000m silver medallist Sally Kipyego cemented her return from a difficult maternity leave by holding off Des Linden to nab the final Olympic spot.

The race: Hasay falls off early

Women’s lead pack

The deepest field in American marathoning history lived up to its promise as a pack of 14 went through halfway together in 1:14:38. The only major casualty at that point was Jordan Hasay, the fastest seed in the field, who had fallen off the lead back. Hasay, who was trying to return from a hamstring injury, was also dealing with a back issue and would finish 26th in 2:37:57.

The pack still contained 12 women until just before the the proverbial halfway point of the marathon, the 20th mile. On that mile, with Kipyego leading and the pace being slightly faster than on the previous 8-mile loop, surprisingly some of the first to crack were three of the favorites: Emily Sisson, Sara Hall, and Molly Huddle. However, it was Tuliamuk and Seidel who would blow the race open on the next mile as they ran 5:30 on a difficult uphill mile (they covered this same mile in 5:42 on the first loop and 5:47 on the second). Kipyego was in their slipstream with Kellyn Taylor leading the chase five seconds back as Laura Thweatt, Linden, and Emma Bates were within five seconds of Taylor.

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On the 22nd mile (run in 5:17, the fastest of the race), Tuliamuk and Seidel continued to push the pace and they would put seven seconds on Kipyego, who had 13 seconds up on Thweatt for the final Olympic spot.

Friends race for the glory

Tuliamuk and Seidel

Afterwards, Tuliamuk and Seidel, who are friends, but not teammates (Tuliamuk runs for HOKA NAZ Elite and Seidel for Saucony) and had gone on runs together in Flagstaff said they were trying to work together.

“I told Molly, ‘let’s do this,” Tuliamuk said. Seidel said, “Aliphine needs to take a lot of credit for this…I feel like I wouldn’t have been as calm in that breakaway with anyone else. Aliphine is someone I look up to so much…To feel like this is a friend of mine who I know and I trust right now [was great].”

Tuliamuk and Seidel were all alone up front as they continued to push and pull away from everyone else. “If we were going down we were going down together. There is no one I would rather get to share those miserable last 5 miles with,” Seidel said.

Tuliamuk and Seidel weren’t going down together; they were going to Tokyo (Sapporo) together as they put 15, 17, and 23 seconds on Kipyego the next three miles and had a minute and 2 second gap on her at mile 25.

Just before mile 25 is when Tuliamuk began to pull away from Seidel. Her lead was one second at 25 miles and 6 seconds at 26 miles. Before the big and boisterours crowd in Atlanta with a huge smile on her face, she pumped her arms into the air at the finish to celebrate her Olympic Marathon Trials victory.

That left the third Olympic spot to be determined. Kipyego said her Oregon Track Club coach Mark Rowland reminded her before the race that the last miles were difficult. With that in mind, she thought it was more prudent to let Tuliamuk and Seidel go rather than risk blowing up and losing the final Olympic spot.

Tuliamuk wins it

At 25 miles, Kipyego maintained a 15-second advantage on Thweatt and 20 seconds on Linden. Linden would pass Thweatt and cut the deficit to 10 seconds at 26 miles (Linden’s 26th mile was 6:00, Kipyego’s was 6:10), but there was not enough real estate left.

Kipyego’s difficult return from giving birth in 2017 was complete as she locked up the final Olympic spot. Linden finished 11 seconds later, Thweatt was 5 seconds behind LInden, Tuliamuk’s NAZ Elite teammate Stephanie Bruce was 6th, Emma Bates 7th, Kellyn Taylor 8th, Nell Rojas 9th and former soccer player Julia Kohnen rounded out the top 10.

Analysis below results Post-race videos here.

Top and notable results h/t Nick Zazardi. Full results here

1. Aliphine Tuliamuk — 2:27:23
2. Molly Seidel — 2:27:31
3. Sally Kipyego — 2:28:52
4. Des Linden — 2:29:03
5. Laura Thweatt — 2:29:08
6. Stephanie Bruce — 2:29:11
7. Emma Bates — 2:29:35
8. Kellyn Taylor — 2:29:55
9. Nell Rojas — 2:30:29
10. Julie Kohnen — 2:30:43
26. Jordan Hasay — 2:37:57
DNF. Molly Huddle
DNF. Sara Hall
DNF. Emily Sisson

Quick Take: No one saw this coming

Before the race, we put out an article on “the Big Five” — the five women whom we believed had the best chance to make the Olympic team. Based on their recent accomplishments and past resumes, it seemed that Emily Sisson, Jordan Hasay, Des Linden, Molly Huddle, and Sara Hall were the women to beat in Atlanta.

Yet not one of them made the team today. In fact, only one (Linden, 4th) even finished in the top 25. Sisson, Huddle, and Hall dropped out. Hasay got dropped early and would stagger home in 26th (2:37:57). It was a reminder of the unpredictability of the marathon. A lot of things can go wrong over the course of 26.2 miles, and it’s a one-shot deal. But that’s also the beauty of the marathon. You need to show up and perform on the day. And Tuliamuk, Seidel, and Kipyego absolutely did that.

As for the women who did make it, only Kipyego had demonstrated this level of performance in the past, with her Olympic and World Championship silvers and runner-up finish at the 2016 NYC Marathon. Tuliamuk had won numerous US titles on the road, but none of her PRs are crazy fast (15:18/31:54/69:16/2:26:50). She was only 12th (3rd American) at the NYC Marathon in November (albeit off an abbreviated buildup) and just 19th (7th American) at the Houston Half last month. Yet she beat the pants off everyone today.

Aliphine Tuliamuk Delivers

Tuliamuk’s HOKA NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario said he privately told a few people yesterday she would win the race (see below), but very few others expected her to win. Maybe one should not overlook a nine-time national champion like Tuliamuk, but many coming into this Trials wondered if her top-end performance was as good as the top end of some of the other women. Rosario said one should not underestimate the talent of Tuliamuk, noting she was 9th at World Junior XC as a 15-year-old. America got to see her talent today.

Quick take: Big Day for HOKA NAZ Elite

It was a great day for the HOKA NAZ Elite women’s team — the greatest in the team’s history — and head coach Ben Rosario. Aliphine Tuliamuk won the race, Stephanie Bruce was 6th, and Kellyn Taylor was 8th. 

While Rosario joked the obvious goal was three in the top three, three in the top 8 with the winner was a defining moment for the team. Rosario was full of praise for his veteran team, noting Tuliamuk had the best marathon of her life, as did Bruce. And while it was special to get his first Olympian, it was extra special to walk away with the win. “We really wanted to win,” Rosario said. “They had some tough times they had to get through together… They were just so trusting of one another and so trusting of the program.”

Rosario said there were workouts where Tuliamuk would pull away from his other athletes, Bruce and Taylor. And he said privately he told a few close associates yesterday that he thought Tuliamuk would win the Trials. That’s exactly what she did.

Shin splints really hampered Taylor’s preparations the last two weeks and Rosario was left wondering what she could have done if healthy. Taylor and Bruce will now turn their attention to the track, where they placed third and fourth last year at USAs.

Taylor and Bruce’s blow of not making the team was dampened a bit by the fact their teammate Tuliamuk made the team and they can try to make the team in the 10,000. Taylor gives a great impression of Aliphine in her video below.

Rosario said the women’s race was largely run as he expected. As for the men’s race, he said he couldn’t make sense of it. “The men’s race was totally insane, totally insane. I don’t know what to think of it to be honest.” Rosario said before him if you told him Scott Fauble (his top runner) would run 2:12 on the course and beat Jared Ward, he would have taken it and assumed that meant Fauble was on the Olympic team. Fauble did do that, but he ended up 12th as the other men were really good today.

Quick Take: Molly Seidel almost didn’t run the Olympic Trials

For most athletes, the Olympic Trials are the culmination of a four-year plan. Molly Seidel’s plan didn’t even last four months.

Seidel, who won Foot Lockers in 2011 and four NCAA titles (including 2015 NCAA XC) at Notre Dame, was supposed to make her marathon debut in Houston last month and not run the Trials at all. But after hitting the Trials standard with her 70:27 win at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Antonio Half Marathon on December 8, Seidel decided she may as well debut at the Trials. She wound up running the half in Houston instead, and clocked a pb of 69:35, just one second behind Molly Huddle. It was a sign of promise, but in no way indicated that she’d make the Olympic team six weeks later.

Prior to the race, Seidel told Runner’s World that “10th to 20th range would be a good day for me” in Atlanta. Her coach, Jon Green, told Seidel before the race that she could finish anywhere from 3rd to 12th. He was happy to be wrong.

Now Seidel, at 25, is the youngest woman to make the US Olympic marathon team since Cathy O’Brien — another former FL champ — made it as a 24-year-old in 1992.

Sally Kipyego is Baaack!

Sally Kipyego has an Olympic medal in the 10,000m. She is arguably the best NCAA long distance runner ever. However, many wondered if she’d get back to this level.

Sally gave birth to daughter Emma in 2017 and the road back was a difficult one. When she dropped out of Boston last April, she was crushed when she talked to, but vowed that that run was not indicative of how far she had come since childbirth. She then focused her attention on getting ready for the Trials and delivered.

Quick Take: Kipyego and Tuliamuk represent the American dream

Kipyegon and Tuliamuk both were born in Kenya and have run internationally for Kenya. Both are perfect representatives of the American dream and spoke profoundly of how much America meant to them.

Tuliamuk said, ‘I get to live the American dream.Thank you America for giving me the opportunity.”  Kipyego: “I’m grateful for this great nation”

Quick Take: Des Linden was the only constant today

If this race proved anything, it is that Des Linden always brings it in the marathon. Run the race in the heat, in a driving rainstorm, in the wind, on the hills…it doesn’t matter. Des is going to run well. This was her 20th marathon, and apart from her DNF at the 2012 Olympics, when she knew she wasn’t healthy going in, there is not a bad one in the bunch. That level of consistency, in an event as unpredictable as the marathon, is astonishing.

Of course, Linden’s race today was not good enough for her to make the team — she came 11 seconds short — but on a day where all the other pre-race favorites faltered, Linden was a rock. 

The crowds were huge

The women were full of praise for the crowds in Atlanta. Tuliamuk said, “”I think I may be deaf right now” and Seidel called it “a 26.2-mile scream tunnel.” Rosario said it was the best Olympic Trials ever, track trials included. We’re not sure about that, but everything in Atlanta was first-class from our perspective and the crowds were great.

Post-race videos here or in playlist player below.

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