Running is athlete's road to aid Kenyans

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Aliphine Tuliamuk isn't running for championships.

The Wichita State junior is running women's 5,000- and 10,000-meter races at the NCAA Division I track and field championships at Drake Stadium this week. Tuliamuk finished second in the women's 10,000 Thursday at the NCAA track and field national championships at Drake Stadium.

"I wanted to win, but I really wanted to run [in a tight race]," Tuliamuk said. "Even though I won in preliminaries I felt like nobody really wanted to run."

Despite her showing Tuliamuk's biggest victories won't be defined by a stopwatch. She will be measured by how well she can cure the ills of a place that isn't on a map.

Tuliamuk was born in western Kenya. She tells people she's from Kapenguria because that's a town that does show up when typed into Google Maps. Do the same with her actual hometown -- the village of Lelan -- and the salmon-colored pushpin drops into an area of empty, white space, miles from any marking.

Witchita State

Aliphine Tuliamuk realized she had a talent for running after she defeated her older sister in a competition at school.

There are no roads in Lelan, and no vehicles.

"We use animals for transportation," Tuliamuk said.

Things that are an hour away on foot are considered close, such as a recently opened health clinic. Tuliamuk, one of eight children, said such facilities weren't always so near.

When she was younger, her mother gave birth to a son who was very ill. Tuliamuk travelled several miles to a dispensary -- a facility somewhat like a drug store staffed by a nurse -- to seek help.

"I had to run and find if the dispensary was open. We ended up going to two dispensaries and they were both closed," she said. "The baby ended up dying."

Another brother also died in infancy. Such tragedies are part of the reason why Tuliamuk is studying to become a nurse.

"I grew up in a place without nurses," she said.

Tuliamuk hopes to educate Kenyans, and the rest of the world, about a vulgar and violent practice common in many African countries. Cultural pressure often compels girls to undergo female genital mutilation or girls' circumcision. There is no medical purpose to the procedures, but rather a long-held belief that doing it makes a woman more feminine, or reduces her sexual desire, thereby keeping her pure. The World Health Organization estimates that 140 million women have undergone such procedures.

Kenya's government passed a law last September making the procedure illegal, but many women, Tuliamuk said, are still compelled to go through it. One of Tuliamuk's sisters did so earlier this year.

"If I had power, I would stop it, but it is really hard to change the culture," Tuliamuk said. "One of my passions is to go back to Kenya and help people from my village to understand that there are better things out there and that they don't have to dehumanize women."

There are much better memories of Kenya, a nation also known for producing elite distance runners.

Tuliamuk, Wichita State's record holder in the women's 5,000 and 10,000, used to run after school and would compete with classmates to see who would get home first.

The first time she thought she might have an aptitude for running was when she beat her older sister in a competition held at school.

Eventually she began receiving attention from American colleges, but in the end she sought out Wichita State rather than the other way around.

Tuliamuk initially signed with Iowa State, but upon arrival in Ames discovered the university offered no nursing program. A friend suggested Wichita State, a school with a well-regarded nursing school, and a track and field program that had never produced a women's champion.

Her coach, Kirk Hunter, calls her stubborn. Telling her to relax, or sit out a race, isn't easy.

"Everybody asks why Kenyans are such great athletes," Hunter said. "They understand what it takes, and they understand where they came from. In her case, she had a harder background and it pushed her."

It was in Wichita -- with its snowy winters and confusing public transit ("I was so used to walking that every time I'd take the bus I'd get lost") -- where she became an All-American, and fell in love. She recently became engaged to American Jarron Bolton, who came to Des Moines for Thursday's race. The couple will marry July 21.

Bolton has never been to Africa, but Tuliamuk plans to take him next year. She'll have much to teach.

"I remember one time I invited his family over and I cooked some Kenyan food for them. They said that whenever they think about Africa they think about wild animals running around," she said, laughing. "I've never seen these wild animals running around."

Until then, Tuliamuk will keep running, and keep studying, and keep thinking about a village that someday may be found on a map.

"If I get my nursing degree I can go home and help," Tuliamuk said.

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