Always the Underdogs? Maybe Not For Long


The women of the Northern Arizona Elite say they have at least one 2020 Olympian on their team. They each have a crucial role to play in getting her there.

Aliphine Tuliamuk is a little late getting back from the grocery store.

“It took me longer than I thought,” she says, now resting at the kitchen table in her Flagstaff, Arizona, apartment.

She decided to walk to a store almost three miles away and carry her haul the whole way back.

“The milk was heavy though,” Tuliamuk says, giggling. “I almost called an Uber.”

After more than two months of nursing a femoral stress fracture, the nine-time national champion is antsy for any kind of physical activity. Real physical activity. During her downtime over the summer, Tuliamuk retreated to her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where her boyfriend lives, and learned how to make hats and scarves by watching YouTube videos.

“In the beginning, I got so excited—I would wake up in the morning, get my coffee, sit down, and crochet,” she says, sitting across from nearly three dozen beanies that she plans to sell on the Northern Arizona Elite website. “And then I’d crochet until late at night. It’s not running, of course, but I can see the product of [my efforts], so it brings my stress down.”

Finally, though, it’s time to set the crocheting aside. It’s the last week in August and Tuliamuk is ready to ease back into training. She will meet the coach of Northern Arizona Elite, Ben Rosario, at the grass football practice field on the nearby university campus to jog for 15 minutes. If all goes well, those modest first steps will lead Tuliamuk back to her pack: a dozen high-performing women and men of the Flagstaff-based professional running group she joined in 2017.

Most of her teammates are deep in training for fall races. And while it’s daunting to think how she’ll regain the fitness that led to her marathon best of 2:26:50, it’s the influence of the group—which includes fellow marathoners Kellyn Taylor and Stephanie Bruce—that Tuliamuk believes will get her ready to contend in February at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

“I was just texting Steph saying, ‘Oh I am so out of shape,’ and she was like, ‘Don’t worry. You get healthy; we’ll get you in shape,’” Tuliamuk, 30, says. “Having two strong women to help you achieve your goals—I don’t think that is something you can always find. I feel privileged to have that.”

PHOTO: James Q. Martin
The women of Northern Arizona Elite bring unique strengths to the group to help elevate each other’s performances.

Tuliamuk is right. A women’s professional running group wasn’t easy to come by five or 10 years ago. While male-dominated post-collegiate teams seemed to pop up all over the country, women were less likely to work together in large groups—or, perhaps, found fewer opportunities to do so.

But the power of team training for U.S. female distance runners has never been more evident than it has been during the past four years. The most prominent example is in Portland, Oregon, where the Bowerman Track Club, led by 2017 New York City Marathon champion Shalane Flanagan, sent seven women to the 2016 Olympics. In Colorado, Emma Coburn, 2019 world silver medalist in the steeplechase, jump-started her own group, which includes middle-distance star Cory McGee and Jamaican Olympian Aisha Praught-Leer. Marathoners Molly Huddle and Emily Sisson have joined forces, too, as well as the New Balance Boston all-women’s track-focused team.

Northern Arizona Elite, backed by a sponsorship from Hoka One One, has also brought together high-performing female athletes, offering a tangible career path with financial incentives, coaching, facilities, and medical support. But beyond those staple resources, these elite runners have learned to leverage something even greater: using each member’s unique strengths and successes to inspire greater performances in each other.

The trick? Finding the right chemistry—the right coach, in the right location, with the training partners who can straddle that precarious line in which athletes on the same team inevitably compete against each other for titles, medals, prize money, and coveted spots at global events.

The women of Northern Arizona Elite have passed the test. Case in point: the 2018 Peachtree Road Race, which also served as the national 10K championships that year. Bruce pulled up alongside Tuliamuk in the final mile, and Tuliamuk knew she didn’t have another gear to go with her. As Bruce surged ahead, Tuliamuk simply said, “You go, girl.”

Bruce went on to win her first national title that day and Tuliamuk was runner-up—not an easy position for a nine- time U.S. champ, but one she handled with grace. It served as one example in which Rosario, who founded Northern Arizona Elite in 2014, knew the culture he was trying to create was taking hold.

“It was just as exciting for Aliphine because she knew how hard Steph was working,” Rosario says. “That’s rare. People are bitter and jealous, because it means too much to them. So the fact that these women are so grounded—that Aliphine knows that she’s had her day and she’ll have another day. That’s rare.”

Tuliamuk, Taylor, and Bruce all bring something different—and valuable—to the group.

“Aliphine is always optimistic,” Taylor says. “Always.”

Born in Kenya, she’s one of 32 siblings, and Tuliamuk’s levity, laughter, and smile can light up even the most grueling run on Flagstaff ’s undulating Lake Mary Road. Her perspective reminds the team to be grateful for the chance to make a living by running—Tuliamuk, who became a U.S. citizen in 2017, is often blown away by the opportunities the sport has afforded her.

“I’m hoping that as I do my thing, I’m able to inspire my group to believe in themselves,” she says. “The younger ones might not be able to handle the workload or they might get dropped in the beginning. I just tell them to continue to be consistent—today you’ll get dropped, next week you might hang on longer. You just need to get better as time goes by.”

PHOTO: James Q. Martin Aliphine Tuliamuk is coming back from injury on her way to the 2019 New York City Marathon.
PHOTO: James Q. Martin
Aliphine Tuliamuk is coming back from injury on her way to the 2019 New York City Marathon.

Tuliamuk tried the 26.2-mile distance three times before her breakthrough at the 2019 Rotterdam Marathon. Today she thrives on Rosario’s policies to treat training sessions like a regular job, and relies heavily on the structure and accountability that the team demands—meeting nearly every day for morning runs and workouts, along with weight-lifting sessions several times a week.

But what attracted her most to joining this group were her potential training partners and how they could unmask the talent she might have at the distance. Taylor had placed sixth at the marathon and fourth in the 10,000 meters at the 2016 Olympic Trials; and Bruce, who had a 2:29 personal best (she recently lowered it to 2:27:41 at the 2019 Chicago Marathon), was mounting an impressive comeback to racing after giving birth to her two sons in 2014 and 2015.

Bruce and Taylor were two of Northern Arizona Elite’s first members in 2014, when Rosario and his wife, Jen, sold their share of Big River Running Company in their hometown of St. Louis to fund the new organization.

“If somebody is willing to put their own money into it, they’re in it and they’re going to create something special,” Taylor says. “That showed me that he was all in. And that’s what I wanted to be part of.”

Pregnant at the time with her older son, Bruce and her husband, Ben—also an elite runner who now helps coach the team—were drawn to Rosario’s training philosophy geared toward strength and longer distances, but more than that, they were on board with his businesslike approach to a sport that often treats itself more like a high-level hobby than a professional endeavor.

“He talked to us about how he wanted us to behave and engage as athletes,” Bruce, 35, says as she sits on her family room floor, oscillating between folding laundry and foam rolling after her morning training session. “He said, ‘This is your full-time job and it’s a 24-hour-a-day job.’ Part of that means making good decisions and having a coach-athlete relationship that’s very adult-like and mature.”

Rosario, an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier and member of the Hansons Brooks group earlier in his career, had studied the market to decipher what niche he could fill.

“The place I thought we could win was the business side,” Rosario says. “From the very beginning we were talking as a group about branding ourselves…building a fan base via newsletters and social media channels, selling gear—doing things that nobody else was doing. Certainly it’s worked, because now a lot of people copy us, which is fine.”

Part of the athletes’ mandate is to share the journey. Their training logs are public, they plug their sponsors’ products, they attend events as much as possible, and they consistently showcase their lives on Instagram.

It’s an area where Bruce, especially, has excelled. Her fan base boomed as she opened up about the triumphs and the struggles of coming back to work after two childbirths. The pelvic-floor dysfunction, the bladder control issues, the baggy skin on her abdomen stretched from pregnancy, the mom guilt while traveling, the potty training—no topic is off-limits.

“I don’t just love the training, I love the fans, I love interacting,” Bruce says. “It doesn’t feel like a job or a task. I just hope that the people see me for who I really am—that it’s very transparent what I’m all about.”

PHOTO: James Q. Martin Stephanie Bruce is the Northern Arizona Elite team "mom."
PHOTO: James Q. Martin
Stephanie Bruce is the Northern Arizona Elite team “mom.”

The team calls her “the leader,” though Bruce thinks of herself more as a team mom. Nevertheless, she takes it upon herself to check in on the group, especially the younger members, some of whom are just out of college and acclimating to the demands of professional running—higher mileage, more intensity, and the increasing levels of competition.

“She wants to make sure everybody’s doing well,” Rosario says. “She’s very empathetic in that way, which is good, because I’m not as empathetic.”

Bruce emphasizes to the group that pro distance running is a long game and that she and Taylor have been at it for more than a decade. She remembers when her days were not filled with carpools, swimming lessons, training, and tending to her coaching business, and focused solely on nailing workouts and recovery. She much prefers her current lifestyle—though hectic and maybe not ideal for other runners, it’s working for her. Since her return, Bruce has made two world cross-country teams, she’s lowered her times in just about every event, she’s placed in the top 10 at multiple World Marathon Majors, and she’s won national titles in the 10K and half marathon.

“I think if you live and die by your training every day and your race results, that can feel really empty if it doesn’t go well,” Bruce says. “So, I don’t sit on my couch [and recover] all day. It’s a balance.”

On a Thursday morning, the trio gathers at Buffalo Park, a two-mile gravel loop in the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks where local runners log all kinds of miles—the easy ones, the fast, the hills, the fartleks. In between light spurts of running, Taylor and Bruce swap stories of their boys’ bittersweet first days of kindergarten.

“The same turkey sandwich I packed in the morning came home with him and I said, ‘You know this is going back in your lunch tomorrow, right?’” Taylor says, laughing.

The special kind of bond and balance these women have developed through training together is something Rosario believes is not only prolonging their careers but allowing them to continue to improve into their mid-30s.

“That’s what prevents them from going to the dark side of athletics, which is attaching your self-worth to your running,” he says. “They can get over bad workouts quicker, and they can place good races in a more realistic perspective.”

If Bruce is the mama bear, Taylor is the disciplinarian. The 33-year-old would rather not be on social media at all, but reluctantly posts about her workouts and sometimes throws in amusing glimpses of her busy family life with husband, Kyle; 8-year-old daughter, Kylyn; the children they are foster parenting; and the five dogs, flock of chickens, and bearded dragon who also reside at the Taylor residence.

“To most people she comes off very stern and private in a lot of ways,” Bruce says of Taylor. “But if you can break through that barrier, deep down she is a goofy woman who loves her kids. And yeah, she does not like to fail at anything that’s put in front of her.”

Taylor is unrelenting in her expectations—she pours herself into her workouts and tends to beat herself up when race results don’t live up to her capabilities. When torrential rain led to hypothermia, forcing Taylor to drop out of the 2018 Boston Marathon, she turned around eight weeks later to win Grandma’s Marathon in 2:24:27, a PR by more than four minutes.

“I’m obviously a veteran and probably a silent leader,” Taylor says. “I’ve been through every aspect of it. When I first joined a professional team, I probably made $3,000 for the year. Hopefully my younger teammates see the hard work that I put in at practice, and just the mentality that I take into the things that I do.”

PHOTO: James Q. Martin Kellyn Taylor, also a trained fire fighter, impresses even her teammates with her strength in the gym.
PHOTO: James Q. Martin
Kellyn Taylor, also a trained fire fighter, impresses even her teammates with her strength in the gym.

Her quiet strength doesn’t go unnoticed. Some of the guys even avoid easy runs with Taylor. She can definitely do the most pull-ups in the gym—and maybe that’s because she’s a trained firefighter, or maybe it’s because she just works hard at it. Either way, she has the fifth-fastest qualifying time for the 2020 Olympic Trials.

“I remember one time when a team member referred to Kellyn as a freak, in a good way,” Rosario says. “But I said, ‘I just want you to know that’s not true. She’s a human being. She’s working really hard and challenging herself in ways that most people don’t. That’s why she’s having this success. It’s not because she’s a freak.’”

Aspirations are always high for pro runners, but particularly so in an Olympic year. While other U.S. training groups may get more of the spotlight, Rosario sees value in flying a bit under the radar. “I don’t know how many times you have to beat people—it’s very strange, but it really plays to our advantage because then you get the chip on your shoulder,” he says. “You want to prove people wrong.”

Going into 2020, Northern Arizona Elite looks different than it did in 2016. These women have not only the physical capability to contend, but also increased confidence from their collective experiences. Tuliamuk has learned that she can’t just crank at the whim of somebody else’s pace from the gun. Taylor has worked on meeting challengers instead of falling back when leaders put in surges. Bruce has realized that she’s not just a “classic distance runner” who heel strikes and shuffles—she has the foot speed to close fast if she needs to.

“Because of my time on paper right now, I would not pick me to make the Olympic team and I wouldn’t be offended by anyone not picking me,” Bruce says. “But just because I haven’t done it doesn’t mean I’m not ready to do it.”

At the beginning of 2019, Rosario handed out plain black T-shirts, a symbol of his team’s perceived dark horse status. Bruce posted on Instagram that she wore it when she felt intimidated and needed a boost of confidence. The night she put it on to warm up at a track meet early in the 2019 season, she set a new 5,000-meter best of 15:17.76.

“[The shirts] were meant to represent that no matter what we achieve, we will always be underdogs and there is always more to achieve,” Bruce wrote.

One thing every member of Northern Arizona Elite agrees on: They have at least one Olympian in their midst. Taylor sits in the best position in the marathon, followed by Tuliamuk; they have proven they can also contend at the 5,000- and 10,000-meters.

“Hopefully in 2020 we can walk away and say we have two or three Olympians on the team, whether that be the marathon or the track,” Taylor says. “All the possibilities are there. We just have to go into the Trials confident and see what happens.”

And in a grander sense, Rosario hopes the group has become an example of how individual athletes can thrive as a team and how the sport can excel as a whole when more people perceive it as a professional endeavor.

“I hope that our entire culture has showed that some of the things that people thought maybe were mutually exclusive aren’t,” he says. “You can have a realistic, pragmatic approach and yet dream. You can have a life outside of running and yet care about running a lot.”

And maybe you can be an underdog and still become an Olympian one day, too.

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