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In December, Sara Vaughn had a captivating marathon debut, winning the California International Marathon in 2:26:53. The 35-year-old has previously focused on racing track, specializing in the 1500-meter, but she knew a marathon was something she wanted to try while she was still in her prime.
As a mother of four and full-time realtor, Vaughn’s success as a professional runner has caught the attention of running fans who applaud her ambition. Her win at CIM caught the attention of sponsors as well: She announced today that Puma is her new shoe sponsor.
“I was on the phone within hours of finishing my race. They were really excited,” says Vaughn about her phone call with Puma. “It’s fun to partner with somebody who’s invested in you and your whole story and not just your running performance.”
With the new road racing contract, Vaughn is now examining the next steps of her career. Not ready to leave her track career behind, she and coach Brent Vaughn (her husband) are thinking strategically about the year ahead. We caught up with Vaughn about her last track season, her takeaways from CIM, and how road racing helps her balance her mental energy better for all the hats she wears.
Women’s Running: The last time you spoke with us, it was before the pandemic and you were talking about your big goals for 2020. What has changed between then and now?
Sara Vaughn: The beginning of 2020 going into an Olympic year, definitely the focus was making another team. And I’d had a baby at the very end of August and I felt really rushed coming back into shape this time. You know, I just think it’s taken me a little longer each pregnancy to get back in shape, and [with] the pending trials that June 2020, it was going to be really hard for me to even get in shape to qualify to be at the trials. So that’s what I was super, hyper focused on and then in March, it was actually such a huge relief when everything got postponed. I was still nursing, so I got to do that for a little longer and sort of just base my comeback based on my needs and my baby’s needs instead of the track schedule, which seems kind of arbitrary in the whole scheme of things.
So 2020, I just totally slowed down, hit the brakes. I got really out of shape, barely was running. Just trying to homeschool the kids and keep my business alive and all of the things just survive at that point. And then, you know, refocusing when everything got scheduled and it looked like it was gonna go ahead. December  was my first race postpartum, then just kind of raced my way back into shape and got ready for the track season.
It was kind of up and down and was pretty disappointing at the Trials. I mean, it was not at all what I expected or the type of fitness I was in, but it was what it was. And then coming off of that track season, I had a big fall [season] with a bunch of miles that I normally do. I’m typically running 100 miles a week in the fall, getting ready for races in March or April. And the thought of that was just really daunting. I just didn’t really want to do that again. So we thought, well, let’s get a road race on the schedule. And so we toyed with the half marathon or trying to maybe do the U.S. Champs for the half and then—I don’t know, to me the marathon seemed way more appealing. So that got me through a whole fall of base miles and it turned out really well. And so now we have to reassess everything.
WR: Can you talk more about the thought process behind making the switch to the marathon?
SV: I’ve had people tell me my whole career that I should consider road racing and marathon running. My very first agent that I ever worked with, way back in 2009 or 2008 out of college, would come to practice every once in a while and be like, ‘You should really run a marathon.’ And I was barely running like 50 or 60 miles a week. And I was just like, ‘That’s nothing that I even want to think about.’
I’ve been out of college since 2008 and just slowly, gradually built up the miles. And I can handle that mileage well. And I can put in a lot of work without my body breaking down—knock on wood. I’ve had a good amount of success, based on keeping inching up my miles year after year after year. I’ve been running 100-mile weeks in the fall for a couple of years. And it was just like these long runs were going really well last fall. And it just seemed like it was something I wanted to do while I was still in the prime of my career and not as an afterthought. I just wanted to see what I can do while I’m still “young and fit” and just really give it a fair shot.
It was a fairly short build up, but it went really well. Everything fell into place and the timing of CIM was perfect.
WR: How long was your build up?
SV: It was about 12 weeks. I had taken two weeks off after track and like two weeks to get back into shape. And then I did a half marathon in my hometown off of like no training, just those couple of weeks of trying to get back to normal routine and it went pretty well. So after that we sat down—I think it was 12 weeks out—and we just wrote out the program and went from there.
WR: Is there anything you learned while training for a marathon that surprised you?
SV: I think the biggest thing that I learned (and what super appealed to me about marathon training versus track training) is that I didn’t have to feel 100 percent at the beginning of the workout to have a decent day. When you show up to the track for a track workout, especially for a 1500-meter type workout, you have to be on. You have to do an hour-long warm-up. You have to do all your strides, all your drills, everything has to feel good. The track has to be clear. Your spikes have to be on. Your head has to be in it. You basically have to be like all systems go. And what I realized is, probably three out of four of my marathon workouts I was exhausted. We were on the track one day the whole 12 weeks and sometimes it would take me like four reps to like get into it and feel good. And sometimes I didn’t feel good at all through the whole thing and it was still like decent work. At the end of the day, it was OK. We still checked the box and we can still move forward and call that a win. And mentally, even though the workouts were like grindy and long and the volume was high, the the intensity being lower, my mental energy could just handle that part of it better. Especially with all that goes on in my life any given day, if I can reserve mental energy for something else and not have to use it all up on the track workout in the morning, I found that really appealing. And I learned that that’s OK in marathon training, fitness is still stacking up.
WR: On Instagram you mentioned being most afraid of not being patient enough during the marathon. Can you talk about how that went and how it affected your race?
SV: I just never fully committed to any move I made in that marathon. I almost felt like I was tiptoeing away from the pack. I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if I should be doing this.’ And I had just been talking to Carrie [Dimoff] about that and I could almost just feel her shaking her head like, ‘What are you doing?’ Or maybe they were like, ‘Ha this is perfect. Go for it, you idiot.’ So I just didn’t fully commit to anything.
And something about the downhills and the way I felt better running those—I wasn’t married to my watch. I wasn’t trying to hit certain splits. I was just trying to stay as comfortable as possible as long as possible. So I think if you can sort of divorce yourself from the actual pace you’re going, it made sense to kind of roll the downhills. We had slower miles and we had faster miles. I wasn’t trying to run them all at exactly 5:45. So on the long rolling down hills, it felt easier on my body just to kind of let it roll and pick up the pace. And I didn’t really mean to, but after like maybe a couple of miles where I was out in front and they weren’t coming back—I was trying to let them come back and I was going to tuck back in behind the pacer. After a few miles of that not happening. I switched my focus to like ‘OK, well who else can I race with?’ I was kind of by myself, hadn’t really caught this other group of men so after the halfway point when I realized I’m not going to tuck back in behind the pacer, I felt well enough to keep racing, then I just switched focus. I was like, ‘Well, there’s some guys up here and these guys look like they’re going about my pace.’ So I put in a little surge and tucked in behind this other group and just sort of re-engaged and started racing bodies and stopped thinking so much.
WR: You’ve now had several weeks to reflect on CIM. What are your big takeaways from the race?
SV: I think the biggest takeaway is that the course is not as easy as everybody thinks it is or says it is. There’s something about it that’s like a specific sort of strain on your body. I think it was super fun. To be part of a huge road race like that just solidified that for me. That’s what drew me to it in the first place. It was like looking back on the start line and seeing all these people about to embark on their marathon journey and just like feeling so connected to the running community in a way that track doesn’t really provide. So I think looking back, that was the coolest thing.
I also learned that I need to be more comfortable running in a pack. I really, really didn’t like that. Especially because I’m kind of a shorter end and I just couldn’t see all the divots and dips in the road and the turns coming up. I need to get more comfortable. I was like hyper alert and that did not do me any favors.
But overall, I don’t think it could have gone any better, which is what we’re really excited about. The whole buildup went really well. I was most nervous about like fluids and calories and I had no major disasters with dropping anything or upset stomach. I was legitimately scared of pooping my pants, so all those things that could have gone wrong, none of them did.
WR: It sounds like you’re interested in doing more marathons in the future?
SV: Honestly right now I’m totally torn 50-50 on the spring on what I’m going to do. The new contract I signed is largely based on road racing and that’s cool. But I’ve never based my career off of chasing money or things like that. I am in love with a marathon. I definitely want to do that. But now I feel like I have all these hole—these gaps in my résumé, like starting at 5K and going up to the half marathon. So I’d like to fill those in and address those things. I guess we’ll have to see what the spring brings. If there’s an opportunity to run another fast marathon or half, I might have to just keep rolling with that.
WR: Any other goals for 2022 that we should watch out for?
SV: I definitely will have a marathon on the schedule at some point. I think a lot of it depends too on USATF, [which] still has to announce championship races, so we’ll see where the marathon championships are. Or the half championships, things like that. Right now I’m very torn for the spring. 50-50 on a track season or road racing season. It’ll either be something in March like a 10K. Or there’s a half marathon at the end of March in New York, so it could be one or the other depending on which direction we decided to go.