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360 YOU: Sara Vaughn’s Reframing of Her Boston Marathon Disappointment

After winning her debut marathon at CIM, the mother of four struggled with stomach issues during her first World Marathon Major.

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Realtor, mother, and elite marathoner Sara Vaughn is part of our Spring 2022 360 YOU. Our focus for the second edition of this members-only program, led by TrackClubBabe, is how to unlock your potential. Vaughn will share her thoughts on her career choice alongside running and will allow us a sneak peek into how she plans a race season alongside real life. We caught up with her post-Boston for her first entry into 360 YOU.

You couldn’t write a script for a more perfect marathon than Sara Vaughn’s debut at the distance.

The mile specialist won the California International Marathon last December in 2:26:53, a run so impressive that Puma offered her a shoe contract.

Last week’s Boston Marathon didn’t have the same storybook ending. She struggled with nutrition on race day and ended the day in 21st place with a time of 2:36:27. But the 35-year-old, whose day job is in real estate in Boulder, is reframing the disappointment by comparing the marathon distance to the highs and lows of giving birth to her four children.

“There’s a lot of similarities between childbirth and the marathon,” she said on the phone from Boulder last week. “A long buildup to a singular event and hopefully not having to do it again for awhile, and letting time and hormones wash away all the bad memories of why you didn’t enjoy it and only remembering the good things—which is part of the reason I really wanted to finish, because I definitely had the feeling of joy and satisfaction of crossing the line even though it was far short of my goals.”

RELATED: How Sara Vaughn Went From a Miler to an Elite Marathoner in Three Months

Vaughn says she couldn’t take any of her nutrition without gagging and throwing up, from the very first fuel stop just after 5K when she tried to take an energy gel. She stopped trying to take nutrition after 20K because she wasn’t able to keep anything down.

“Basically, every 5K from 5K to mile 20, I stopped,” she said. “I physically came to a stop in the second half four times. I went into a Porta-Potty once pretty late in the race over Heartbreak [Hill], mile 21 or 22, I went into a Porta-Potty by a medical tent.

“The interesting thing was, every time I stopped—whether I puked or just was dry heaving on the side of the road or went into a Porta-Potty—the crowd kept cheering for me to keep going,” she says. “I wasn’t hurting myself, I wasn’t hurt. I didn’t strain anything, I wasn’t in pain other than being extremely nauseous, so I just made the decision to keep going, which was really helpful.”

Vaughn used the same nutrition that she used for CIM, and practiced taking it during long runs. She thinks the rapid descent of Boston’s downhill first half may have contributed to a feeling of sloshiness in her stomach, but it’s hard to say. 

RELATED: The Science Behind How Stress Affects a Runner’s Stomach

“Sometimes your stomach just doesn’t agree with what you put in it when you’re running,” she said.

A disappointing marathon can be harder to shake than a bad race at any other distance, due to the time required afterward to recover and prepare for the next one. That’s true for Vaughn, especially, who is a brand-new convert to the marathon after specializing in the 1,500 meters on the track for most of her career. 

“It’s frustrating because you work so hard and you can’t just go do it again next week,” said Vaughn, who represented Team USA in the 1,500 meters at the 2017 World Championships. “Compared to the track side of things, you just schedule another one a week later. But now October is so far away. Even on Tuesday, I was like, ‘I can’t wait to run another one.’ But I know even though I didn’t run super fast, I still ran 26.2 miles on Monday and taxed my body in a very uncomfortable way, so I know I need to rest and recoup and take care of myself before I set out on another buildup.”

In her first two marathons at CIM and Boston, Vaughn has experienced all the highs and lows that 26.2 miles can offer.

“I knew after CIM that not all marathons are going to be that way,” she said. “I just felt so good and finished with energy left in the tank and was so excited to do it again but kind of knew that maybe I got lucky with everything going so smoothly. However, I wasn’t sure I anticipated it going so badly. The second one, it was really the opposite experience.

“It was really similar to childbirth for me. [In my first pregnancy], I had this lovely experience that is still hard and difficult but that I felt well-prepared for, and I think when childbirth is like that, it’s a very empowering and hopeful and inspiring story. But then the next one for me was really, really rough. 

RELATED: Age is Just a Number: Why Elite Women Over 35 Are Crushing It

“Like I said in my [Instagram] post, it’s rarely helpful to share all the nitty-gritty details because I feel our culture is overwhelmed with birth horror stories. I was having flashbacks of it and definitely needed help to process it before I was ready to do it again. That’s how I felt about Boston, too. The whole time, I couldn’t figure out what I did wrong and why it was happening to me that way or what I should have done differently.”

Vaughn has four children with her husband, Brent Vaughn, her coach and a former professional runner himself who she met on the cross-country team at the University of Colorado, where they had their first child (daughter Kiki) when she was a student-athlete. Their kids are now 15, 11, 6, and 2.

“Three of my births were unmedicated experiences,” she said, “and the first one, I remember being like, ‘No one in their right mind would do this again,’ but your body is this perfectly built, biological hormone machine that has this method (plus time) of just… you’re left with a baby and it’s beautiful. You only remember the beautiful things.”

Before returning to the marathon in the fall, Vaughn plans to jump in some domestic track races with the goal of qualifying for the U.S. Outdoor Championships in June. The event is still to be decided, but it could be anything from the 1,500 meters to the 5K (she also said she’s open to racing a steeplechase), as it’s too late for her to feasibly earn a qualifying time in the 10K due to the event’s separate championship this year.

Aside from that, Vaughn is looking forward to spending more time at home with her family this summer.

“I’ve rarely gotten to experience a summer with my kids where I wasn’t pregnant or had a newborn,” she said. “So I would like to balance a few track races or road races with just taking the kids camping or just enjoying them a little bit more this summer without having to travel all the time.”

RELATED: Seven Principles for Setting Goals During Your Running Comeback