If you didn’t know better, you might think Sara Vaughn was just another uber-fit Boulder mom—but you’d be wrong. Standing just five foot one, the 1,500-meter specialist is nothing if not extraordinary. In 2017, the mother of four and full-time real estate agent made the US team and competed in the World Championships when her third child was a year old. Now, at 33, she’s trying to do it again. 

Over coffee, while her baby David—who was born August 31, 2019—snoozed in his stroller, Vaughn described her life as a working mom with big running goals. Spoiler alert: It takes a ton of flexibility.

She hasn’t been shy about announcing her goal of qualifying for Worlds this spring, first sharing her comeback plan in April 2019, while pregnant with David. 

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I’ve always been very cautious announcing a plan for a “come back” after pregnancy. I never know how it’s going to go or how I’m going to feel – so many variables with a newborn and life in general. And I’ve always told myself I’ll be OK if I don’t return to competition on the track. But I’m feeling differently this time around… • I miss track so much already, I know I’m not done. The Olympic Trials are June 19-28, 2020. I’ll have approximately 9 1/2 months after having this baby (though I’ll have to qualify again first). It’ll be hard and hectic, but I know I can’t let it go. • I’m looking forward to sharing my journey back to the starting line! I’m not sure that will change how I plan to “train” through pregnancy, but I’ll let you know. Yesterday I rocked out a fartlek on the dirt trails and felt pretty darn good about it. • #motherrunner #fitmom #runningfortwo #olympictrials #comeback #tracknation #fartlek #21weekspregnant #cantletitgo #persist

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But she also knows that hard work and desire don’t always translate into results. “If it doesn’t happen, It doesn’t happen,” she says. “I’m still going to try. I know that injuries happen, life gets in the way. I just like to be really practical and real about it.”

Practicality is the name of the game for Vaughn. She doesn’t do New Year’s Resolutions. If something needs to change, she doesn’t wait until January 1st. She and her husband, Brent Vaughn (also a professional runner and Sara’s coach), recently decided to revamp their approach to nutrition. “Honestly as two professional athletes, it was kind of embarrassing how sloppy our diet was,” she says. Nothing extreme, but they’re eating more vegetables, less meat, and cutting back on takeout—two months in, she feels her energy and her digestion are noticeably better.

Vaughn also takes a straightforward approach to time management by outsourcing anything she can, which includes hiring someone to drive her two older daughters—Kiki, 13, and Calia, 9—to their after-school activities and utilizing conveniences like meal kits, Instacart, and Amazon. Vaughn says she’s hardly been to the store with David “and that’s by design.” 

She brings the same no-nonsense approach to her running, too. With an infant, preschooler, fourth-grader, eighth-grader, and a full-time job, she can’t afford to be precious about her workouts; she fits them in where she can. “I’m basically ready to work out at all times because you never know when it’s going to happen,” she says. “I put on workout clothes in the morning unless I have morning client meetings and then I’m ready to work out [during David’s nap] at 9 a.m.” If he wakes up 20 minutes in, she tries again during his second nap. 

While she’s on track to be back in shape for spring (when we last spoke in late January, she’d just wrapped up a “65-ish” mile week), she’s not rushing her fitness. Now well into her fourth postpartum comeback, she’s developed an unshakeable belief in her body’s resilience. It may be fatigue, but it sounds more like serenity in Vaughn’s voice when she says, “I know that I don’t have to be fit right now to be fit in June [for the trials].” 

That includes being patient with changes in her weight and body. Nursing moms, she says, need to make sure to get enough calories and be easy on yourself with weight loss. “There’s a bit of a myth that breastfeeding makes it easy to lose weight, and for some women this may be true. But I have always gained back some pounds 4-16 weeks postpartum,” Vaughn shared on Instagram. “The extra weight has always made its way off eventually and this postpartum period is not the time for me to worry about it.” 

It helps that Vaughn has “the opposite of a body image problem.” If her jeans feel a little snug, she assumes she left them in the dryer too long. “I don’t have a scale,” she says. “I value [my body] for what it can do.” She says she learned this from her parents, but I’m guessing carrying four babies and competing on a world stage didn’t hurt, either. 

Vaughn’s previous comebacks have not only built a deep well of confidence, they’ve also taught her how to maintain a stable core during pregnancy and postpartum. Vaughn says she thought continuing to do planks and crunches would help her recover after her first pregnancy; it was 2006 and no one was talking about diastasis recti on social media just yet. 

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“How do you get your abs back?” Honestly, I’m not an expert. The first time, it was youth and luck. The second and third times, it was a lot of hard work, but probably the wrong work. I ended up with very severe Abdominal separation (6 fingers for those familiar) after both. I did my normal core/ab routine for as long as I could during pregnancy #2 and #3, and as soon as I could get back to it after #2. Then someone enlightened me – your abs and core aren’t as strong as they could be and aren’t functioning optimally with that separation. • After Cassidy, I worked really hard to fix it. With the help of a postpartum expert (@mamaloveboulder) I eventually healed. With pregnancy #4, my midwife reminded me that I could actually prevent it with conscientious movement and by avoiding traditional ab exercises with a growing belly (the literal OPPOSITE of what I did the first 3 times). 🤦🏽‍♀️ • I’ve come out of this pregnancy with very little separation. I’ve also enlisted the help if another expert, @recorefitness, to make sure I’m on the right track to get back on the track. Moral of the story: educate yourself and enlist the help of experts! • #coreworkout #motherrunner #postpartumfitness #7weekspostpartum

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After experiencing a significant abdominal separation with her third pregnancy, Vaughn enlisted a prenatal movement specialist to help keep her core healthy. Though her diastasis recti has closed, Celeste Goodson, a trainer who works with elite postpartum athletes, is helping Vaughn manage pubic symphysis pain over FaceTime sessions. 

With every subsequent pregnancy, Vaughn has learned more about her body—and about life.

Holding David in her lap, she says her daily habits include both Kegels and pausing to appreciate the moment. “Having [a teenager] and an infant I cannot forget at any moment how quickly it goes,” she says. I ask if she meditates. She says no. But after a beat, she says, “I guess running is a form of meditation for me.”