Interview with Sara Vaughn
Contributor: The Nerd
Technology moves quickly, but even the Internet isn’t fast enough to keep up with Sara Vaughn. Sara’s Wikipedia account still list her as a middle-distance runner, but that moniker seems outdated after her achievements during the last 12 months. Sara did indeed focus on middle distances for the first 13 years after graduating from Colorado in 2008. However, her last serious track competition was in August 2021 when she finished 5th in the 1500 at a Diamond League meet, just five seconds off her lifetime PR. Despite that high placement, the 2021 track season was a disappointment to her, so she decided that she needed a new purpose to endure the high-mileage training she tackles each fall.
Her new purpose? To run her first marathon. To the surprise of virtually everyone except the people who saw her training logs, Sara won the California International Marathon in 2:26:53 in December 2021. It was the 5th fastest time by an American woman in 2021, and within 24 hours of the race she earned a sponsorship from Puma. She followed up that performance with a 21st place performance (2:36:27) at Boston in April 2022, and she set a new PR of 2:26:23 to finish 7th at Chicago in October. How does a middle distance runner notch three high-quality marathons in just over 10 months?
That’s not even the most amazing thing about Sara. She’s also a mother to four children, works full-time as a realtor and, at age 36, seems to be running the best times of her career.
Why is any of this relevant to Prep Running Nerd, which focuses on Nebraska high school and collegiate running? Because Sara Ensrud Vaughn’s running career began in Gering, Nebraska, where her high school PRs of 2:11.7 (800) and 4:48.12 (1600) from 2003 still place her among the top 15 in Nebraska history. Her mother also competed in track at Gering and was teammates with Hurdle Nerd (Micheal Peterson), which explains why we were lucky enough to spend 45 minutes with an elite marathoner. Here’s the interview.
We scheduled this interview to fall during your three-year-old son’s nap time. You’re a wife, a mother of four and have a busy real estate business. How are you balancing all of these things, and how do you avoid getting burned out in one part of your life?
(She laughs) Well, my son was supposed to be napping now but he slept late due to a cold, so he’ll probably be in and out this interview. In terms of not burning out, while I certainly can’t take breaks as a wife and mother, I do work very hard to schedule breaks in my work and running life. I schedule long breaks from training at the end of a training cycle or season, I try to relax as much as I can when I’m at home, and I do my best to schedule family vacations where I don’t have to worry about running or working. My realtor work is also pretty flexible; I had a busy summer but paused taking new clients this fall until I ran the Chicago Marathon.
Middle distance runners tend to compete more frequently than marathoners – perhaps as often as every week. Have you found that marathoning is more family friendly than middle distance?
In some respects, yes. When I was racing exclusively on the track, I’d run 20 meets a year and most of those would be away from home. As a marathoner, I’m probably traveling four or five times a year, and I can usually run my tune-up races locally. However, the fatigue level is different when I have a heavy training block. I feel like I’m a lot more useless during the evenings and I’m hungry all the time. It’s a trade-off though, and the long-build to a marathon is usually followed by a long break, so it all evens out.
In prior interviews, you explained that you ran very little in 2020 once track meets were cancelled. Your youngest child was born in August 2019 and, like many parents, your focus during COVID was primarily on home schooling your children and keeping your real estate business afloat. Looking back, did that year away from heavy training and racing play a part in your successful transition to the marathon?
For sure the COVID break helped my running career. Our four kids have all been planned around the Olympic cycle – they are 3, 7, 12 and 16 – and for the first three I felt like I needed to rush back to get ready for nationals or a new track season. The COVID year allowed me to first focus on getting my strength back before I worried about building back my mileage.
Had you always planned to transition to the marathon, or was this past year an unexpected turn of events?
I never had any interest in being a marathoner; it just didn’t seem like fun to me. However, in August 2021 my husband Brent (who doubles as her coach) laid out my fall training program, which included a bunch of 100-mile weeks and 20-mile training runs. I was like, “Wow, that looks a lot like marathon training. If we’re going to do this for three or four months, I want to at least run a half marathon,” and it kind of snowballed from there. It was more of an experiment. If it went well, we were going to go down that path and, if it didn’t, we’d just go back to what we knew on the track.
For a professional runner, you appear to have been relatively healthy. You competed in USA nationals 8 out of 10 years between 2009 and 2018, only missing the years where you had a baby. How do you stay healthy now, and what advice would you give to high school girls looking to be as consistent as you?
Two big things. First, building in breaks in your training and taking time away from the stress of training. Some athletes go all in on cross-training during these breaks, but I try to take a big step back during those times. It can be difficult to trust that the breaks will benefit you, but I believe that time helps you absorb the benefits of the training you just completed.
Second, my advice to high school girls is to always eat more than you think you need. You function better when you’re fueled and you don’t get injured as often.
Let’s go back in time about 20 years. When you were in high school, did you participate in other sports?
I tried a lot of different sports but gymnastics was my focus growing up. I was in gymnastics for eight years, and my career ended my freshman year when my gym closed without warning. We drove to the gym, the doors were locked, and it was clear it wasn’t going to re-open. My mom said, “I got a letter from Coach Nash that cross country practice starts today, in about twenty minutes.” I was already dressed to work out, so we drove a few blocks over to the high school. That was my first day of cross country.
I tried lots of things before that. I had played soccer, softball, volleyball and basketball, and I was terrible at all of them. I also went out for junior high track but didn’t run long distance, and I definitely had not done any real training until that first day of cross country practice.
Did you have any sports idols or running idols during those days?
Until high school, I only followed gymnastics. I idolized the Magnificent Seven from the 1996 Olympics as well as other gymnastic legends. Once I became successful with running, I became a student of the sport and tried to learn as much as I could. One of my early running idols was Deana Kastor (3rd place in 2004 Olympic marathon).
What led you to concentrate on running?
Definitely the early success. I placed 7th in cross country as a freshman, and my coach told me, “If you stick with it until track, you’ll be even better.” The following spring I won the Class B 1600 and placed second in the 3200. Once I had that success, I was all in. I learned about all of the running heroes and how to train, and found out that I could earn a college scholarship if I kept getting better.
Gering isn’t a big city and you probably weren’t surrounded by five-minute milers. How did you develop as a runner, particularly when you didn’t have someone pushing you in practice every day?
We had a lot of boys on our team who didn’t mind me tagging along with them on training runs. They didn’t have egos about it and were really good to me, so I got to chase the boys all through high school. That was also the dawn of the Internet age, so I was able to look at times that girls in other states were running, and that gave me the motivation to work harder.
Our Nerd team encourages high school runners to keep competing in college at whatever level suits them, but it often appears that picking a college is a big stressor for them. You initially attended Virginia before finishing your last three years at Colorado. How did you make your initial decision, and what led you to transfer to Colorado?
After 18 years in the Midwest, I liked the idea of going somewhere completely different. I had a great visit at UVA, it was a prestigious school, and I felt like I would enjoy being on the East Coast. The team experience was good but Virginia was almost too different for me. Here’s an example. Being from Nebraska, I’m a big football fan, and my freshman dorm was next to the UVA football stadium. For the first home game, I invited my freshmen teammates to meet at my dorm before we walked over to the stadium. I painted my face half orange and half blue and I put on a Virginia football jersey and tennis shoes. My teammates arrived decked out in sun dresses, pearls and heels and I was like, “Where am I?”
I could have stuck it out, but I picked UVA in part because I thought I would be happy there if I stopped running. However, pretty quickly during my freshman year I realized that running was a bigger part of my life than I expected, and I needed the running part of my life to be a good fit and to be successful. That’s why I transferred to Colorado, and being close to home was an added perk.
Do you have any advice for high school students trying to pick a college?
Take your visits and ask lots of questions, particularly about the team culture. Spend as much time as you can with the team and figure out if it’s the right environment for you. Almost any college coach can write a good training plan for you, so you should focus more on your potential teammates. If the fit isn’t right once you’re there, you can always transfer. It’s not a life-or-death situation; you can always change your mind.
After you graduated, can you describe the life of a professional runner? Is ‘professional runner’ a misnomer, since all but the most elite track athletes have to find a career outside of running?
The last few years I think our community has become a little more open about what track athletes are earning. I would have never called myself a professional athlete until this year. I never made money as a track athlete, even in my best years when I ran in the World Championships. I was always in the negative after paying for travel, gear, physical therapy and massages. Luckily my husband had a pretty good contract with Nike after we graduated, so I sort of pretended to be a professional athlete and tag along with him to his races. I always had other jobs along the way or it wouldn’t have worked.
At what point in your running career did you realize that you could compete on a national or international level?
When I was in high school I always dreamed about competing in the Olympics and in the World Championships. When I got into college, competing on the national stage proved to be a lot harder than I imagined. I had this idea that I would keep improving exponentially every year until I was the best in the world. My actual trajectory was completely different than that, so I spent a few years being discouraged. Still, I loved running and I liked the training, and that’s what kept me going back even if I wasn’t going to make the Olympics or win a US championship. I was taking baby steps – getting a little better each year, usually setting a PR at some distance every season.
Since you began running competitively, have you had any major setbacks where you questioned your future in the sport? What did you do to get through it?
I did stagnate for a little bit; I think my 1500 PR was stuck at 4:08 for three or four years just after 2010. I wasn’t really getting better and seemed like the sport was progressing without me, so I did spend a lot of time thinking about whether I was making the right choice. I always went back to two key things: I loved running and I enjoyed the training – I enjoyed the process – and running in general made me a better mom, wife and realtor. It has always been my alone time, my chance to meditate and a time where no one needs anything from me, so I wanted that to remain a big part of my life. I didn’t know if success would come, but I was hopeful that it would if I kept putting in the work.
A lot of high-level female high school runners seem to struggle with self doubt despite their success. Have you struggled in your journey towards self-confidence? How do you deal with a bad race, workout session or training block?
My daughter is on a high school cross country team, so I also see this quite a bit. I see girls who are genetically gifted and who have put in the work to be successful, but they often don’t race with confidence. When I have these doubts in my racing, I practice positive self-talk – unrelenting positive self talk. Before a race or key workout I carve out time to plan what I’m going to say to myself on lap two of the mile or at some other specific point, and I only allow myself to focus on those things and nothing else. Like anything else, it’s a skill that you have to develop.
Have you struggled with the comparison trap? If so, what advice would you give to a young runner dealing with it?
That’s definitely a drawback of social media. You see everyone’s highlight reel and you’re comparing it to your B-roll, so I’ve struggled with that. For me, I just remember that my training, results and trajectory doesn’t have to look like another person’s, and just because it doesn’t look the same doesn’t mean I won’t eventually run as fast or faster than them. There are lots of different paths to get to your goal.
Several top female runners have been quite open about the different struggles they faced in high school and college due to the physical changes and challenges of puberty. What advice do you have for young runners who are navigating this?
I definitely experienced that in high school. I won the state 1600 as a freshman and then as a sophomore I barely qualified. I had a really rough year and that’s what I was going through. High school girls have to have patience and the belief that talent doesn’t leave even when their bodies are changing, and they have to understand that their training might need to be changed. I learned quite a bit about this process, particularly in recent years, and the importance of working with your body instead of trying to work against it. As female athletes we have to consider hormone fluctuations, so investing the time to learn about that, how to talk to your coach about that, and how to incorporate that knowledge into your training. There are so many resources about this topic on the Internet compared to when I was in high school.
I’ve never heard of pregnancy referred to as a performance enhancing experience, and yet you’re arguably at the top of your game after having four children. Are there any ways in which having children has made you a better runner?
No, it’s definitely not a performance enhancer. However, the 15-18 month breaks from training were beneficial, and the breaks at the end of each season are as much about absorbing the training benefits of the season as they are about giving your body rest. There is a also mental toughness aspect to going through childbirth and being a mother; if I can give birth to four babies without anesthesia, a marathon is easy in comparison.
Do you think that the way you spaced out your children and the long breaks that followed each baby has prolonged your career, and perhaps allowed you to reach the window of your career where you were destined to run your best?
I’ve always said that I have taken that eighteen months, multiplied by four, and added that on to the end of my career. These are my bonus years.
How do you balance the tension between running professionally and everything outside your running life? At what point in your career did running not dominate your life?
My priorities in life fluctuate month by month, and probably week by week. For example, when I’m in the middle of a marathon training block, my real estate career takes a smaller piece of the pie as I get closer to the marathon. As soon as the race is over, I can focus more time on real estate.
I schedule my workouts just like any other work appointment so it’s on my calendar and it’s non-negotiable. We also have help with childcare and three of the kids go to school, and spacing the kids out has really helped.
You excel at running. Is there something in your life that you do better than running?
(She laughs). No, I think I tried everything pretty early in life and realized I wasn’t good at any of them. Team sports, especially ball sports, I was not good at those at all. I am pretty good at home improvement projects like laying tile and building cabinets, so that’s my creative outlet.
You competed in the 1500 at the World Indoor meet in Instanbul in 2012 and the World Outdoor meet in London in 2017, and now you’ve run the Boston and Chicago marathons. What have been the most memorable races of your career?
Those four are definitely on my highlight reel. I particularly loved racing in London. I had three kids at the time and they were all in the stands, which doesn’t happen very often for me. In a track stadium like that with 70,000 fans, almost as many as a Husker game, it felt like track was at the center of the world. All of my marathons have been great experiences; it’s such a cool community.
Many people think that American women distance running – from high school through the professional ranks – is the best it’s ever been. Who do you look up to in the professional ranks?
A fellow Nebraskan, Em Sisson, has been a great example of hard work and consistency. I’m an older athlete at 36, and there’s a lot of women even older than me like Keira D’Amato and Sara Hall who are still running really fast and getting faster as they near 40.
You are the 11th fastest US marathoner in 2022; 11 of the 12 fastest women in 2022 are over age 30, and four of the top 12 are over age 35. It seems like it’s more common for women to find their event and hit their stride 10-12 years after college. Why do you think the US marathon scene is dominated by 30-somethings?
I think it’s the women who haven’t given up on getting better, and I think the idea about peak training age is changing. It used to be that women would retire in their early 30’s so they could start a family, because you don’t want to wait too long. Now you’re seeing women not wait to do that and be able to incorporate racing into raising a family. To me, that’s the big shift; women have realized they can start a family and still go back to racing.
You have been racing on a national level since 2004. How have you stayed motivated over so many years?
We’ve discussed how I love to train and that’s a big part of it. More recently, I’ve been able to tell my kids about my goals, and they help keep me accountable for achieving them. They don’t let me slack at all.
How does your training now compare to what you did in college?
I run about twice as much mileage as I did in college but I do about half of the hard workouts and hard days. In college I had two hard workouts plus a medium distance run and a long run every week, but for my marathon build-up I do one hard workout and one long run each week.
Are you part of a training group?
Not really. My husband does a lot of my training with me, and I often run with a group for my weekend long run. With my work and family schedule it’s been hard to be part of a team in the past, but Brent may take on a few more athletes that would be training partners.
When you competed at the 2021 Olympic Trials in the steeplechase, your team name was listed as &Mother. Was that a sponsor?
I was one of three athletes at the 2021 Trials sponsored by &Mother, a new organization whose goal is to support mothers competing in professional sports. At the 2022 USATF championships, they offered on-site childcare for the athletes’ children; so far they are focused on covering travel and childcare expenses for mothers in sport. It’s a non-profit; you can find more about them at www.andmother.org.
From a mental standpoint, what’s been the biggest difference between racing middle distance and long distance?
In the marathon the biggest thing is patience; in the 800 or mile, you feel like you’re red-lining the whole way, but you can’t feel that way until maybe the last mile of a marathon. Finding that patience has been tricky for me after so many years in middle distance.
What type of emotional support system do you have in place for support inside and outside of running?
I’ve got a built-in circle with my family, and we have a beautiful community here in Boulder that supports all of our distance runners. Like most parents, we are friends with the parents of our kids’ classmates and teammates. The parents on my daughter’s cross country team will bring dinner the week of a big race, and I came home from Chicago to find a banner, flowers and chocolate from those friends. We also have a great church group, and we’ve just learned to hold tight to the people who care for us.
More college programs are utilizing sports psychologists. Have you found that helpful?
I haven’t used a sports psychologist but I did start using a therapist about the time I turned my attention to the marathon. I just did some normal counseling and I found it to be super helpful. My degree is in psychology so I do a lot of studying on my own in terms of sports psychology.
You’ve had access to excellent coaching throughout your career. What has been the most helpful piece of coaching advice you received?
I’ve learned so much from my coaches, but one of the best tips was from Coach Whetmore at Colorado. He always told us to pay attention to sensory data. We can get so much data from a watch but he wanted us to focus on what our body was telling us - how you’re feeling in that moment, what your breathing is like, what your muscles are telling you. I think about that in every race.
You’re now coached by your husband Brent Vaughn. What does he do to be an effective coach for you? He knows you better than anyone else – how does that translate into his coaching?
I had asked Brent multiple times to coach me and he always said ‘no’ because he thought it would be terrible for our relationship. In 2016, we finally sat down for what he called a business meeting, and we agreed on the rules that we had to follow. The two most important rules were that I couldn’t think of him as my husband during practices or races, and back at home I couldn’t put him in the doghouse for whatever he told me at practice.
In part because of those ground rules, Brent is really good at knowing when to push me or when to pull in the reins; if I’m having a bad workout, sometimes I can’t tell which of those I need. He also takes our whole life into account when coaching me so, for example, he’ll modify my plan when I was up most of the night with a sick kid. He’ll also call me out when I’m being a wimp, which is something he couldn’t do if we didn’t have those ground rules. He has great intuition to know when to tell me to toughen up and finish the workout, and when to cut our losses and try again the next day.
You’re 36 and one of the best marathoners in the country. What does the rest of your racing career look like?
I don’t think I have a ten-year marathon career in front of me, but I definitely have five more years. I’ll probably throw in a few track races next season – maybe even an indoor mile in January 2023 - and run a spring 2023 marathon. After that I’ll shift my training focus to the February 2024 Olympic Trials marathon. Hopefully I’ll spend the six months after the Trials training for the 2024 Olympics. I’d like to finish my career by running all of the six Majors marathons I haven’t run by that point.
You’ve checked nearly all the boxes for a runner – success at every level, middle distance and long distance, nationally and internationally. If you could go back in time and talk to your high school freshman self, what advice would you give her?
That brings so many things to mind but I’ll focus on a few. Have patience as your career develops. Keep setting big goals but don’t set a timeline or expiration date on them. Running teaches us so many beautiful things but delayed gratification is one of the best.
If you could impress a few things in the hearts of every female high school runner, what would they be?
Be patient, eat lots of food, trust your body, take breaks, and listen to your coach.
Our audience includes quite a few high school coaches. Based on your experience, what advice would you give to coaches as they try to develop, motivate and encourage young female runners to be successful in high school and beyond?
My high school coach, Dave Nash, was brilliant at creating a team culture and keeping it fun. He prioritized me falling in love with running and enjoying the process more than race splits and results. I think it’s easy for high school coaches to get carried away because there’s so much information and advanced training tools out there, but they have to remember that these girls are not professional athletes. They don’t need to be stressed about times; they need to be enjoying their teammates and themselves and learn how to fall in love with running.
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Originally written for and posted in November 2022 at www.preprunningnerd.com by Jay Slagle.
Like this coverage of Nebraska high school distance running? There's more of this at www.preprunningnerd.com. Check out the Blog tab for our frequent stories, the Articles tab for long-form articles, the Results tab for every Nebraska high school race we could find this year, and the Rankings tab for team and individual rankings. If you want to see meet photos or just need to kill a few hours on social media, follow us on Twitter @PrepRunningNerd or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/preprunningnerd.
Finally, if you think runners and jumpers are the best thing on earth, you'll enjoy our two most popular articles. In 2018 we published "The Runner with the Broken Heart" about a high school boy who finished last in nearly every race he ran. In 2022 we published, "The Fall and Rise of Emmett Hassenstab," a story about a high school triple who became a quadrapalegic after a swimming accident.