Q&A With Sara Vaughn After Her Huge Marathon Breakthrough In Chicago

Courtesy of Kimbia Athletics
October 9, 2023

Sara Vaughn clocked a huge personal best to finish 10th at the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, carving almost three minutes off her PR to hit the line in 2:23:24. It caps a fine comeback for the 37-year-old, who dropped out of the Boston Marathon earlier this year. A mother of four, Vaughn still works full-time as a realtor, juggling that with top-level training under the guidance of Puma Elite coaches Alistair and Amy Cragg. The day after the race, she spoke to Kimbia Athletics about her journey to Chicago and the outlook for the road ahead.

Congrats on the PR – what was your goal coming into the race?

Leading in, I had a pretty good idea of my fitness based on the paces in workouts, but I hadn’t talked to Alistair about a goal until the day before. I didn’t have specific race instructions until that meeting. It’s the first time I had a coach be on the same page with the goals I had for myself. It matched up when he gave me my race plan. The goal was to go out in about 72 minutes and be patient until 30K, maybe 32K, then try have a fast last 10K that could end up in a range between 2:23 and 2:25. I thought on a really good day I could run 2:23:30 and I surpassed that. I didn’t execute the race plan exactly. I got a little impatient and went a little earlier than I was supposed to, but it all worked out in the end.

How did it feel at the finish?

I saw the clock and was pretty excited. I know they don’t always end like that. My last marathon, I didn’t even finish so to be at a marathon finish line is a pretty overwhelming feeling and to see the time you wanted, I just knew that wasn’t always a guarantee, no matter how hard you worked, so it felt pretty good.

On that last marathon, what exactly went wrong in Boston?

I just didn’t feel well. I got chilled and really tight and couldn’t run the pace I knew I was capable of running. I don’t think it was a fitness thing, maybe it was, but I just couldn’t keep running. I stopped a little after halfway and I could not have mustered another 10 miles that day. It’s hard to brush it off because you don’t get another chance at one for six more months, so it’s been a long six months waiting for my next chance. I think we corrected all the issues. I’m more fit than I ever have been but I also dialled in my nutrition plan and hopefully going into the Trials, I’ve got that dialled in and I can replicate what went well yesterday.

How was the build-up to Chicago?

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It was very smooth. I basically hit every single workout and I don’t think I had one bomb of a workout. I did earlier, just before the official build-up. I started working with Alistair and Amy in June so in June and July, when I was building base fitness, I had some awful workouts, the ones where you have to make a call in the middle and say, ‘I can’t finish this.’ Alistair would have to adjust paces and intervals. I couldn’t complete what they were asking me to do, but it exposed what I needed to work on through the build and it was a bit of a learning period. By the time we officially started the marathon build-up, 12 weeks out, they were writing aggressive workouts but ones they knew I could accomplish. It was the perfect challenge for me.

The switch to work with Alistair and Amy – how did that come about?

My husband was coaching me before which was really awesome as he’s an excellent coach, but it wasn’t necessarily the best thing for our marriage and family dynamic. We both recognized that a few years ago and tried to work through it but even before Boston, we knew that we had to make a change. I asked around to a few coaches and Amy has always kind of been my go-to person for learning about the marathon. I’ve always really looked up to her. We got to witness her bronze medal at the World Champs in 2017 and I’ve been super inspired since then. So, in a lot of ways, it made perfect sense to call them. The drawback is it’s remote coaching, which comes with its own challenges, but I’m a pretty self-sufficient, low-need athlete so it works.

It was also a big day for Rose Harvey, who has the same coaching setup. Did you work with her on the build-up?

I knew we were doing very similar workouts but she was at sea level and I was at altitude so talking to Alistair and Amy, they were guessing we were in very similar fitness, but I don’t think they’d have guessed we’d finish within a few seconds of each other. I give her props: she executed the race plan way better. She was more patient and did not go with me when I made a move at mile 16; she waited until 20 miles and we ended up having basically the same day, but she finished a lot stronger. I was really happy for her. We don’t know each other super well but we have been chatting more often in recent months. I’m hopeful she can come to Boulder and do some training stints with me.

How difficult has it been to juggle four kids, a full-time job and training to run with the world’s best?

It’s a lot. I’ve been lucky that my work has been a little slower the last few months. The summer was really slow and I deliberately took a step back from grinding away in the office every day and was able to focus a little more on marathon training. I’ve noticed the more I get into the marathon and training, the less I have the capacity to do other things, so it was a fortunate coincidence that I had a slow couple of months at work. But the week before I left (for Chicago) was crazy. I left for the race on Thursday and in the five or six days preceding that, I had about 40 showings between five clients and so things got really nuts in the two weeks before the race. But it goes to show not everything has to go perfectly with this singular focus. Maybe it was good for me to take my mind off the race. I didn’t even have a race plan until the day before and that was partly as I hadn’t had time to think about it.

Where do you feel you are now in the journey to mastering the marathon – both in terms of training for it and racing it?

My hope was always to get in enough marathon experience before the Trials to feel comfortable and to feel like I belong on that starting line, and I feel like I just got there yesterday. If I hadn’t had that race, I’d still feel a little bit of an outsider but those feelings all went away yesterday with the time I ran and the confidence I got from closing really hard the second half and just competing all the way to the end. I can see myself fully as a marathoner now and just rely on that track speed when I need it in the last mile.

What are your plans for the rest of the year, and for 2024?

This morning, I got on a plane to take my daughter to a college visit so I’ll be focusing on her, her college decision and her high school cross country season for the next few weeks while I’m taking a bit of downtime. I’ll have two or three chill weeks of training, and then we’ll be 12 weeks out from the Trials, so I’ll be really focusing on the kids before I jump right back into marathon training.

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