Sara Vaughn has been among the country’s top middle-distance runners for 15 years, since she was in college at the University of Colorado. But with the exception of a single year when she ran for Adidas after she graduated in 2008, she had never had a substantial sponsorship deal.
After several years, she gave up trying to get one, realizing the best way she could stay in the sport as an elite athlete would be to have a job. So nine years ago, Vaughn, now 35, earned her real estate license and built a successful business selling homes around Boulder, Colorado.
Even when she made the U.S. team for the world championships in 2017 in the 1500 meters, she drew little interest from sponsors. Here and there, she’d get an offer of $5,000 per year and free gear. Vaughn passed.
“That wasn’t enough for me to marry myself to a company and call it a sponsorship,” she told Runner’s World on January 3.
On December 5, Vaughn made her marathon debut at the California International Marathon (CIM) in Sacramento. She won it in 2:26:53, more than 2 minutes ahead of second place, and averaging 5:36 per mile.
Within hours of her victory, sponsors came calling. And a few weeks later, Vaughn signed a two-year deal (with an option year for a third year) with Puma.
“It’s been so long that I haven’t had a sponsor, I stopped even asking,” she said. “To be honest, it was a bit of a surprise.”
Vaughn isn’t sure whether she’ll run a spring marathon or hold off until the fall and return to the track first, although she said she has to decide soon. Her agent, Tom Ratcliffe, is helping her weigh those options, which would include a substantial appearance fee for a race like the Boston Marathon, for instance. Her 12-week buildup to CIM went almost flawlessly, and her mileage reached 130 one week.
Regardless of which way Vaughn goes in the next few months, Puma, Vaughn’s new sponsor, plans to be around American women’s marathoning for years to come.
An accomplished roster
In the early days of the first running boom, the company was one of the only brands making running shoes. But in recent decades, Puma focused on sprinters (sponsoring Usain Bolt) and jumpers and got away from distance running. Now, it is making another push focused on the women’s distance market in the U.S. Puma signed marathoner Molly Seidel, 27, in early 2021.
In addition to Seidel and Vaughn, the company has two other recent signings: Annie Frisbie, 25, who ran 2:26:18 in her marathon debut in New York, and Dakotah Lindwurm, 26, who won Grandma’s Marathon last June in Duluth, Minnesota, in 2:29:04. She also ran well in October in Boston, visible with the lead pack for half of the race, before finishing 13th in 2:31:04. Last month, she was third at the U.S. Half Marathon championships in a PR of 1:09:40.
“I am so proud to have Sara, Annie, and Dakotah join Puma as our newest elite athletes,” said Erin Longin, global director of running and training at Puma, in a statement provided to Runner’s World. “The fact that we now sponsor four out of the top 10 fastest U.S. female marathoners is really exciting for Puma. We believe that women are the future of running and want to support these athletes as they continue to develop their careers.”
Seidel’s 2:24:42 in New York was the second-fastest American time of 2021 behind Emma Bates’s Chicago performance. Frisbie was fourth on the list. Vaughn would have been fifth, and Lindwurm ninth, but their performances don’t show up on the World Athletics list because they weren’t on record-eligible courses.
Support for the breakout stars
Frisbie (above, left) and Lindwurm train with Minnesota Distance Elite in the Twin Cities. Both are represented by Hawi Keflezighi of Hawi Sports Management.
“Annie and Dakotah have accomplished a lot with the support from Minnesota Distance Elite, and I know this additional and meaningful support from Puma will help them achieve their next goals,” he said.
Puma’s support has been immediately life-changing for Lindwurm, who left her job as a housing advocate, helping people with low or no income and disabilities find affordable housing. “I did quit my job when I got the Puma deal,” she said. “I’m excited to move to a phase in my life where I can focus on running.”
Lindwurm was noticeable to viewers of the October running of the Boston Marathon (rescheduled from April). In the lead pack, she was the one with the big grin on her face.
“I do it for every race, especially every marathon,” she said. “I literally love to run and race. To me, I feel better when I’m smiling. And I’m enjoying it. When I look around and I see the lead pack of women, and everybody is just so serious and kind of grumpy-looking, I’m like, ‘Come on, don’t you guys enjoy this? Aren’t you having as much fun as I am?’ It’s kind of like my little quirk and it’s honestly what keeps my head in the game.”
Frisbie had the busiest week of her life after the New York City Marathon, fielding calls from potential agents before settling on Keflezighi, who then began taking offers from sponsors. Puma was the clear winner.
“I feel very excited to be a part of their team,” Frisbie said. “Hearing them get excited about me joining the team just makes me more happy about the deal, and it feels like a really great fit.”
But she’s staying put at her full-time job with a healthcare startup for now. She might pare her hours in the future.
“I’m not making any permanent moves right now,” she said. “I just don’t want to do anything too quickly. Whether that would be pull back to part-time or be more of a consultant or stay full-time, I’m still kind of figuring out what I want to do there.”
Frisbie is racing the Houston Half Marathon on January 15, and then she’s hoping to get back on the track in the spring, with the aim of running a fast 10,000 meters and qualifying for the U.S. championships in June. She won’t do a spring marathon; Lindwurm will.
Back in Boulder
As for Vaughn? She is not quitting her job, either. Her recent days have been long, as she has been working the phones, trying to help friends and clients who lost their homes in the Marshall fire find housing. She does her second run of the day on her Peloton treadmill at night after her kids head to bed and the house is quiet.
She’s thrilled Puma is supporting her and that the landscape for women runners has changed so drastically, especially for those who are mothers. When Vaughn came out of college with a child, she got used to hearing brands tell her they weren’t interested in her; her situation didn’t make sense for them. She became numb to it, she said.
And she didn’t understand the power of a marathon.
“I’m a little annoyed that it took running a marathon to get a contract, for sure,” Vaughn said. “After the race finished, I was super happy with it and totally in love with the marathon and super happy to forge, it almost feels like, a new career going forward. At the same time, I feel like I’ve done equivalently cool things on the track.”
Even before Puma signed her, though, she started to see that the marathon holds appeal to fans. Her Instagram following has grown 20 percent since she said she was training for CIM.
“People don’t understand doing 10 by 300 [meters] in 46 seconds on the track. They can’t relate to that,” she said. “They can understand grinding out 10 times a mile at marathon pace. It’s so much more relatable—I’ve connected with a lot more people.”