“I thank my body. I’ve always thanked my legs. I don’t know why, I’m always thanking my legs. . . . But then when I became a mom . . . you become even more appreciative of what the body can do. And you respect the body so much more because, you know, I see my little girl running around, and I’m like, Oh my God, that is wonderful. What a gift. And to realize that your body was able to go through that process and eventually come out of it and then come out of it even stronger, to still be yourself and maybe even a better version of yourself at the end of it—that’s incredible.”
Sally Kipyego is one of the fastest distance runners in the world, with a long resume of incredible performances. But, she also wanted to be a mom. This is her journey navigating pregnancy and returning to elite-level competition, just in time to compete at the historic 2020 US Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials.
Sally Kipyego was born in Kenya and started running at a young age. She discovered early on that she had talent and a will be seek the ultimate limits of her potential. She had early success as a junior, and when she came to the United States and ran as a member of the Texas Tech cross-country and track team, she dominated by winning total of 9 NCAA championships.
Sally turned pro after college, in 2010, and has been internationally competitive ever since. Among her many accomplishments, she placed 2nd in the 10,000 meter at the world championships in 2011 and 5th in 2015, and she won the silver medal at that distance in the 2012 London Olympics. During that time she was competing for her home country of Kenya, but in 2017, she became a US citizen. She currently calls Eugene, Oregon, home, and visits Kenya regularly.
In 2016, Sally decided the time had come to become a mom. This episode traces her experience going through pregnancy and the bumpy, uncertain journey returning to her job of elite running. And it all culminates at one epic race: the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials.
Through Sally’s experiences, we learn about patience, listening to your body, and honoring the reality that every single pregnancy journey is different.
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Cherie Turner: Hello and welcome to Strides Forward, where we share the stories of women marathon and ultramarathon runners. I’m Cherie Louise Turner, a 51-year-old runner and also the host and creator of Strides Forward.
Each episode we tell the story of one runner and focus on one topic; this topic for this episode is pregnancy and it’s part of our series “running in a woman’s body,” stories of menopause, RED-s, and yes, pregnancy.
I myself have never been through the pregnancy journey, but I certainly know a lot of women who have. And as magical as the entire experience is, it’s also challenging: mentally, emotionaly and yes, physically, and it’s full of question marks. Because no matter how many times it has happened, every single experience is different and the details of how any given pregnancy will play out are unpredictable, no matter how well prepared you try to be, as this runner came to discover through her experience.
Sally Kipyego: All right. My name is Sally Kipyego. I am a lot of things, but I guess in this context I am a runner. I’m a mother runner.
Cherie: Yes, Sally Kipyego is a lot of things, but what you likely know about her is that she’s one of the fastest long-distance runners in the world. And in this story, we’re going to get into her journey about becoming, as she said, a mother runner.
Being that sally is a professional athlete, this is also the story of getting back to work. It’s a tricky dance for women athletes, to have a baby mid-career, because it means not being able to perform your job for some unknown period of time. For sally, that meant stepping away from international competition.
Now not only have i never had had a child, I’ve also never been one of the fastest runners in the world, but i am a huge fan of Sally Kipyego, and If you aren’t already a fan, I’m excited to help you become one. To start, you’ll want to know A few of the many highlights from her career, which include placing 2nd in the 10,000 at the world championships in 2011 and 5th in 2015 and winning the silver medal at that distance in the 2012 London Olympics. During that time she was competing for her home country of Kenya, but in 2017, she became a US citizen. She currently calls Eugene, Oregon, home, and visits Kenya regularly.
So, yes, Sally is one of the best. And she’s been cultivating that speed for a very long time.
Sally: So I grew up in Kenya. And so, from just a very young age, there’s a rich tradition and culture, around long distance running. And so it was just an organic kind of progression. I started running cross country in school, primary school, and then I got really into running in high school. So it was mostly about just, you know, being active. And it turned out that I was, it was good and I was excelling. And so one thing led to another, and here we are 20 years down the road.
Cherie: The one thing that led to another included competing in cross-country as a teenager and placing in the top 10 in the junior world championships in 2001. Then during her collegiate career as a student Texas Tech, she became the first woman to win 3 back-to-back cross country titles, and overall she’s an 9-time NCAA champion.
So basically, Sally completely crushed it during her collegiate career. She turned pro in 2010 and has been competitive on the international stage pretty much ever since. During her professional career she’s competed in distances ranging from the 1500 meters to the marathon.
Sally’s success and longevity has been a very mindful pursuit.
Sally: I always felt that I had a gift and natural talent. And I felt with that gift, you are given a responsibility and, for me, really, the beginning of it all was a way to get out, a way to explore the world, a way to see other places, a way to actually travel and be able to experience other privileges that otherwise I wouldn’t have if I had stayed in my village. So that was really the beginning of everything. And for me it was about, it’s always been about honoring that gift and trying to really pursue my full potential. That way when the time comes for me to walk away from running, competitive running, so to speak, I can walk away with that sense of fulfillment, the sense of I gave everything that I had, and I didn’t feel like I have sacrificed the gift.
Cherie: And she has honored that gift. She has continually explored the depths of her physical ability, pushed her mental strength, and given her emotional all to deliver champion performances again and again. And she recommits, year after year, with the clear knowledge of what this pursuit requires.
Sally: I’ve always felt that the day I feel that I’m emotionally not committed to this, I will walk away. That’s always been my commitment. And I’ve always felt that unless I can give a hundred percent that I wouldn’t just be there just for the sake of being there.
Cherie: As Sally was coming into the en-d of 2016, there was one very big consideration that was starting to draw on some of her emotional bandwidth: the desire to become a mom.
She was training for the NYC marathon, which takes place in November, and made the decision that yes, the time had come to start a family. And Sally knew full well what the possible outcome of that might be.
Sally: So it wasn’t, I really didn’t want to retire. I wanted to have a baby and then come back and run after having a baby, but I was at peace with whatever was going to happen because I have friends. And I know there’s a lot of women that will go into pregnancy, turn around, come back. And few months down the road, they’re running and running fantastic. That’s fantastic. But I also have friends, personal friends, that have had children and just struggled to come back and they never actually successfully came back to competitive running after that. So I knew going into pregnancy that there was a possibility, not that I wasn’t, I was planning on retiring, but there was a high possibility that I might not be able to come back.
Cherie: And as it turned out, Sally had already started that journey before the race: she was in the early stages of pregnancy when she toed the line at NYC marathon, where she finished a brilliant second place behind winner Mary Keitany, who would go on to set a world record in the marathon about six months later.
Not only had Sally stood atop the podium at one of the biggest running events on the planet, she’d also done it in a personal best time of 2:28.
She’d definitely earned some down time, but she was about to get a lot more of that than she intended to.
Sally: The first expectation that didn’t happen was the fact that I thought I was going to run through a pregnancy. Well, that did not happen. I ran five miles all the way to about 16 weeks, but I had this cramping, uh, so much I would, I would run for maybe five miles, but then I’ll spend the next two hours laying down and elevating my feet because I was cramping so much. So the stress of that, and I had to stop running at 16 weeks because the stress of just the unknown, and this was my first baby. So I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what was normal. So that was the first thing that I didn’t anticipate. I thought I was healthy. I thought, I’d never had issues. So I thought I was going to be able to run. And I’ve seen women on incredible women run through their pregnancies. So that was the first, Oh, I guess this is not going to happen. They say every body is different, and every pregnancy is different, so, it turned out I wasn’t going to be one of those women who was going run through their pregnancy.
Cherie: And when Sally’s baby girl Emma was born, there was the joy and delight of entering motherhood as well as a whole new world of unknowns.
Sally: So, it was not easy. It was harder than I expected. I, and I am a classic type A personality. I read about anything and everything. And so when I did my research, trust me, and I thought I was prepared for a lot of things. And then the baby got there and I was like, um, I guess I am not really as prepared as I thought I was.
Cherie: One of the many changes that took Sally by surprise was how difficult it was to get back to running. Even 3 and a half, four months p ostpartum, even to go 35, 40 minutes was tough. Add to that that she was spending time in Kenya to be near more family, and there, she’s at altitude.
Sally: I was running at 7,000 feet, and it was so hard. My body just was fighting. It just felt like my body for the first time in my life was going against everything I wanted to do. My heart wanted to run, I wanted to run, but it was like my body just refused to cooperate whatsoever. I was falling apart like, uh, physically; obviously, I was sore, which is expected, but also I got like small injuries. My calves, my quads, my hammies, all kinds of things were just falling apart.
Cherie: The challenges did not end there.
Sally: It’s very interesting, but like, because I was, I was breastfeeding and, um, my immune system was terrible. I got the cold, I got the flu so frequently. And there was even a period when I got malaria and pneumonia. And it just felt like my iron levels were constantly low. And I was, yeah, I was even, I was trying to get some greens and spinach and beetroots and all kinds of things, but my immune system was struggling. And then down the road, fast-forward when I stopped breastfeeding, my immune system changed, which was interesting. I don’t know if there was any correlation between that. I don’t know what happened, but I think just because I was probably asking too much of my body, to be honest with you, then what it was willing to give me at the time.
Cherie: Of course, Sally is someone whose profession is all about asking a lot from her body. But this was a process that couldn’t be rushed; her body was going to take the time it needed.
Sally: And then now coming back, I thought that I would be able to get back to running and pretty much, you know, have a little bumps, but not as extreme. So I thought within the first year, for sure, I would be back to being my normal self. Well, it turned out that I was way past one year when I felt like my normal self again.
Cherie: It was way past a year, and that was in addition to not running for a large part of her pregnancy. Sally had given her body the time and nurturing it needed, but that also meant that she had a long, long road back to being an internationally competitive runner again.
12:00 Sally: I think I lost a lot of, obviously a lot of muscle, a lot of strength so, because of that, I was starting from a very low, low end, right? And so, I had to do to go back and do strength work, basically from the basics because my body was not handling the mileage that is required to get rid of all marathon, because I was lacking a lot of the strength that was there before.
And so, slowly, I think it was just one block after another, that really got me going again. It was just kind of filling the gaps here and there: if my hips or my glutes were weak, then we would work on that. If my calves were weak, then we work on that. If my back was weak, then we work . . . you know, and then slowly just kind of building one block on top of the other and not rushing the mileage. That way I could handle it a little bit better. And so the more I was putting these tiny little blocks along the way, it naturally kind of progressed to be, you know, like it finally got there. It didn’t happen overnight; it took so long. And it makes sense; of course it was going to take so long, just because of where we started. I had to be patient. I had to learn to be very patient with it.
Cherie: Patience. One block after another. One small milestone, then the next. The progress was there, but it was slow going. Not to be understated here is that running fast was Sally’s profession; patience and listening to her body was a must. But her job is to compete, and that November 2016 podium finish in New York, as awesome as it was, was receding into the past. And in fact, it was just over two years in the past when she was ready to line up again.
Sally: In 2019, January, I went to, I ran the Huston half marathon. And I remember I had a terrible race there. Well, not necessarily a terrible race: I ran 72 minutes. I thought I was going to run better than that, but I didn’t. And, and so I, I met when my, I flew into Oregon and I met with them with a Nike rep, and because I was sponsored through my pregnancy, by the way. And so I, um, I met with them and, you know, we talked about things and I say, well, I didn’t perform well. So, so well this past weekend, but I feel like I’m going somewhere, and then we talked about it. And, and basically what, what the whole thing was, as long as you can get healthy and get ready to race and race well at the Olympic Trials, then you do your thing. We trust you, you’ve always come through. And, uh, you don’t, as long as you can be ready to go up in the Olympic Trials. And so that was so huge because this is also my job, as much as I love running, this is also my job. And to know that I was being supported for the next year, you know, until February of 2020, it just gave me a lot of peace of mind to know that I was okay. I could just slowly, gradually develop and not feel like, Oh, I gotta, I gotta get it done now. So that was, that was a huge, uh, support for me in that, in that area.
Cherie: be ready to race well at the olympic trials marathon: the race that decides who goes to the 2020 Games, that was the goal. And of course what really meant was being in the kind of race shape that will earn SALLY a spot on the Team going to Tokyo. And that path was very straightforward: finish in the top three at the trails. It’s decisive and clear. One race, one chance. First, second and third go to Tokyo, and fourth place is the alternate. That’s it.
Add to that, Sally would be facing the most competitive field to ever assemble at the US Olympic Marathon trials. Even from a year out, it was evident that this was going to be a tough race.
And not to be forgotten, it still wasn’t totally clear if she’d fully come back from her pregnancy. There was still no way of knowing if she’d be the runner she’d been before. HOWEVER, SHE was building back, BIT BY BIT. And as she WAS regaining her strength and fitness, she started to notice some of the lasting impacts this pregnancy was having on her running.
Sally: You discover more about yourself and, you know, the harder things are the things that expose us, right? And then they make us stronger and, and you come back stronger, you’re more, a little bit more resilient. And it’s because of the things, the changes that you’ve had to go through, because those changes tend to stretch you. And I found that all these changes were stretching me. And so when I came back to running, I was a little bit more resilient in it. You know, I was more, a lot tougher in some ways.
Cherie: Sally was tougher, more resilient, and as she reflected more on her journey to motherhood, she was, to put it simply, in complete awe.
Sally: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And this sounds really cheesey, but the truth of the matter is, I thank my body. I’ve always thanked my legs. I don’t know why, I’m always thanking my legs, but this time around is different because I always thanked my body because I felt like, for what it’s done, for what it has been able to do, it’s just, it’s incredible. It’s incredible. And for me, I have such respect for the human body in general anyways, because, because I’m an elite runner, when you really look at what the body goes through. But then when I became a mom, I, I understood. And I, and I didn’t have a smooth, I don’t think I had a smooth transition into motherhood, you know, not, no nothing dramatic, but it wasn’t as smooth as I expected to be. And that even, even now, you know, with that, you become even more appreciative of what the body can do. And you respect the body so much more because you, you, you know, I see my little girl running around, and I’m like, Oh my God, that is wonderful. You know, like what a gift. And, and to realize that your body was able to go through that process and eventually come out of it and then come out of it even stronger, to still be yourself and maybe even a better version of yourself at the end of it. That’s incredible.
Cherie: Sally was taking this gratitude and resilience into her training, as well as her adjustment to motherhood. And in turn, motherhood was readjusting her focus.
Sally: They say, children give you perspective. So I find myself so much more committed, not necessarily to the specifics of running, but my effort, my commitment, my, you know, like, I feel like I’m doing it for the greater good. I’m doing it for, I have a child now and, I have a, you know, a little girl. And so obviously I would really like to pursue those dreams, that way my children can see that. And just to kind of try to model something that is good, you know, for the kids. So, and then, and then, like I say, children have a way of, um, setting things into perspective for you, of showing those things that are really important.
Cherie: Having a child in her life was giving Sally a new sense of priorities, which carried over into how she was approaching her training.
Sally: Let me give you an example: Right now, I am in Eugene, Oregon. About seven weeks ago, more than seven weeks ago, I packed my bags, I said goodbye to my family, including my three year old daughter and came to Oregon by myself. And that’s the longest I’ve been away from my family, especially my three-year-old. So every time I get out to train, I am so I, I attack that workout and I’m, so I, you know, I don’t mind. I just go to the well, if I need to, because I feel like it needs to be worth it. This needs to be worth it, because for all of that, to be able to, you know, it’s, it’s a sacrifice to be able to, it’s a choice to do that, but it’s also a sacrifice. And if I’m going to be away from my family and miss my little one for two months, it better be worth it. So I’m really, I’m really on top of my stuff, because, because I understand that I’m giving up some things. So it helps you with focus. This is the time you get to do this, so do it and do it well.
Cherie: Sally was training well and she was focused, but the racing, well it wasn’t great. To recall, her first race back after not lining up for over two years was that Houston half-marathon in January 2019 and she’d performed below her expectations.
Sally regrouped and prepared for the Boston Marathon in April, and there, she pulled out at mile 18 with calf problems.
With less than a year before the 2020 Olympic Trials, Sally comeback from pregnancy was still unclear. But she still had one more major race on her pre-trials calendar, so she got back to training.
Sally: I came back to Oregon and started building on those blocks and went to Berlin September of 2019 and ran to 2:25, which a PR, and so I was moving in the right direction. Training was going good. Everything was . . . nothing, you know, nothing, there was no fire whatsoever, but there was consistency, which is something that I had been lacking for the previous year. So that was a one thing that was going really well for me was consistency. I was consistently training and staying healthy for almost a year now. So that was fantastic. And so going into the Olympic trials, I was fit.
Cherie: The time had arrived and sally was fit. In addition, when she lined up on February 29, in Atlanta, Georgia, to vie for one those three coveted olympic team spots, she was bringing a little something extra.
Sally: I went through labor for more than 17 hours and it was brutal. It was brutal. I wanted to . . . I didn’t get epidural. So, and I, and you go through it, right? So during races, you can just, I can put my head down and be like, I’ve done this, I’ve done harder things. I can definitely do three more steps. I can do three more reps. I can do another half a mile. I know I can do it. I’ve done things, harder things before. I’ll always said, What is harder than the childbirth? Well, I guess there are other things, but, you know, that’s quite up there in terms of just that, that, you know, that kind of toughness. And so that is one of those memories that always, if I think about it, then, you know, I can get a little bit extra, just a little bit.
Cherie: Sally’s journey to this start line had been long, but she’d gained a lot along the way. She was a mom, for starters, with a beautiful, healthy little girl. And in her racing, she had that little bit more to give, and she would need every single ounce of that because Atlanta was about to throw down.
The course was hilly, the weather was cold with gusting winds, and very much as expected, the competition was intense.
Sally: The field was extremely deep, you know, there were 10 plus women that in any given minute, they could win that race . So that kind of depth made it very interesting.
Cherie: It was interesting, because there were no runaway favorites for those top three spots. And for a while, that played out as a game of wait and see. It appeared that no one was too eager to be first to chance it in that wind and over those hills.
Sally: I was surprised by how long we ran together, but then how quickly everything changed, within about two miles. There was, at 19 miles, there was a break. And, and just like that, that was the end of it, okay, it wasn’t the end, there were still six miles more, but still like, that felt like it was the end of it. The break happened and I wasn’t expecting it to be so sharp. It felt very sudden and very sharp, it was very aggressive.
Cherie: Sally made the split decision to not follow the two runners who’d broken away: Molly Seidel and Aliphine Tuliamuk. But now Sally found herself, alone, dangling in third. And while both Aliphine and Molly are seasoned professionals, they hadn’t been considered the biggest contenders in race; many of runners were still very close behind.
Sally: I thought the next group was going to catch me because there were what, five, six people behind me, it was six miles to go. I was running by myself in the middle of no man’s land. And the plan was, when they caught up to me, I would run with them try to close well at the end, but they didn’t, for a mile, and then maybe two miles, I was like, okay, they’re not coming. So let me just hold on and see what happens.
Cherie: Sally was left to face down hills and wind of those final miles by herself. There was no one to pace with. No on to help buffer the cold, cutting gusts. Two of the three coveted Olympic team spots were already up the road. There was only this one spot left.
Sally: I knew, the women behind me were people that had a really good record of closing really well. So there’s the fear you might get caught up. It’s so close, you can make this Olympic team.
Cherie: It was so close, but it’s not over until it’s over. Sally had to maintain her position if she was going to do what she came here to do: earn that spot on the Olympic team. And as she toiled all alone, she drew strength from the very collective effort that had gotten her there.
Sally: Coming to the Trials, I felt like a lot of people had really played a role in getting me healthy and ready to go. And I felt like a lot of people sacrificed. When I was getting ready for the Trials, I would do my long runs, my 25 mile long runs, uh, in Kenya at 4:00 AM in the morning because it got warmer quickly. So I would get up at four in the morning and I’d get running, I’ll start my long run at exactly five, um, on Saturdays, almost every Saturday, I would do my long run, and I would go with my husband. But there’s this lady that helps me a lot in my house. And, um, and she would come in, she would come in and by the time I got back, there was breakfast ready. And I just felt like, what is the greatest thing I can do for these people that have really gone beyond, beyond, you know, beyond their jobs, you know, that’s family, that’s love, that’s so much commitment on their part to do that kind of work, and to be able to help you that much. So I felt like the best thing I can do for them is really dig deep and just give them a little bit, cause if I win, they win, you know. So, yeah. And I, when I say that I get emotional because it’s that important. I just felt like gratitude was overriding everything else in Atlanta, to be honest with you.
Cherie: Stride by stride by ever more agonizing stride, Sally Kipyego got closer to the finish line, holding back those tough competitors who weren’t far behind.
Sally: But those last three miles, it was the worst. It was, Oh my God. I don’t think I’ve gone so deep in a race, period. Like I haven’t, let’s just not even say, I don’t think. No, I know, I’ve never gone that deep into the well the way I did those three, three miles, and I just kept telling myself, the next mile, just do the next mile. And then I thought, no, no, a mile is too long. Let’s just do the next 800 meters. And then I was like, no, that’s too long. Let’s just, and then it got to a point where I was like, okay, just one step, just do one step. And then I would start to look ahead up the road and I’d be like, get to that person or get to that corner, get to that, you know, like, that’s, it was that hard because I felt like if I, if I allowed my mind to shut down, I was going to just pass out. That is how brutal it was. And I, and I fought so hard. And that’s why, like, that is probably one of my best races ever. And the most proud races I have ever competed in. And I, and I have an Olympic medal to my name. And, and, and, and, and that, that’s just how, like, that’s how proud I am of that race, because I went to the well, and maybe even beyond the well, seriously, because it just felt like every muscle and everything, everything, it, I had to recruit almost anything, you know, everything and more, um, to be able to finish that race. I was dizzy at the end of that race. I couldn’t see straight. I think if you look at the last 50 meters of that race, I was zig-zagging; that’s how bad it was.
CHERIE: Sally Kipyego did it: she weaved and pushed and leaned on every bit of strength she had to hold off the competition for that third place finish behind winner Aliphine Tuliamuk and second placed finisher Molly Seidel. She had earned her place on the US Olympic Marathon team, which is headed to Tokyo in August of this year, we all hope, a lot!
And, just wow, what an incredible journey. And i see so many great takeaways, even for those of us, uh, not aiming for Olympic glory. From what i hear from friends and see in the media, there are so many expectations and pressures put on pregnant and postpartum people when it comes to, say, continuing to run or getting back into shape;
But like sally said, every body is different and every pregnancy is different. So no matter what anyone else says or what their experience was; no matter how you think the journey will or should go, what’s most important is to honor your own body and its unique path. For sally, to get back to running at her potential took over two years. But, she gave her body what it needed, and she came back even stronger. And really, even for someone like me, who isn’t going to have children, being reminded of the importance of listening to my body reminds me to keep that as my guiding principle. That regardless of what i want to be doing or how i want to be performing, if my body is telling me otherwise, i really need to listen. Thank you to sally for being a strong example of exactly what that process can look like, even when you have the pressure of being a professional athlete.
A huge congratulation to sally! And with that, we come to the end of our story with Sally Kipyego centered around her EXPERIENCES AROUND pregnancy and running. It was a true honor to tell the story of such an incredible champion. I am so excited to cheer her on in Tokyo and beyond.
Please check the show notes for links to Sally on social media and tune in to watch her in the Olympics!
This episode is part of our series of stories focused on running in a woman’s body, where we’re focused on the topics of menopause, RED-s, and pregnancy. Each episode in this series features one runner talking about her experiences around one of these topics.
As always, I’m very thankful to you for listening. We love making these stories, but they are made to be heard, so you being here is a critical part of the equation. And, if you want to support the show in other ways, we have made to order merch, with serval different designs to choose from. You can order mugs, T-shirts, tanks, stickers, all sorts of fun stuff. Just go to womensrunningstories.com and find the merch link on our home page. A portion of what we make goes to charity and the rest goes to covering the costs of the show.
The Strides Forward team includes me, Cheire Turner, your host and producer. Cormac O’Regan creates and places all of the music you hear. And he does it from his studio in Cork, Ireland. April Marriner of Bonfire Collaborative does all of the design work for the show, including the website, merch, and logo. She comes to you from Truckee, California. You can find April at bonfirecollaborative.com.
Strides Forward will be back in a couple of weeks with another episode about running in the women’s body. And now I’m going to leave you with a few closing thoughts Sally shared at the end of her interview about what running brings to her day to day life, a little insight we can all share in. OK, I’m out, here’s Sally:
Sally: Oh, it’s therapy. I solve almost anything during my runs. If I ever needed to solve anything, I just get on and do my run. It’s a daily therapy session. No, it’s, it’s a calming therapy session, but, um, I think running really is a sport that goes beyond just the fact that you enjoy running. It’s good for you, and it’s for health and everything, all that stuff. But I also think that running translates to real life. The things that you learn, the qualities that you learn, the patience, the consistency, the work ethics, the discipline, all those things apply to real life.