Every day, regardless of the weather, Hellah Sidibe laces up her running shoes and heads to the nearest road, park or trail.
It’s a ritual he’s maintained for the past five and a half years and the 31-year-old Sidibe has no intention of breaking it anytime soon, regardless of where he is and what life throws at him.
“At the moment, I don’t want to push myself, but I see myself doing this for the rest of my life,” he told CNN Sport.
On May 15, 2017, Sidibe decided to run for 10 minutes every day for two weeks. Tired of making empty promises to go to the gym, she wanted to hold herself accountable to a small, manageable exercise routine.
It wasn’t long before Sidibe began to increase his ambitions. The runs got faster and faster, and soon after that he planned to go every day for a year.
The days went by and little by little he started marking more milestones: two years, three years, 1,000 days. His only condition, which Sidibe still adheres to, is that his races be outdoors and at least two kilometers long.
Unbeknownst to him, he became a runner, a label for people who make a long-term commitment to running every day.
According to Streak Runners International and the United States Running Streak Association, the organization that catalogs running streaks, 71-year-old Jon Sutherland has been on the active streak list for 53 years – nearly 19,500 days.
Sidibe may still be decades away from joining the ranks of streak running’s long-time disciples, but his five-and-a-half-year career has completely changed the way the sport is viewed.
A promising footballer in his youth, Sidibe saw running as a form of punishment and would have sleepless nights before fitness tests.
That quickly changed with the advent of his run streak.
“I just said, ‘I want to face a fear, but I’m inviting it,'” Sidibe recalled. “I wasn’t pushing against it; I’m inviting this thing that I don’t really know. Maybe I’m doing something that’s not so bad.
“I saw running as a privilege that not everyone has,” he continues. “I want to use that privilege of mine when there are people out there who can’t even walk, let alone run. It feeds this thing in you, and you go out there and you do it, there’s no excuse.”
Growing up in Mali, Sidibe would sometimes spend whole days playing soccer in the streets and fields near his family’s home. He and his friends would idolize Brazilian great Ronaldo – painting his name and number nine crudely on the back of their shirts – while Sidibe dreamed of playing for Chelsea in the Premier League.
When his family moved to the US, these ambitions gained momentum. Sidibe played NCAA Division 1 soccer with the University of Massachusetts and later attracted interest from clubs in Major League Soccer and Bundesliga 2, Germany’s second division.
He signed a professional contract with the Kitsap Pumas, an affiliate of the Seattle Sounders, but visa issues and limits on the number of non-US citizens allowed on MLS rosters hampered his progress.
In the end, Sidibe gave up his football career.
“It hurts you – it doesn’t matter how hard you work, but this piece of paper is holding you back,” he says of his visa problems.
“Things that were out of my control somehow put me in a situation where, looking back, there’s definitely some depression there. I was always a happy guy, but I always looked sad… I went into this dark place in my life where I didn’t like anything, I didn’t smile as much and I didn’t want to talk to anyone. as before.”
Although now that Sidibe is a US citizen, he has no plans to return to soccer, his love for the sport has waned as he shuffles between teams and tryouts.
As time went on, running became the mainstay of his life, and on day 163, his fiancée convinced him to make a YouTube video about his running streak.
Entitled “Why I Run Every Day,” it was an instant hit. Views and comments poured in, and the couple became YouTubers “overnight,” according to Sidibe. Today, their channel, HellahGood, has 276,000 subscribers, with top videos racking up millions of views.
In addition to updates on his streak, the channel also documents the experience of Sidibe’s endurance feats, including his recent participation in the Life Time Leadville Trail 100 Run, an iconic 100-mile race in Colorado and a 3,061-mile, 84-mile race. The day that crosses America.
Sidibe believes he is the first black man to run a solo race across America, a feat he accomplished last year by averaging more than 22 miles a day across 14 states.
The challenge tested more than his endurance. Sidibe says he was stopped and questioned by police every day, each time explaining how he was running a transcontinental race for charity – a fundraiser for the nonprofit Soles4Souls – and that the RV ahead of him was his two-man support group.
He also claims he was sworn at, racially abused and even threatened with a knife as he ran down Route 66.
Between these episodes, however, there were “beautiful” moments: strangers offering him food, water and money, and people running with him during the stretches of the journey.
“All these difficult times, even though I’ve been through rough times… you couldn’t be mad about anything that was going on,” Sidibe says. “So many people are putting their energy and power together to help you.”
The ugly moments of the challenge reminded Sidibe that running can leave one vulnerable to racist abuse.
She says she’s never felt unsafe in her New Jersey neighborhood, but makes a conscious effort to “look like a runner” when she goes further afield. This means wearing distinctive running gear (vest, headphones, back hat that doesn’t cover the face) and carrying hiking poles on trails and mountains.
“Even though I crossed America, the pole I was holding helped me a lot on the hills, but I didn’t need much time,” explains Sidibe.
“I know if I’m holding it and I have a vest on, it’s going to make me look like I’m doing something; I’m not just a person who runs. People are using my race to make judgments about me that don’t need to exist.’
During his run across America, Sidibe stopped to think about Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was chased and killed by three white men while jogging in a suburb near Brunswick, Georgia.
“That could have been me,” Sidibe says, adding that Arbery’s death “scared so many runners.”
“For me, it’s important to be out there representing, for people like me to say, ‘You know what, Hellah is doing it. I’m going, it’s okay, we’re okay, we’re safe,'” says Sidib. “Let’s think on the positive side.”
Sidibe’s constant enthusiasm and contagious smile have endeared him to members of the running community, to whom he gives advice and shares his running experience.
While some would dispute the importance of rest days in her training routine, Sidibe says she manages her running load by incorporating lighter days (sometimes just two or three miles at a time) and staying injury-free with stretching, massages, foam rolling. and strength training.
So far, he’s managed to maintain his injury streak – dropping to 14 miles a week while managing damage to his back shin – and has undergone surgery to remove a wisdom tooth.
Can Sidibe ever foresee his streak coming to an end?
“Only the day I wake up and feel like I don’t like this,” she says. “I give myself permission to quit every day. There’s no pressure to go on and keep it going.’