Hellah Sidibe has been walking every day for five and a half years – and has no plans to stop anytime soon



CNN

Every day, whatever the weather, Hellah Sidibe puts on his running shoes and heads to his nearest road, park or track.

It’s a ritual he’s maintained for the past five and a half years and the 31-year-old Sidibe doesn’t plan on breaking it anytime soon, regardless of where he is and what life throws at him.

“Right now I don’t want to push myself, but I can do this to myself for the rest of my life,” he told CNN Sport.

On May 15, 2017, Sidibe decided to walk for 10 minutes every day for two weeks. Tired of making empty promises about going to the gym, he wanted to hold himself accountable to a small, manageable exercise routine.

It did not take long before Sidibe began to increase his ambitions. The runs got faster and longer, and soon he was planning to go every day for a year.

The days slipped by and slowly he started ticking off more milestones – two years, three years, 1,000 days. His only stipulation, which Sidibe still adheres to, is that his runs are outdoors and at least two kilometers long.

Unbeknownst to him, he had become a runstreaker—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, an organization that catalogs running streaks, 71-year-old Jon Sutherland tops the active running streak list at 53 years – almost 19,500 days.

Sidibe may still be decades away from joining the long-serving disciples of distance running, but his five-and-a-half-year journey has radically redefined his view of the sport.

A promising footballer in his youth, Sidibe saw running as a form of punishment and would have sleepless nights the day before fitness tests.

That quickly changed with the advent of his run streak.

“I just said, ‘I want to face a fear, but I invite it,'” Sidibe recalls. “I wasn’t against it—I’m inviting this thing that I don’t really know. I’m making something out of it that might not be so bad.

“I saw running as a privilege that not everyone has,” he continues. “I want to use that privilege of mine if there are people who can’t walk, let alone walk. It burns this thing in you, and you get out there and get it done—there are no excuses. ”

Growing up in Mali, Sidibe would sometimes spend whole days playing football on the streets and fields of his family. He and his friends would idolize the Brazilian great Ronaldo – brazenly painting his name and the number nine on the back of their shirts – and at the same time, Sidibe dreamed of playing for Chelsea in the Premier League.

When his family moved to the US, those aspirations gathered pace. Sidibe played NCAA Division 1 soccer with the University of Massachusetts and later had interest from clubs in Major League Soccer and Bundesliga 2, the second division in Germany.

He signed a professional contract with Kitsap Pumas, an affiliate of the Seattle Sounders, but visa issues and a limit on the number of non-US citizens allowed on an MLS roster hindered his progress.

Eventually, Sidibe gave up his football career.

“That hurts you – it doesn’t matter how hard you work, but this one piece of paper is holding you back,” he says of his visa problems.

“Things out of my control put me in a state where, looking back, there’s definitely some depression. I was always a cheerful guy, but I always found myself sad…as much as I used to have.”

Even now that Sidibe is an American citizen, he has no intentions of returning to soccer, his love for the sport diminished after he shuffled between teams and trials.

Over time, running became the cornerstone of his life, and on day 163, his fiancée convinced him to make a YouTube video about the running streak.

Entitled “why I walk every day”, it proved an instant hit. Views and comments poured in, and the couple became YouTubers “overnight,” according to Sidibe. Today her channel, HellahGood, has 276,000 subscribers, the top videos collect millions of views.

In addition to updates on his streak, the channel also documents Sidibe’s experience taking on 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 – day walk across America.

Sidibe competes at Leadville 100.

Sidibe believes he is the first Black man to ever complete a solo run across America, a feat he accomplished last year by running an average of more than 36 miles a day across 14 states.

The challenge tested more than just his endurance. Sidibe says he was stopped and questioned by the police every day, each time explaining how he was completing a transcontinental run for charity – fundraising for the non-profit Soles4Souls – and that the RV for him was his two-person support team.

He also says he was sworn at, called racial slurs, and even threatened with a knife while walking on Route 66.

Between those episodes, however, were “beautiful” moments: strangers offering him food, water and money, plus people walking beside him for stretches of the journey.

“Even though I had all these hard times, these rough times… you couldn’t get mad about everything that happened,” Sidibe says. “So many people put their energy and their strength together just to help you.”

The ugly moments of the challenge were a reminder to Sidibe that running can leave him vulnerable to racist abuse.

He says he’s never felt unsafe in his New Jersey neighborhood, but makes a conscious effort to “look like a runner” when he ventures further afield. That means wearing typical running gear — a vest, headphones, a backwards cap that doesn’t cover his face — and carrying walking poles on trails and hills.

“Even with running across America, the pole I was holding helped a lot on the hills, but a lot of the time I didn’t need it,” Sidibe explains.

“I know if I keep it and I wear a vest, it will show me that I’m doing something – I’m not just a person who walks. People use my race to make judgments that don’t even exist need to direct me.

There were times during the run across America when Sidibe paused to think of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old Black man who was chased and killed by three white men while walking in a neighborhood near Brunswick, Georgia.

“That could have been me,” Sidibe says, adding that Arbery’s death “scared some runners.”

“For me, it’s important to be out there to represent, to tell people like me: ‘You know what, Hellah is doing it. I’m leaving – it’s good, we’re good, we’re safe,'” says Sidibe “Let’s think about the positive side of it.”

Sidibe’s constant enthusiasm and contagious smile have endeared him to members of the running community, to whom he gives advice and shares his experience of running streaking.

While some would argue the importance of rest days in any training routine, Sidibe says he manages his running load by incorporating lighter days — sometimes just two or three miles at a time — and stays injury-free with stretching, massages, foam rolling and strength training.

So far, he’s managed to keep his streak going through injury — dropping to 14 miles a week while managing damage to his posterior shin — and surgery to remove a wisdom tooth.

Can Sidibe ever imagine his streak coming to an end?

“Only the day I wake up and feel like I absolutely don’t like this,” he says. “Every day I give myself permission to quit. There’s no pressure to keep going and keep going.”