It’s a ritual he’s had for five-and-a-half years and Sidibe, 31, doesn’t plan to break it anytime soon, no matter where he is or what life throws at him.
On May 15, 2017, Sidibe decided to run 10 minutes every day for two weeks. Tired of making empty promises to go to the gym, he wanted to hold himself accountable for a small, manageable exercise routine.
It wasn’t long before Sidibe began to step up his ambitions. The races got faster and longer, and soon he planned to go every day for a year.
Days passed and gradually he began to pass other milestones – two years, three years, 1000 days. His only stipulation, which Sidibe still adheres to, is that his races be outdoors and at least two miles long.
Unbeknownst to him, he had become a running streaker – a label for people who make a long-term commitment to running every day.
Sidibe may still be decades away from joining longtime disciples of running, but his five-and-a-half-year journey has radically redefined his outlook on the sport.
A promising football player in his youth, Sidibe viewed running as a form of punishment and spent sleepless nights the night before fitness tests.
That quickly changed with the advent of his racing streak.
“I just said, ‘I want to face a fear, but I invite it’,” recalls Sidibe. “I wasn’t pushing against it – I’m inviting this thing that I don’t really know. I’m making something out of it that maybe isn’t so bad.
“I saw running as a privilege that not everyone has,” he continues. “I want to use this privilege of mine when there are people who can’t walk, let alone run. It fuels that thing in you, and you go out and do it – there’s no excuses .”
When her family moved to the United States, these aspirations accelerated. Sidibe played NCAA Division 1 football 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 Kitsap Pumas, an affiliate of the Seattle Sounders, but visa issues and a cap on the number of non-US citizens allowed on an MLS roster hampered his progress.
Eventually, Sidibe gave up his football career.
“It hurts you – no matter how hard you work, but that one piece of paper keeps you from it,” he says of his visa troubles.
“Things that I was out of control, kind of put me in a state where, looking back, there’s definitely some depression there. I’ve always been a happy guy, but I got myself always found sad… I entered this black point of my life where I didn’t love anything, I didn’t smile as much anymore and I didn’t want to talk to anyone like before.”
Run across America
Even now that Sidibe is an American citizen, he has no plans to return to football, his love for the sport has waned after swinging between teams and trials.
Over time, running became a cornerstone of his life, and on day 163, his fiancée convinced him to make a YouTube video of the running footage.
Sidibe believes he is the first black man to complete a solo run across America, a feat he accomplished last year by averaging more than 36 miles a day across 14 states.
He also says he was insulted, called racial slurs and even threatened with a knife while running on Route 66.
Between these episodes, however, there were “beautiful” moments: strangers offering him food, water and money, as well as people running alongside him during stretches of the journey.
“Even though I had all these tough times, tough times… you couldn’t be mad at everything that was going on,” says Sidibe. “So many people put their energy and power together just to help you.”
The nasty moments of the challenge reminded Sidibe that running can leave him vulnerable to racist abuse.
He says he never felt unsafe in his New Jersey neighborhood, but makes a conscious effort to “look like a runner” when venturing further afield. That means wearing distinctive running gear — a vest, headphones, a backwards cap that doesn’t cover his face — and carrying hiking poles on trails and hills.
“Even with running across America, the pole I was holding helped me a lot on the hills, but most of the time I didn’t need it,” says Sidibe.
“I know if I hold it and have a vest on it’s going to make me feel like I’m doing something – I’m not just a running person. People use my race to make judgments that don’t shouldn’t even exist to target me.”
“It could have been me,” Sidibe says, adding that Arbery’s death “frightened so many runners.”
“For me, it’s important to be there to represent, to get people like me to say, ‘You know what, Hellah does it. I’m going to go — it’s okay, we’re fine, we’re safe’ ‘”, says Sidibé. “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 provides advice and shares his running experience.
While some will argue the importance of rest days in any training routine, Sidibe says he manages his running load by including lighter days – sometimes running only two or three miles at a time – and stays without injury with stretching, massage, foam rolling and strength training.
So far, he’s managed to maintain his injury streak – going down to 14 miles a week while dealing with damage to his hind shin – and surgery to remove a wisdom tooth.
Can Sidibe ever consider his streak coming to an end?
“Only the day I wake up and feel like I absolutely don’t like it,” he says. “I give myself permission to quit every day. There’s no pressure to keep going and keep going.”