When his hopes for a football career faded, Hela Sidibe started running every day. He is still five and a half years later CNN

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CNN

Every day, no matter the weather, Helah Sidibe puts on her running shoes and heads to her nearest street, park or trail.

It’s a routine 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, wherever he is and whatever life throws at him.

“As of right now, I don’t want to push myself, but I see myself doing it 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 about going to the gym, she wanted to hold herself accountable to a short, manageable exercise routine.

It didn’t take long for Sidibe to start raising his ambitions. The runs became faster and longer, and soon he planned to go every day for a year.

Days passed and slowly he ticked off more milestones – two years, three years, 1,000 days. His only condition, which Sidibe still adheres to, is that his run be outdoors and at least two miles long.

Unbeknownst to her, she had become a run streaker—a label for someone who makes 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 John Sutherland tops the active running streak list for 53 years — about 19,500 days.

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

A promising soccer player in his youth, Sidibe saw running as punishment and spent 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’m inviting it,'” Sidibe recalled. “I wasn’t pushing against it – I was inviting this thing that I didn’t really know. I’m making it something that probably isn’t bad.

“I saw running as a privilege that not everyone has,” he continued. “I want to use my privilege when there are people who can’t walk, can’t run. It fuels this thing in you, and you go out there and get it done — no excuses.”

Growing up in Mali, Sidibe would sometimes spend entire days playing soccer on the streets and fields near his family’s home. He and his friends idolized Brazilian great Ronaldo – crudely painting his name and 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 United States, those aspirations were set in motion. Sidibe played NCAA Division 1 soccer with the University of Massachusetts and later drew interest from clubs in Germany’s second division Major League Soccer and Bundesliga 2.

He signed a professional contract with the Seattle Sounders’ affiliate Kitsap Pumas, but visa issues and a cap on the number of non-US citizens allowed on MLS rosters hampered his progress.

Eventually, Sidibe gave up his football career.

“It hurts you – it doesn’t matter how hard you work, but this piece of paper is stopping you,” he said of his visa problems.

“Things that were out of my control put me in a position where, looking back, there is definitely some depression. I was always a happy person, but I always felt sad … I went to this dark place in my life where I didn’t like anything, I wasn’t smiling as much and I didn’t want to talk to anyone like I used to.”

Even now that Sidibe is a US citizen, he has no intention of returning to soccer, his love for the sport waning due to switching between teams and trials.

Over time, running became the foundation of his life, and at 163, his fiancé convinced him to make a YouTube video about the run streak.

Titled “Why I Run Every Day,” it proved an instant hit Views and comments flooded in, and the duo became YouTubers “overnight,” according to Sidib. Today, their channel, HellahGood, has 276,000 subscribers, with top videos garnering millions of views.

In addition to updates on his streak, the channel also documents Sidib’s endurance experiences — including his recent participation in the Lifetime Leadville Trail Run 100, an iconic 100-mile race in Colorado and a 3,061-mile, 84-day run across America.

Sidibe competes in the Leadville 100.

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

The challenge tested more than his endurance. Sidibe said he was stopped and questioned by police every day, each time explaining how he was completing a transcontinental run for charity – raising funds for the non-profit Soles4Souls – and the two-man support team in the RV that was in front of him.

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

Among these episodes, however, there were “beautiful” moments: strangers offering him food, water, and money, plus people running with him for long stretches of the journey.

“Even though I had all these hard times, these hard times … you can’t be mad about what’s going on,” Sidibe said. “Many people are pooling their strength and energy just to help you.”

The ugly moments of the challenge were a reminder to Sidib that running could make him vulnerable to racist abuse.

He says he never felt unsafe in his neighborhood in New Jersey but made a conscious effort to “look like a runner” when he moved farther afield. That means wearing distinctive running gear — a vest, headphones, a back cap that doesn’t cover his face — and carrying hiking poles on trails and mountains.

“Even after running across America, the poles I carried helped a lot on the hills, but a lot of times, I didn’t need them,” Sidibe explains.

“I know if I hold it up and I have a vest on, it will make me look like I’m doing something – I’m not just a runner. People are using my race to make judgments that shouldn’t even be there to notice me.”

There were times while running across America when Sidibe paused to think of Ahmoud Arberry, the 25-year-old black man who was chased and killed by three white men while running through a neighborhood near Brunswick, Georgia.

“It could have been me,” says Sidibe, adding that Arberry’s death “scared a lot of runners.”

“For me, it’s important to be there to represent, to make people like me say: ‘You know, Hellah is doing this. I’m going to go — OK, we’re good, we’re safe,'” Sidibe said. “Let’s think about the positive side of it.”

Sidib’s endless enthusiasm and infectious smile have endeared him to members of the running community, to whom he mentors and shares his run streaking experiences.

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

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

Can Sidibe ever think of the end of his streak?

“The day I wake up and feel like I don’t like it,” he says. “I give myself permission to let go every day. There’s no pressure to keep going and keep going.”

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