Do you want to fall off a cliff, or get hit by a car?
If that's a real question you've ever asked yourself, chances are you’re doing something pretty wild. So much so that the closest people around you probably tried to persuade you against it, but you didn’t listen.
This was indeed an actual question Hellah Sidibe faced while maneuvering up mountains in Arizona. And what's wilder? Those miles were just a fragment of his cross-country trek on foot.
3,061 miles, 14 states, California to New York.
The idea stems back to May 15, 2017, where Sidibe challenged himself to run every single day. His streak transformed into a year, then two, then three. Somewhere in between, he decided to take on a transcontinental journey that's long even if you're traveling by airplane.
“I knew I had the ability to do it in 100 days or less … that’s what I told my sponsors,” Sidibe told Yahoo Sports. “But in the back of my mind I had my personal goal to do it in 85 days.”
He did it in 84.
The journey begins
Sidibe's expedition was originally delayed by the pandemic, but on March 1, his feet kicked through the sand on Huntington Beach to officially mark the start. Best friend Garrett Jones drove an RV equipped with everything he needed and went ahead every five miles for potential rest stops. Alexa Torres, Sidibe's then-girlfriend and now fiancée, followed alongside in a support vehicle to map out every twist and turn of the route.
“I wanted to do something that was a little more challenging, and for something bigger than myself," Sidibe said. "I didn’t think anyone had done it."
What he quickly found out is that there were about 300 documented runners that have completed the cross-country feat on feet. So the research began and he reached out to Robbie Balenger, who was about to finish his transcontinental, eventually running the final 17 miles with him in May of 2019.
Fast-forward almost two years later, and Balenger is driving eight hours from Colorado to New Mexico to meet Sidibe and return the favor. They later reconvened in Oklahoma and also at the finish line. But before the joyful reunion, Sidibe had to get through California and Arizona, what he calls the toughest part of the whole process.
Sidibe, a New Jersey resident, is accustomed to doing most of his runs on flatter surfaces, so the rapid rise in elevation was a shock to his body and quickly unspooled into all types of leg pains. The swelling got so bad for him at one point that he went from his original size 10 shoes to an 11.5.
It was a rough start, being “humbled by the mountains,” and he only logged 876 miles in that opening month. Once he found that stride and his body began to adapt, Sidibe turned it back up and was able to hit 1,225 miles in April.
“Ten-to-14 hours a day for a majority of the time,” Sidibe said. “The lowest we got was eight hours, but the thing is you eventually have to make it up at some point, so I had to keep pushing myself.”
There wasn’t much downtime. It was run, sleep, wake up, repeat. As Sidibe's motto on the side of the RV stated, "no matter the circumstances."
'Who gets excited over new shoes?'
Born and raised in Mali, Africa, Sidibe grew up loving futbol. It wasn’t the running part of the game he loved though; in fact he hated it. But coming to the U.S. as a freshman in high school allowed him to pursue that coveted dream of being a soccer player. After graduating from DeKalb High School in Illinois in 2008 as an all-conference player, he landed at the University of Massachusetts, a Division I program, where he played from 2010-2013.
After college, he played for Kitsap Pumas, a fourth-tier Seattle Sounders affiliate, in hopes of getting his shot at Major League Soccer. A year later, MLS Cup champion Sporting Kansas City was looking at him in the supplemental draft, but visa issues and other obstacles blocked his path as he wasn’t yet a U.S. citizen at the time.
“I did my best to play at that level but there were certain adversities I had no control over,” Sidibe said. “But you’re chasing stuff sometimes in life not realizing that it’s setting you up for something else.”
The something else ended up being running.
“I used to make fun of the UMass track runners in the athletic building,” Sidibe told Yahoo Sports. “They used to be so excited to get new spikes and shoes and I was like, ‘Who gets excited over new shoes just to run?’ Now I understand.”
A simple pair of shoes ended up being the larger purpose behind Sidibe's transcontinental. He linked up with a non-profit organization called Soles4Souls to raise money for their mission of providing shoes to those in need while also trying to help cut down poverty. Sidibe knows firsthand the rough conditions he experienced back home, where kids are running barefoot on dirt and stepping on metal scraps.
To Sidibe, shoes are both a luxury and all you really need to become a runner.
Through his 84 days, he helped raise around $20,000 for Soles4Souls and collect shoes from all over the place. Company CEO Buddy Teaster, who is an ultrarunner, joined Sidibe four times during his adventure.
“Not only are we capable of doing amazing things, but we gotta do it for greater purposes,” Sidibe said. “It’s not just about me, me, me. If we can find a way to help something or somebody, I think we’re going to go a long way.”
You can't outrun systemic racism
A lot of people joined Sidibe throughout the transcontinental. Some were complete strangers intrigued at what this man with trekking poles was doing running in the middle of nowhere. Others were fans, following the journey on his social platforms. However it happened, meeting people was one of Sidibe's favorite parts of the journey.
One particular incident, however, stood out for an ugly reason. While Sidibe says many police officers were supportive of his endeavor, one in Oklahoma approached him in an interrogative manner while reaching for his gun. In that instance, Sidibe says, he stayed as calm as possible, not wanting to frantically wave over his support car. Luckily, two couples who were waiting not far ahead to meet Sidibe intervened to help diffuse the situation.
“The police started buying the story then. He wasn’t buying it just with me,” Sidibe told Yahoo Sports. “Those were two white couples. I think that had to do with it.
“You start questioning a lot of things,” he added. “You don’t want to make it racial, but that’s all you can think of at that point.”
In Missouri, Sidibe said he ran past a high school and someone in a truck stuck their head out the window and yelled the N-word at him. There was no hesitation in that targeted attack, nor was there when Sidibe took to his Instagram to speak on it. The principal of the school reached out to support Sidibe, along with police and town locals. As the apologies flowed in, so did donations to Soles4Souls.
“You realize there’s more good people than bad ones,” Sidibe said. “I didn’t care for them to get in trouble, just to see what they did was wrong. And for what?"
The end and the beginning
Despite all he had to endure, both physically and emotionally, Sidibe said his homecoming in the New York City area was nothing short of amazing.
On his last night, he did stop home in Rochelle Park, New Jersey, showering and eating inside the house. But when it was time to sleep it was back to the RV. He wasn’t about to throw 83 days of a routine away just because he was home. That wasn’t the final destination. So he woke up on May 23 to a massive group including a mayor, firefighters and more, sending him on his way toward New York.
In the city, the mob and anticipation grew and hundreds of people waited for him at the finish line as a NYPD motorcade guided him. Once he took that final left turn and saw the journey’s end, Sidibe said, it was as if the agony of the 84 days had been just a dream.
Somehow, he found the fortitude to make the day even more memorable by dropping to a knee in front of the crowd and proposing to Torres, the one who was by his side the whole way, driving slowly with the hazard lights on from California to New York.
When he first brought up the idea of running across the country, she said "oh no."
Thankfully after he did it, she said yes.
“If she wasn’t there, I don’t think I would’ve survived. She knows me better than anybody,” Sidibe said. “I thought her job was harder than mine. She had so much on her plate. My energy was just focused on running, hers was everything collectively.”
The three-person transcontinental crew beat his original goal by a day. Sidibe attributes that in large part to the “Lex method," a term for Torres finding the easiest and most efficient ways to do it.
Then again, nothing about running over 3,000 miles in 84 days is easy.
“I’m even stronger than I thought I was," Sidibe said. "And it’s not just about me — everyone is much stronger than they think they are. You won’t know that until you put yourself to the test. You just have to find your limit and break it. I found my limit within this and I broke through it. Now I have to find the next one. I don’t know how I’m going to make that happen, but I will find the next one.”
He paused, and flashed a big smile.
No matter the circumstances.
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