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Hellah Sidibe Takes Flight

Hellah Sidibe left his MLS career to rediscover self-belief, consistency, and a mindset shift—to running every single day.

Morgan Tilton

January 16th, 2023

7 min read

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When professional runner Hellah Sidibe was 5 years old, he’d dip his hands in milky, water-doused chalk to paintbrush the number nine on his back for pick-up soccer games. So did the other neighborhood kids in Bamako, Mali, West Africa, where Sidibe grew up. They’d take cooled ash from their parents’ grills and kitchens, carried in plastic bags, to trace the field lines by finger onto the rust and red-hued soil. 

“We’d mimic what we saw on T.V. and dream of being those guys,” says Sidibe, who idolized Brazilian football great, Ronaldo Nazário, and found luck in wearing Ronaldo’s number 9 jersey. (Hence Sidibe’s Instagram handle, hellahgood9.)

His parents supported his goals. “I was lucky that my parents could get me shoes—and they were nothing like what I wear now,” says Sidibe, explaining that a pair of shoes can significantly increase a child’s chances of receiving an education and mentorship in Mali. Shoes are a uniform requirement for private schools.

“I grew up in a third-world country where shoes are important for safety,” says Sidibe. “Getting shoes is tough. You must take care of them. You don’t know when you’ll get another pair. If you outgrow them, you wait until your parents can afford another pair.”

Now 32 years old, Sidibe is based in Rochelle Park, New Jersey, where he’s established a reputation for running every single day.

Running used to be a form of punishment, says Sidibe, who moved stateside in 2004, when his mom relocated to the U.S. to pursue her PhD in adult education. Many of his family members remained in Mali but two siblings joined him stateside, supported by his mom’s $12,000 a year salary. After graduating from DeKalb High School, in Illinois, Sidibe fulfilled his vision of becoming an elite soccer player at the University of Massachusetts, while earning a sociology degree. “I’ve never run so much in my life as in college. When our teammates got in trouble, everyone paid for it through running,” recalls Sidibe. Sluggish the day before a game? Hill sprints. Failed the fitness test? Extra morning miles, a.k.a. “Breakfast Club.” Recovered from a day off? Welcome to an extra hard workout.

Post college, Sidibe was a highly sought athlete. Many of the nation’s top-level Major League Soccer and even international Union of European Football Associations teams wanted to draft him—but his immigration, residency, and visa status caused complications. Not being a “legal citizen” in the United States or Europe was seen as a risk to a “sport that is a business,” he explains. “It didn’t matter how hard or successfully I played. It was about my status.” Over the course of four years, he secured short-term contracts with Washington’s Seattle Sounders Football Club and Florida’s Next Academy Palm Beach. But the systemic barrier to a stable contract led to burnout. “I got to a point where the drive and love wasn’t the same. I was not giving my whole heart,” says Sidibe.

Feeling defeated, Sidibe needed to face a personal fear to rebuild his confidence and a fresh perspective. He set a goal to run—a previously punitive task—10 minutes a day for two weeks. “I fell in love with running. I turned something that I hated into passion and a privilege not everyone has,” he says. “With no coaches telling me what to do. It was from my own will. I felt free.” His foundational half-month running goal started on May 15, 2017. He never stopped.

After several years of daily runs, he checked-off the 2020 245-mile NYCRuns Subway System Challenge—typically completed in 15 weeks—in seven days. By May 2021, Sidibe “decided to do one of the hardest” recorded pursuits possible, becoming the first black man in history to running 3,061 miles across the country, averaging 36 miles per day for 84 days—and a foray into ultra distances. (The inaugural U.S. crossing of black runners was the 1928 Bunion Derby foot race when four black men made history in the same duration.)

His now fiancé, Alexa Torres, whom he endearingly calls Bell, snailed a support car, for safety and fuel, beside him at five mph. With the passenger window down, sometimes they listened to music and other times, shared silence.

Two months later, he paced a friend at the Leadville Trail 100 Run, to get a taste of what he’d learned was “one of the hardest races in the world” from the bestseller Born to Run. He returned to the 2022 Leadville start line, completing his inaugural century run. Today, he still runs two to seven miles, every day.

“My mindset: If I want to do something, I go all in. Even running across America, there were shorter routes and routes not through mountains. Why not do the hard one first—then I don’t have to come back to learn if I can,” says Sidibe, who’s huge bright smile and upbeat expression radiates positivity.

Sidibe writes, speaks, and lives with an unstoppable, infectious can-do attitude that is genuine and rooted in humble beginnings. He remains focused by “remembering things I’ve been through: Signing my first professional soccer contract and not knowing how I’d get food before my first paycheck. Knowing where I came from and realizing how privileged I was being able to live the American dream—none of my friends back home in Mali would get a chance to. Even though we were poor here in the U.S., I had a chance. I keep living, being in, and appreciating what it is,” says Sidibe.

Part of Sidibe’s motivation is to figure out how running and his accomplishments can bring value to others’ lives. Through his transcontinental run, he fundraised close to $22,000 for the nonprofit Soles4Souls, which provides athletic shoes for kids nationwide experiencing homelessness. The organization also sends new shoes and clothing to people in crisis situations, and funnels donated footwear and apparel to entrepreneurs in developing countries, to support sustainable businesses.

When he learned “the mission of Soles4Souls was to get shoes on everyone’s feet from first- to third-world countries, and using clothes to give people tools to fight poverty, to create business to sustain life for people to eat and send their kids to school—[he knew the partnership] was a perfect fit,” says Sidibe.

Today, he’s a professional athlete of a different kind, working with Torres, who is the full-time creative producer of his content. His parents are now retired and have moved back to Mali. On the horizon, Sidibe aims to launch Hellah Good Run Club Mali for kids in his home country.

“Sprinting is popular in Mali,” says Sidibe. “My goal is for this run club to be for kids to discover running and provide them with the basics: running shoes. All you need to run is shoes.”

8 responses to “Hellah Sidibe Takes Flight”

  1. Cicero Souza says:

    You are Awesome My friend!!!! COngratulations!!!!

  2. jackeverly says:

    Great feel-good story, but I’d be very curious to hear what our hero thinks about the parts in Born to Run, and Natural Born Heroes, that talk about barefoot running…

  3. Jon says:

    I absolutely love Hellah. Such a fantastic human being. Thanks for featuring him.

  4. cashc says:

    What a fantastic story Hellah is living, thanks for sharing!! I can’t believe this is the first I’ve heard of him.
    @jackeverly I’d be curious too. My thoughts: barefoot running is great on the beach, manicured grass, and forest trails but shoes are necessary for safety in most places. Especially places where people can’t afford shoes.

  5. Kiko Dorado says:

    Great article! Thanks for sharing so much inspiring insight about Hellah’s life.

  6. crockettdr says:

    There were four black men who ran across American in 1928 and probably more since then. The four who finished the 1928 race across America (Bunion Derby) were: Eddie Gardner of Seattle, Sammy Robinson of Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Toby Joseph Cotton, Junior of Los Angeles–and Afro-Canadian Phillip Granville, of Hamilton, Ontario.

  7. Love says:

    Probably? Yes Hellah Sidibe. Bunion Derby, Ms Tilton mentioned. If there are others great. But one thing is clear more will be motivated to try thanks to Mr. Sidibe.

  8. Love says:

    One of best articles I’ve read about Hellah. He is a true powerhouse of positivity and can do energy.

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