The first African American to run the LA to New York route talks about hallucinations, run-ins with racism and an adrenaline inspiring 7:07 final mile
Earlier this year Hellah Sidibe became the first African American to complete the arduous 3061-mile journey from Los Angeles to New York and he did it in just 84 days, the equivalent of 36.4 miles or 58.5km per day.
Sidibe, who emigrated to the US from Mali when he was a teenager, took on the challenge of crossing the 14 states after setting himself a goal back in 2017 of running 10 minutes every day no matter what the conditions. He’s now on 1614 consecutive days of running.
His upbringing, where he saw and experienced the impact of taking part in sport with no shoes, gave Sidibe the impetus to raise money for a non-profit organisation called Soles4Shoes, who redistribute unwanted shoes to millions of people.
It was great chatting with you Tim! https://t.co/LL1U6DP4rd
— Hellah Sidibe (@hellahgood9) September 28, 2021
He now has time to reflect on the remarkable journey and the people he touched along the way.
“Every day I’m like ‘wow, I actually did this’,” the 30-year-old says. “When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t actually realise how big of a journey this actually is. We’re talking about over 3000 miles.”
“I wanted to help break the cycle of poverty through shoes. Not just giving people shoes but what they can do with them to have a means of living. There’s a saying that if you give a man a fish then he can eat for a day but if you teach him how to fish then he can eat forever.
“I grew up running around barefoot and there are scars at the bottom of my feet where I’ve cut myself on metal scraps, sticks and pebbles. It related well because to the first world shoes are like a luxury and fashion but for us it was a safety thing.”
Sidibe says that the perspective of seeing “running as a privilege” helped him mentally along the trip, one which started with difficulty.
He is not the first person to complete this trip, far from it. Over 300 people have completed the route with the world record standing at an incredible 42 days, the equivalent of 75 miles per day. However, teams of seven or eight usually aid the person across the route but Sidibe had his girlfriend Lex Torres and transcontinental finisher and expert Robbie Balenger along the way, plus a couple of others at various points.
The start of the journey was delayed by the pandemic and on March 1 Sidibe set off from Huntingdon Beach. The first part of the route was tricky as it involved traversing the rocky terrain of California and Arizona.
Sidibe completed 876 miles in that first month but it was just 29.2 miles on average and on that pace he’d miss the target of 85 days. Injuries and swelling occurred as the terrain took its toll with his shoe size jumping from 10 to 11.5.
“There was an incline for four miles at a time before any descent and the vertical element was insane,” Sidibe explains. “I had a swollen knee and a sack of liquid at the side of it. I was getting nervous about whether I could finish the distance in the time that I’d set out for. Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma didn’t help as you continually had mountains and rolling hills.
“I was running up in the mountains in California and my mindset was to run. In ultra running though, there’s a saying that if you can’t see the top of the hill you don’t run it, you walk up it. I decided to run though.”
Every day Sidibe got up at approximately 6.30am to make sure that he had sufficient hours to complete his daily mileage target. Early set-backs meant that he was often forced to run into the night and while that was mentally challenging, it was the people on the route that helped inspire the 30-year-old.
With 128k followers on Instagram and over 270k subscribers on YouTube, Sidibe is not short of a fan base. He also has a website and when running people were able to track the route, a bit like you can for your family member or friend in a marathon.
In New Mexico, for example, Sidibe was greeted by natives who had caught wind he was coming by their town so on occasions the Mali-born athlete arrived to a welcome gathering and was cheered on his way.
Yet the journey was not that simple when it came to people greeting Sidibe with open arms. He had the police called on him throughout the journey, was called racial slurs and was beeped on the highway by truckers.
“Before the run I asked Robbie how did he find it safety wise, but I was looking at myself as a black man,” Sidible says bluntly. “His concern was getting attacked by dogs but he was aware of what I could go through even though he never explicitly mentioned it.
“We both did the exact route and on my run we had cops called on us almost every single day. Robbie never had the cops called on his run and he’s a white American.
“One of the scariest moments was an encounter with an officer in Oklahoma. A few previous officers I met were excited about my challenge but he came in and instantly said ‘why are you running?’ I could tell by his energy that he wasn’t happening. I was answering but I felt he wasn’t listening. What got me nervous was when he put his hand on his gun and I panicked showing my running pole.
“Lex was on the side with the car but I didn’t want to call her over just in case he thought that she was an accomplice and I would be gunned down. She stayed there as she knew I had good interaction with the police. He then asked for my licence and it got really rough but a couple approached, who were probably waiting for me, and explained to the officer what I had been saying to him.
“The officer then actually asked me if he would have his picture taken with me! I think it was the first time I ever had to fake a smile. On the outside I was smiling but inside I was burning. That could’ve escalated quickly and he should’ve taken my answer for what it is. I was so shook and I had to stop for a few minutes.”
Sidibe also suffered from hallucinations and says he “hit the wall” on countless occasions during the trip. He describes how his body went through “hell” but that there was no way he wasn’t going to finish even if it took another 200 days.
You can understand that mentality from his background.
Sidibe moved to America for the first time to join his parents – who were studying in Illinois – after his aunt passed away in 1998. A year later he moved back to Mali before travelling back to America in 2003 after his mother was accepted into a doctoral program.
There was no doubt that his passion was to become a professional footballer and he received affirmation for that goal when Sidibe made varsity as a freshman at DeKalb High School in Illinois. He then went to study sociology at the University of Massachusetts before signing a professional contract with the Kitsap Pumas, an affiliate of current MLS side Seattle Sounders.
Such was his willingness to make it at the top level, Sidibe even missed his own graduation to make the squad when Seattle Sounders played a derby against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Visa issues unfortunately derailed his ambitions of becoming a professional footballer in the long-term but the sacrifice was evident.
So much was the dedication on his epic 3061-mile run from Los Angeles to New York that Sidibe suffered from hallucinations.
“I knew if I’d hallucinate that I wasn’t going crazy and that I just had to embrace them as your mind is just done because it’s just go, go, go,” he says.
“I’ve seen bears that weren’t there, mountain lions that didn’t exist and people in the distance that didn’t exist. One time I was screaming in fear after I mistook a puppy for a cub and I knew I wouldn’t outrun a mama bear if she was around. I thought shredded tyres were alligators and snakes.
“I had so many miserable days when I thought ‘why am I doing this?’”
It made the finish even sweeter. After making up the time he lost on the west coast through the mid-west and Central America, Sidibe stopped at his home in Rochelle Park, New Jersey.
This is Hella. He ran from LA to NYC (about 40 miles a day for 84 days in a row) yesterday I ran the last 20 miles with him and got to see him cross the finish line on the East side of New York City pic.twitter.com/Wshi8xKwIl
— Casey Neistat (@Casey) May 25, 2021
There he showered and washed but still slept in the RV that had been his home for the previous 83 days. The next day he woke up to a knock at the door where YouTube personality Casey Neistat welcomed Sidibe to a gathering that included the town mayor, firefighters and hundreds of runners ready to run sections of his last leg to New York.
Quite incredibly, Sidibe describes how he clocked a 7:07 mile, in contrast to 11/12:00 pace through the journey, upon sight of the finish line.
“We had a police escort and people were jumping in and out of the route,” Sidibe laughs. “The finish itself was insane. I had family and friends fly in and we basically took over 2nd Avenue in New York. We had a float with music and it was a parade with people hanging out of windows recording on their phone.
“It made your forget all the pain you went through. It was definitely the biggest finish of the 300-plus people who have done this and I’m grateful and blessed to have that experience. You had to be there, I can’t really put it into words.
“My achilles was tight in Pennsylvania and I was scared about rupturing it but I had this adrenaline rush and it was about making history. I was ready to take off to get there and I’m there now.”
All that was left was to propose to Lex.
“It was the perfect timing as everyone who came to support me were there and it was so cool for them to witness that moment,” Sidibe adds.
It was a finish that mirrored Eliud Kipchoge’s roaring finish at the INEOS 1:59 challenge two years ago in Vienna, Austria. Different times, distances and locations but the same mental willingness to successfully complete a goal to its end.
A hellah of a run.