Every step counts

No headphones. Just a phone. Ashley Hicks doesn’t need music when she runs. The new mother needs to hear herself dream a little and still be reachable. Looking at her now, striding it out in one of Atlanta’s urban parks with the new jogging stroller, you can see why she inspired a national fitness movement. Runners like her never stop on a 9—nine tenths of a mile, 9,999 steps, or 99 percent. They always push through. It’s incomprehensible that a few months ago she almost quit.

“Maybe I don’t need to be a runner anymore,” she said.

Run and tell that to 160,000 women in Black Girls Run!—the social running movement that Ashley and a friend started in 2009. The duo organized runs in cities across America, from L.A. to D.C. and everywhere in-between, to stop the growing rate of obesity among African American women. Ashley would lead the pack or hang way back and coach the last runner to the finish line. Even Oprah wanted in. She literally ran with celebrities, was featured in Runner’s World magazine, and spoke at BGR! conferences, telling women they could drop the physical, emotional and cultural baggage keeping them from running. “Strap that kid on your back and go,” she’d say.

And then came Olivia. She wasn’t expecting that.

Walking a mile in their shoes

In Ashley’s third trimester, her baby wasn’t getting the nourishment it needed. Ashley needed to lie on her side, take it easy, put up her feet a lot. She’d always thought those were pregnancy clichés. But those were doctor’s orders. And it worked. Olivia arrived safe and healthy through a C-section.

About six weeks later, Ashley put Olivia in the jogging stroller and started down the driveway. She was sore, frustrated, and the most out of shape she’d ever been. For the first time, running felt like a fight rather than a reprieve. She felt a new-found connection to many of the women who were just joining BGR! meet-ups and runs.

“You start to doubt yourself, and then feel angry,” Ashley says. “But I have a greater understanding now of what it’s like to start from square one and work your way back.”

Step one: Count something.

Fitness trackers count a variety of things. Minutes active, calories consumed, steps taken. Most set the goal at 10,000 steps a day. Why 10,000 steps? That’s roughly five miles. Research shows if you kick those steps up to a light jog, you start reducing your risk for heart disease. Do it every day, get a good night’s sleep and eat right, and experts say 10,000 steps each day means you can lose one pound each week.

Ashley counts the numbers that count—not the numbers on the scale. She counts how many days she worked out in a row. How many times she finished a workout and shared the screen shot from one of her apps, like Nike Fit Club. And she counts the miles.

“I need to get in 5 miles, or I need to get in 2 miles,” Ashley says. “You can’t stop at 1.99. That’s a runner’s thing.”

Step two: Find more ways to move.

There’s no gym like home: it’s cheap and easy to get to. Ashley put together her own program. Using a jump rope, a fitness tracker and a few apps, like Nike Fit Club, she could squeeze in a full workout into about the same space it takes to do a pushup. The app features High Intensity Interval Training with squats, high jumps, and burpees (a combination of a pushup and a jumping jack). If Olivia woke up halfway through a 30-minute exercise, Ashley would pick her up, hold her, and finish the set with Olivia in her arms.

She set a 21-day workout goal, posted it on sticky notes around the house, and on Instagram. When she finished a workout, she posted screenshots from the Nike Fit Club app, she posted post-run selfies, and photos of kale shots. She added more activities to round out the routine: cycling, spinning, yoga, jumping rope. All these activities boost heart rate and shred calories, but they don’t always move the pedometer. With a wearable device and heart rate monitor tracking all of her moves, like the Fitbit Charge HR, Ashley’s daily step and mile count went up.

Step three: Count down to a goal.

When a friend called Ashley about doing a 15k in Toronto, she counted out the remaining time to train: 18 weeks. She posted another sticky note on the bathroom mirror and on Instagram.

When she finally crossed the finish line in Toronto, she wanted to cry. In those early weeks of training, she never thought she’d finish the race. But the sense of accomplishment she felt —after starting from so far back—was greater than anything she’d ever experienced before.

She thought back to previous runs with BGR!, when first-time runners would finish the race and burst into tears. She could never understand why, she says. Now she does.

“That moment when you want to quit because the scale didn’t move this week, but you keep going. … in the end, you finish it off with a run in the rain.”