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It all starts with one step.

That's the unofficial motto of the Southern Maryland chapter of Black Girls RUN!

And its officers know how hard that first step can be.

“I did it in boot camp,” said Tanya Barnett of White Plains, the lead ambassador of the group who is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. “And I swore I would never run again.”

But the married mother of two was diagnosed with diabetes and she knew she had to do something. She started walking to lose weight and soon her neighbor, Debbie Lewis, a runner, challenged her to do more.

Robin Marion of Waldorf had a similar outlook on running. Although she was a sprinter in high school, being in the U.S. Army turned her off distance running.

“I vowed never to put on running shoes again,” she said, once she completed boot camp. But health issues that were diagnosed in her family prompted her to reconsider. “I would just run in my neighborhood.”

When she looked for running groups, like-minded people who would inspire, challenge and support her, she kept finding groups geared toward elite, competitive runners. That wasn't something she was looking for. She just wanted to run, get in shape.

That's what prompted Waldorf resident Natasha Craig to start running.

“I was 307 pounds and needed to get the weight off,” she said. While her health wasn't in jeopardy yet, her doctor told her it was just a “matter of time.”

She started running on a treadmill at first.

“I didn't want people looking at me,” Craig admitted.

Shea Duncan was the same way at first. She was going to be a bridesmaid and didn't want to be the “fat one.” So she started running on a treadmill, changed her eating habits and dropped two dress sizes — prompting her to continue running.

“I took my journey outside and it was completely different,” said Duncan of Waldorf.

The women all were looking for like-minded women to run with, setting their own pace, setting goals and helping one another achieve them.

Black Girls RUN!, with its motto of “Preserve the Sexy,” was just the group. A nationwide running group open to women 18 and older, the organization was founded in 2009 by friends Ashley Hicks and Toni Carey in response to the growing obesity problem in the African-American community. The group also gives encouragement to new and veteran runners and provides motivation to members and scheduled runs during the week.

There were chapters in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas but none in Southern Maryland.

The local chapter launched in July 2011. It's open to all women, not just black women, Barnett pointed out.

“Everyone is at their own pace,” she said. “We've had walkers, strollers, pregnant ladies and we don't leave anyone behind.”

The faster runners will double back to accompany those going at a slower pace. People who never thought they would make it a mile are training for 5Ks, half-marathons, the Marine Corps Marathon.

Runs are held during the week on the Indian Head Rail Trail and along St. Charles Parkway, meeting at the White Plains Golf Course.

Every Saturday morning on the rail trail, the group can count on 20 to 30 participants to take part. The group runs in the snow, rain, heat. And it is not just a love of running that members share; it's a support network, too, swapping information on nutrition, shoe and clothing sales and hair care.

Barnett said by blocking out time to run, she is making time for herself.

“I think clearer,” she said. “I can have a conversation with myself, with God. It's my time. There is no worrying, no cellphone.”

Running also makes Barnett realize what is important in life. In a materialistic world where labels are scrutinized and handbags are coveted, getting outside and running clears her head.

“Everyone is out there sweating and funky,” she said. “There is no competition, there is love and support.”

There is no one-upmanship, either.

“There is room for everybody to succeed,” added Craig, who said the sisterhood of the running girls is a very real thing. And the cost of running is very low.

As long as you have a good pair of shoes, the only thing you need is the get up and go attitude, Duncan said.

Monthly fitness goals are posted on the chapter's Facebook page and members can keep up with their goals while traveling by finding another chapter.

But new members have one thing they must do before they can cross the finish line.

“It's about taking that first step,” Marion said.

staylor@somdnews.com

The Southern Maryland chapter of Black Girls RUN! is open to women 18 and older who wants to exercise, improve her health and meet like-minded women.

Go to www.BlackGirlsRUN.com or email bgrsomd@gmail.com.