Deneen Young's running story started slowly: walking laps around the track at St. Joseph's University at 4:30 a.m.

When she made it a full mile, a friend suggested that Young could use some company on her workouts and told her about the Philadelphia chapter of Black Girls RUN!

Her first run with the group, she said, came only after she backed out once and the group's lead ambassador, Jocelyn D. Wright, encouraged her through Facebook to join them.

"It's just like in the movies," Young said. "You see lightbulbs going off and saying, 'Oh my God, this is really happening.' From that point on, it just kept going for me."

Young, 48, is part of a national movement. Black Girls RUN! was started in 2009 by Toni Carey and Ashley Hicks in response to the growing obesity epidemic, especially in the African American community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80 percent of African American women are overweight, 54 percent are obese, and nearly a quarter of African American girls are overweight.

And although black runners often dominate the winner's podiums of races, the field of most amateur races is predominantly white.

In 2011, Black Girls RUN! expanded to 60 cities, including Philadelphia, and there are now 69 chapters across 30 states. Young was there the first year of the Philadelphia chapter.

She ran her first 5K in 2012 and finished in about 48 minutes. This year, she broke 30 minutes. In that time she has also run three half marathons, about a dozen shorter races, and lost 134 pounds.

Now, Young is co-ambassador for the group, which meets twice a week. On most Saturdays, the group meets at Lloyd Hall in Fairmount Park for a group long run. They get about 60 women a week, and all skills level are welcome.

On the third Saturday of every month, they have "Hood Runs," where they'll meet in a different part of the city - South Philly, East Oak Lane, West Philadelphia, Mount Airy. "We run a neighborhood so people can see us - people that look like us and people that don't look like us," she said.

Their Facebook page includes updates from members about their workouts and favorite running routes along with fitness questions and smaller group meet-ups among women who live in the same area.

"We want to be able to reach out to the community to dispel the myth that black girls don't run," she said. "It's not just about losing weight but it's about saving your life, being able to exercise, to take down the numbers on the scale as well as what statistics shows us about obesity."

The group now has more than 4,500 members on Facebook, and about 100 runners from the Philadelphia chapter and beyond ran in the May 5 Broad Street Run. Nationwide, participation in Black Girls RUN! groups has increased 102 percent since February 2012.

For Young, Black Girls RUN! been a life-changer. She's made a close network of friends through the group, and since joining she has started doing motivational speaking and edited an anthology.

"For me, running is empowering," she said. "Had I not found that I am a runner, I don't believe that I would have stepped out and done the things that I've done thus far."