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Frankie Ruiz prepares hundreds of local runners for Sunday’s ING Miami Marathon

They are thundering down Bayshore Drive, bouncing along Brickell, climbing the Rickenbacker Causeway bridge, huffing through Hollywood, puffing through Kendall.

They are running — hundreds upon hundreds of South Floridians logging hundreds upon hundreds of miles in large, chatty herds.

Whether it’s dawn on a Saturday in Coconut Grove or Happy Hour on a Thursday on Lincoln Road, runners are gathering to train and socialize in sweaty support groups moving at a 6-10 mph pace.

The number of running groups has proliferated and their attendance has ballooned in lockstep with the growth of the ING Miami Marathon and Half Marathon, which will be at full capacity of 25,000 when the gun goes off downtown Sunday morning for the 26.2 and 13.1-mile scenic but grueling tours on blistered feet.

The annual race has become the incentive for locals aiming to set personal bests or get fit.

Miami is no Boston or Portland or New York, and it will always be too hot and too flat to be a running mecca, but the loneliness of the long distance runner has evaporated in the past five years.

“It’s taken a long time and we have a long way to go here, but we are becoming a real running city,” said Frankie Ruiz, co-founder of the marathon. “We’re looking a little like Central Park on the weekends. Our biggest asset is that we can be a 365-days-a-year playground.”

Ruiz, a man in motion, is the pied piper of the running group phenomenon. In addition to his job with U.S. Road Sports and Entertainment and as coach of the Belen team’s state championship dynasty in high school cross country, he leads three running groups.

He started with one group of six people four years ago. Now, on Thursdays, the Nike South Beach Run Club group of 150 takes off from Mr. R Sports. On Wednesdays, the Muscle Milk Kendall Run Club group of 200 gathers at SOLErunners. On Tuesdays, the Baptist Hospital Brickell group of 400 starts at Fortune International’s patio. Each has its own personality: Lots of young professionals and University of Miami medical students at Brickell; families in Kendall, and a “loud, festive and diverse” bunch on Lincoln Road. It’s all free and includes a core workout and the occasional scavenger hunt.

“I have observed a tremendous need for people to connect with people who share a passion for exercise as well as a desire to belong to a community that nourishes fitness via its public parks, sidewalks and safe places to run, walk and cycle,” Ruiz said. “Do you know that I cannot think of a single stretch of running path in Miami — outside an actual park — that goes for more than a mile without being interrupted by a parking entrance or intersection?”

Strength is in numbers, as the venerable Footworks staff has learned during years chaperoning groups from its South Miami store.

Then there’s Team FDC, as in Fernandez de Castro, as in Ralph, a Miami workboot salesman who started running in 2008 with friends and relatives and watched his group morph into a mass of 500. They meet Saturdays at 6 a.m. at Lot 67 near Miami City Hall. Some head toward Matheson Hammock on 20-mile runs. Others jog three miles around the Grove. Fernandez de Castro ran his first marathon in 2009, and 45 people from the group joined him. This year, 350 have registered for the half and full.

“It took on a life of its own,” Fernandez de Castro said. “It’s very grass roots, very simple. It’s all about breaking down the walls in your head and then applying that attitude to life.”

Fernandez de Castro said his runners share personal stories of overcoming cancer, living with diabetes, getting divorced, losing jobs, losing weight.

Aaron Cohen, the triathlete and father of two killed by a motorist last year when he was riding on the Rickenbacker, was part of Team FDC. Many members will be running in his honor, and 10 of his friends from Chicago have entered the ING race.

“Miami is way behind the times in addressing safety and just following the Golden Rule, as my daughter would say,” Fernandez de Castro said. “With a group, you feel a sense of camaraderie. We’re out on the road together and we care about each other.”

Black Girls Run is the local chapter of an organization with 60 groups across the U.S. In the tri-county area, BGR has 1,200 members running at a dozen locations. About 250 are registered for Sunday’s event. The group holds clinics, such as “From Couch to 5K,” and provides advice on its Facebook page on everything from hydration to hair.

“I’ve gone natural,” said Sonya Hickman of Plantation, ambassador for the South Florida group. She’ll be running her sixth half marathon, 14 years after she broke her back.

“I thank Black Girls Run because they saved my life,” Hickman said. “I’ve lost 30 pounds. I’ve learned to love asparagus.

“This is a movement. You can count by hand the number of black women in road races, but there are plenty who want to run marathons and triathlons. There are also plenty with hypertension and diabetes because we don’t work out! If you are part of a group effort, you can have some fun and stay motivated.”

Other groups include World Vision, Team in Training, Team iRun and Our Lady of Guadalupe. South Floridians are getting in shape, and on Sunday they will join their running partners for the challenge they’ve been anticipating.

“One Saturday I put out 450 cups at a water stop near Old Cutler Road,” Ruiz said. “They were gone in an hour.”


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