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Miami woman proves running good for (broken) heart

Patty Cohen faithfully cheered her husband at his triathlon races, often pushing their two children in a stroller to the finish line so they could watch their daddy cross it. She was supportive of his grueling regimen and predawn bike rides. She nodded agreeably when he donned his newest wetsuit or shoes.

But she never understood Aaron Cohen’s passion. She couldn’t fathom why he subjected himself to such pain to achieve sweat-soaked goals measured in minutes or seconds.

“It didn’t seem like fun,” she said. “I just didn’t get it.”

Until he was gone.

Until now.

Two years after Aaron completed his first and only marathon, Cohen will run the Miami Half Marathon on Sunday as proof of the transformative power of running. Nearly two years after Aaron was killed by a hit-and-run driver on the Rickenbacker Causeway, she will run as a tribute to him.

It will be an emotional 13-mile journey as Cohen retraces the steps Aaron took in 2012. Lily, 5, and Aiden, 3, will cheer her at the finish. She expects to hear Aaron’s voice, too.

“In my head, he’ll be telling me to keep going,” she said. “This will be his chance to explain why he loved running. I can hear him say, ‘You understand, don’t you?’ ”

Cohen, 36, will be among the 25,000 people on Biscayne Boulevard moving forward for myriad reasons. Her story is one of healing. When Aaron died, it’s like she was shoved off a cliff and caught in a perpetual free-fall, flailing through her days as a working single mom and young widow.

“I was looking for a way to cope and to challenge myself,” she said. “Everything else going on in my life was so outlandish and crazy and difficult, but I didn’t choose that adversity. So I decided to take on something really hard and beat it.”

Running became a form of therapy for Cohen, who had always been active as an occasional scuba diver, skier and swimmer and former high school soccer player but never as an endurance athlete.

“To me, it seemed impossible to run even two miles,” she said. “But you never know what you can do until you want to do it or have to do it.”

She joined the weekend Coconut Grove group runs of Team FDC by Sole Runners, her husband’s former team, and was inspired by founder Ralph Fernandez de Castro and the camaraderie of the runners.

“Aaron was a very upbeat, social, competitive guy, and Patty is more of a shy person,” Fernandez de Castro said. “Joining our group helped her connect with Aaron and with people like herself, who are dealing with the loneliness of daily struggles. Our philosophy is to take it mile by mile, and apply that thinking to any self-doubt in your life.”

Fernandez de Castro was among the first to arrive at Ryder Trauma Center on Feb. 15, 2012, after Aaron and his cycling partner, Enda Walsh, were hit by Michele Traverso, who fled the scene. Back home in the Roads neighborhood, and ready to leave for her job as a bond trader at an investment bank, Cohen called Aaron’s cellphone at 6:48 a.m. to find out why he was late. A nurse answered.

Cohen rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where the prognosis for Cohen, 36, who had sustained massive head trauma, was poor. As the day wore on, more than 100 friends came to lend support for Aaron, a charismatic Esserman car salesman. He died the next day.

Support for Cohen has never waned. Friends like the Walshes visit or babysit. There are barbecues — the kind Aaron enjoyed organizing. A bereavement group has been invaluable. Team FDC made a video of Aaron and held fundraisers for the family. Yet waves of sadness still consume Cohen.

“Grief does not go away,” she said while talking inside a home filled with dinosaur toys and children’s books. Artwork by Lily and Aiden lines the walls. A pink castle tent sits in one corner. Photos of Aaron are displayed on the refrigerator. “You learn to live with it. You’re less surprised every morning when he’s not here.”

“The kids will ask, ‘Who’s going to take care of me if you die? When are you going to die?’ Those are the real low times because they are so vulnerable and you’re forced to answer these metaphysical questions.”

Cohen, who grew up in Bronxville, N.Y., and Aaron, a speedskater and cyclist from Chicago, met at Skidmore College when they joined the polo team. He craved new adventures, and got serious about triathlons in 2009.

Cohen hopes to create a legacy for Aaron with the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act, a bill that would impose tougher penalties on drivers who leave the scene of an accident. Florida law gives drunk drivers an incentive to take off and allow their blood alcohol levels to dissipate with the passage of time.

Police found evidence that Key Biscayne’s Traverso, on probation for cocaine charges, had been drinking but could not test him because he did not surrender until 18 hours after the collision. He was eventually sentenced to 364 days in jail and released after 264. The act, spearheaded by Walsh and triathlete Mickey Witt, advocates mandatory minimum terms of three to 10 years. Florida motorists were involved in 69,994 hit-and-run crashes in 2012, with an average of 35 per day in Miami-Dade.

“My family got a life sentence,” said Cohen, who goes to Tallahassee next week to work with legislators. “We would like to end Miami’s reputation as the hit-and-run capital.”

On Nov. 9, during a Team FDC training run, Cohen — for the first time — crossed the point on the bridge where Aaron was killed.

“It was a poignant day,” said Fernandez de Castro, his eyes tearing at the memory. “We gave her hugs at the base of the hill. At the top, she slowed down, grabbed my hand and squeezed it.”

On Sunday, Cohen will run not only for her late husband, but with him.

“He would have been way ahead of me,” she said. “But I think he’ll be proud of what I’ve learned through running.”

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