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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Ricardo Flores wakes while the sun is still below the horizon. He'll be training hard this morning; the 10 mile at the Twin Cities Marathon is just days away.

Flores pulls off his covers and climbs out from under a bridge.

Since last spring, Flores has been a member of Next Steps, a running club for homeless men and women sponsored by St. Paul's Listening House shelter.

"This is my locker," Flores says as he rummages beneath a desk in a Listening House office. "This is my best shoes," he says, pulling out his donated running gear.

Soon he is running in front of the mansions on Summit Avenue with a small group of shelter workers, volunteers and clients. Flores smiles between breaths. Next Steps is doing its job.

"Homelessness is a very depressing place to be," says Julie Borgerding, who helped found Next Steps last year, modeled after a homeless running program started in Philadelphia. "Running and any sort of exercise is one of the best things we can do for ourselves," she says.

Later Flores will join other homeless people who stop by Listening House for a cup of coffee, to warm themselves, or as the name suggests, find someone just willing to listen. Flores stops by often, sometimes volunteering to work in the garden or clean.

Running is not new to Flores. "When I was a little boy I runned in Mexico," he says. But somewhere between boyhood and Next Steps, alcoholism, unemployment and hardship intervened.

"He's really struggling personally right now, so this is his thing," says Borgerding. .

The proof of Flores' commitment is on the shelter wall, where runners track their training days on a poster board grid. "I need another piece right here," smiles Flores, extending his arms beyond the board. He's the only runner with no white space behind his name. Every square is filled with a training date. "He's off the chart," says Borgerding.

Since spring, Flores has four races under his belt. Next Steps pays for his entry fees. It also rewards consistent runners with bus passes and other incentives. Flores has run enough this summer to earn a cell phone with service paid by Next Steps.

Training hasn't been easy, but neither is the life of a homeless person. On a recent day Flores returned to his bridge bed to find his blankets and cardboard mattress soaked with water. He believes another homeless man intentionally dumped a bucket on his things.

Still the bridge has provided welcome comfort. "One day it's raining; I come down to the bridge, I say, maybe I'll sleep in here," he tells a visitor.

Flores says he's sober now, thanks to a treatment program. "For now it's running," he says. "My thing is running.

Such talk is like music to Borgerding. "That is the idea, to help them move on," she says.

As part of the 10 mile race at the Twin Cities Marathon, Ricardo will run on his biggest stage yet.

He's set a goal of 70 minutes to finish - 7 minute miles - and then, perhaps, one goal can lead to others: a job and a home. "I want to do something good - very, very good," he says.

Flores is still navigating rough waters, but on the horizon is a glimmer of light. Finally, he may have the stamina to chase it.

Note: Donations to Listening House or Next Step can be sent to 215 Ninth Street Ninth Street West, St. Paul, MN 55102.

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