The Hominess of the Long Distance Runner

Robert Raven Kraft outruns his pain, and creates a community

To run with Raven is to take part in a celebration, to belong at least for an hour or two to a good-natured cult. Wearing black shorts, black headband, and one black glove (on either his left or right hand, for "power and energy," he says), Raven leaves daily at five o'clock in the afternoon from the Sixth Street lifeguard station. He rotates four varying routes, some of which take him as far north as 47th Street before he turns south to the jetty at Government Cut and back to finish at 6th Street.

On one recent Saturday Kraft was joined by a handful of regulars, including Sleeper, Angry Man, and El Bigote, as well as by newcomer Edgar Rodriguez, who just a day earlier had completed his first eight-miler. Raven christened him Baretta, because Rodriguez had mentioned watching the television show of the freshly indicted murder suspect Robert Blake. "I've seen Raven out here for years but only started coming out when I decided to train for a marathon," says 35-year-old Rodriguez, a mechanic for American Airlines who lives nearby. "He's a legend."

Running on sand is not easy. The footing is uneven, the traction poor. Raven runs on his toes, pitched forward, leaning as if into a headwind. He is steady, unwinded, always able to talk as he jogs along. He exchanges greetings with dozens of people for whom he is as dependable as the tide. "Hey, there's Nice Day Phil. He's a former boxer who recites Shakespeare," he informs. "And this is Pinhead," he adds, nodding toward a lifeguard.

As a concession to age and constant lower-back pain, Raven has slowed in recent years, and if Baretta and Angry Man want to break away, they do. The relaxed pace allows for even more discussion with fellow runners, some of whom may duck in for a mile or two to talk about the Marlins' fortunes or update Raven on their marital woes. Raven has also modified the routine of his post-run ocean swim, cutting down on the distance because of a nagging shoulder ache. "It is not competitive, and I don't feel I have to lead," he says.

Born in Virginia, Kraft came to Miami Beach with his mother when he was five. He attended public schools here, traveled west by Greyhound, worked briefly in Las Vegas, and was inspired to become a songwriter by the music of Johnny Cash. He still writes songs, often composing between midnight and his usual bedtime of six in the morning.

He figures he's written about 1500 tunes, many of them sad ballads with titles such as "Cowboy and the Lady," "How I Used to Be," and "Endless Miles." About 70 songs have been published, he says, and seven recorded. One, "Fugitive on the Run," he recorded himself, and he says it got some airplay in Europe years ago. None has been a hit.

For Raven life as a streak runner presents a paradox. The comfort he has found in routine and ritual is offset by the limitations the life imposes. While free of the stress and complications of a normal existence, he is caught in a web of self-imposed obligations that has limited his options and experiences. "I have been trying to get him to go to Sanibel Island for the weekend," sighs long-time girlfriend Priscilla Ferguson, age 43, a photographer and runner nicknamed Miracle who lives in South Miami-Dade. "He could take a vial of Miami Beach sand and carry it as he runs there. But no. The run is his mistress."

Raven frets even when off the island for a brief shopping trip, fearing that he might not get back in time to begin the routine for that day's run. That routine commences well before five o'clock and includes a series of stretching and weightlifting exercises in which every movement counts. Fifty-two push-ups. Twenty-five sit-ups, done slowly. A hand-weight regimen. Then a walk across the street to Marjory Stoneman Douglas Park for chin-ups: three sets of twenty.

Memorization, record-keeping, and a fixation with numbers are a big part of Raven's personality. An avid baseball player as a kid, he has a head full of major-league statistics: starting lineups, batting averages, RBI totals, pitchers' ERAs. He knows old-timers, too, specializing in obscure reserve players, such as outfielder Bob "Hurricane" Hazel, who hit .403 in 134 at-bats to help propel the Milwaukee Braves into the 1957 World Series. (The Braves topped the New York Yankees 4-3.)

He remembers the birthdays of everyone he meets. He makes mental notes of various distances in his daily walks. To go from the wall where he enters the beach to the lifeguard stand, for example, takes him 79 steps. "Kinda like the Rain Man," Raven says, referring to the 1988 movie in which Dustin Hoffman portrayed a victim of autism with a talent for mathematical computations.

"He's a savant," says Ferguson of her boyfriend. "Without the idiot part."

Kraft estimates that he lives on about $7000 a year. He owns his small apartment in the 300 block of Ocean Drive, within blocks of where he grew up. Over the years he has worked as a part-time hotel security guard, and draws some interest from a savings account. He also receives the occasional royalty check from music publishers.

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