The Hominess of the Long Distance Runner

Robert Raven Kraft outruns his pain, and creates a community

As a young man Robert Kraft seethed with anger and frustration. A California reunion with his estranged father did not go well. During a trip to Nashville a songwriting partner ripped off a tune that ended up being recorded by Waylon Jennings.

So in the early Seventies Kraft came home to Miami Beach. He lived with his mother, worked odd jobs, and began exercising off and on with some boxers from the old Fifth Street Gym. Then one day, fed up with his lackadaisical ways, he decided to run on the beach every day for a year, just to see if he could. The date was January 1, 1975.

When Kraft finished that year he didn't feel like stopping. So he kept on running, eight miles a day, along the shore. More than half a lifetime later, he is still running. And now he can't stop.

On May 18 Kraft will mark his 10,000th consecutive day of running. He is expected to be joined on his regular jog by dozens of other runners, including some flying in from New York and California, who have helped Kraft gain a quirky celebrity for constancy in the ephemeral world of South Beach.

"I am a prisoner of my routine, I know, but I'm comfortable with it," says Kraft, a tan, toned, and barrel-chested man widely known as Raven, a reference to the all-black attire he has favored since his youth. "I think of myself as a man of my word. If I say I'm going to do something, I am going to do it. And I'm going to run. Every day. I'll be there."

The number 10,000, with its neat, rounded symmetry, barely hints at the compulsive dedication that has come to define Kraft's life, shape its boundaries, and bring him peace. Ten thousand days translates into 27 years, 4 months, and 18 days. At eight miles a day, that's 80,000 miles. At Kraft's average pace, that's 17,500 hours of pounding along the sand. Figuring his normal stride, that's 13.9 million footsteps.

In aggregate, the time Kraft has spent running on Miami Beach would add up to nearly two years. He has covered enough ground to go between Miami and Los Angeles 29 times with enough mileage left over for a side trip to Nashville.

Obsessed? You bet. And he has paid a price.

At age 51, Kraft has never had a driver's license, never flown in an airplane, and never held a full-time job. He rarely leaves Miami Beach, and when he does he can grow shaky with anxiety. He has not ventured further away from home than Fort Lauderdale for more than three decades.

But on the sands of his home turf Raven is engaging and cheerful, a Pied Piper of exercise who for more than a quarter-century has invited hundreds of men, women, and children to join him in his idiosyncratic ritual. He does not ask for money, nor espouse any philosophy or religion, crackpot or otherwise. He does not even ask that those who join him go the whole way.

But many do. As of this week, 239 runners, ranging in age from 10 to 79, have completed at least one eight-mile run, thus earning a listing on the official Raven Run log and a nickname. Delta Dolly. Chapter 11. Giggler. Tangerine Dream. Or 12-Pack, a 242-pounder from Albuquerque who drank a dozen beers before he somehow completed the course.

More than 80 people have finished the run more than once. One regular, 64-year-old neighbor and financial planner Tom Longenecker, has gone the distance with Raven 680 times. "We have fun," says Longenecker, who traces his Gringo nickname back to his Ohio childhood. "Raven loves people, and he is on a mission to create community. It's a group with a lot of affection and humor."

Although it has been about two years since Raven last ran alone, he never knows who will show up. Some may run along for a while before dropping out, or join in anywhere along the route. But only Raven runs every day. On soft sand or hard. Through blistering heat. In lightning storms and driving rain. Through hurricane-force winds (Hurricane Irene, October 15, 1999). Through a torrent of hailstones that bloodied his head and back (April 24, 1994). Through snow. Yes! (January 19, 1977.) Raven runs despite broken foot bones, sciatica, bouts of food poisoning, dog bites, pulled hamstrings, excruciating back pain, even a collision with a pier that left him with eighteen stitches in his scalp.

He has run through 75 pairs of sneakers. Through the Age of Disco, the revitalization of South Beach, the Gulf War, two recessions, and six presidencies. He has run around the stage set up on the beach this past November for a 9/11 benefit concert by 'N Sync, causing him to pound the pavement for several blocks and aggravate his bad back. He blames Osama bin Laden for that.

Now middle-aged and graying, Raven has outpaced the despair he once felt and has run right into the record books. According to the U.S. Running Streak Association, Kraft ranks ninth in the nation among active runners who have logged at least one mile every day. (The leader, a 64-year-old Baltimorean, began his streak in 1967.) But Raven is perhaps the only one among the elite who runs on sand.

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.

Spotting a telltale glint in the sand, Raven also interrupts his runs to pick up lost coins or jewelry. He might sell the jewels, but has never spent any of the money that now fills two large glass containers in his apartment. But he does count it, twice a year. "Last count it was over $1100," he reports.

Sleeping just five hours a night and rarely going anywhere leaves Raven with the time he needs for consulting baseball box scores to update his memory bank of stats, for watching television movies, for the complex annotated logs he keeps on everyone who has ever completed a run. Raven has no computer. He keeps most of these numbers in his head, which he downloads verbally to the Reverend, friend and fellow runner Lee Williams. Williams then prints out updates of the Raven Run standings on his computer. In recent years Raven has also begun hosting an annual awards banquet, held in January at Puerto Sagua restaurant, as well as a March barbecue on the beach. "He has created a family," observes Longenecker.

The day will come, of course, when Raven can't make the run. He bicycles around South Beach, and Ferguson fears he might get injured by a car. Imagining the day he can no longer run is more painful to Raven than any physical ailment. "Hard to picture," he says. "I wouldn't be me. I'd be like a vegetable if I couldn't run. I'd have to be in the hospital, really busted up."

In discussions with Ferguson or others he has been close to, Raven concedes there is an element of selfishness in his obsessive devotion to running. But it is his calling. "This is what Raven is," he explains. "He runs every day on the beach, and he doesn't like to go too far from home. If you can accept me that way, no problem. It does hurt that I can't be fair to someone, that they can't love me and have a life too."

Still, Raven says, "People have come up to me and said, “You've changed my life for the better. I've lost weight, or have a social life now, met people, have a sense of camaraderie.' And that's a responsibility for me."

So for Raven, there is no nevermore. His run is not about to stop. "In the summer of 2009," he says, looking into a future that to him seems not too distant, "I should reach 100,000 miles. That will be a big day. We ought to get a lot of people out for that one."

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