When I first heard about the Raven, I was fascinated. Most people seem to be. What could keep a man motivated to run eight miles on the same stretch of sand every single day for decades? That's every single day, despite hurricanes, concussions, pneumonia, and pain that stretches into every cell "from hair to toes," as he says -- for 37 years.
On August 23, the total distance covered by Raven's 37-year streak will reach 110,000 miles. He'll have warmed up with his pull-ups and pushups at the outdoor gym at the 9th Street beach and strolled over to the 5th Street lifeguard stand 13,750 times. That's where he meets the pack of runners who will join him for his run each day. Some of these runners are just looking for sporty camaraderie. Others are looking for life answers. And then there are times when no one shows up, and the Raven starts his daily voyage alone.
On the surface, it's an amazing story of dedication to athleticism. Born Robert Kraft, Raven, who is so-nicknamed for his black attire and long raven-hued locks, began his running streak January 1, 1975, when he resolved to run eight miles on the beach every single day for the entire year. It was an attempt to mend what he perceived as a defect of character. "I never stuck with anything," Raven said in a recent interview. "Jobs, relationships -- I was a quitter. I wanted to change that. The first year [of my running streak] I caught pneumonia, I stepped on nails. Food poisoning." But he kept going, no matter what.
If you scratch below the surface, though, it's clear that the motivation behind Raven's commitment to running is more complex than merely a "stick to it" philosophy. His habit of running is tied as much to fear and an inability to let go of the past as it is to a deep sense of commitment. Raven says he can't imagine life without his daily run. His entire day is structured around it -- eating and taking painkillers on a strict schedule, stretching and trying to unfold his stiff skeleton in preparation for start time. He never strays far from the beach and dislikes leaving his apartment at all, not even to visit his girlfriend of 16 years.
In his early twenties, Raven was an aspiring songwriter, living in Nashville, Tennessee, and hanging out with the likes of Johnny Cash. (When Raven sings, and he does from time to time, his deep, gravelly voice has a very Cash-like quality.) Raven says he fled that life when an acquaintance stole one of the tunes he'd written and turned it into a hit recording song by Waylon Jennings, angrily returning to his mother's house on Miami Beach. He's lived there ever since.
Upon coming back to Miami, Raven worked security at hotels on Ocean Drive and other odd jobs, ran here and there, and began training informally with some young fighters at the famous Fifth Street boxing gym. But he wasn't able to truly commit to anything until he took that first eight-mile run on New Year 's Day in 1975.
Now 62, Raven is in rough shape. He says he's in intense pain from the moment he opens his eyes in the morning. Oftentimes, he can't even stand up straight. "I'm basically crippled. No one knows what I go through every day to get out there and do it. I put my feet down on the floor, and I just never know how I'm going to feel. I can hardly walk out there," he said. "People see me bending on the street and they think I'm picking up a coin or something, but I'm stretching out my back."
He says he only starts to feel better after he's done about three sets of 20 pushups and pull ups to prepare for his run. Sometimes he doesn't feel relief until the seventh mile of the run. "I constantly crave the endorphins for the body to kill the pain," he said. "The doctors told me if I were stop for four days, I wouldn't be able to move. My body would just freeze up. So I almost have to keep going now," he said. He sounded relieved that the doctors had given him a legitimate excuse to go on. He seemed comfortable knowing his body is physically addicted to exercise.
Beyond the physical addiction, Raven has an skewed sense of how others would react if he were to ease up on his exercise routine. He feels intensely loyal to those he's met on the trail. He even became an ordained minister so that he could marry a couple who met on the run. And even though he's had runners set up funds to help him with expenses and had other friends start a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of making a documentary about his story, he seems to believe his friends' love is conditional upon his continuing his streak. "I've had people say, 'It comforts me to know that wherever I am in the world, at a certain time, I know that Raven is out there running.' If I were to miss a day, in my head people would say, 'Raven's getting weak. What a loser.'"
When I spoke to him, he had just gone to a doctor for his second epidural, and this one hadn't done much to numb the pain. His ligaments are so tight and toughened, he said, that the doctor had trouble even finding a place to stick the needle. "Every part of me is hard, except my heart, I hope," the Raven said. "I enjoy running and I enjoy the camaraderie. But I can't go as fast as I want to because the pain stops me, my breathing stops me. But I keep going, you know. And after two or three miles I'm almost normal. The endorphins kick in, the pain eases up."
The running has earned him a bit of fame -- he's been featured on ESPN, had countless articles written on him (including a New Times "Best Local Cult Icon" title in 2001), and was asked to throw out the first pitch at a Marlins game a few months ago, which he did, despite its unsettling disruption to his schedule. (He had to run a few hours earlier than his usual 5:30 start time.) He's also got one of the longest daily running streaks in the country, and has certainly racked up the most mileage of any other streakers. But all those years and miles trail behind him like heavy chains around his knotted ankles; he's built way too much tradition to stop now -- or ever.
"Hopefully, I just won't wake up," he said about the day when he finally can't run anymore.
Even some runners who have skated across the sand with Raven hundreds of times have perceived only the heroism of Raven's story, and not the darkness. A few months ago, I ran the Raven Run alongside a woman the Raven has nicknamed Sparrow. (Raven gives all his running companions nicknames.) As we rolled along, she told me about the more than 300 runs she had made with Kraft, and how he always remembered exactly how many miles she'd covered with him, and how he remembered everyone's birthday, even if they only showed up to run once. She smiled as she described these idiosyncrasies.
When I pointed out that Raven also shows signs of compulsive behavior, her face fell into confusion. "No, really?" she said. "Huh, well I guess he does have a bit of a hoarding problem," she said slowly, as though suddenly seeing the Raven from a new angle.
Raven admits to his hoarding issues, too. He bought his South Beach apartment a few decades ago and has trouble letting go of what he perceives as memorabilia. "I have a sunglass collection, just for fun, of sunglasses I found on the beach," he says. "I dread thinking about inspectors coming around. But I'm making progress. I just threw out three years of newspapers. I found some deflated volleyballs I found on the beach 20 years ago and I threw those out," he said.
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Raven finds freedom from the burdens of life when he's out running on the sand. "It's like, as soon as I get out there, I'm suddenly a different person. My personality changes. I almost seem taller, stronger, bigger. It's my comfort zone, where I feel right. And once I start going, I feel good," he said. "It's my identity, it's who I am, it's what I do, and people come from all over the world and tell me their story, and I tell them my story. They say, 'I just had to come and meet you.' That's what keeps me going. They inspire me. And me, never missing a day, never stopping, never quitting, I inspire them. How can I quit?"
As the Raven shuffles to the 5th street lifeguard stand this August 23, set to run his 110,000th mile, pain and all, that'll be the question in the back of the minds of the people who care about him, even as they cheer him on: How -- and when -- can he quit?