The Hominess of the Long Distance Runner

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.

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Mike Clary