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Every day for the past 39 years, a man nicknamed the Raven has tackled an 8-mile run along Miami’s South Beach. It’s an incredible streak—and as inspiring as it is exhausting.
By Laura Lee Huttenbach
In front of a blue-and-yellow lifeguard stand on Miami Beach, 32 sweaty runners are gathered in the sand around a bare-chested, black-haired man known as the Raven.
Dark aviator sunglasses cover the top half of his face, filtering the mid-October daylight and leaving open to the elements a pair of chapped lips that, at the moment, are curling into a smile. Raven is pleased that so many of his disciples have turned out for his 63rd birthday.
We are celebrating the only way we know how—by joining Raven for his eight-mile run in the South Beach sands. The first person in the group to spot me is Lorenzo, aka Butcher. It is 5:40 p.m., and I’m running late. “Hurry up, White Lightning,” he shouts. “Get in the picture.”
Picking up my pace, I slip into the shot before the shutter clicks. Butcher extends a closed fist, and I return the customary greeting by pounding his knuckles. Dave “Saltshaker” offers another fist bump. A financier in his early 60s, Saltshaker has just come back today from his summer home in Rhode Island.
“I guess it’s time for roll call,” Raven announces, commanding our attention.
And with that, as he has done every day for the past 39 years, Raven takes his first steps away from the lifeguard stand. His upper back, hunched over a deeply tanned torso, turns his body into a 5-foot-10 apostrophe. After so many years, tight ligaments have shortened his stride. His right foot lands heavier than his left, giving Raven the gait of a graceful pirate with a peg leg.
Falling in behind our leader, the flock heads south to Government Cut, the southernmost point of Miami Beach. From there, Raven’s eight-mile birthday course will take us north to 47th Street and back to the Fifth Street lifeguard stand. There are so many runners in attendance that today’s roll call—the ritual reciting of nicknames bestowed upon each runner by our affectionate host— will occupy at least the first mile. “Right here, on my left,” Raven begins. “He’s had many a near-death experience—he’s Close Call!” The group claps as Close Call, a middle-aged Mensa member from Finland, ducks his chin into his chest and smiles shyly. “In front of us, wearing pink, she’s hot, she’s spicy, and she’s from Chile—she’s the Chili Pepper!” Her long, curly hair bouncing beneath a white visor, the bubbly real estate agent waves with the poise of a beauty pageant contestant.
In the thick of today’s pack is Chocolate Chip—“He eats chocolate four or more times a day”—a retired endodontist who always brightens the beach with a joke at the four-mile mark. Then there’s a 77-year-old former mechanic wearing two knee braces—“If you have a boss you don’t like, have him hire Chapter 11!”—whose resume lists five airlines, two boatyards, and a restaurant as places of employment that went belly-up. Runners from 12 different countries and four generations join us on this day.
Even the thing we have in common divides us. Breaking away from the pack early, Issie “Dizzy,” a Cuban-American middle school principal, is training for a 75-mile ultramarathon. And though he isn’t present on Raven’s birthday run, Ed “Hurricane,” at 82, regularly power walks the eight miles while blasting classical music out of padded headphones. I used to run cross-country and can finish a mile in under seven minutes, but with Raven I slow down in order to hear his stories, delivered at a 14-minute-mile pace. Running with Raven is like listening to a live podcast. He has the crystalline voice of a radio announcer.
To Raven’s right, I spot Zane “Giggler,” who has just retired after 30 years as a Miami Beach lifeguard. “Good to see you, Giggler!” I shout.
Raven nods. “You know, Giggler’s run at least once a year for the last 24 years. I’m not supposed to have favorites, but he’s one of them.”
An avid flute player, Giggler doesn’t leave home without his plastic recorder, which bounces against the beads that drape his neck. The instrument adds to his eclectic apparel of hiking boots, black socks, khaki shorts, and a button-down, topped off with a wool chauffeur’s cap. “When did you meet Raven?” I ask.
“My first day on the job back in 1982,” he says. “But I’d already heard about him. Other lifeguards told me you could set your watch by the Raven.” It took Raven eight years to convince him to attempt the eight miles. “It was all soft sand back then,” Giggler recalls. “And it would just grab your every step, pulling you into the ground.”
Before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished its Miami Beach oceanfront reclamation project in 1981, Raven ran close to the water on a narrow beach, his feet sinking into deep, thick sand. But even on a firmer surface, Giggler says he struggles: “My body, at the six-mile mark, will just say, ‘What are you thinking?’ Then tomorrow I guarantee you I’m not waking up and thinking about running another eight.”
The raven fitness plan probably isn’t for everyone. It goes something like this: Wake up. Run eight miles. Repeat every day for 39 years. And there’s more to it. Two hours before the run, Raven bikes six blocks from his Ocean Drive apartment to the outdoor gym at Ninth Street. There, with young bodybuilders and gymnasts swinging from the monkey bars in the background, Raven drops to the sand in push-up position. He completes one set of his age, plus one rep, then moves to the pull-up bar. He grunts through three sets of 20, followed by a 45-second hang with the bar resting against the back of his neck. That happens, as one might guess, every day.
It turns out Raven isn’t alone in his everyday running habit. In the late-1990s, he answered a call from a reporter named George A. Hancock, who was putting together a list of American streak runners. At the time, Raven’s streak of 8,000-plus days didn’t even make the top 10. The longest-running streak—16,437 days—started in 1968, seven years before Raven’s. The owner of that streak, Mark Covert, just “pulled a Cal Ripken,” according to the U.S. Running Streak Association’s president, Mark Washburne, and voluntarily ended the run this past July.
Ranked No. 8 in America today, Raven is among more than 400 runners on USRSA’s active streak list. Association by-laws define a streak as “running at least one continuous mile within each calendar day under one’s own body power (without the utilization of any type of health or mechanical aid other than prosthetic devices).” All running surfaces—roads, tracks, and treadmills—meet the criteria.
“I’ve run every day, but I’ve done it in various states and countries,” says Washburne, whose own streak is about to turn 24 years old. “The fact that Raven runs the same course every day—that really separates him from the list. I don’t know anybody else who’s done that.” Two years ago, when HBO’s Real Sports producers called Washburne looking for someone to feature in a segment on obsessive runners, he suggested Raven. “A lot of reporters say we’re obsessed, but we like to say we’re dedicated. We prefer a positive spin,” explains Washburne, on the phone from his home in New Jersey. “I mean, he’s doing something healthy, like brushing your teeth every day.”
Raven’s personal rules for the streak are of his own making, and they often leave him at the mercy of the environment. One day in April 1994, he was shuttling back and forth from the bathroom with an exhausting bout of food poisoning when his internal clock struck “eight miles.” He walked to the beach, taunting Mother Nature with the thought, At least it can’t get any worse. Just then, he recalls, “The sky turned black. There was a coldness in the air, with lightning everywhere. I knew it was going to be bad.” After three-tenths of a mile, golf ball–size hail hammered his shoulders and face. Pulling his glasses off so they wouldn’t break, he felt lumps rising on his scalp. “The surfers had their boards covering their heads. You could hear the pounding—boom, boom, boom.”
During that same storm, Giggler took refuge in his lifeguard stand. “I remember the captain pulled up in the truck and told me to get in, and I was like, ‘Uh-uh, no way. I’m not stepping one foot out there,’” Giggler recalls. “All of a sudden, I see Raven coming towards us with blood running down his face. He was getting bludgeoned—like, stoned by God. All I could do was laugh.”
One lifeguard stand later, Raven ducked under an awning to take refuge. “If I had run two or three more minutes, I could’ve died. So I stopped and ran in place for 10 minutes,” he says. “That was a hairy one. But the fear at least made my food poisoning go away.”
A story like that should finish with, “That was the worst weather I’ve ever run through.” But it doesn’t. On October 15, 1999, Hurricane Irene blew 86-mph winds in Raven’s face. “It wasn’t the strongest hurricane we got,” Raven says. “Andrew was stronger, Wilma was stronger, but those came in the morning. Irene came at 5 p.m., just as we got to the beach.” Three runners—Gringo, Springman, and Raven’s girlfriend, Miracle—joined him. While his companions wore hooded windbreakers and goggles, Raven, as always, went shirtless. “Gringo was having a blast, doing airplanes,” recalls Raven. “But for me it was extremely painful. In those winds, the sand feels like needles. And it stuck to me for two weeks.”
Even on a rainy Friday evening South Beach is astir. Louboutin stilettos click against the pavement. Couples hug under umbrellas, and valets park Maseratis. Waiting on the sidewalk for a sit-down interview, Raven is wearing his street uniform of black pants and a shoelace belt. Up top, chest hair pours out of his unbuttoned black Levi’s jacket. “I’m sorry I’m late,” I say, wiggling out of my raincoat. “I tried to call, but you’d already left.” Without a cellphone or a computer, Raven can only be reached in person or on his landline.
As we take our seats at a busy Starbucks, customers stare, making Raven uncommonly self-conscious. “I think they’re trying to figure us out,” he says, pointing to a family of four whose eyes are fixed on our table. The background music steals his focus. When “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” fills the air, Raven sings along. “This was a hit when I was in high school,” he says. Almost everyone here looks like someone who has crossed his path, and he points out the resemblance. By the time the coffee shop closes, we haven’t covered much ground.
“Would you be more comfortable if we talk at your apartment?” I ask.
“I think so, White Lightning,” he says. “But I have to warn you, it’s a little messy.”
The following night, relaxing on the torn cushion of his black leather sofa, Raven is articulate and methodical. Next to him, stacked higher than his head, red and blue plastic crates overflow with LPs, cassettes, and old newspapers. Shoeboxes stuffed with letters teeter above them. A cut-out photograph of Johnny Cash, wearing his trademark black button-down shirt, is taped to the wall above Raven’s first record player. Below that, he has pinned a Nixon bumper sticker saved from the 1968 campaign.
“I like to collect things,” he says, putting it mildly. “Some say hoarder. Miracle says saver. I say collector. I think it came from my childhood. We didn’t have much money, so everything I got, I cherished.”
Looking around at the fortress of clutter that wreathes his private life, it’s hard to connect this Raven with the spirited raconteur who, every day, assembles a diverse bunch of individuals in the name of community and exercise. His followers would be surprised to discover that, as a boy, their talkative leader was painfully shy. “If I had to describe my childhood in one word, it would be lonely,” he says.
An only child of divorced parents growing up in Miami’s South Beach neighborhood, Raven—né Robert Kraft—had little interaction with kids his own age. Now a gleaming mecca for the rich and famous, South Beach, circa the 1950s, was wall-to-wall with retirement homes. “We used to call it God’s Waiting Room,” Raven says.
A single mom, Mary Cooper Kraft worked the graveyard shift at a 24-hour drugstore store while her son spent nights alone. In the morning, he would lie awake, frozen in bed, until he heard his mother’s high heels scale the wooden steps of their apartment. “I’d breathe and think, Phew, I can live another day. She’s here. I’m going to get fed. I was terrified of being an orphan.”
Robert was excited when his mom started dating an older man with a car, but the happiness wore off quickly when “the Eagle” (as he’d nicknamed him) returned to his drinking, gambling, and womanizing ways. After learning the good-for-nothing was going to become his stepfather, Robert, age 14, put on a black shirt. “I looked in the mirror and said, ‘That’s me. Other people can wear colors, but I’m only wearing black.’”
His dark wardrobe drew attention from classmates, who taunted him with lyrics to the popular Rolling Stones song “Paint It Black.” Irked by their teasing, and apathetic to his studies, Robert dropped out of high school at age 16, with dreams of becoming a Dylanesque songwriter.
He bought a Greyhound bus ticket to Nashville, Tennessee, where The Johnny Cash Show was filming its first season. Robert waited around back at the Ryman Auditorium to shake Cash’s hand and slip him a lyrics sheet. “Security back then wasn’t as tight,” he recalls. “You could actually talk to people.”
For songwriting inspiration, Robert visited the post office to study Most Wanted posters. “Fugitive on the Run” was one of the songs he penned in Music City. But the pressures of self-promotion in such a bustling industry town ate at Robert’s soul, and he missed South Beach. “I had to be someone I wasn’t,” he remembers. “My stomach was always growling and churning. I think I had ulcers. I didn’t feel right.”
In one last effort, Robert pressed a new song into Cash’s palm after another broadcast at the Ryman. Cash told Robert, “I’m writing all my own stuff now, buddy, but maybe this guy can help you out. He’s a songwriter.” Cash nodded to the man on his left, whom Robert already knew. “I’ll never forget it,” he says. “Johnny turned and gave him my lyric sheet. The guy seemed a little high or stoned or something. But he didn’t say a word. He just took my song and stuck it in his right pocket.” The lyric was untitled and without a copyright. “I just figured if he liked it, he would call me.”
Six months later, back in South Beach, Robert was listening to his transistor radio when from out of its speaker came a brand-new Waylon Jennings record. It took Robert two lines before he recognized the words. Wait a minute, he thought. I know those lyrics. I wrote those lyrics.
He sprinted back to his mother’s apartment and, fingers shaking, dialed the radio station, thinking, This is it. I’ve finally made it. The radio DJ picked up, and, before he could even say hello, Robert interrupted him. “Who wrote that Waylon Jennings song you just played?” he asked. “Who’s the songwriter?”
The DJ told him the name, and it was not Robert Kraft.
Without proof, Robert had no recourse—and his downward spiral began. “I became very angry, with a hair-trigger temper,” he recalls. “I felt like everybody was against me. My father had left, my mom married the Eagle, my song was stolen—everything. Life was against me. I couldn’t trust anybody.” He started drinking and hanging out with unsavory characters. As Robert tumbled into depression, his song climbed higher and higher up the charts.
Two years after his aspirational journey to Nashville, Robert was slumming it at the old pier in South Beach when “Bulldog,” a Vietnam veteran and fighter at Miami’s famed Fifth Street Gym, struck up a conversation with him. “Come on, Johnny,” Bulldog said in a thick Brooklyn accent, referring to Robert by an all-purpose nickname. “I’m about to do my roadwork.” Roadwork—jogging and throwing punches—didn’t really appeal to Robert, but with nowhere else to go he followed Bulldog. After a mile, the fighter was still chatting casually as Robert gasped for air. “You can do it, Johnny,” Bulldog said. Robert decided that, even if he dropped dead, he wasn’t going to stop. Fortunately, roadwork was only two miles that day. Panting but still jogging, Robert finished just steps behind Bulldog. And for the first time in a long time, he felt good.
He joined Bulldog a couple of times a week, and by the end of 1974—a few years into the routine—Robert was running almost every day in the soft sand. The run and regimentation eased his anger. He gained confidence. He became friends with the lifeguards, gym rats, and free spirits of South Beach, one of whom landed Robert a job as a nighttime security guard, a gig that paid the bills and didn’t interfere with his running schedule.
Along with the new persona came a new name. Inspired by the mysterious black attire, nocturnal tendencies, and deep interest in songs and songwriting, Bulldog dubbed his friend “the Raven.”
January 1, 1975, was a clear, crisp, and sunny day in South Beach. With Bulldog running by his side, Raven made a New Year’s resolution: “I’m going to run a whole year straight—every day, eight miles.” Eight miles because, he says, “nine was too much, and seven wasn’t challenging.”
Bulldog laughed. “Come on, Johnny. What are you thinking?”
But Raven was determined. Watch me, he thought.
After three miles, Bulldog broke off, and Raven kept running. “I had never gone through with a goal in my life, except to get to Nashville,” he remembers. “And with that, everything fell apart. This was going to be my thing. I built my whole world, my whole life, around that run. I had no idea what I was getting into.”
Back on the beach a few weeks after his birthday run, Raven apologizes for his sluggish pace. “I’m sorry I’m going so damn slow, White Lightning. My legs feel like they are on fire. Hold on, I gotta bend again.” With that, he falls forward in the sand, onto his hands. Pain in his lower back pushes an involuntary growl from his lips as he stands back up. “It’s like someone’s taking my nerves and twisting them. I’ve never been shot, but I imagine this is what it feels like.” Grimacing, he pushes his thumbs into his tailbone. “If the pain would just go away, I’d be in such good shape.”
Raven has been diagnosed with severe spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column around the spinal cord, which compresses nerve roots. He also lives with arthritis, sciatica, and scoliosis. Most people in his condition would have already had surgery, but recovery would keep Raven off the sand, and without health insurance Raven can’t afford an operation. “Whether he can continue for another three months, or six months, or a year—it’s really up to his pain tolerance,” says Vivian Hernandez-Popp, his physician.
“Sometimes,” Raven says, “I can’t even stand up to brush my teeth.”
What does a person do when the thing he loves is both killing him and keeping him alive?
Without giving his body time to heal, Raven reinjures himself every day. Little wounds nag for weeks. In the HBO Real Sports segment, which aired in 2011, the reporter suggested that on his next hospital visit Raven should maybe run “over to the psychiatric ward.”
Raven isn’t fazed when someone calls him crazy. “People tell me that all the time,” he says. “I just say, ‘This is what I do. It works for me.’” Though he has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, he’d prefer not to take medication for it. “It’s a part of me,” he says. “I don’t want to take pills that make me not be myself. People depend on me to be out there, and I don’t want to let them down.”
And what about when people tell him to take a day off?
“I say, ‘You’re probably right. I probably would be better if I took a day off.’ Most people need days off, or else everybody would be a streak runner. Maybe I’m just cut from a different cloth.”
Raven, a desperate outsider as a kid, hasn’t run alone since 2005. In 2007, Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer proclaimed October 17—Raven’s birthday—“Robert Raven Kraft Day,” referring to the daily Raven Run as a “bona fide Miami Beach institution.” More than 1,900 people between ages 6 and 82, from every state in the nation and more than 75 countries, have completed an eight-mile run with him. Relationships developed during the eight miles span the globe. Through the Raven network, people have found jobs, friends, and spouses. What he has facilitated for runners has eluded him; Raven has never married, and doesn’t have children. “Sometimes I think it could’ve been interesting to have a family,” he reflects. “But now this run is like my family.”
After getting ordained online, Raven has even officiated two weddings of his runners: During a run in 2009, he married Hollywood Flasher and Creve Coeur; then, in 2013, he did the same for Extra and Molder.
What started as a New Year’s Resolution has outlasted seven American presidencies and covered more than 100,000 miles. That’s more than 18 round-trips between Miami and Los Angeles. That’s a trip around the world—times four.
Back in October, on Raven’s birthday run, Giggler exhaled a whistle at the six-mile mark, signaling it was that time when his body questions his judgment. He turned to me and said, “The thing about Raven is he can make anyone into a runner. People who never thought they could run one mile now run eight with him all the time. He makes people feel special.” Raven’s physical decline worries Giggler, but he is comforted by the belief that “Raven’s spirit will still be running in the sand long after he ends the streak…. But his spirit was running here before he started, because what Raven does can’t be of the body.”
Butcher, running alongside, seconded the effects of Raven’s positive aura. “I used to have an anger management problem,” he confessed. Three years ago, fresh out of prison for drug trafficking, Butcher was seeking a regimen to get his life back on track when, at the pull-up bars, Raven invited him to run. “A guy I was in jail with told me, ‘You gotta find a group to be a part of or something to get involved in,’” recalled Butcher. “Because, you know, there’s no transition from prison to the free world.” After working up to the eight miles, Butcher set out to run with Raven every day for 100 days but instead kept the streak going for 200, setting a record among the Raven Run regulars.
“It’s not only Raven but all the positive people you meet out here. I was in a really dark place, and the run just sucks the negativity out of you,” he said.
These days Butcher is a calm but demanding personal trainer whose clients include fellow Raven Runners. “God only knows where I’d be without Raven and this run. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
The man himself doesn’t wax poetic about his accomplishments. Raven is just hoping to stay the course—the one that measures eight miles—a little bit longer. “I’ve found the place I’m most comfortable,” he says, digging deep on yet another day. “Everyone has a place where they shine, and this is where I shine.”
Writer Laura Lee “White Lightning” Huttenbach is currently penning Raven’s biography, and photographer Mary Beth “Yellow Rose” Koeth is making a Kickstarter-funded film about his life.
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