Seabirds soared above South Beach on Tuesday afternoon as swimmers and sunbathers caught the last hours of sunlight.
A slight man with a salt-and-pepper beard and dark, wavy locks put one foot in front of the other, imprinting the sand with the bottom of his gray New Balance sneakers. He was one of about 20 runners who pounded the sand on an eight-mile run, although his uniform made him stand out — bare-chested with a black headband, black shorts, black socks and one black wristband.
He’s 64-year-old Robert “Raven” Kraft, a runner, singer-songwriter, wiseman and fixture in the South Beach community. On Wednesday, Raven will celebrate the 40th anniversary of his daily run in Miami Beach, a routine that he started on Jan. 1, 1975, and has not skipped a day since. Nothing has stopped Raven from his run — not stress fractures, a concussion, a hurricane or even a trip to the hospital after experiencing shortness of breath.
His persistence has inspired more than 2,000 runners to join him on the Raven Run over the years. He fervently keeps track of his regular runners’ statistics and has a stellar memory for birthdays. Even though he has to power through chronic back pain these days, he feels like he owes it to his followers to keep running.
“It's what I do. I didn't want to quit,” he said before his run Tuesday. “And even now I don't want to quit, and I'm not. There’s all of the people that I’ve inspired and look forward to running with me.”
The Raven’s song
Raven started the run 40 years ago as a challenge to himself to stick with something.
Always a bit of a loner, he found solace during his teenage years in the rock ‘n’ roll of the Beatles, the Byrds and Bob Dylan, and the stories woven in country songs by Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. He set off for Nashville in 1970, at 19, to make it as a songwriter.
He got to meet Cash several times, and even handed him some lyrics he’d been working on once. Cash handed the paper to another songwriter.
Raven ended up coming back to Miami Beach, and he grew angry after his lyrics were turned into a hit for Waylon Jennings. It was an anger that didn’t go away until he started working out with boxers who trained at the 5th Street Gym, and he decided he'd set exercise as a long-term goal.
“I'd quit a lot of things in my life,” he said sitting outside his home Wednesday. “Jobs, school, women.”
So he set out to run every day for a year, starting on Jan. 1, 1975. Early on, he endured food poisoning, storms and stepping on a nail. But he kept his feet going long past those first 12 months.
People started running with him, and he almost never runs alone now. Forty years later and fighting through chronic back pain, he's just happy to have another step.
“I'm training for tomorrow,” he says, echoing some of his song lyrics.
Photographer Mary Beth Koeth met Raven three years ago during a casual run on the sand. The 32-year-old had just arrived to the Beach to attend Miami Ad School, and she made fast friends with Raven and his crew.
“You instantly have this community from all walks of life to meet up with,” she said.
Koeth was so fascinated by Raven’s story that she has spent the last two years making a documentary of his life, which is slated to premiere Feb. 8 at a FilmGate Interactive event in the Miami area. A biography by writer Laura Lee Huttenbach, another Raven Runner, is also coming down the pike.
Koeth is also known as “Yellow Rose” out on the sand. Raven gives runners who complete the eight miles a nickname based on their personality, passion or quirks. The monikers run the gamut: “Taxman,” “Transporter,” “Pop-Tart.”
“I like to do a little interview on their first run,” Raven says.
Every day, a group gathers at the Fifth Street lifeguard station on the beach at around 4:15 p.m. during the winter months and 5:15 p.m. for the rest of the year. Raven slips off his black jacket and jeans, stores them at the station (he’s trusted with the keys), and preps for the run.
On Tuesday, about 20 stalwarts and newbies came out.
“Probably 15 years ago, I was vacationing here, and I saw this guy running,” said Oliver “Transporter” Muehlisch. He vacations in the Beach every year with his family, and he joined Raven’s Runners about 10 years ago. “I always try to make it and do two or three runs.”
This year, he wasn’t planning on coming, but his wife told him it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Raven complete 40 years. He flew over from Germany for the run.
Ned Benson, 52, and his son Jax, 16, were newcomers this week. Vacationing from Kentucky, they hopped on board and quickly learned Raven’s story and his intensity.
“He’s got so much discipline, and you just don’t see that a lot these days,” said Ned. “He’s the embodiment of discipline.”
Soon after 4:30 p.m., Raven leads the run north from the Fifth Street lifeguard station. He does a roll call, calling on each Raven Runner by their nickname and a short introduction like a wrestling announcer.
With each name, the runners applaud as they pound the sand under the setting sun.
Always a dreamer
Raven lives in his Ocean Drive apartment with his cat Joe and no one else. He’s still kind of a loner, although he has enjoyed a beautiful 18-year relationship with his girlfriend Priscilla “Miracle” Ferguson. She runs with him sometimes, and they like to go to Marlins games together.
He is well-loved and well-known for his running streak, but he still dreams of writing that hit song. With 1,600 tunes already written, he’s still working on writing the big one.
“If someone asked me what goal do you have in mind, 40 [years] is a great goal,” he said. “But a hit song … it’s always been, since I was a teenager. I wanted to have a hit song and look at the charts and see my name, at least as the writer.”
Even though his music dreams still loom large, Raven’s taken many lessons from his years on the sand.
“I'm learning human nature every day,” he said. “I just try to be kind to everybody and treat everyone with respect. It's simple.”
Raven has collaborated with a musician in Kentucky for years to record some of his music, including his signature song: The Road is Long, a reflective tune he thought up on a run about 20 years ago.
“That's been my theme, I guess,” he said. “I was out looking down the beach and seeing the long road ahead .”
The song goes:
“The road is long and it is winding,
The ties were tight and they were binding,
Now I’m gone, It’s reminding me,
The road is long.”
Follow @joeflech on Twitter.
By the numbers
Here are some of Raven’s statistics from his 40 years of running
116,919 miles traveled once he completes his run Wednesday.
2,235 different people have run with Raven
1,600 songs written
302 new runners joined as of Tuesday afternoon, a record year
18 years with the love of his life, his girlfriend “Miracle.”