By Mason Kelley
"How many roads must a man walk down, Before you call him a man? ...
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind, The answer is blowin' in the wind."
– Bob Dylan, "Blowin' in the Wind"
The breeze on Miami Beach blows hard, enough to cool beads of sweat that build on sun-baked bodies. The afternoon begins its slow fade into dusk, causing some people to pack up, while others come out to enjoy the few final minutes of paradise.
A man holds a snake out for a tourist, who cringes as it slithers across her shoulders; a few feet away two women ask to get their picture taken in front of the Miami Beach sign affixed to the Fifth Street lifeguard stand, and just next to them a pair of foreigners disrobe to show off white Speedos, which prompts a titter from several women seated behind them. Each person is an extra in one man's play.
It is nearly 5 p.m. when, between a gap in the grass-covered dunes that create a natural gateway from the lavish art deco scene on Ocean Drive to the laid-back counterculture of the beach, the Raven arrives.
Robert Kraft jogs toward the lifeguard stand in a black vest, his faded black jeans held up with a tan length of cloth that serves as a belt and his long black hair spilling out behind a black headband.
This is his grand entrance. The sand, his stage with a free performance every day; he never disappoints. Some compare him to the Pied Piper, others think of him as Forrest Gump. He is a little bit of both, but he is also something altogether different. He is part of the quirky counterculture of South Beach, running 8 miles each day for almost 34 years. Each mile is a scene, replete with audience participation and a cast of regulars that grows with each mile – nearly 100,000 and counting.
The one-man performance began on New Year's Day 1975 as a form of catharsis, a way to ease the frustration of a songwriting career that began with Johnny Cash and ended with a stolen hit single. Over the years, the run became his identity. He is as regular as the tide and people count on his arrival. He never lets injury, illness or life get in the way. He never misses a day.
"I hurt myself today
to see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
the only thing that's real."
– Johnny Cash, a cover of Nine Inch Nails' song "Hurt"
Kraft is as much a part of South Beach as the Fontainebleau and the Clevelander. He grew up at a time when children didn't mesh well with the city's older denizens. So while his mother worked at a drug store across the street from the famous Fifth Street Gym, Kraft bounced between the beach and local baseball fields.
An only child with a single mother, Kraft never lacked freedom. He avoided many of the vices that follow children with an abundance of time and little supervision, but he often blew off school and his rebellious spirit pushed him toward the music of Cash and Bob Dylan.
"This guy's got some lyrics that are really heavy," says Kraft, 58, when he thinks back to his first experiences with Dylan. "I want to write lyrics that make you think and make you take notice of things."
When he turned 15, his mother married a man he despised, so he set off on his own. He took a part-time job to save money and later he boarded a Greyhound bus and headed for Los Angeles to visit his father, a man he barely knew. He thought a visit would be a welcome surprise. He even planned a trip to Dodger Stadium. They never made it to the game.
"He was between women, I guess, and he didn't have time for a 17- year-old," Kraft says.
He caught a bus to Las Vegas and worked for a time at the Golden Nugget. In the summer of '68 he returned to Miami to save money for a trip to Nashville, an opportunity to find his fortune.
He moved a block away from the Grand Ole Opry, and on his second night in town he scored a free ticket to "The Johnny Cash Show" where he first met The Man in Black. One night, Kraft walked by the Opry and found Cash's Cadillac parked outside. He waited for about an hour before Cash walked out for a cigarette.
"What are you doing here?" Cash asked.
"I wanted to try to give you some of my songs again, talk to you about your show," Kraft replied.
"Why don't you come on in," Cash said.
Cash performed a few songs and at the end dropped a lyric-covered piece of paper on the floor. Kraft still has it, one of the many artifacts he keeps in the organized chaos that fills his small South Beach condo. Almost every song he has ever written is carefully catalogued in his living room. One is missing.
At first, he didn't know it was gone. He was in Miami and the song came on the radio, recorded by Waylon Jennings. Jennings didn't steal it, but Kraft still refuses to acknowledge the thief.
"I was 19, I didn't know nothing," Kraft says. "I was pretty angry for a long time."
The anger festered like an untreated wound and Kraft needed a release. He found it on the beach.
"I fly a starship across the Universe divide
And when I reach the other side
I'll find a place to rest my spirit if I can
Perhaps I may become a highwayman again
Or I may simply be a single drop of rain
But I will remain
And I'll be back again, and again, and again, and again, and again."
– Johnny Cash, "Highwayman"
When Kraft was a child, Muhammad Ali would walk from the gym to the drug store where Kraft's mother worked. One day Ali – then known as Cassius Clay – brought his mother into the drug store.
"This is the lady that takes my money every day," Ali told his mother.
Both buildings are gone now, but before the gym was torn down, the boxers who trained there helped create Kraft's identity. It started with a nickname. On his boyhood baseball fields, everyone had a nickname. When he started hanging out with the boxers, he still wore all black, still crafted lyrics and rarely slept. His dark demeanor created a comparison to Edgar Allen Poe and he became the Raven.
He wasn't a runner. He lifted weights and did pull-ups before the boxers convinced him to start cross-training in the sand. He realized he missed the endorphin rush on days he skipped a run, so he decided to run every day for a year as a New Year's resolution to begin 1975.
He settled on 8 miles because seven wasn't enough and nine was too many.
"Anyone can do six, but when you get to eight you know you've done something," Kraft says.
The run created a peace that quelled his anger. He made it one year and kept going. At first, he always ran alone. Occasionally a lifeguard would run a block or two and sometimes the boxers would put in a few miles, but Kraft always hit eight. In 1977, a songwriter who shared a passion for baseball completed the run, and his girlfriend at the time told him to keep a list of people who joined him.
That same year he also found a glove. It was black, so he put it on and it became his trademark. He calls it his power glove and when he squeezes his right hand during the run he imagines energy surging through his body. It also is a place to keep his keys.
"It's a psychological power," Kraft says. "If I have the glove on I won't quit."
Over time people began to notice the lonely man who always ran in black shorts and no shirt. Then an article appeared, followed by another. There was a TV appearance in the '90s and more people wanted to run with the Raven. His list grew from 10 a year to 10 a month.
The first five or six runners all had nicknames and he decided anyone who completed the run would get one.
For 25 years he worked as a security guard three days a week. Like the run, he never missed a day, though he did get fired when he refused to work a double shift to preserve the streak. He saved enough money to buy his condo.
He has no debt. He never bought a car, so there is no need for gas money. In fact, he never bothered to get a driver's license. His only expenses are the small amount he pays in taxes, food and about two pairs of shoes each year.
"If I had a real job, I'd be in trouble," Kraft says.
In a city full of flashy clubs and expensive restaurants, his life is simple. Instead of a Bentley, he drives a pair of New Balances.
The run completes his identity.
"That's just part of his existence and it's a habit," says John F.
Murray, a sports psychologist based in Palm Beach. "I don't even think it's a conscious thing anymore. He has to do it; it's like going out and getting sunshine for him."
On the beach, Kraft has seen a little bit of everything. One day someone asked him to describe the strangest thing he'd ever seen on the beach. He said it was a green seagull. But now he has seen so much, it is hard to pick a single moment. From drowning victims – he has jumped in the water 18 times to help save lives – to people having sex on the beach, Kraft doesn't miss much. During one night swim his hand slipped into the pocket of a pair of jeans. It was too dark to see anything – he is not sure if there was a body wearing the jeans – so he pulled his hand out and kept going.
He has run with James Carville, even says he gave the Democratic strategist his Ragin' Cajun nickname. He met Pedro Martinez and sees"CSI: Miami" star David Caruso on the beach. He has a story for each mile of every run.
South Beach is his support system. He knows the lifeguards, the police officers and the homeless. He even met his girlfriend, Priscilla Ferguson, on the beach. The photographer first noticed him as an annoying figure who threw her pictures out of balance. They crossed paths several times and on a blustery day she thought of something she wanted to tell him. She thought she could catch him, he was only a few yards down the beach, and he didn't seem to be running that fast. She never caught up.
Granted, she hadn't run in years after a waterskiing accident damaged her spine, but it sparked a decision. She trained for three weeks and on Thanksgiving she showed up to run. She finished all 8 miles and at the end of the run she shouted, "It's a miracle." She found her nickname. Later that night, they ate dinner at Puerto Sagua, a small Cuban restaurant on Collins and Seventh. They've been together ever since, almost 12 years. "(He is) a most extraordinary man with an extraordinary mind," Ferguson says. "I've never met anyone with a mind like his. He's as honest as the day is long. I would trust him with anything without question."
"They say I'm a strange one
With my long-haired shaggy looks
I say I'm unique
I don't go by the book."
– Robert Kraft, "By the Book"
Before Kraft leaves for the run he stretches, knocks out 59 push-ups – always one more than his age – and finishes three sets of 20 pull- ups. What makes this even more impressive is the pain in his shoulder, so severe that it makes it hard for him to lift his arm over his head. When Kraft makes his entrance at the Fifth Street lifeguard stand he never knows who might show up. Today, 13 people arrive with nicknames like Poutine, Reverend, Creve Coeur, Chapter 11, JuJu Doll and The French Connection. Each runner has their own story, every nickname selected by Kraft.
"You meet so many great people on the run," says Joanne McCall (Poutine) who found the run during a rough stretch in her life. "It's like a family. There's camaraderie. We all have the same interest, and it's running."
It is a Saturday, so there is a good crowd. Once enough people gather and Kraft thinks the group is complete they set out on the South Route. He runs four different courses; each one completes an 8- mile circuit. He got the idea to mix up the run from a fireman's schedule of two days on, one day off. Today they start south and run to the pier, then turn around and run up to Espanola Way and back to the pier. They turn back north to Lincoln Road and return to the pier before finishing at the lifeguard stand.
"I know he's there every day," says Werner Zielke (The Sleeper) who, as the story goes, once fell asleep during a swim. "That's great. There is no doubt he's going to be here."
The group clusters around Kraft at the start of the run. The conversation ranges from politics to women and inevitably comes back to baseball. Kraft keeps an easy pace and some people run ahead.
After all, he will be back tomorrow.
A runner sprints by and he says, "They ain't doing the eight." He waves to Eugene, an aging homeless man with a bushy gray beard who is an avid reader and an advocate for sunscreen and other causes.
Throughout the run Kraft looks for money.
"When in doubt, check it out," he says, which is typically followed by "and if you score, there could be more."
Each step is painful. His shoulder hurts, his back feels like he is being stabbed and his mangled feet are so swollen he is sometimes unable to tie his shoes. But he keeps going. Pain doesn't stop him and weather is never an issue.
"It will hurt until it gets tired of hurting, then it will hurt somewhere else," Kraft says.
Zielke, 70, still remembers his first run with Kraft. It was during a thunderstorm and there was lightning. They took cover under a lifeguard stand and Kraft continued to jog in place until it cleared up. He finished the run. During another run, Kraft hit his head after just 1 mile. He suffered a concussion and was taken to the hospital. The doctors wanted to keep him for two days, but two lifeguards got him out and took him to the beach so he could finish the run. "I've done something no one else has done, which is pretty neat in this day and age where everyone is pretty much the same," Kraft says.
About 3 miles into the run Robert Doyle leaves the group. It is his first run, but he doesn't get far enough to earn a nickname. He first noticed Kraft a few years ago and it motivated him to give it a try.
Even though he doesn't finish, he returns a few days later.
"It's worth running on the beach and looking at this," he says.
When the group finishes, many head home, but as the sun fades behind the buildings and the sky burns down to a deep fuchsia, Kraft, Ferguson and several others head toward the water for a 1/3-mile swim.
Every run and swim completed by a member of the Raven Run – the only requirement for membership is that first 8 miles – is logged by Kraft. It is all compiled on his Web site, but he knows it by memory.
The run is his life.
Each aspect of his existence is built around the run. The only time he leaves South Beach is for the occasional trip to a Marlins game or a doctor's appointment, and when he leaves, Ferguson drives.
"I'm on vacation," he says. "This is South Beach."
When Kraft is on the sand, Ferguson says he seems a foot taller.
There was a time when he would trade the streak to have his song back. But he knows that somewhere in his condo is another hit. He has published between 75-80 songs; of those, about 10 have been released and half have made him some money. He knows his best song has already been written, but the run is what remains important.
At his current pace, Kraft will hit 100,000 miles on March 29. He considers that milestone a possible stopping point and he wants people to wonder if he will show up to run the next day. According the United States Streak Running Association, his streak is the 11th- longest in the country, but nobody has run more consecutive days in the sand.
Kraft, Lee Williams (The Reverend) and Ferguson are currently putting the finishing touches on a novel called "The Lifeguard Murders: A South Beach Story." Williams wrote the book, which incorporates many of the runners. Kraft provided the muse and the music – they want to include a CD with Raven originals – and Ferguson created the images. With the book and his music there are other outlets for Kraft to pursue, but nobody expects him to stop at 100,000.
"That would be a slap in the face," Zielke says. "'Yeah, I teased you all along for 30 years or so and now I'm going to get back at you, you bastards.' I would say that would be impossible to imagine.
He would have to be on his death bed not to show up."
Kraft admits that if he ever misses the run, the most likely cause would be his death. One of the old boxers from the Fifth Street Gym, Keith Laufenberg, wrote a short story where Kraft is killed when a lifeguard stand falls on him.
Ferguson used to think it created a morbid sense of symbolism. Now that she knows him better she considers it poetic, a death worthy of song; the final curtain for a man whose life is focused on his daily one-man play.