AN OVERWORKED MIND RUNS WITH RAVEN
Nearly two years before I was even born—on January 1, 1975—a man stepped onto the sands of Miami Beach to take the first steps of a now-legendary journey. The resolution he had in mind was almost simple at the time: He would run eight miles every day for an entire year. There would be no days off: not for fatigue, not for injury, not for severe weather, sickness, or family emergency.
More than four decades later, more than 126,000 miles later, that man still hasn’t taken a day off. In that time, he’s encountered every obstacle that might cause a person of lesser fortitude (or lunacy) to indeed sneak a day of rest. Food poisoning has assailed him and he’s run on. Severe and chronic back pain has wrecked him, and he’s run on (he says the endorphins released while running are like medicine, actually). Family members and friends have died, and hurricanes have torn through the South Beach landscape that he and his black headband have become an integral part of over the years. And still, he hasn’t missed a day of running. Not in forty-three years.
At this point, it almost goes without saying, only death will stop Robert “Raven” Kraft from getting in his daily eight miles beside the Atlantic Ocean.
Several weeks ago, I left my native Wisconsin winter behind and came to Miami Beach in search of something. A challenge? Maybe. Inspiration and renewal? Definitely. A few years back, shortly after quitting antianxiety medications, my office job, and cigarettes (in that order), I began running in earnest. A half mile at first, then a 5k, then a 10k, and then a little more (you runners out there know how that goes). Daily runs became very private and meaningful crucibles for me, challenges with high stakes that only I could truly understand. My runs became soul-cleansing journeys that I could embark on at any time. And I did embark on them at any time, weather be damned. I ran in scorching summer heat, torrential rains, shrapnel-like sleet, dizzying winds, and even a tornado. My runs were like mini adventure movies that I was writing, directing, acting out, and then storing in the archives of my mind and soul for all time. They were filled with passion, anger, tears, hope, and creative inspiration. Much like the actual Hollywood movies that I enjoy the most, my runs were, to steal an oft-used phrase from cinema reviewers, “life affirming.”
Maybe I was in search of life affirmation when I went searching for Raven, although that sounds overly dramatic. Or maybe I just wanted to meet the man whose story had resonated with me in such a strange way when I’d picked up the book Running with Raven from my local library a year earlier. Although separated by age and geography and various other life circumstances, this Raven and I seemed to have things in common.
Like Raven, I have the soul of both an artist and a runner, a sensitive soul that needs creativity, freedom, and daily shots of inspiration and adrenaline. Like Raven, I write: He pens country-western ballads and I compose short stories, spiritual devotions, and novel attempts. Also like Raven, I know the ineffable value of a workout streak, the emotional connection a person can forge with it: In 2016 I didn’t miss a day of cardio or weightlifting, and Raven, well . . . his ongoing running streak is nearly beyond comprehension. When I arrived in Miami, I was eager to jog alongside of this man—this piece of South Beach mythology—as so many other inspired runners had now done over the years (almost 3,000 other runners from almost ninety different countries at this point, to be exact).
A light rain grew stronger as my wife and I checked into our Mid-Beach hotel. Once we were up in our room, I changed into my running shorts, took a small portion of a caffeine pill, and then ate a bit of a granola bar. I reclined on the bed and stretched a bit. I was a little worried about my legs, nervous that they wouldn’t hold up for eight miles of beach running because I’d overdone it two days earlier by going for an eight-mile morning run and then a four-mile afternoon run (we’d just gotten to Miami the night before, and I’d had some extra adrenaline to work off, I guess).
I was also nervous about running in a group, since I’d never done that before. My runs were always solitary affairs, solo journeys fueled by whatever dreams and demons I harbored that day and by emotionally stirring music from my MP3 player. What was the protocol for a group run? I wondered.
“Do you think it’s okay to listen to music?” I’d asked my wife the night before. “I only saw one other person wearing headphones in the pictures I found online. And how am I supposed to carry on a conversation if I’m out of breath? Everyone talks during these runs, I think. Raven asks questions about your life so that he can give you a nickname if you complete the entire eight miles. How, exactly, am I supposed to talk if I’m out of breath?”
With these and other questions and run-related musings swirling through my head, my wife and I exited the hotel. The sand was slightly damp when we stepped out of our Uber ride and onto the beach entrance near the Fifth Street lifeguard stand, which is the starting point for every Raven Run.
“Is there a bathroom anywhere?” I asked my wife. Keenly aware of the importance of proper hydration, I’d been drinking bottled water all afternoon (all day really), and I knew that a certain piper would be calling me shortly to demand his payment.
“No,” my wife answered quickly and with certainty. “There aren’t any bathrooms on the beach. I remember that from our Miami trip last year.” She was a bit harried and short with me, apparently worn down from my ceaseless run-related questions, our quick hotel check-in, and our last-minute decision to take an Uber to the run’s starting point instead of a pair of Citi Bikes. “Are you sure this is the lifeguard stand you were talking about?”
“Positive,” I answered, although I didn’t see any other runners—or many other people at all, really—within fifty yards of the bright, littoral lime, white, and blue tower that read “Miami Beach.” But I wasn’t overly worried. Since it was only 4:20 pm, we still had ten minutes until Raven’s supposed arrival time (the run begins at 4:30 pm every day, until daylight savings springs the clock forward, then the start time is 5:30 pm). “Wait, here comes another guy.”
The newcomer looked as tentative and uncertain as I felt. He was about my age, and he was also traveling with his wife (and with his grade-school-aged son). He wore a visor and running shoes, and he approached the vicinity of the lifeguard stand hesitantly. “Here for the run?” we asked each other, and then we made awkward small talk and stretched as our wives began to chat easily, as women—even upon meeting for the first time—are often likely to do.
The other newcomer and I tossed a small football around with his son, and every sixty seconds or so—from the corners of our hopeful eyes—we scanned up and down the beach, looking for signs of Raven. But nothing.
4:28 pm. 4:29 pm. Still nothing. “I wonder if this will be the day he finally doesn’t show up,” I joked nervously.
But then a familiar-looking figure—a figure I recognized from his book cover—came jogging toward the lifeguard stand, looking a little more like a castaway than a fitness legend. He was sporting well-worn dark jeans and a weathered sable jacket that was splayed open to reveal an imposing bush of black-and-gray chest hair. He wore a headband, tinted glasses, a beard, and a pompadour mullet sort of hairdo that seemed equal parts curious and intimidating when encountered in person. This man kind of looked like Ben Stiller’s character in the movie Dodgeball, if that character had been older and more mysterious.
Raven chatted with the lifeguard about local goings-on as he changed into his running attire. He was in great shape, surprisingly chiseled for a man approaching seventy. “Looks like we have a couple of new runners here today,” he said as he eyed me and the day’s other fresh arrival. The Raven Run is an open-invitation affair—anyone can participate by simply showing up—and its founder no doubt eyes new arrivals curiously most every day, wondering if they’ll be strong enough to finish his event.
A few Raven Run “regulars” arrived—at 4:30 pm, precisely it seemed—and after greetings and some casual stretching, Raven gave the okay to begin the day’s main event.
We started jogging at an easy pace in the direction of the South Point Pier as Raven officially kicked things off with his daily roll call, a ritual where he gives a shout out to veterans who have already earned their nicknames and then acknowledges the presence of any newcomers. He grandly and jovially introduced two men, Hitter and Lobotomy, and two female runners, Poutine and Plantain Lady (all Raven Run veterans are known by their nicknames only). Plantain Lady had her own song, which Raven smoothly and soulfully crooned as a part of her introduction. I can’t recall all of it, but it went something like this: “She doesn’t run in wind, she doesn’t run in rain, she only eats plantains, sheeee’s Plantaaiin Lady.”
“And from Wisconsin, hoping to complete his first run, we have Mike,” Raven said. I smiled and gave a small wave to our group as I felt the need to urinate creeping up inside of me. No big deal, I told myself. Only 7.8 miles to go. Just don’t think about water too much. But I knew that such advice wouldn’t be easy to follow, given that we were running alongside the Atlantic Ocean.
“So, I’ve got to ask you something,” Lobotomy said as he moved to run alongside me. “About those cheese heads in Wisconsin? Do they come in different sizes, or is it a one-size-fits-all deal?” He gave a good-natured laugh and then waited for my answer with a mischievous-but-warm smirk on his face. Throughout the run, Lobotomy always seemed to be smirking, laughing, and joking. “He sometimes says inappropriate things,” Raven later admitted to me, “but he means well.”
“I honestly have never worn a cheese head,” I told Lobotomy. “I’m familiar with them, but I’ve never worn one. And I really hope that everyone outside of Wisconsin doesn’t get their impressions of our citizenry from watching Packers-game crowds on TV."
And just like that, I’d engaged in my first bit of group-run conversation. It hadn’t been so difficult after all, and in fact, as the run would proceed, conversation and banter would become easier and easier. Baseball trivia would be played (I threw the other runners a softball question about Wisconsin’s own Bob Ueker), anecdotes about other Raven Runners and South Beach personalities would be told, and personal stories—some revealingly personal—would be shared. And through it all, Raven was the fulcrum of the interaction and the undisputed master of ceremonies.
“You might have read about this in the book, Mike,” Raven would often say before launching into a story about Killer or Butcher or some other colorful figure who had become a part of his run over the years. And I would return the conversational volley by asking Raven to follow up on something I had indeed read about in Laura Lee Huttenbach’s 2017 book about Raven and his running streak. “I couldn’t believe the story of Handshoe,” I would say, nudging Raven to tell the story about how this borderline personality from Nazi Germany had once run down South Beach with a dead rat in his mouth. “Now is that the guy that was in prison for drug dealing,” I would ask after some other story, “or was he the bodybuilder?”
Raven talked about all of these colorful personalities with humor and fondness, and he talked about himself, too. He lamented, more than once, the absence of a strong father figure in his life. The grade-school aged son of the day’s other newbie runner had tagged along with us for our eight-mile workout, and Raven made sure to remind him to cherish this time spent bonding with his father. The man and his wife (Navy people) had left their home in Hawaii to travel around the Continental States in an RV, and they were homeschooling the son, bringing him along on all sorts of adventures (everyone on the Raven Run has a story). “It’s really great that you guys are doing this together,” Raven said. “You’re going to remember this when you’re older.”
As the miles slowly moved into my rearview mirror (Raven runs at an easy pace these days due to chronic pain)—and as the endorphins filled my body and the sweat moved down my forehead and back and legs—something opened up inside of me. Something about the ocean air and the easy-but-challenging pace of the run acted as a social lubricant, much the same as alcohol might in another situation. I began to talk to Raven about more personal topics, such as our shared astrological sign (our birthdays are a few days apart in October).
“You know, I never really believed there was much to that stuff,” I admitted, “but then I read something that you said in the book that changed my mind.”
“Oh yeah,” Raven said. “What was that?”
“You said that Libras have a hard time making decisions. That’s me, for sure. Sometimes I feel paralyzed by the prospect of making a decision, even if it isn’t something big. Sometimes I’ll even need to have a couple of beers before I can make one.”
“Years ago I simplified things,” Raven said, “so that I don’t have to make decisions. I never have to decide what I’ll wear on any given day, because I’ll always wear black. And I never have to decide what I’m going to do with a day, because I’m going to go running.”
I laughed, but I knew that within this “joke” of Raven’s there was mostly just truth, a truth about Raven’s life that might strike some people as lamentable but that I found both peace-inducing and inspiring. A person really could “simplify” his life instead of just paying lip service to this fashionable idea. You don’t like complications and making decisions? Then just nestle into a comfortable routine and stick to it. Stick with what makes you happy: You don’t have to justify it to anyone.
Some people would say that Raven’s story is a bit sad because his every day is “enslaved” by routine with a capital R—the routine of his run. Some people would say that Raven’s world is a shrunken one because of how geographically limited it is: He absolutely must be on South Beach every afternoon at a certain time, no exceptions. He can’t travel the world or even travel to a restaurant on the other side of town between the hours of 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm.
But who cares? I say. This man doesn’t need to travel the world to find fulfillment and adventure each day. Because of what his daily eight-mile run has inspired in others over the years—because of what his dedication and fitness devotion have inspired in others—the world now travels to him each day. His Raven Run is adventure. It is fulfillment served with a big slice of humanity. Raven is constantly meeting new people from all around the globe, because every month of the year new people are seeking him out to be a small part of what he has created. And these strangers turn into quick friends and take Raven on poignant journeys by sharing their life stories in revealing detail as they run alongside him. Who among us has such diversity and human connection in our daily life?
As we continued to move along the mostly packed sand on Raven’s South Route (he alternates among four different running routes each week), I continued to surprise myself by talking with candor. I shared with Raven how much running meant to me and why; I talked about how I’d begun to use running like medicine once I’d quit the antianxiety pills (Paxil and Xanax) that had been prescribed to me in college. After stopping those pills in my mid-thirties, I’d suffered a years-long withdrawal that had wreaked havoc on every portion of my body and mind, and running had been like a desperately needed anti-venom for the bite of that withdrawal.
When my days look black and I feel blue, running can lift me out of the fog. And when I’m angry or stressed or disillusioned with life, running can bring me back to a level-headed place of balance and hope. Maybe I didn’t relay all of this stuff to Raven as passionately or succinctly as I’m remembering, but the fact that I even touched on any of these private experiences with a group of strangers is a testament to the feelings of camaraderie that develop during the run, and to the aura of trustworthiness and empathy that emanates from Raven.
You feel that you can tell him anything without being judged.
And by the way, you have to tell Raven something about yourself. There is, after all, that matter of a nickname to be taken care of at the end of the run. If you complete the entire eight miles.
“So Mike, what else do you want to tell me about yourself?” Raven asked as we approached the five- or six-mile mark. “I still don’t have anything nailed down for your nickname.”
“Hmm,” I responded, aware that I had to proceed with a bit of caution here because the nicknames bestowed by Raven usually lasted forever, or so I’d read (few changes are made after the fact). There was that one guy I’d read about, Cadaver (or was it Corpse?), who had successfully petitioned to have his nickname adjusted only to have it reverted back to its original form per Raven’s later judgement on the matter.
Given the everlasting state of Raven’s nicknames, I probably didn’t want to talk about the burning need to pee that was still assailing my insides. Since the run’s first miles, that troublesome sensation had moved upward and transformed into a steely knot in my stomach. While it might be a certain badge of honor to be known as the man who had survived a persona battle of the bladder for eight miles, I really didn’t want to go down in Raven Run history as Flomax or Piss-tol Pete (I had played a lot of basketball as a youngster, after all).
I’d already told Raven the story of how I’d run through a Wisconsin tornado last summer. I’d told him about my singular, orange-and-black calico cat, Benjie, whom my wife and I had driven through a snowstorm to adopt nearly fifteen years ago, and I’d admitted to him, tentatively, that this was my first group run.
“Maybe we could call you Antisocial,” Raven had warmly suggested after hearing that last fact, but I’d let that idea twist in the salty breeze until it mercifully died.
I’d also told Raven about my affection for writing, and I’d shared, when asked about any previous nicknames I might have carried, the fact that my mother used to call me Pokes (she still does on occasion, actually).
“How did you get that nickname?” Raven had asked. When I said I didn’t really know, the runner known as Hitter surmised that perhaps it was because I’d been slow to follow my mother’s instructions—so I was “pokey”—as a little one.
“Do you want to stick with that nickname, or would you like something different?” Raven had asked.
“A runner isn’t going to want to be known as slow,” Hitter intervened.
“Unless it is one of those nicknames that is the opposite of reality,” Raven said. “Like Curly for a bald guy.”
“Or like Tiny for a big guy,” I added. “But no, I think I’d like something new.”
As the sun began to drop in the South Beach sky, inching closer and closer to the shimmering waters of the Atlantic, I wracked my brain for another personal anecdote, something that could perhaps be forged into a nickname that I could not only live with but fall in love with. Hmm, falling in love . . . love stories.
“I proposed to my wife in a movie theater,” I suddenly offered. “I did it as the credits rolled down the screen.”
“Oh really?” Raven said, his curiosity maybe peaking a bit. “Was that planned?”
“It was,” I said. “And what movie was it?”
“A Beautiful Mind,” I answered.
“That might be a good one,” Raven said. “We could call you Beautiful Mind.”
Wow, I thought. What a nickname that would be—flattering and regal. I smiled, pleased to imagine myself accepting Raven’s “beautiful” sobriquet in a couple of short miles.
And then, for some inexplicable reason, I said “I’m pretty sure it was A Beautiful Mind. I mean, we were also watching the movie Traffic around that time. But I’m pretty sure."
“Well, we can’t give you that name if you aren’t totally sure,” Raven said. And I could tell he wasn’t kidding. He takes the nickname process very seriously. I’d read, in Laura Huttenbach’s book, that he hadn’t even granted his ailing and elderly mother a Raven Run nickname when she had been pushed the eight miles in a wheelchair. He loved his mother infinitely, but she hadn’t technically run the run, so no nickname.
And the grade schooler who had so bravely tagged along with his dad on the day of my Raven Run? He didn’t end up getting a nickname either because he’d occasionally lapsed into walking for portions of the eight miles. Raven didn’t deny people nicknames to be surly or difficult. Rules were simply rules, and it would have never even crossed his mind to bend them for sentimental reasons (even though he seems like an obviously sentimental person).
“I’m ninety percent certain it was A Beautiful Mind,” I said. “I remember seeing the ticket stub in one of my wife’s scrapbook pages the other day.”
“Maybe we can confirm it with his wife when we get back to the lifeguard stand,” the other newbie runner kindly offered.
But I could tell that Raven’s mind had already moved on from the “beautiful” nickname that would have so glamorously enshrined me in Raven Run lore.
“I’m too honest,” I said a short while later, after some private stewing about my lost nickname. “I shouldn’t have said anything about not being sure of the movie title.” But how could I have helped it? The run and the sun were acting not only as social lubricants for me but as truth serums.
Then, as we jogged along the final stretches of our run and the strange truth serums continued to penetrate my defenses, I mentioned something about overthinking everything.
“That’s it!” Raven said with a bit of “Eureka!” in his voice. “We can call you Overworked Mind.”
I thought about it, and I couldn’t object. “My wife would probably find that name very apt,” I admitted. And so it happened, as we returned to the Fifth Street lifeguard stand and twilight descended over South Beach, that I was christened Overworked Mind.
After my wife took a couple of pictures of me and Raven together in front of the lifeguard station, I finally asked the question that had been on my mind all night. “Hey, are there any bathrooms anywhere nearby? I’ve had to take a pee since about a quarter mile into the run.”
“Oh yeah, there’s one right there,” Raven said casually, pointing to a white building just past the nearest beach entrance: It was the same beach entrance, by the way, where my wife and I had stood a couple of hours earlier bickering about the question of bathroom availability. I couldn’t help but remember that she’d told me, assuredly, that bathrooms on the beach were wishful thinking. “You should have said something earlier.” Raven winced in empathy. “Man, I don’t like that feeling.”
With legs stiff from eight-miles of slow-and-steady running and with my stomach mired in the grips of a strange urinary pain, I hobbled toward the bathroom with the expectant heart of a desert traveler stumbling toward an oasis. But alas, the relief at the urinal wasn’t what I’d imagined it would be. Due to either dehydration or the possibility that my bladder was now spiting me for having ignored its desperate pleas over the past couple of hours, I could barely squeeze out a drop.
After my disappointing bathroom trip, I met back up with Raven, my wife, and the other new runner and his family on the beach (the Raven Run regulars had already dispersed for the evening). In a post-run ritual that no doubt happens most every day, we broke out the cell phones and took pictures to memorialize our experience. We took pictures in front of the Fifth Street lifeguard stand—the alpha and omega of each day’s running adventure—and then we walked to the other side of the beach entrance and took a couple more selfies as the nightlife began to hum on Ocean Drive.
As Raven got ready to head back to his apartment—when it was just my wife and I alone with him—I attempted to give him a copy of the anti-stress devotional book I’d authored. During the run, we’d talked about my writing dreams and the projects I’d worked on over the past few years, and I wanted to leave him with something special to remember me by.
Raven squinted to read the cover of the book. “The Lovely Grind: Spiritual Inspiration for Workdays,” he said, sounding a little confused or maybe a little panicky.
“It’s my book,” I explained. “I just wanted to give you a copy.”
My wife held the book out for him, but he hesitated to take it.
“Or not,” I said, sensing that something was amiss with this gift-giving attempt. I felt a little hurt—and embarrassed, actually—but then I remembered a few more things about Raven that I’d read in Laura Huttenbach’s book. “Maybe he doesn’t have room for it,” I told my wife.
“I don’t,” Raven said quickly. “I can’t bring any new things into my apartment.” His eyes were apologetic. “I’m sorry, I can’t. And besides, I wouldn’t read it. I just have so much else going on, I wouldn’t have the time to read it.”
“That’s okay,” I said, knowing that once again Raven was simply being himself, simply being honest. He wasn’t blithely dismissing my gift because he was a thoughtless individual. He wasn’t being mean or rude or insensitive. In the past he’d been hurt by people who were all those things, or so I’d read, and I was pretty sure that he took special care not to display such unkindness to others. Plus, I was pretty sure he really couldn’t bring my book—or any other new mementos or treasures—into his apartment. In Running with Raven, I’d read about the sentimental, pack-ratting tendencies that had caused him troubles in the past, troubles that had included mold and that had led to an interventional clean-up/organizing visit from a friend who was a fellow Raven Runner.
Perhaps Raven had promised himself—and/or the friend who had helped him to clean and organize his living space—that items would only flow out of the apartment from now on. Not into it. Who was I to meddle with such a resolution, if there had been one.
“Okay, well, thanks for the run,” I said, feeling truly grateful.
I was grateful that I’d completed Raven’s eight miles—grateful that I’d fought through pains and nerves and doubts and had simply gotten my ass down to Miami Beach and done it. I now had an experience that I’d truly never forget, and I recognized the importance of that almost immediately. I was also grateful to God, and to Raven: to God because He had given us human beings the gift of running—that always accessible portal to quick renewal and inspiration—and to Raven because he had given us runners something transcendent to be a part of.
I, along with so many other unique personalities from all over the world, now had my own tiny page in the running history books thanks to Raven.
“You’re welcome,” Raven said. “Make sure you come again.”
As Raven walked away, I drank my orange Powerade Zero and took off my damp socks and overheated shoes. I hopped up onto the short stone wall across from those bathrooms that will forever live in infamy for me, and I reclined and felt peaceful and proud. I took a deep breath of the warm Miami air, and I wondered when I’d return to do my next run with Raven.