A Good Friday afternoon on South Beach is altogether different from a Good Friday afternoon back home in Wisconsin: That much became clear rather quickly as my wife and I set our towels and tote bags down on the febrile sand near the Fifth Street lifeguard stand. For starters, the sun was shining brilliantly, a stark contrast to the midwestern cold and gray that often lends further solemnness to the Holy Week holiday built around Jesus’ crucifixion. And then there was the half-naked woman on display just behind my beach towel: The pert breasts being eagerly attended to by the sun and slyly ogled by married male tourists wearing sunglasses.
“Let’s move our stuff over there,” Claudia directed me, motioning toward a spot of beach that was closer to both the lifeguard tower and the beautiful blue waters of the Atlantic. I snuck one last glance at the sunbather behind me and conceded.
“You must have seen the boobs and wanted to move,” I joked after we’d restationed ourselves. I was sure my wife had been trying to spoil my fun.
“What boobs?” she answered.
“There was a girl tanning topless right behind me,” I said, my voice unwittingly conveying some measure of arousal. Maybe such a scene was par for the course on South Beach or the French Riviera, but it simply didn’t happen in conservative Wisconsin. On the Dairy State’s beaches, men were lucky to see a little sunburned cleavage come June and July.
“Well, I’m sure she was going to cover up before she turned over,” Claudia said with exasperation, as if I were an idiot—a perverted idiot.
“She already was turned over,” I said. “She was lying on her back.”
“Oh,” Claudia answered with a bit of surprise. “Did she at least have a nice body?”
“I don’t know,” I said, trying to convey indifference. Despite being surrounded by the sun-kissed sights of Miami Beach, I suddenly felt ice beneath my toes—thin ice—and I began to tread gingerly. “She wasn’t elderly or anything.”
“Well,” Claudia said, ready to move on from the topic, “maybe we should go in the water for a bit. I’m getting really hot.”
After swimming and then snacking and then swimming some more, I closed my eyes, hoping that maybe I’d fall asleep to pass the long minutes until the Raven Run’s starting time. Thoughts of icy cold beer floated through my mind, but I pushed them aside, determined to run eight miles before the day was done. Claudia and I had extended our stay in Miami again—nine days had turned into seventeen, and then into a month—and when I’d composed a short list of things to “do” before flying back to the cold weather, a final lazy day of sun and suds on the beach had found prominent placement. However, Raven’s words rang in my head.
“You know, three runs will get you into the top one thousand,” he’d told me a few days earlier, shortly after I’d completed my second eight miles with him. That second run had taken place on a gray and windy Tuesday afternoon on the beach—the kind that doesn’t impress much on the Facebook and Instagram posts that are constantly being snapped by vacationers. But despite the weather, I’d shown up for my sophomore Raven Run effort because of a similarly provocative statistic he’d shared with me after my first run.
“If you come back for a second time, you’ll pass fifteen hundred people,” Raven had told me. Perhaps that was a canned line he gave to all first timers in an effort to lure them back for another fitness rendezvous on South Beach, but it had worked on me. It had persuaded me to make run number two a priority. And now, I was feeling the power of his verbal nudges again. The message was clear: There was a way to separate yourself from the pack.
I knew that almost 3,000 people had completed eight miles with Raven, but I’d been surprised to learn that almost half of those were transient one-offs, travelers just passing through to put an exotic notch on their running belts. I already had my exotic belt notch, the pictures and social media posts proving that I’d indeed “run with the Raven.” But I wanted more. I wanted to put some distance between myself and the crowd of ghosts who’d just hovered with Raven for a run or two and then disappeared. I wanted to become a little more familiar with him and his running community, a little more embedded in that intriguing world of unique characters and cardio catharsis.
Those perspiring bottles of Corona that were dancing through my mind’s eye would just have to wait.
Unable to nap on my beach towel, I sat up and opened my eyes, squinting in the bright sunlight. I could see that the family who had been picnicking in front of us had disappeared and been replaced by a young couple. An affectionate young couple. Trippy electronic beats from some Madonna song burst out of Bluetooth speakers as the guy, who was fully bearded and otherwise hairy, grooved hard. He was swerving and hovering over his date . . . who was also a bit hairy?
Wow, that girl needs to shave! I thought. But then I realized that the individual in front of me—the other half of the couple, the half who was wearing tight denim shorts and a tied-up crop top—was actually a man.
The gay couple threw each other dance moves and pouty expressions, and soon they were joined by a tall and pretty black photographer with a long blond weave. She wore a professional camera, and she quickly began taking glamour shots. The men posed enthusiastically as the techno music continued to bounce over the sand.
No, this wasn’t Good Friday in Wisconsin, I thought as I glanced at the clock on my phone. It was a Friday on South Beach—it was any day on South Beach—and that meant that Raven would be running in just over an hour.
“I have to use the bathroom,” Claudia said as we stepped off the sand and onto the concrete sidewalk that separated the beach from Lummus Park. “Wait here.”
As I leaned against the short coral wall and waited, a figure dressed in black—a sartorial choice that stands out on a sunny afternoon—peddled past me on a bicycle. I quickly realized that it was Raven. He was breezily weaving through the crowd of tourists who were dressed in their bikinis and flip flops. When I waved, he U-turned his bicycle and rode toward me.
“You’re still here,” he said, sounding surprised.
Yeah, we extended our trip,” I said.
“Running tonight?” he asked.
“I plan on it,” I said, now glad that I’d forwent those afternoon beers so that I could answer in the affirmative. What shame would I have felt if I’d instead answered no with a longneck in hand and a half-drunken smile plastered sheepishly on my face?
“Thanks for the article,” Raven said. “You saw it?” I replied casually, my tone belying the internal turmoil I’d been swimming in for the past forty-eight hours. I’d published a blog post about my first Raven Run experience, and true to my RR nickname, my mind had been overworked ever since. I’d been rather sleepless for the past two nights because I’d tried to share the post to Raven’s Facebook page but it hadn’t made it there.
Why hadn’t the post made it there? I’d wondered. Did Raven not like the writing? Or had he been offended by some anecdote I’d shared or by some physical description of him I’d offered?
I had, at one point, written that Raven looked like an older and more mysterious version of White Goodman, Ben Stiller’s buffoonish fitness-buff character in the movie Dodgeball. Maybe that description had been over the top.
“Yeah, I saw it,” Raven said. “I left a little thing—a comment—on it.”
He didn’t seem offended.
“Well, I hope you liked it,” I said, still not sure that he’d liked it at all. I wondered what that “thing” of his had said? He wasn’t offering specifics here, and my mind—that often-exhausted piece of machinery—continued to churn.
“The run starts a little early today because of the picnic,” Raven said. “About five or five fifteen instead of five thirty.”
Before my second run with Raven, he’d handed out pastel flyers advertising his annual potluck gathering. It wasn’t the sort of social function I would normally dive into if left to my own reclusive trappings, but Claudia’s Latina (or feminine) sensibilities loved a good party, and she’d been lobbying for our attendance.
“Sounds good,” I said. “I’ll be at the run. And Claudia and I are going to try to make it your picnic, too. We brought a cooler of drinks, just in case.”
“I hope you can make it,” Raven said. “Your wife will have a good time. Well, see you in a bit.”
And then Raven peddled away with a pleasant smile, and when Claudia came out of the bathroom, I told her about our encounter. I told her that Raven had read my blog post and even commented on it.
“It didn’t seem like he hated it or anything,” I said.
“Hmm,” she responded knowingly, admonishing me for once again worrying about nothing.
“Yeah,” I answered, and then we walked to where our borrowed minivan was parked so that I could change into my running clothes.
The crowd in front of the Fifth Street lifeguard stand was slightly larger than it had been on my first two Raven Runs. Raven’s longtime girlfriend, Miracle, was there. She was wearing blue jeans and a camera and had come not to run but to see Raven off. And then there was Dos Equis, a tall and debonair gentleman from the Dominican Republic. He wore a white beard and had gotten his nickname because of a resemblance to the Most Interesting Man in the World character in those beer commercials.
Also present was a man known as Caca (a spry and gregarious marathon runner from Spain), a woman known as Blue Tango (a maidenly figure from Columbia who loved to dance and paint), and Evictor, a fortysomething Miami lawyer who had run with Raven 170 times and who conversed easily and often. Evictor had brought with him the day’s only new runner, his female friend Mo, whose day job involved organizing “ultra” relay races throughout the country.
“We’ve got a real runner for you today,” Evictor told Raven when introducing Mo.
“Sounds good,” Raven said, and judging from the knowing smile on his face, I guessed that he’d seen such “real” runners falter during his eight miles before.
Hitter was in the group again, too (I’d run with him on both of my previous appearances), and later we’d be joined by the Judge, a very blonde and fit member of the Miami legal community who had won Raven’s 2017 Event of the Year award by completing the entirety of a Raven Run just several days before giving birth. There were a few others in attendance for my third Raven Run as well, but my mind—already flooded with fresh faces and stories—had reached a saturation point for processing new people, so I wasn’t able to catch everyone’s names.
“His mind is always working,” Raven introduced me at Roll Call. “He can’t eat, he can’t sleep. He can’t do any of those things that we all need to do because his mind won’t let him. He’s Overrrrrworrrked Minnddd.”
I clapped for myself and the other runners as we were introduced, and then, as the day’s run found its pace, I filed in alongside Mo and we began talk about her relay-race work. Mo, who was in her thirties, began the run with confidence. She kept creeping ahead of Raven, which was easy to do if a person wasn’t used to his downtempo pace. At times, while talking with Mo, I got pulled ahead of the run’s founder myself, but I always recognized my displacement and jogged in place or looped back so that I could stay near the Raven Run’s axis.
Evictor, in accordance with his status as an attorney, was a talker. However, he was also friendly, self-depricating, and very likeable. He was the antithesis of all those lawyer stereotypes, and I enjoyed listening to him. After a couple of miles, he began remarking about the sand that was steadily infiltrating the upper half of his New Balance running shoes. Then another runner, Hitter, chimed in to say that he’d experienced the same complication with his own New Balance shoes. It was an issue of porousness, he said, maybe something facilitated by the mesh covering on the front end of the shoes and a problem the company ought to address.
Then the alternative to getting sand in one’s shoes—running barefoot—was discussed, and Evictor waxed eloquently about the difficulties and possible dangers of running without footwear. His language got technical at times as he discussed “heel striking” and the evolution of man’s walking capabilities.
Every so often—midsentence and midstride—Evictor would stoop down to pick up a piece of trash that littered the beach. He’d scoop the trash deftly, like a pelican diving for a fish, and then he’d jog to one of the many garbage receptacles near us, depositing the offending item before realigning himself with the group. He did this with a boundless enthusiasm that mirrored the boyish features of his face.
We all noticed Evictor’s cleanup efforts, but it didn’t seem that he was doing them for show. Rather, he seemed to be acting because of some deeply rooted personal convictions regarding our responsibility to care for the environment. Before the run was over, his repeated acts of beach tidying would spur Hitter to chip in, too, demonstrating that peer pressure can be a positive thing.
As was the case during my first two Raven Runs, I was enjoying the sense of community the event fostered. I was enjoying listening to and participating in the pinballing conversations with Raven, Hitter, Evictor, and Mo. I was enjoying this open-armed embrace from a group of fellow run lovers. However, as the Judge and a friend of hers began commandeering the interaction—as conversation veered toward the professional and political for a bit—I felt a strange but familiar pang of inadequacy overtake me. The sensation was familiar to me because of how often I’d experienced it in social situations in the past, but it was also foreign to me, because now I was experiencing it during a run—an activity that was supposed to provide surefire safe harbor from such anxieties.
What am I doing here? I suddenly wondered as we trekked along the beach. You don’t “fit” in a running group! some destructive voice in the back of my mind hissed. You’re just a novice!
And when the Judge mentioned something about an upcoming gala she would be attending, I momentarily felt like a juvenile interloper amongst a group of accomplished “grown-ups.” I was nothing but a forty-year-old childless child with vague writing dreams and no real professional or financial influence in the world.
My heart thumped rapidly and my legs felt weak, and those unpleasant stirrings had nothing to do with the physical demands of the eight miles I was currently engaged in.
But then, as the soulful rhythms of the run continued, the light panic passed. Step, breathe, sweat. Step, breathe, sweat. My overworked mind untensed as the ocean air caressed me and the miles continued. My skin became pervious, like the scalp of Evictor’s shoes, and the benevolent presence of God washed through me, as it does at some point on nearly every run I take.
I feel blissfully alive when that sort of spiritual surge happens during a run, and trembling with goosebumps, I give thanks for small miracles that aren’t that small at all: the brilliant engineering of my legs and lungs and beating heart; the Divine gifts of breeze and cloud cover during scorching summer runs; and the blanket of protection that keeps me from harm when I’m moving in darkness, through storms, and alongside heavily trafficked roads.
A calming realization washed through me. This was the Raven Run, not some hollow runner’s group populated by the hypercompetitive, the shallow, and the self-absorbed. No one was here to compare professional accolades, bank accounts, or even marathon times. No one was here to judge (not even the Judge), and if I could just transcend the bullying voices in my own head, I would realize that Raven’s community was actually offering me a bit of gospel on this Good Friday. Because this group reflected the spirit of its organizer, it was inclusive, gentle, kind, and soulful. Raven and his run welcomed people of all backgrounds, offering them a cleansing activity capable of easing their burdens and putting the lunacy of the rest of the world into a little perspective.
My enjoyment felt restored by these thoughts, and I ran on, renewed.
“So, is it true that you do not like people to pay for running events?” the man known as Caca asked Raven. Caca, a Spanish slang term for dung or shit, was not a nickname that had been given to insult the man Raven had assured the group during Roll Call. Rather, the name had actually been requested (for reasons Raven still didn’t fully understand), and it was used like a term of endearment.
Here we go, I thought as Caca hit on what I knew to be a hot-button topic in Raven Run circles. This could get contentious. I was aware of Raven’s anti-pay-to-play (or rather anti-pay-to-run) stance. It was an opinion that I more or less agreed with, given that I’d only entered one official running event in my life, a casual, holiday-themed 5K several years back. The registration fees for that event had apparently benefited some type of cancer research. But still, I remembered thinking, if I did this every time I wanted to run, how quickly would I go broke? Instead of continuing to register for “jingle bell” runs, or “bubble” runs, or some half marathon named after a wireless service provider, I’d decided that I would freely run my own “races” each week; these would be private events that took place in whatever parks or streets or trails I happened upon on a given day. These wouldn’t cost any money or breed any competitive anxiety in my stomach. I ran to escape life’s pressures and formalities, not to invite them. However, I also knew that runners like this sixty-seven-year-old Caca—this triathlete who like Raven defied age with his weekly fitness routine—were perhaps ignited by the prospect of having a structured event to train for and then conquer.
“That’s right,” Raven said. “Running should be free.”
“But some people, like my friends and I, we love training and running together in the marathons,” Caca countered. “What is wrong with these events? Why do you think that people should not enter them?”
“Well, I’ll tell you why,” Raven answered, and then he went on to explain how he’d once been wronged by someone involved in the organization and promotion of the Miami Marathon. Certain promises had been made regarding Raven firing the starting gun, but those promises hadn’t been kept.
“So, this stance of yours all began for personal reasons?” Caca said.
“That’s how it started,” Raven agreed. “But it’s not just that.”
“Oh?” Caca said, seeming willing to listen. And Raven talked, expounding his run-free philosophy. He explained how running was supposed to be more relaxing than mad dashing for top-ten finishes in an age group. It was supposed to be more simple and soulful and accessible than registration fees and entry lotteries. Those were the things that Raven said to Caca to bolster his argument. Or perhaps they were the passionate arguments being made by the antimarathoner inside of my own head, the one who was screaming, It’s true! Man didn’t create running and shouldn’t profit from it. God gave this activity to all of us as a spiritual gift, and to treat it as competition or retail opportunity is to cheapen it!
As I jogged ahead with Caca, the two of us discussed the matter further. I had my own opinions, of course, but I told him that I could understand the debate from both sides. In short order, we switched over to lighter topics. I told him I was bilingual, and we began to converse in his native Spanish. He, along with Dos Equis and Blue Tango, spoke English only as a second language.
“Bicho? Sabes que significa la palabra bicho?” Caca asked me.
“Bug?” I answered.
“Yes, bug. But it is also like a term of affection in my country.”
I nodded. “Like gordo in my wife’s country. She’s from Argentina, and everyone there is a gordo. Little kids are gordos. Parents are gordos.”
“Yes, but bicho is not like this in all countries,” he explained. “In other places, bicho is this!” He grabbed his crotch and looked at me with an excited and amused face.
“Ha!” I shook my head. “We really do have to be careful, don’t we? So many words have different meanings in different places. Like here in the United States, it’s not very nice to call someone fat. But in Argentina, everyone you love is a gordo. And in Miami, everyone is mi amor, or mami, or papi. Native English speakers just wouldn’t casually say these things to each other, but here in Miami, I’m mi amor to the lady at the gas station or to the woman at the café.”
Caca and I laughed, and I marveled at the fascinating way in which culturally diverse worlds had collided for me lately. The house where my wife and I were staying on our vacation was packed full of diverse Latino energy. In addition to my wife’s best friend from Argentina and that friend’s daughter from a Cuban ex-husband, the residence housed the friend’s fiancée, who was from Venezuela, as well as another young couple who was also from Venezuela. That couple had been pregnant, but on the day of my second Raven Run, health concerns had forced the wife into a rushed delivery.
As Claudia and I had been preparing our clothes and cooler for that day’s beach trip, her cell phone had buzzed. It was the father, Yolseg, saying that his wife was being hurried into delivery because of blood pressure issues. Everyone else from the house was in Europe for the week, so ironically Claudia and I were two of the only people this young couple knew “well” in America at the time. On our way to South Beach that day, we’d stopped off at the hospital to visit Yolseg, who had just witnessed the labor and appeared comically shaken. And on our way home from my Raven Run later that night, we’d returned to the hospital to lend further support. By that time, around 10:00 p.m., the mother had been moved to the intensive care unit because of blood loss suffered during the caesarian section. So not only was the rookie father sleepless with newborn worries, he was also anxious about his wife’s condition.
Claudia and I had offered reassurances as we drove Yolseg back to the house for a quick shower and a bite to eat. “You like pizza,” I asked.
“I love the pizza,” he answered in his thick Venezuelan accent, and while he cleaned up and prepared a bag to take back to the hospital, I baked a Screaming Sicilian brand Mambo Italiano pizza that I’d bought on sale at Publix earlier in the week. Once out of the shower, he dug in like he hadn’t eaten in months. On the night of his first child’s birth, this recent immigrant from Venezuela and I celebrated by sharing piping-hot triangles of frozen pizza while watching the local Miami news. I suspected he’d never forget those late-night slices of pie, and I knew that I wouldn’t, either.
“You know, Blue Tango here broke her arm just last December,” Raven told me as we continued along the paces of his Back & Forth North route. I winced and blew a slight whistle, impressed by the determination of this passionate grandmother jogging next to me. Apparently Blue Tango had won Raven’s 2017 Rookie of the Year award by completing forty-eight runs, and now, just a few months after injury, she was back at it. Her easy pace wasn’t burning up the sand, and she often slowed even further to stretch and rotate her weakened limb, but she was back at it nonetheless.
I admired Blue Tango’s resilience, and as I honed an eye on Raven’s stooped posture, I considered his resilience as well. I thought about how he ran every single day despite excruciating back pain and foot pain and who knows what other kind of pain. I thought about the other aging runners, too, the ones I’d already met who were flirting with seventy or had already passed it: Taxman and Dos Equis and Sleazebuster and Caca.
In addition to being stirred by the inclusiveness of Raven’ running community, I was struck by the age- and injury-defying inspiration of it all. Some of these Raven Runners were case studies in determination, and their stories yelled, No Excuses! In Raven’s world, there truly seemed to be no excuses when it came to getting out into the fresh air and taking care of oneself with exercise. People here were running well into retirement and through all sorts of bodily nicks and ailments. Within a mile, Dos Equis, a diabetic, would lift his shirt to show me the mechanisms of the insulin pump he’d recently had implanted in his side. He’d underwent that procedure so that he could exercise more freely. No excuses!
I felt inspired. I wanted to push photos of these older Raven Runners into the faces of younger individuals who didn’t take proper care of themselves (or into the faces of lethargic sorts of any age). I wanted to hold these people up as motivating examples so that the smokers and the television addicts and the needlessly depressed in society would see some light. No more excuses! I wanted to yell. No more excuses for going a day or a week or a lifetime without exercise! Just come on out to South Beach and get it done with these people for an hour or two. Just give it an honest try. You’ll feel better, believe me!
By mile six, Mo, the ultrarun organizer, was showing clear signs of fatigue. Some combination of the heat, the distance, and the intermittent stretches of running on soft sand seemed to be taking a toll on her. She appeared weakened, but still determined.
“So, do you think you’ll be back for another Raven Run?” I asked her, and she laughed through gritted teeth.
With sweat slicking her face, Mo answered, “Ask me later. After this is finished and I’ve had a couple of beers.”
As it turned out, Mo did finish the run, earning the nickname MoJoe due to her coffee addiction. And when I asked her later that night at Raven’s picnic about the chances of her running again, she seemed slightly uncertain but mostly game.
“I don’t know,” Mo said to me, grinning while holding that long-anticipated beer. “I think I have to do it again. Apparently, I can pass like fifteen hundred people if I come back for another run.”
MICHAEL PRIEBE is is a writer and personal development coach. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he graduated with honors, and over the years he has used both fiction and nonfiction formats to comment on politics, sports, relationships, health, and spiritual issues. In 2017 he released a workday devotional, The Lovely Grind: Spiritual Inspiration for Workdays (ORDER HERE), and he currently blogs about a variety of topics at Michaelpriebewriter.com and Lovelygrind.com. You can get his monthly inspirational newsletter by signing up for his mailing list here, and you can enjoy all of his YouTube videos here.
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A very sunburned author (me) with Raven and Claudia at the 2018 Raven Run