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Cracking Raven's Top 1,000, or No Excuses!

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.