Running with Raven

J Purtle and Raven
Me (Nettles) and Raven, circa 2009.

Ordinarily, public health is about public policies (e.g., smoke free ordinances), scientific discoveries (vaccines), and advancements in infrastructure (sewers)—not just individuals acting alone. But there are instances when one extraordinary person can impact the health of a whole community.

I had the pleasure of spending time with one such individual while visiting my girlfriend’s family over Thanksgiving. His name is Robert Kraft and he has been a source of inspiration, and an accidental public health hero, to the City of Miami Beach for over 35 years.

Kraft, who goes by "Raven," has been running 8 miles on South Beach every day (literally) since January 1, 1975.  What started as a New Year’s resolution has turned into one of the longest running streaks on the planet.  Raven has logged over 104,000 miles on the city’s fabled shores—enough to circle the earth 4 times—and has earned multiple video tributes.

Every day around dusk an eclectic mix of characters—from tanned and toned fitness junkies, to cross-dressing karaoke stars, environmental lawyers, and people of all persuasions in between—congregate in front of the 5th Street life guard stand to run with Raven.  Running with Raven is completely free of charge. (Raven firmly believes that an act as liberating as running is fundamentally incompatible with profit making). 

While no cost, The Raven Run is not without its rules—that is if you want to get your name on The Raven’s List.  That’s right, Raven, who has a knack for numbers, keeps a record of everyone who as ever run the full 8 miles with him.  But you have to complete the full 8—and you can’t walk.  It’s by no means a race, and running slow is fine, but walking won’t get you on the list.  When you successfully complete the run you also get a nickname. 

I first ran with Raven during a November 2009 visit  to South Beach, a feat that earned me the nickname “Nettles” — I had emerged  from a pit stop in the dunes covered with prickly, thistle-like things — in The Raven’s List.

To date, over 1,300 people have completed The Raven Run.

While the stats of The Raven Run have been meticulously tracked, the impact of Raven’s streak on South Beach’s health is a bit more difficult to quantify, but readily apparent nonetheless.

While running with the Raven again last week, he provided me with a couple of examples of how the run has improved the health of the runners.  There is “Spanky,” who lost 50 pounds, and “Deep Dish,” who lost 30 pounds after running with the Raven for 60 days straight. Then there is “Gringo,” who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given 6 months to live.  Through his surgeries and chemotherapy, Gringo’s goal was to run the Raven once again. Today, 2½ years after his initial diagnosis, Gringo is a regular among Raven’s pack of runners.    

These are some specific examples. But run with Raven a few times and you’ll find that his impact on community health and well-being is much broader.  A little bit of consistency can go a very long way in a city as transient as Miami Beach.  Beneath the glitz and glam of the South Beach club scene and the swarms of Gucci-clad tourists is a community of 87,000 workaday people.  For many, The Raven Run is a source of social cohesion, a place where they feel a sense of community-belonging, and cultivate social capital—all of which have been found to be positively associated with health.

As Raven says, “It’s not always the fastest or the smartest guy who gets the job done, it’s the guy who’s consistent and shows up every day.”  Very true. Public health is about promoting the pre-conditions that allow people to be healthy.  Having a guy like Raven in your neighborhood can be one such pre-condition. 

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