When you think of a guy in a marathon, you don’t usually think of him knitting. Until now.
Editor’s Note: David Babcock is known as The Knitting Runner and holds the current World Record for Longest Scarf Knitted in a Marathon, a title he earned in the Kansas City Marathon in 2013. This year, he is running and knitting in the New York City Marathon. Babcock, a professor of graphic design at the University of Central Missouri, began running to improve his health, figured out how to use his running time for something creative, and continues challenge the stereotype that “knitting is a woman’s craft”. He also raises awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s research in honor of Susie Hewer, from whom he took the title. His New York City Marathon knitting using yarn from garments he is wearing to represent those who are making a new life with unraveling memories.
When I was offered the chance to speak with David, I asked him about his experiences as a knitting runner and what that encompasses: being a man who knits, doing this in the community, and how these things work together for the cause that’s so important to him. This is his story.
On being a man who knits:
Getting a man into the world of yarn-crafting can be a challenge. This is the language of stereotypes, but I’m using then here as a starting point, not in support of them or as a belief in their sanctity. Guys love utility. A man who knows how to tie knots is a “true” man. At a scouting events I have taught many boys and men how to do paracord bracelets and boondoggle with paracord. They are very proud of what they have made. I have done finger knitting with rope and been asked, ‘What kind of a knot is that?’. In knot-making a sennet is a way of knotting rope into a braid that can easily be pulled out again for use, essentially what happens in knitting and crochet. One friend’s wife encouraged him to ask me to teach him how to crochet. At first he asked about net-making, presumably because net-making is definitely manly. But making useful bags for your gear is a skill every guy can use. And if all else fails tell your man you’ll wear any knit or crochet lingerie that he manages to make for you.
I first started doing crochet to extend a hat that a student had made for me. Later I learned that knit hats have advantages over tight and heavy crochet and I learned how to knit. Hats are very manly. Guys love hats, particularly close-cut hair guys and bald guys. I have made hats for guy friends and have been told that they wear them, but not seen it. Many women I know love scarves. The easy gender-based assumption is to make a single dark colored hat for a man and not-necessarily-utilitarian scarf for a woman. Of course these are assumptions, but if you are making an object of comfort for someone it is easiest to follow cultural norms that make people comfortable.
On-the-run knitting presents many challenges, some unique to running and others not too different from the couch. Both times when running in Kansas City I had a yarn ball pop out of my bag and roll a little ways down the road. I also get tangles and have to be concerned with the ease of my yarn feed. For many people on the race it takes them a while to process what they are seeing me do. It is usually right after I have passed someone that they say, ‘Hey, was that guy knitting?’
Because my time available for yarn-crafting is limited I do it everywhere and it becomes a very public thing. I steal time from meetings and travel. I have a mini-crochet kit that fits into a pencil case and goes with me anytime I can imagine having a moment. If you are close enough you can see that I am not hunched over sleeping but rather busy at work. People of course ask, ‘What are you making?’ Usually my answer is, “A toy for my kids”. I make dainty, cute, and pretty amigurumi.
People usually accept this positively but I don’t really know what they are thinking. The ones who already know me have already categorized me as odd and creative. Most people make a connection with their own experience; they once knew how to crochet or knit or a friend does or they bought something once. After their encounter with me on their next meeting with a public crafter they can say, “I know a guy who crochets cute little toys”.
I don’t know that I can separate out who I am as a man from who I am as a crafter. Is my preference for certain colors or patterns hardwired into my gender? Do I prefer making some things over others because of utilitarian needs or as a provider and father? Is my pride knowing that my wife will wear something I made for her any different from a wife making something for her husband? I only have myself to know from the inside.
I am not totally comfortable calling myself a knitter or crochet-er partly because of the image that I too have bought into of what kind of person that is. I am intimidated when I walk into a yarn store. Some of that is because of my gender and some because of how much of a novice that I am. Is it justified? In most cases no. It is important to recognize that everyone has some of that trepidation. In my opinion the mark of a good store is when the staff’s ability to make every crafter feel welcome. I have noticed both kinds of service at a big box craft store. In one case noticing that every woman in line in front of me was asked by the clerk about their rewards card and at my turn I was simply quickly processed.
I believe strongly in community and I love both running and crafting because they are supportive communities where people are accepted and encouraged without regards to their skill level. I think that everyone needs something different out a community. I don’t think that I need to talk a lot with people and show what I have done. I think that I enjoy the context and seeing if what I am doing is relevant and creative.
The community that develops in-race is one of my favorites. It is a given that everyone there is instantly bonded by the experience. Social barriers and embarrassment disappear. You know you are running at a good pace when you can carry on a conversation with a fellow runner. My knitting while running gives people an extra excuse to chat. I love how they feel included in my efforts because they are running in the same race. Runners around me become my advocate for anyone, including spectators, who might not notice what I am doing. They also try to help by warning me about potholes in the road. I think it is a great sign that almost without exception the attention that I get while knitting and running is centered around the fact that I am knitting while running instead of that I am a man who is knitting.
I joined Ravelry.com [an online fiber art community] partly out of curiosity as to what I really wanted out of a crafting community. I was pleased to find many discussion and forum groups that are centered around men. It can be a little strange to be the only man in a group or discussion online or in person. It is probably very very good for me, a white middle-class male, to be a minority for once. I can sit around a table in a yarn shop and chat with a lot of women and love it, but I don’t always need that.
On the cause – Alzheimer’s Awareness and Fundraising for Alzheimer’s Research:
Whenever I get attention for my knitting while running I try to remind people about the Alzheimer’s connection. The original record holder for “the longest scarf knit whilst running a marathon”, Susie Hewer, did it specifically for fundraising for Alzheimer’s Research UK. Knowing that I was planning on breaking her record I didn’t want to take away from that great cause. By uniting with Alzheimer’s charities I have really gained a lot personally. The New York City Athletes to end Alzheimer’s group is wonderful. I’ll be running NYC with their group of 120 or so runners.
I think it really makes a difference in my attitude about the run when it is not just about me. One of my favorite things that I have done, with Lion Brand Yarn Company’s help, is a blog post where people affected by Alzheimer’s shared their stories about their loved ones in exchange for the opportunity to receive one of my scarves that I have finger-knit while running in training. The stories I received are amazing. I have printed them out, really small, and will literally run with them on my person during the marathon. I’ll be running hard for them.
The media attention is certainly not about me. I’d much rather be anonymous, but if there is an opportunity to help with Alzheimer’s then it is worth it to get in front of a microphone or a camera. I don’t have personal goals that would keep me out there knitting and running publicly. Being able to run the NYC marathon is the culmination of any aspiration I have because it is the first marathon I ever watched and that motivated me to try a race. If there is still an interest in my running for the sake of fundraising then I will do it as long as my body permits it.
I am still not an expert at fundraising or media. I know that a lot of people find my story funny or interesting, it makes a good media sound bite to wake people up. I wish I had a dollar raised for every like and retweet. I believe that people do really care about Alzheimer’s disease. It is one of those things that is going to affect everyone one way or another. I think that part of my job is just to remind people that they care.
I hope that people will also find empowerment in my efforts. I’d love to see more people supporting charities while doing things that they love. I hope to see more people willing to do bold things despite the fear of embarrassment or failure. What I am doing is unusual and it only comes by way of curiosity, creativity, and a lot of failed experiments. But it is so good to fail. It is good to try something new and be really bad at it for a while. I will always be an educator because I love to see people step into that scary area and find out what is possible. I feel great when I can be their guide, their coach, their community as they learn.
I am very thankful for the support and welcome that the yarn and craft community has given me. I am so excited to run in NYC and feel the encouragement of so many people that turn out for the race both as spectators and runners.
Photos courtesy of author and used with permission.
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