Cartoonist Matthew Inman will put on the inaugural “Beat The Blerch” races on Sept. 20–21 in Seattle.
Before Matthew Inman became a runner and then a funny folk hero to other runners, he was a beginner who ran to escape a tiny, obese version of himself.
Inman pictured the sloppy creature with piles of flesh hanging like icicles off his frame. It looked like a pile of mashed potatoes with eyes and a mouth large enough to swallow a whole double cheeseburger. Inman, a 31-year-old Seattle illustrator who’s become arguably the world’s most popular online cartoonist, would later make fun of the creature on his website, The Oatmeal, selling it on snarky tech shirts, satirical “0.0” bumper stickers and posters that parody Nike’s empowering slogan (“Just Do It Later”).
But when Inman began running a decade ago, the little beast was a terrifying motivator that chased him like a zombie and lurked only a few steps behind. When Inman ran, he ran out of fear of the beast catching him and reverting him back to his former self, an obese, insecure kid.
Later, Inman featured the portly creature in a comic that would be one of the most popular among the dozens he’d drawn on his already insanely popular site. In the comic, he named the it “The Blerch,” in part because that’s the sound food (or perhaps a condiment) makes when it is squeezed from a tube. The Blerch is cute and funny and a little disturbing, not unlike many of the characters Inman draws. And Inman, even after many marathons and two ultramarathons, still fights a constant battle with it.
“Anyone who has ever had a weight problem spends the rest of their life living in fear of regression, and I am no exception,” Inman says. “It’s a stupid thing to be afraid of, but it’s a permanent fixture in my psyche that is here to stay. So I deal with it by running a lot. “
That battle began when Inman started running to escape his computer. He was working more than 60 hours a week indoors, staring at a screen—first as an SEO specialist and then as an administrator of a dating website that became popular because of the cartoons he drew to attract visitors. As much as he loathed any exercise at all—especially running—it hit him that his slovenly lifestyle made him feel just as horrible. His inactivity was worse than being active, in other words.
He didn’t have time for hiking, so he opened his front door, blinked at the sun and went for a run. He liked it, even if he hated it, because all he needed was a pair of shoes and a wide open space. He began to run regularly. It wasn’t long before The Blerch began chasing him.
In fact, many fans assumed Inman was fat, even though he created The Oatmeal in 2009, well after he had started running. Inman drew himself as a round, oval-shaped, pudgy character. Pictures of Inman were hard to find, and he never wrote about running, save for a blog he wrote in 2011 about his first ultramarathon, the White River 50-mile in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle. That barely caused a ripple, given that there were no comics with it—just a photo of Inman’s mangled toenails.
Inman wasn’t trying to hide his running. He says he drew himself that way (and still does) because it’s funnier, taking a cue from The Far Side, the comic drawn by Gary Larson that was popular in the 1980s and ’90s. Indeed, The Far Side is an obvious influence, given The Oatmeal’s quirky humor and the way it leans on science and animals (or, in Inman’s case, imaginative non-human creatures) to find inspiration. (One of The Oatmeal’s recent comics listed the reasons Inman calls the Mantis Shrimp as his new favorite animal.)
Still, Inman shocked millions of his followers in late 2013 when he released “The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances.” The only thing close in length to the six-part comic was a strip Inman wrote months earlier about his home burning down when he was a kid. Most comics on his site took him a full workday or up to a week to finish. This one took two months to illustrate the ideas that he’d sketched in notebooks for several years.
It was the first time that Inman, in comic form, confessed he was not only a runner, he was pretty serious about it. And even now, almost a year after he released the comic, Inman says fans greet him at book signings by saying, “I thought you’d be fatter” with a look of disappointment in their eyes.
“I always promise them that I will do my best to eat more,” Inman remarks.
When Inman began running to escape the computer, and prevent his already chunky body from growing into an “overweight Tyrannosaur,” he started with the equivalent of going cold turkey, he says. He was no longer the obese kid, but he had been inactive for years. Yet he started running six days a week, a demanding schedule many marathoners won’t even attempt. His battle with The Blerch was only beginning, and he thought the only way to combat it was to go all-in, aka cold turkey.
“I knew that if I gave myself any room for compromise,” Inman says, “I’d quit and probably go back to eating nachos at the computer.”
His first race was a half marathon, and he averaged 8-minute miles, finishing in an impressive 1:45, second in his age group. That sparked his interest even more.
After that, Inman ran a marathon, and then, a bunch of them, and lots of other races, including a half Ironman triathlon and a number of 5Ks and 10Ks.
In 2011, he ran the White River, a 50-mile race in the shadow of Mount Rainier. He picked it, he admits, because a friend told him it was a good race. He says he didn’t research how relentless and grueling the course is, with 17,500 feet in elevation change. It took him 11 hours to finish, about the middle of the pack. Yet he went back two years later and did it again.
In some ways, Inman prefers the ultras. He doesn’t have a specific plan for training for them. He just runs what “feels right,” he says, though he’s not sure he recommends that, given that what feels right “typically involves falling asleep in front of the TV.” He runs anywhere from 20 to 70 miles a week, depending on his next race, which leaves him either undertrained or just about right. Surprisingly, he has never been injured outside of a few IT band problems in the beginning.
“An ultra, in some ways, is easier than a traditional marathon because there’s less pressure on pace,” he says. “It’s more like a really, really, really long hike with plenty of food and heavily bearded wilderness folk. I often equate ultrarunners to mountain goats because they eat constantly, grow amazing beards and are always hanging out on mountains chewing and pooping everywhere.
“They’re a great bunch of people, but it’s a whole different experience from a big-city marathon full of lean, tan people who are obsessing over their splits and wearing brand-new running clothes. If ultrarunners are mountain goats then marathoners are more like over-caffeinated cheetahs in spandex.”
Inman began running to give him a break from the screen, but as The Oatmeal continued to gain popularity, and he signed a book deal, he found that running helped him produce his best comics. (He’s released four best-selling books that are combinations of his Web-based comics and new original work.) Inman works “all the time,” he says, but his flexible schedule does allow him to get out for a run most afternoons.
“I form ideas constantly—when I’m showering, working, eating—but those ideas are an unfocused mess,” he says. “When I run, the punch lines come together, and the ideas become fleshed out. If I try to become intensely creative at home and say something to myself like ‘OK. It’s Creative O’Clock. Let’s make an amazing comic!’ the results are fairly mediocre. It’s usually later when I’m distracted with something else, such as running or cooking, that the idea pops up into my head. I call this ‘brain farming’ because you plant the seed of an idea, and then later it sprouts up as something you can actually use.”
Inman continues to struggle with his diet, which is part of his battle with The Blerch, which he calls a “wretched, lazy beast.” He tries to eat “like a normal person” a few times a year, he says, but always fails. He runs, in large part, so he can eat. Because of this, he refers to himself as a circus animal who gets a reward for every task. If he runs, he gets a box of glazed donuts, for instance.
Even with that, Inman is a slim guy who looks like a runner. He’s lost 40 pounds through the years, because of running, as well as a few pants sizes.
“I draw myself as being overweight because I’m channeling the inner me,” Inman says. “In reality I’m still an impetuous, gluttonous beast. I’m just better at hiding it than most people.”
It’s because of that battle that Inman became a folk hero of sorts to not only serious runners but those who fight the good fight every day. Inman actually doesn’t hate running. He hates physical torment (like most people, he points out), and running will always hurt. The comic identified both the “terrible and wonderful reasons” why he runs. The result surprised him: The reactions were more emotional than he had expected, and he got a lot of emails over the following months from folks who got into running and lost weight after reading it.
“Most of my comics just focus on being funny and making people laugh,” he says, “but the running comic struck a chord with a lot of people who found it inspirational.”
There’s always going to be torment in life, he says. When he runs, he controls the hurt. “And from that hurt comes bliss,” he says, “so if you have hurt on tap, you effectively have bliss on tap.”
Inman continues to be pleasantly surprised at the reaction to the comic. He’s seen at least one person wearing a Blerch tech shirt in every race he’s run since he began selling them, something he says is “pretty damned awesome.” He enjoys running up to that person and awkwardly introducing himself as the guy who drew the obese creature on his back.
In the comic, Inman admitted that he believes he will lose the battle with The Blerch. He still seems to believe that.
“I’m going to get injured and lose my interest in endurance sports and wind up lying fat and prone and miserable, buried underneath a pile of Little Debbie wrappers,” he says. “This is my destiny.”
Maybe so, but for now, Inman seems determined to ward it off as long as possible. “The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances” will be his next book, available in September. That’s not all. Inman will put on the inaugural “Beat The Blerch” on Sept. 20–21 in Seattle. The race will feature a 10K, a half marathon and a full marathon. If he’s going to continue to fight, it will be nice to have others by his side.
The race was initially slated only for Sept. 21, but after the 2,000-runner capacity sold out in 20 minutes, an additional day of racing was planned for Sept. 20 and that sold out quickly too. The events will feature Nutella, birthday cake and purple grape beverages (which he addresses in his comic) at every aid station.
There will also be cherubs in fat suits, aka Blerches, all over the course, lurking just a few steps behind the runners like himself.