When The Oatmeal comic-strip author Matthew Inman first started running, he invented an invisible fat cherub called the Blerch.
In Inman’s head, the Blerch represented the chubby self he was trying to run away from. The Blerch earned that name because it was the most disgusting sound he could think of, “like mayonnaise squirting from a tube,” Inman says. On those early runs, Inman told himself that he just needed to keep jogging until the next stop sign or tree, or else the Blerch would catch—and become—him.
Years later, after he’d logged hundreds of miles and shed his extra pounds, Inman decided to turn the Blerch and all of his reasons for running into a comic. Within days of publishing it online last July, the strip, called “The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances,” had received several hundred thousand Facebook likes. “It went crazy,” Inman says. “It seemed to resonate with a lot of people.”
Not only did runners love it, Inman found, but also rowers, CrossFit enthusiasts, martial arts practitioners, and all sorts of other athletes embraced the Blerch. They loved Inman’s honesty about why he runs: for therapy, for selfish reasons, and “so I can treat my mouth like a garbage disposal."
Now, Inman has turned the popular comic strip into both a book and a race. The 140-page book, which bears the same title as the first running-themed foray that debuted on Facebook, comes out on September 30. Inman recently took four months off from updating his website with new comics in order to finish the book, which will be his fifth. The new book includes tips for what not to do in a marathon, such as sprint at mile one or have 15 water bottles attached to your body.
In addition to the book, Inman is launching a new race, “Beat the Blerch,” taking place on September 20 and 21 in Carnation, Washington. Each day, runners will compete in a 10K, a half marathon, or a full marathon. Race volunteers wearing Blerch fat suits will chase runners, and aid stations will have couches, cake, and Nutella. “It’s a former fat kid race,” explains Inman, who recruited local race directors Roger Michel and Porter Bratten to handle the logistics for him.
When registration opened for Beat the Blerch, the race sold out all 2,000 spots in 20 minutes. Inman ended up opening a second race day so some of the runners from the wait list could enroll. Half of Beat the Blerch’s participants are coming to Washington from out of state, which is why Inman chose the Snoqualmie Valley River Trail for the race.
“I don’t want to send runners down Aurora,” Inman says, referring to the busy, motel- and parking-lot-populated thoroughfare of Highway 99. “I want to showcase how beautiful Washington State is. And since I’ve got 2,000 runners a day, I can’t put them on Cougar Mountain. They’d destroy it.”
Inman already plans to expand Beat the Blerch to other states. Assuming he can secure a permit, he’ll run the race in San Diego this fall. He also wants to put on an East Coast race, likely in Philadelphia or Boston, next spring.
Though Inman first started running to lose weight, he now relies on his jogs for other reasons. He often fleshes out ideas in his head for new comic strips during afternoon runs at Seattle-area running areas like Discovery Park, Green Lake, or Cougar Mountain. Inman works from his house on Puget Sound, but figures he wouldn’t really get anything done between two and five in the afternoon anyway.
“You can convince yourself that you’re working, but you’re really just on YouTube or Facebook,” Inman notes. “Getting out to run really helps me come up with ideas. When I run, I fall into this weird little zone that’s almost like meditation.”
Inman has delved into both marathons and ultramarathons. He ran his first road marathon after a friend suggested it, and ended up placing second in his age group.
“I got a plaque, and the last time I’d won anything was in the fourth grade,” Inman says. “From there, I was hooked.”
Rather than sticking to the 26.2-mile distance and trying to get faster, Inman decided to also try an ultra. He compares ultrarunners like himself to stumbling mountain goats who stop and graze on food along the way. By contrast, marathon runners, he asserts, are trying to be cheetahs.
“It was kind of a selfish, lazy thing,” explains Inman. “Rather than run a ton of marathons and improve your PR, you just keep running longer. Unfortunately, there’s nothing longer than an ultra, so soon I’ll have to run an ultra in a bear costume, or do something else to make it harder, so people will still be impressed.”
Inman didn’t pick a simple 50K to kick off his ultra career. Instead, he listened to a friend who had done the White River 50 Mile Endurance Run near Washington State’s Mount Rainier. The course’s technical trails, which traverse up and down two mountains over their 50 miles, total 17,400 feet in elevation change.
“It was a horrible idea,” Inman says. “There were f-ing ladders going up the mountain. When my friend finished, they had to slap his face and pick him up off the ground.”
Against his better judgment, Inman signed up for the race in 2011, along with his brother and the same friend from the White River run. His friend once again collapsed at the finish line. His brother took so much Aleve and Tylenol that, by the end, his liver revolted. As for Inman, he ended up feeling so good, he found himself running seven-minute miles over the last stretch of trail along Skookum Flats to the finish line.
In 2013, Inman and his brother decided to enter the race again. This time, it was Inman who fell apart. He became nauseous by mile 20, and ended up dry heaving for most of the rest of the race. This was about a week after he’d published his running cartoon, so he was wearing a special Beat the Blerch T-shirt.
“Everyone saw my shirt and said, ‘Go Oatmeal!’—and there I was, puking by the side of the trail,” recalls Inman. “I’m thinking, ‘F- me, I’m going to DNF this race wearing this stupid shirt!’”
In the end, Inman managed to make it to the finish line. Inman says that his memories of the nausea and pain aren’t bad enough to keep him from signing up for White River again, though this year he has to be in San Diego for Comi-Con International that same July weekend.
These days, if Inman wears a Blerch shirt on his runs, he chooses a version with a very small logo so someone would have to look very closely to see the connection.
“It would be like Eddie Vedder wearing an Eddie Vedder shirt,” Inman said. “It feels a little weird.”