Matt Inman of The Oatmeal Runs on Jokes
The popular comic writer and entrepreneur can trace his success back to one day: the day he started running
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You may not know what Matt Inman, creator of the online comic The Oatmeal, looks like. As far as “ceWEBrities” go, you rarely see his face, and to date he hasn't posted a single video of singing karaoke in a car. But with about a billion views a year to his website, along with a vibrant Facebook community, the Kickstarter-record-breaking card game Exploding Kittens, and even a festival of running races, you've surely seen his work.
But before Inman, 33, achieved his current level of success, he was a just an overweight twenty-something working two jobs behind a computer, sinking into morbid obesity and depression at an equal rate. Then he started running, and everything fell into place.
It takes a third call to get him on the phone—he's more wary of telemarketers than eager fans. Inman is funny, with a sense of humor that snaps out so suddenly that it can catch you off guard. Over a 20-minute call, he spoke to Outside at length about his successes, and of course, running.
OUTSIDE: It took a bit to get you. Is it common, people getting your phone number?
INMAN: No, not really. I’ve done a good job of hiding it. I get a lot of junk mail calls, like, 'Want to refinance your home?' I don’t answer my phone unless it’s someone on my contact list these days.
I was running in Chicago one time and saw Dean Karnazes, so I ran up to him and chatted for a bit. But people don’t accost you like Dean. Or do they?
No, not really. Most people have no idea what I look like, so I’m kind of anonymous. That’s cool you ran with Dean. I read his book. His first book was the book that got me into long-distance running.
You’ve talked in the past about your own life, about how your running is a result of balancing your eating habits, your drinking habits.
I’ve always phrased it that I treat my body pretty horribly most of the time, and running is the one thing I feel counteracts it. I’ll eat crap food and I’ll be lazy, but as long as I got a run in that day, everything’s going great. It’s not really true—even if it’s a half-marathon, that doesn’t help that my house is a mess, or I haven’t opened my mail in three weeks, or I had old Mexican food for breakfast. Just because I went for a run doesn’t solve those problems, but it makes me feel like I solved those problems. So that’s why I do it.
You’ve said that you started running at 23, but can you recount the progression of your running?
I was at the time working a day job at a computer, and at night I was doing contract jobs at a computer. So from basically 9 a.m. until midnight I was at a computer. One night I thought, I just want to get some exercise. I feel like shit. I look like shit. I’m 23 years old, yet I feel like I’m 43 years old. So I went for a run and I didn’t make it very far—at best it was a quarter of a mile. But I established this idea that if I could just make it to the next light pole or stop sign or tree, I would keep going. I did it again and again, and I went from running not at all to running six or seven days a week. The results were pretty dramatic. I think I lost 30 pounds in a month, because the amount of exercise was zero to exercising almost every day.
Many runners identify with you because of your comics, but do you identify with other runners?
I thought I didn’t, because I assumed I was the only runner who was out there doing it to atone for the crimes I commit at home—you know, food crimes. I wrote that comic with the notion that this is why I run. I don’t know what you people are doing, you people who do Pilates and you people who eat kale. I don’t live like that. I thought I was alone in my weird I-run-to-recover. I don’t meditate and I’m not a spiritual guy. But running is the one thing I can do that clears my head and gives me a sense of peace. So I published a comic thinking, I’m alone here. This is my little demon, my own little monster, my own little world. And the original comic just went crazy, just went totally viral on the internet. It became this whole thing, with the race and the book and the whole idea of The Blerch.
So, to answer your question, I thought I didn’t relate. I thought I was a runner that was out on his own doing it for this very weird reason. But I was wrong. I think a lot of people empathize with me.
You’ve actually started your own race series based loosely off the comic. How did that come about?
I’ve always wanted to do a race. But The Oatmeal, as a comic, there’s no theme. It could be, 'Oh, let’s Chase the Bear race.' After I wrote The Blerch comic, I had this thought of organizing a race that you could literally beat the Blerch. It would be people in little fat suits chasing you. I thought, I’ve got the ven diagram of people who like running and people who like The Oatmeal. Let’s create an event for them to come together and run. Plus, I thought it would be funny. I think a lot of race directors and races are just so sterile and serious. I always tell people with Beat the Blerch, you’re aiming for your personal worst. It’s that kind of race. You know, a little bit of levity in a sport which attracts a lot of Type A people. It’s thousands of people running dressed like hotdogs, eating birthday cake, sweating under the sun for hours on end because they like the idea of a fat little cherub. It’s just the weirdest, funnest thing I’ve ever done.
You’ve talked quite a bit about your former life being overweight. When you think about your self-image, do you still see yourself as a fat person?
Yes. Yeah. Maybe it’s just me, but if you’re ever fat, especially when you’re a kid or a teenager, I think no matter what you do you’ll always see yourself that way, or you’ll live in fear that you’ll become that again. And every day I live in fear that, oh god, I’m going to stop running, and I’m going to gain 50 pounds and not be able to fit through the door. But you just learn to cope with the fact that that’s a monster that’s here to stay.
You recently partnered with Saucony to put out a video, which tells your story. Do you have a special affinity for its shoes?
I’m not really brand-loyal with shoes. I just run in everything—everything except Nike. Nothing wrong with the company—I wear their clothes. Their shoes and my feet don’t agree with each other. But I run in Saucony, and they emailed me, and they said, 'Hey, do you want to make this little video with us?' They showed me a few samples they’ve done, and they did one call “The Running Astronomer,” who runs at night. The video was really good. I did it because it seemed like a fun project, and the video director seemed really smart.
Be honest. Did you know how to pronounce Saucony before they called you?
I said “saw-coe-KNEE,” but every time I would say it, I’d get corrected by people. So I finally put it to rest when they were in the house. 'Is it saw-coe-KNEE or saw-COE-knee?' It was saw-coe-KNEE. I have a suspicion that everyone’s always wondered that.
With creative people, some of our best ideas come while running. It’s awesome, but it’s also dangerous, because you can forget those ideas as fast as they come. Do you ever have too many ideas while you’re running?
Yeah, or sometimes I just get a little too much adrenaline. I’m like, 'Oh my God, this idea’s amazing,' and I get home, and I write it down, and I’m like, 'That was a terrible idea.' I constantly jot down ideas, but when running, you’re right, it’s risky, especially if you’re in the woods and you’re far from your car or home. I think I’ve written entire standup routines when running. They’ve been written, performed, and died in the woods, because I didn’t remember them, or I didn’t care by the time I got home.
What percentage of your most popular comics have come while running?
I can’t give you a number, but I would say a ton of them. I don’t really birth new ideas there. They’re sort of curated there. I usually have a running list of comics that I want to work on in my notebook, and it’s when I’m out on the trail that I fill in all the gaps and write the jokes and write the story. The running one obviously was written while running, and that’s why it’s so long. I started writing it, and I’d go for runs and realize I had years of thought about running that I wanted to put into a comic. The comic about Christopher Columbus, that one was definitely done while running. Nikola Tesla, as well. A little bit of Exploding Kittens humor was written while running, for sure.
How have you seen your running change as you’ve gotten older?
Well, lately I’ve been running less distance, and I’ve been alternating it with weightlifting and CrossFit.
Yeah, I hate it. I hate CrossFit. I hate weightlifting. I dread it. But I was getting really bored with running. Usually once or twice a year, I’m like, 'I’m fed up. I’m sick of this. I’m fucking tired of being wet all the time in the woods, and I’m alone, and I’m cold out here, and I’m hungry all day, and I’m done.' Usually twice a year I have a crisis with running. So usually I pick up some other sport to balance it. So lately I’ve found that I enjoy running more if I’m not out on the trail six days a week. I haven’t run an ultra in two or three years. And I haven’t run a marathon in two years. But I think I’ve done 12 halves this year. The distances are all over the place. As I’m saying this out loud, I realize I do not have a cohesive answer for you. I run less than I used to, but I do other exercises more, but I still like running. That’s the answer I’m giving you.