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Online entrepreneur/cartoonist Matthew Inman, creator of The Oatmeal, a website chock-full of in-your-face comics and articles dedicated to satire, is certainly not your regular, pasty-faced Internet geek working from the basement of his mother’s house. This web-design veteran of 16 years has probably completed more races that you can name: Marathons, triathlons and ironman races, he has done them all. To top it all off, this irrepressible running addict is currently training six days a week to beat the qualifying time (3.05) for the Boston Marathon.
When he is not training, the Seattle native occupies his time by finding “fifty bazillion ways” to jibe unapologetically at people – using examples drawn from tech culture, social media, and even animals and grammar. And fans and detractors are lapping up the profanity-laced humour – to the tune of a quarter of a billion hits for the website in 2010 (reported by social-media news-blog, Mashable). Little wonder that Inman’s party-hat-wearing alter ego, the Oatmeal cartoon character, is always in the mood to party.
The Oatmeal had a fairly modest start – by Inman’s standards – in 2009. He had then just sold off his online dating website Mingle2 to a rival because he was convinced that his calling was in comic-drawing: A series of promotional comics the 29-year-old had drawn for Mingle2 was generating more interest than the website itself. But Inman soon struck gold for The Oatmeal when he started drawing about things that frustrated people. Six comics went viral in October that year, and the website chalked up four million hits that month – from a low of 250,000 in September.
Inman takes a break from his physical and creative endeavours to talk to Men’s Health about his passion for running and his website.
Not many Internet geeks are into endurance running. What prompted you to start?
To be honest, I had just broken up with a girl I had been dating for a long time. A few days went by after the break-up and I decided that I wanted to change something. I was stuck at the computer when it struck me: “We’ve broken up so I’m going to go run and try to get in shape”. I don’t know where I got my motivation from. And that first run was tough. The distance was short, probably only 800m, it felt terrible.
How did that terrible 800m lead to ultra-marathon distances?
At that time, I lived near a lake, which was about 5km around. When I started, I would run on the sidewalk. But after a few days, I decided to run around the lake. The lake really helped: If I gave up, I would have to walk home, all the way around. I actually made my way all around the lake without stopping about two weeks after my first 800m run. Five kilometres is not terribly long, but for a beginner that’s pretty good. Also, when I was starting to run, I used to pretend that there was a fat man chasing me. And if he caught me, I would be transformed into him. Other times, I would look at a tree, at a stop sign or at a car. I would say: “Run to that car, run to that tree, or run to that stop-sign.” I tried constantly to set these points farther and farther away. And from then on, I was hooked. And I went from not running at all – I hadn’t exercised since high school – to running five to six days a week for more than eight years now. And I started going for longer and longer distances – half marathon, full marathon, half ironman, and then an ultra-marathon.
Do you ever tire of running?
No, because I really enjoy running. It also helps me relax – it is physical and I can keep busy. I can’t relax like most people – I can’t relax sitting down. On the other hand, I feel great after a run – it’s refreshing. Whether it’s 5km or longer, I feel wonderful after I run. Actually, if I go for two or more days without running, I’ll feel really miserable. I’ll feel like I’m morbidly obese and that the whole world is falling apart. It’s almost like being on a drug at this point.
What’s your marathon PB?
To be honest, I haven’t run a normal marathon in almost a year, but my personal best is a 3.40. I didn’t train properly, so I’m not too crazy about that number. But in the past year, I’ve been training hard. Typically, I run six days a week – sometimes five. The minimum distance I usually run is 6 miles (about 9.7 km). I’m actually part of a running group and I have a coach who helps me out. I do a big mix of runs. For instance, just before this interview, I had to do a moderate-pace, 8-mile (about 12.9 km) run on a flat course. Tomorrow is my day-off, and the day after, I’ll be running 12 miles (about 19.3 km) on a hilly course. Thanks to all the training, I achieved a 1.30 time in my last half marathon in mid-September. I’m aiming for 3.05 for my next marathon, the Las Vegas Marathon in December, so that I can qualify for Boston. I don’t know if I can run at that pace because it’s really fast. But I’ve been training like crazy and I’m hopeful.
Why call your website The Oatmeal?
When I was younger, I used to play the online game Quake, using the nick Quaker Oatmeal as my nick. So I decided to name the website Oatmeal. I don’t even eat oatmeal. I ate cereal when I was growing up.
Can a person have a successful career just by putting his doodling online?
When I started, the Internet was the only place I knew to put my material. I didn't seek out a book publisher or try to get syndicated by a newspaper. Instead, I just posted stuff on my website and developed a following through social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Stumbleupon. Provided you're making things that people like, the web right now is a great place for an artist, comedian, writer, musician, or whatever else to pump out material and (hopefully) flourish. But I admit – it was tough paying the bills in the beginning. I once had to ask for donations to cover web-hosting costs of a few thousand dollars because I had nothing to sell to the readers then.
Tell us about your creative process.
I would often just think about things which aggravate me (customer service, dealing with a client over website design), or things that I enjoy. Thankfully, it seems like many people have similar likes and dislikes! And you know what? Some of my best ideas actually come when I’m running! I write down all these ideas in a huge notebook I keep. I have 11 notebooks in my house – just pages and pages of ideas and thoughts. What I’ll do next is pick the ones I like and put them into the right words.
I also find that the comics I draw quickly – like the “The Motherfucking Pterodactyl”, which is about this pterodactyl that flies around and does terrible things – typically become my favourites. They’re funny the whole way through and the jokes don’t become stale. But I usually end up hating those that I sit on because I’ve to look at them for weeks on end. They just don’t seem as funny anymore. “Why some emails go unanswered” is one such example.
Why do you not draw about running?
I tend to pick topics I know people can relate to. For example, I would love to make a comic about ultra running. But not many people can say “Oh yeah, I totally know what that feels like, running a hundred miles.” Similarly, I wanted to make a comic about snowboarding because I love snowboarding. But I don’t know if enough of my readers will get it. So I try to limit my comics to the stuff on everybody’s frequency.
You see humour in many things. What’s funny about running to you?
The actual reasons behind why we run. For example, a lot of people say, “I run to be healthy” or “I run so much because of my heart”. But in reality, they run only because they want to date a hotter girl. Or maybe they run so that they can have bacon everyday and not gain weight. With these, I can actually create a comic called “Why I run”, talking about all our real motivations for working out. Another possible option is “The 10 phases of running a marathon”, showing how some people break the race down into Mile 1, Mile 5, Mile 13, 18, 26. I think enough people have run marathons to know what I mean.