I beat the Blerch: cake, running, and webcomics
It’s been a while since I’ve updated this site, hasn’t it? I suppose I should give out assurances that I’m not dead, though I have in fact been hit with quite a few things in life that make it near impossible for me to update this site on a regular basis. There are many reasons, both large and trivial, that I won’t go into detail here.
However, for the sake of this piece, there was one particular one directly pertaining to webcomics: I had yet to beat the Blerch.
My hometown of Seattle is a hotbed of webcomic activity. The biggest being Penny Arcade. And while I’ve gone at lengths quite about about the content of the webcomics themselves, I hadn’t addressed the biggest elephant in the room. Namely, I hadn’t been to a single PAX. Penny Arcade‘s most impressive achievement is that Mike Krahulik and and Jerry Holkins managed to transform their humble little webcomic into something bigger: a brand that represented excellence in video gaming. The most successful webcomic branding effort had happened in my own backyard, and I wasn’t on hand to watch it happen.
It can be argued, though, that Penny Arcade isn’t actually Seattle’s most influential webcomic. I’ve written about Matt Inman’s webcomic, The Oatmeal, on this site five years ago. While I was a little underwhelmed by the actual content, I was impressed by the reach the comic had managed. Inman managed to turn an incredible profit, a very difficult trick to pull. Can a webcomic pull in half a million dollars? The Oatmeal did.
Inman also pulled another neat trick: he transformed his webcomic into a marathon. Some time ago, The Oatmeal ran a series called “The Terrible And Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances.” Inman introduces a character he calls “The Blerch,” a fairy made out of fat that tries to convince him in the futility of running. “The Blerch represents all forms of glutton, apathy, and indifference that plague my life,” Inman writes. However, unlike the concept of “hitting the wall,” Inman explains that The Blerch can be silenced. He goes on to illustrate his exercise and dietary philosophies. There’s the cynical observations — this time about about bad gym culture — that has given some fans a notion that the comic is being drawn by a grumpy old man. And there’s also the sublime, such as when Inman recounts a particularly harrowing run in Japan where he had to outrun a cloud of hornets.
The account is deeply personal and quite inspirational. In fact, I started running myself… a pretty mean feat since I am by no means athletic. To drive me forward, I imagined a Blerch telling me to slow down every time my feet ached. It used to be I was winded after 1 mile. But one mile became two, two miles became three, and so on. The Blerch pushed me forward.
If I were still doing rankings, I’d give this arc 5 out of 5 stars.
Inman went a step further, though. He created a race — a 10K, a half-marathon, and a full-marathon — based on his comic. “The Terrible And Wonderful Reasons” can be boiled down to the following concepts: people like to eat sweets, gym culture is unrealistic, and running is both agony and serenity. Thus, a crucial element of “Beat the Blerch” is comfort.
Starting off with making “The Blerch” the mascot. In the original comic, he’s a malicious pixie that keeps you from achieving your goals. In the race, The Blerch represents the runner themselves. Pictures of The Blerch adorn the running path. He’s sitting on a sofa. He’s eating cake. He’s the medal you win. He’s you, and he’s nothing to be ashamed of.
I’d run three 5K’s before “Beat the Blerch”. You can expect a hydration station after the 2K mark, i.e. someone handing a paper cup filled with water at you. “Beat the Blerch” ups the ante. There’s water… but wouldn’t it be better if there was also cake? It’s that trademark light mockery (“Hey, fatso, wouldn’t you rather have cake rather than running”), but it’s also a welcome break from the tedium.
Besides, it’s pretty good cake.
Same with the sofas, which are accompanied by a sign that says, “How about a nap? You’ve earned it buddy. You can always run later. You’re a champ, and a champ needs rest.” How are we supposed to take this? If you go by the intent of the original comic, these are insidious words from The Blerch, who wants you to fail. Who wants to stop you from finishing your run.
But… the organizers actually placed sofas in strategic locations on the trail. It’s hard to doubt their sincerity, since they’re all among the most cheerful and friendly volunteers I’ve met at a run.
In fact, I imagine that the relaxed attitude is what attracts roughly 4,000 people to the event in the Seattle area. (And it’s expanding nationally. There’s an upcoming race in las Vegas, and previous races have been run in Sacramento and New Jersey.) The emphasis on sweet treats makes this one of the most stress-free runs ever. There are doughnut eating contests. A man dressed up as a Blerch throws big fat marshmallows at participants before the race. People come in dressed up as fatty foods. It’s a dual celebration of unhealthy eating and running… An unlikely food-themed comic con, complete with cosplayers and an artists alley.
It’s hard not to see Inman’s enthusiasm. I first caught sight of him as he streaked across a field of contestants ready to eat doughnuts suspended from a string. He was shirtless and wearing an inflatable unicorn, a Blerch temporary tattoo, and a pink princess hat. He started off the 10K stumbling a little over the President’s inspirational speech from Independence Day. Then, after commencing the countdown, he ran the entire length of the 10K course alongside the other participants. There can be no doubt that here is where Inman’s dearest passions lie. You can tell from the huge grin on his face that he’s back to being a young boy finally told that it’s play time.
In a world where organizers have Bubble Runs, Superhero Runs, Zombie Runs, and whatever themed fads they can think of to rope in casual first-timers, “Beat the Blerch” stands out as one with the most comfortable barrier to entry. While its shortest is the 10K, the run is made much easier through its sheer goofiness. Where else can you see volunteers dressed as fat fairies, yetis, and Godzillas? The run itself is quite scenic, a genarally straight tree-lined path through the Carnation countryside.
Is this Ground Zero for a running phenomenon? The Oatmeal equivalent of Penny Arcade‘s PAX? Or does the cancellation of the Chicago “Beat the Blerch” due to low participation signal a sparse familiarity with the concept? Time will tell.
A personal story: I recently suffered loss in my family. My mother passed away at a relatively young age due to failing health caused by complications from diabetes. I had resigned myself to encountering the same fate if I didn’t do anything to get more exercise. But I was never built for exercise, you know?
And then you read a comic like the one in The Oatmeal that acknowledges the pain but makes the reward a tangible one. Run first, then pig out after. Being healthy is a goal that is achievable, and you don’t have to step in a gym once to do it.
Once upon a time, I would’ve said running 3 miles was impossible. I just finished running 6.