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The Orange Runner | Running Cartoonist Luke McCambley

The Orange Runner | Running Cartoonist Luke McCambley
Written by publisher team

Shortly after graduating from the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 2011, cartooning major Luke McCambley purchased a book called The Purple Runner.

McCambley, then in his early 20s, picked it out for its cover—a simple sketch of a solitary distance runner clad in purple, leaving black footprints underneath a windswept tree. To his dismay, the pages beneath the illustration weren’t quite as elegant.

“It’s not just the worst book about running I’ve ever read,” says McCambley, now 32 years old and residing in Miami, Florida, “but maybe one of the worst books I’ve ever read.”

He swore right then and there that if he ever got the opportunity to write a book about running, it would be better. He would call it The Orange Runner, the defiant opposite of purple and, as evidenced by the walls of the running store at which he worked, a popular color for running clothes that year.

A decade later, The Orange Runner is a full-fledged reality; not as a novel, but a comic strip on his website and Instagram. Contained within its panels of stark black lines and smatters of color, McCambley unravels the mysteries, hard truths, and elation of distance running.

The artist lives up to the name of his creation, donning orange beanie, sunglasses, and T-shirt on a Zoom call with Runner’s World.

The typical strip is like his typical run: the main character trots alongside a friend or mentor. He poses a big question to his companion, who responds with a nugget of wisdom or a counterargument. The Orange Runner begrudgingly accepts the advice, wryly delivering a punchline.

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It’s a situation most runners find themselves in: a few miles deep, thinking a little too hard about why you do this, only to come back around to the same conclusion—that you do it because it’s just what you do.

It wasn’t always what McCambley did, however. During his initial art school years, he was into boxing. He ran a handful of miles per week to stay in shape for his time in the ring. But that changed when his college student pockets begged for some beer money.

He interned with a graffiti artist for a while, but eventually the artist couldn’t pay him. So, McCambley scoured Craigslist for something else that paid. He eventually found an open position at JackRabbit, a running retailer based in New York. It sounded like a sure thing until he read the fine print.

“It said you have to run 10 miles a week to work here… And so I was really worried that I wasn’t qualified to apply for this job, because I wasn’t running 10 miles a week,” he says. Luckily, the managers didn’t care and hired him.

That year, Chris McDougal’s bestselling book Born to Run came out. Barefoot running purists flocked to the store, touting their Vibram idolatry to the beginner McCambley. He devoured the book to understand their ramblings. But instead of buying a zero-drop running shoe, he fell in love with the history and lore of the sport. After closing its pages for the final time, he packed a bag with a water bottle, book, and granola bar, and went outside to run until his body wouldn’t let him go any farther.

Twelve miles later, he emerged exhausted and empowered, hungry for more running content. A friend recommended he read Once a Runner by John L. Parker, proclaiming it a much better read than Born to Run. McCambley blew through its pages as Quenton Cassidy beckoned him to his newest passion.

He studied the greats of the past, idolizing Paavo Nurmi and Deerfoot. He loves tales of legendary runners Frank Shorter and Emil Zapotek, who would both be immortalized in later comic strips. He gushes about Steve Prefontaine and Gerry Lindgren like oldhead boxing fans would about Joe Frazier and Muhammed Ali.

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After realizing it was easier to enter races than fights, McCambley signed up for five milers and Turkey Trots. He even started to win races. As his dedication to running grew, his interest in school diminished: “The serotonin [and] dopamine combination coursing through your veins does a lot better things for your mental health than staying up till 5 am working on art projects.”

It was a fork in the road for someone who was “the kid who draws” in elementary school. McCambley discovered cartooning after asking his uncle to draw him a fighter jet. His uncle, instead of indulging him, cracked open a big Calvin & Hobbes collection and flipped the pages to a strip featuring a fighter jet. McCambley became infatuated with Bill Watterson’s playful humor and rich illustrations. As he grew older, his tastes bloomed from innocent newspaper cartoons to gritty comic book heroes like Batman or the Watchmen.

He enrolled in the School of Visual Arts in New York City in the autumn of 2007. By the time McCambley read The Purple Runner in 2011, he realized he liked working at JackRabbit more than he liked working on art. So after graduation, he bounced around running stores and participated in school outreach programs. His mind was firmly set on a new goal: getting a job in Nike’s marketing department through retail connections.

“I was working at a Nike store for like three, four years, and realized I’m never going to get out of retail—like, never,” McCambley says. “So I started making comics more often because I was just sitting at work one day, pretty hungover postrun, and I drew a comic in sharpie.”

That first comic, which he describes as “more of a doodle,” formed the archetype of The Orange Runner. A scraggly black-and-white athlete, modeled after McCambley himself, remembers something embarrassing from the previous night’s revelries. He picks up the pace in the second panel in effort to forget said embarrassment. Successful, he rests in the third panel, only to repeat the cycle once the self-consciousness returns.

McCambly’s friend Chris Chavez, founder of digital running magazine Citius Mag, offered to repost “the Hangover Fartlek” to the publication’s Instagram account. The comic struck a chord with viewers, garnering nearly 500 likes.

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McCambley’s own account gained a few hundred new followers. Then, a couple months later, Citius Mag posted another one of his comics, which pointed more followers to his profile. Thrilled to have a platform to share cartoons about his passion, McCambley decided to draw one every day, leaning on advice from an art school teacher, the New Yorker’s Steve Brodner: “You just need to make a comic every day. It’s going to be terrible… But you’re going to keep getting better and one day you’re gonna look down and your comics aren’t gonna suck.” The mantra made sense to him because it was just like running; you have to do it every day to get better.

After building a big enough following, he quit the retail store in 2018 and sustained himself exclusively through art. The Orange Runner evolved like he did. In his rise to virality, he penned cartoons to sketch pad with a waterproof Uni-ball, splashing watercolor over the jagged black lines. Now, he favors index cards and digital coloring to save space on his desk (and a few bucks).

McCambley jokes that there’s only so much he can write about before he starts repeating himself. Despite that, the strip has remained fresh, evidenced by a recent series relating the athleticism of baseball player Satchel Paige to distance running. McCambley will sit down in the morning with a cup of coffee and doodle, looking at his training log for inspiration. Most of the time, an idea comes within five minutes. He’ll grab an index card, sketch a layout, put some notes in the margins, and gradually flesh it out until he has a completed The Orange Runner comic. It helps that he doesn’t post every day anymore, but he still manages an impressive thrice-a-week output.

the orange runner

Luke McCambley

McCambley thought of monetizing the comic through Patreon or a similar service, but decided against it. He turned away from making art for a living in 2021, relocating to Florida to become a Field Experience Rep for Hoka. Why? He makes The Orange Runner to help and entertain people, do not turn a profit.

It’s a lesson he learned from his father, who created the very first banner ad on the Internet. The elder McCambley believed marketing should help people, regretting that his creative invention became an online annoyance. He encouraged his son to make things that help people and to give them away for free.

“When I first started the comic, the goal was to reach the person sitting on the toilet, procrastinating their run,” he says. “They’re scrolling through Instagram, looking for some inspiration—and come across a comic of a runner who’s probably doing the same thing.”

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