Nov. 18 2009 12:00 AM

Cartoonist gives first-hand insight into triathlon mania

Jef Mallett may make his living drawing two-dimensional characters, but there are more panels to this mild-mannered newspaper cartoonist than what appears in the funny pages.

With his daily syndicated comic strip, “Frazz,” Mallett’s quirky humor has made a name for him and his main character, Frazz, a school janitor and inveterate triathlete at the center of his comics.

In his new book, “Trizophrenia: Inside the Minds of a Triathlete,” out this month from VeloPress, Mallet uses that same humor to make pain interesting and entertaining, as he presents the trials and tribulations of the elite athletes who swim, bike and run, all in the same race.

Mallett, of Lansing, completed his first triathlon in 1981 in Traverse City. “I remember swimming, slowly, and it was very cold,” he said. “I was about the last guy out of the water, but I cleaned up on the bike. I was ninth overall, but it confirmed I was a bike racer.”

He took up bike racing after that, and he had a few good years before work, school and marriage intervened.

After numerous fits and starts, broken bones and doubts, Mallett started competing in triathlons again around 1990 and has since completed 50 or so. One reason he moved away from bike racing was the potential for a drawing-career-ending crash. He was driven to triathlons to “get fit and compete.”

Along the way, Mallett has made some interesting friends, including NPR star Peter Sagal, who wrote the foreword to “Trizophrenia.” Mallett once featured the “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” host in his comic strip, which came to Sagal’s attention. “He was pondering doing a triathlon, and I became his online coach or answer guy,” Mallet said.

Mallett also loaned him his wetsuit for a race. Sagal calls “Trizophrenia” a “serious work of evangelism.”

The book is illustrated with Mallett’s fantastic cartoons, showing athletes in action and inaction. If their quirkiness isn’t enough, try Mallett lines, like the one he uses in the book to show the pecking order of athletes according to spending: “Being outspent by golfers is a little like smelling nicer than a broccoli fart.”

Triathletes spend heavily on equipment and training, easily dropping $1,000 just on a bicycle. Other costs include wetsuits, shoes and pool time, and don’t forget the triathlete’s staple Goo energy gel; they buy it by the case.

Mallet confirmed he can easily spend $1,000 renting pool time, a requisite in Michigan. Then there’s travel expenses and grocery bills, which tend to be on the high side.

For triathletes and other elite athletes, Mallett said training becomes a habit. When asked if it was addictive, he said, “Some call it that.” “I really get out of sorts without training,” he said.

Mallett typically spends about 15 to 20 hours a week training, which he calls “a kind of happy part-time job.” He’s anxious to get back to his regimen after a down year in 2009, during which he finished up the book and took a USO trip to military hospitals serving Iraq War veterans.

Mallett hopes potential book buyers will know someone who is a triathlete or will want to buy it for the “joie de vire,” which is triathlete talk for craziness. He also thinks the book will have crossover appeal for athletes in other sports that require great discipline and focus.

Casual readers will get a kick out of Mallett’s offbeat humor, especially the type that appears in the chapter “How to Explain It” and one entry about buying a “Speedo Thong.” Mallett is into footnotes, but don’t expect science in them. They are sort of exclamation marks for his offbeat humor.

Mallet’s favorite part of the book, except for his wife’s chapter, is when he gets into the actual process of competing. “I could feel the adrenaline and my heart pumping,” he said.

The competitor’s spouse, Patty, brings up the rear in her “Appendix,” in which she describes “mysterious powders taking over counter space in our kitchen” and sweaty hugs at the end of a race.

Mallett has competed in all lengths of triathlons, including the Ironman (2.4-mile swim; 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile jaunt). He has never won one, but, as he points out in the book, he has also “never bailed out of one.” He plans to enter the Hawk Island Triathlon next summer and compete in the Detroit Marathon.

Remember, like Frazz, who is the official mascot of the Hawk Island event, Mallett does this stuff for fun. For a moment, Mallett pondered whether to have Frazz the triathlete write a book. Now that would be fun.

Jef Mallett

of “Trizophrenia” 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 19 Schuler Books & Music,
Eastwood Towne Center, Lansing FREE (517) 316-7495