Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Inside the Minds of a Triathlete: A Conversation With Nationally Syndicated Cartoonist, Author, and Triathlete Jef Mallett

As an endurance athlete I've run many a race from the 5K to the marathon and everything in between. Yet there are two areas I have yet to venture—the ultra marathon and the triathlon. One day I'll venture beyond 26.2 miles, no doubt. But the triathlon? That one has always intimidated me. I think it's the swim leg of the three-sport event (swim, bike, run) that makes me take pause. Something about swimming with hundreds of other swimmers, feet and hands all flailing, that just unnerves me a bit. If I'm honest with myself, though, I think it's more of the unknown that holds me back. Give me a stretch of road to run on, it doesn't matter the type—flat, hilly, curvy, muddy, paved—and I'll be a happy camper. I know exactly what to do. Throw in swimming and cycling and all the sudden my comfort zone is gone and I'm no longer the seasoned athlete. I'm back to square one.

This past weekend I had the awesome pleasure of talking with someone that put me at ease about the world of the triathlete. Award-winning and nationally syndicated cartoonist Jef Mallett recently published Trizophrenia: Inside the Minds of a Triathlete (VeloPress, 2009)—a wonderfully humorous and informative book about the obsessive-compulsive rituals of the triathlete. If the name sounds familiar, you may know Mallett from his nationally syndicated cartoon Frazz, which runs in over 160 newspapers across the country and Canada. You also may recognize his wonderful illustrations in Jamie Smith's book, Roadie: The Misunderstood World of a Bike Racer. Jef also writes a regular column for Inside Triathlon and Triathlete magazines.

When I first began reading Trizophrenia, I didn't have much hope of it being a page-turner. Afterall, I am an endurance runner not a triathlete. What was I doing delving into foreign territory? But I wanted to know more about this unknown world and besides the cover art was very appealing, so it wouldn't hurt to read just a little, would it? In this case, I was hoping that you could judge a book by its cover.

When I opened the book and saw the very first illustration (a swimmer, cyclist, and runner sitting on a couch all three talking at the same time to a psychiatrist who's feverishly scribbling away on her notepad), I realized that I was going to relate to this book just fine.

And fine it was. Except for a snack run and a few bathroom pitstops, I read the entire book in one sitting. The same humor and insight I love about the Frazz cartoons abounds in the text and illustrations of Trizophrenia. I was instantly pulled into the world of a triathlete and soon realized that they may even be slightly crazier than long-distance runners. Somehow I found that oddly comforting. By the time I finished reading the book, I was thinking, "Hey, maybe I can actually complete a triathlete."

Having such a great experience reading Trizophrenia, I contacted Jef to get more insight into the mind of this talented illustrator, writer, and triathlete. Here's our conversation:

RunnerDude: How long have you competed in triathlons?
Mallett: Over the years I've switched from tri to bike and back again, but I ran my first triathlon back in 1981. I wasn't very good, but I was instantly hooked. I was very intimidated at first, but with each race I got better and more confident.

RunnerDude: What inspired you to write a book about triathlete life?
Mallett: A few years back I started writing a column for Inside Triathlon. What a great job! I get to write (which I love) and I get to write about triathlons (which I love even better)! That led into me illustrating Jamie Smith's book Roadie: The Misunderstood World of a Bike Racer for VeloPress. In working on Roadie, I thought, hey I can do a similar book on the life and times of a triathlete. Simultaneously, VeloPress was having similar thoughts. The rest is history.
RunnerDude: I love the title Trizophrenia and how it's positioned as an ailment on the back cover even listing the symptoms (delusional spending on expensive equipment), treatment (training and racing to quell the delirious symptoms and create a state of euphoria), and a prognosis (triathletes can ultimately thrive and reach a heightened engagement with life if proper balance is achieved). How did you come up with the title?
Mallett: I'm so glad you like the title. I did a lot of brainstorming and I kept coming back to Trizophrenia. It was so adaptable and so exactly what the life of a triathlete is...a wonderfully chronic, overwhelming, and intoxicating state of being.

RunnerDude: Other than reassuring that triathletes are crazy and that that's okay, is there another message you wanted to convey to the readers?
Mallett: (laughingly) Well, I wanted to reassure the seasoned hardcore triathlete as well as the novice that yes, in fact they are a little bit crazy, but that that's almost a requirement of the sport. I also just wanted to share a funny philosophy of the sport with lots of illustrations so anyone (athlete or couch potato) could learn about the sport and why so many consume their lives with it. There are a multitude of books on how to train for a triathlon. I wanted to share the whys.

RunnerDude: Are there any endurance training books that have influenced you over the years?
Mallett: I read anything and everything about endurance training. I don't use every technique or training strategy I read about, but it's good background. Way back in the 80s, I read a wonderful book The Bicycle Racing Book by William Sanders. Keep in mind, that back in the 80s bike racing was an unknown. If you raced bikes, the public viewed you as a little off kilter. Sanders' book did a wonderful job of sharing with the public the technical, practical, and the emotional sides of bike racing. That book and its message (it's much more than a sport) have stuck with me over the years and I wanted to convey something similar about triathlon racing through writing Trizophrenia.
RunnerDude: How did writing Trizophrenia compare to writing Frazz? Was it like apples to apples or apple to oranges?
Mallett: It was more like apples to pears. There were a lot of similarities (i.e., telling stories, telling jokes), but there were some big differences (i.e., the long-scale timing). Writing the comic is a forced discipline. I have a routine and I get in a groove and I can produce each Frazz within familiar set deadlines. Writing a book was a very different experience. All of the sudden I had to write a big long book in a short period of time. Let's just say that I didn't get much sleep in '08-'09. I always thought I was a disciplined person, but this truly tested my skills. Every time I neared the completion of a chapter, I'd think to myself, "Is it done?" "Is it done?" "Is it done?"

RunnerDude: My favorite part of the book was the "What It Takes" section, particularly the section on "Guts." That section really helped me see how much an endurance long-distance runner has in common with a triathlete. What was the most enjoyable part of writing Trizophrenia?
Mallett: For me it was describing the race itself. It put me right back there in the heat of the moment with all the adrenaline-induced, heart-pounding excitement that comes with each and every race. It was awesome reliving each race. My pulse actually sped up when recounting the events.
RunnerDude: I love your illustration style. I think I'd have a hard time keeping the illustration ideas at bay while doing the writing. Did you ever get sidetracked from the writing by illustration ideas?
Mallett: No, I think very visually, so I didn't get tempted. But now that I think of it, when I write Frazz, the text and illustration happen more simultaneously. So, I'm kind of surprised, now that you ask that I didn't get sidetracked. But somehow I was able to write the text and then work on the illustrations.

RunnerDude: I love how you've added the informative and often very humorous anecdotal footnotes at the bottom of most pages providing further insight into your mind as well as the general triathlete's mind. How important was it for you to write the book with as much humor as information?
Mallett: I have a favorite expression of non-triathletes that I like to call "What for." "What for you want to put your body through that torture?" What for you want to swim, bike, and run all in one event? "What for you want to give up every minute of free time you have to train?" I wanted to help convey to the "What for" crowd (like Sanders did in The Bicycle Racing Book) that the triathlon is much more than a sport. It's a lifestyle a state of being.

RunnerDude: Do you have any advice for someone contemplating their first triathlon?
Mallett: Without infringing on Nike's trademark slogan...."Just Do It!" It's harder in a whole different way the first mile. So stick with it. That initial fear and pain will turn into exhilaration and an awesome sense of accomplishment, but you have to push past the initial shock. Also hang around with other triathletes. Your family and friends aren't going to understand or probably encourage this new sport you've discovered, so find that support amongst your peers. And never stop asking questions!
RunnerDude: Do you have anything specific to say to your readers?
Mallett: Buy the book! (laughing) Come out and race. If you're still undecided, volunteer at a local triathlon event. This will give you great insight into the event and what's involved on the frontline as well as behind the scenes. Enjoy yourself!

RunnerDude: Do you have any upcoming races?
Mallett: I hope to do Musselman in Upstate New York and there's a new Ironman at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio that I'd really like to do. There's also several local races that I'm sure will temp me.

I'd like to personally thank Jef Mallett for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with me about his love of the triathlon and the process of writing his book Trizophrenia. Jef really is a cool dude. For more information on Jef and his work, be sure to visit his website.


Mel-2nd Chances said...

Awesome awesome interview. I totally want to read this book! Love the picture of the butterflies coming out of the wetsuit... and now I understand that I am justifiably crazy! =) RunnerDude, if I can TRI, know that you totally can. Bet you'd be hooked too!

RunnerDude said...

Thanks Mel!Thanks for the encouragement too! I'll Tri one day!

Lorenda said...

Runner Dude, If I can do a triathlon you so can! Like he suggested, I first volunteered at one. I got to watch the swim start then headed to the transition area where I first directed swimmers in and later runners out so I got to see a lot.
I did my first sprint tri with my old (atleast 14 yrs) mountain bike that I bought at Wal Mart! (I have a tri bike now) I was last of my age group in the swim, 4th from last on bike but 3rd in the run! I was never passed on the run but passed people the whole entire run! (I don't think that will ever happen again)
I would suggest swimming in open water at least once before doing a tri, it's different than in a pool.
You don't need a wetsuit for triathlons in smaller lakes in the middle of summer.
You can do it Runner Dude!!!!!

RunnerDude said...

Hi Lorenda! Thanks for the encouragement and the awesome suggestions!I think I need to do what you and Jef both suggest and volunteer at a race.

runrgrl2007 said...

As your other readers have said,if I can Tri so can you! Since you read my blog as well, go back to May and read my race report! I was the 2nd to the last out of the water, the last person out was an 84 year old man! As my coach tells me, the finish line isn't when you get out of the water. The Triad Tri Team sponsers indoor tri's for winter training. Come join me! Buyin ths book tonight.

Anonymous said...

Look at it this way -- you might be last on the swim and at the back of the peloton, but you will always smoke 'em on the run!

RunnerDude said...

Hey runrgrl2007! Thanks for the encouragement! I've been a good boy....maybe Santa will bring me a bike!

RunnerDude said...

Hi Anonymous! Hey, you're right! Thanks for the reminder!

Unknown said...

I know you got a Susan Boyle CD, did you get the bike too?

RunnerDude said...

Hi Thomas! No bike. But no coal either. :-)