(From the author Michael Weddington: The following are some of my reflections on the Alec ‘Doc’ Isabeau I knew. Although I hadn’t spent much time with Alec at all over the last 15 years as I’ve moved from Santa Rosa with my family to first Sacramento, then Maui, Boulder, and now Folsom, the memories I have are vivid.)
It was a blazing hot Tuesday afternoon track workout at SRJC, circa summer of 1992. As I recall, the temperature was about 95 degrees, and well over 100 on the simmering cinder surface. A group of us less-than-intelligent Thirsty Boys were slogging our way through an interminable series of life-sapping mile repeats. It was one of those forever-workouts where just getting to the next lap without keeling over in ignominy was the principal goal.
When our Sisyphean labors were finally completed, I think I collapsed onto the boiling track into a pile of quivering, melting goo, oblivious of passing runners. A moment later, I distinctly remember a voice piercing my state of delirium—against all reason—with the following, utterly irrational sentiment: “Ahhh, isn’t it GREAT to be alive?” It was Alec. Vintage Alec.
Like many Empire Runners, I first met ‘Doc’ as a patient. I had recently moved to Santa Rosa from Davis in the Spring of 1986, and I think by that Fall or the following Spring I was dealing with some nagging running injuries. I soon discovered that we shared some interesting similarities; we were nearly exactly the same age, and we both had been told earlier in our twenties by so-called sports doctors that we’d likely never run again. In his typical laugh-in-the-face of adversity manner, Alec used this nay-saying as motivation to first heal himself, then others. I was of a multitude who benefited greatly from his chiropractic expertise.
In his friendly, low-key and folksy manner, Alec tried to recruit me into the Empire Runners then, but I was pre-occupied at the time with earning a teaching credential at Sonoma State and preparing for a teaching stint overseas. However, when I returned to Santa Rosa in 1991, I eventually found myself showing up at a Tuesday Afternoon track workout (during more temperate conditions) to see what this Empire Runner thing was all about. I had a whale of a time. Alec was there, as well as Larry and my good friend Peter Kirk, who made his Empire debut the very same day. I recall a grinning, convivial Doc back-slapping me into the club, before proceeding to rudely grind me into the oval rubber during the workout. I was hooked.
During the following decade, I had the privilege and pleasure of serving as club biographer, newsletter editor, president, event director, and unofficial historian. I estimate during that period of meeting up with ‘Doc’ at perhaps 500 or so workouts, races, club events, backpacking excursions, and so forth. And I found that, curiously, the more time I spent with Alec, the more enigmatic he became.
Like any complex individual, Alec was a study in contrasts. He could horse-play with the best of them in relaxed social situations, and his proclivity for rapid-fire repartee was legendary. He loved to exchange quips at settings like the Spring Lake parking lot before the commencement of an hour of lactic acid overload. However—unlike some habitual needlers—he was humble and secure enough to regularly engage in self-deprecation and wasn’t above playing the fool with a goofy expression or outfit.
As much as he keenly enjoyed and occasionally reveled with near-abandon in the company of kindred souls, however, Alec was prone to slipping into silence and contemplation depending on the situation. To my eye, he best recharged his energies in the solitude of his beloved forests and mountains with often nary a word spoken. During our shared backpacking trips, Alec could go hours without commenting on more than the route at hand, his innermost thoughts a mystery.
Unlike many individuals (especially males) of exceptional and well-rounded intellect, Alec was disinclined to show others how smart he was. Even when discussing topics of which he was especially versed (such as conservative healthcare), Doc was generally informative without being argumentative. Even as I discovered after a time that he could actually harbor some strong opinions on various matters, I found he largely kept them to himself and consistently conducted himself—as far as I could see—with geniune respect for others.
Lest one get the idea from my developing portrait that Alec was some kind of gentle, secular saint, he I’m sure would be the first to ridicule the idea. As gentle and welcoming as Alec could be around his patients at the office or in greeting a new member to the club, in his heyday he was one exceedingly tough S.O.B. out on the trail, track or road. Through sheer force of his magnetic presence and strategic cajoling, he often bent Thursday group training runs to his will, choosing contrarian routes and a punishing pace that suited his personal desires. And with a sadistic flourish, he had a knack of ending a brief group bathroom break and rest just as laggards (such as occasionally Peter Kirk and I) finally caught up to him on the slopes of some steep Annadel trail or another, only to taste his clouding dust as he and his fitter cohorts that day mercilessly blasted off once more.
Other than during some of his hosted Monday Night runs on Yolo Court or a Club Jingle Bell Run he might have frequented with me, I rarely saw him run or hike without it seeming like there was no tomorrow. For someone with a French family name who liked to sport his euro cycling cap in his garage at home, he was as quintessentially American as they come in a kind of John Muir meets Gary Cooper way. With his rugged embrace of the outdoors, irreverent humor, a constant drive to test and improve upon his physical and mental limits, his desire to help others, and a cool mustache, one could easily envision ‘Doc’ Isabeau serving as a roving country doctor on the fringes of the 1870’s western frontier.
Away from competitive track and trail, Alec’s leadership style underwent a remarkable transformation. When encountering him at our monthly meetings, races, social gatherings, or other organized settings, I found Alec to be a true servant leader. Humble, a careful and active listener, a deliberative and inclusive decision-maker who strove to blend wide-ranging consensus with a thorough analysis of the situation before proposing, supporting and executing policy decisions. He tended to let others most of the talking before jumping in. He avoided making any particular issue or problem become personal. He led, most of all, through example.
To those who got to know him, Alec could display another aspect of his multi-faceted persona; he could be quite the outdoorsman geek in a boyish way. He loved his trucks (‘rigs’, he liked to call them) and outdoor gear, and would endlessly debate and strategize with Mojo the wisest use of winches and cables, belay and rappel devices, topo maps and ice axes. If around, I’d have to eventually tune out from techno overload. On the other hand, I can understand very well how Doc would fade out himself when, Peter, Larry, myself and other track, football, & baseball nerds might start tossing around mile PRs, state meet performances, passing percentages, batting averages, and playoff records. Organized sports trivia didn’t really light Alec’s fire.
Assessing Alec’s legacy—particularly in relation to the Empire Runners—is daunting task. For over thirty action-packed years, he dedicated a considerable portion of his mind, body, and spirit to creating community through outdoor activity. Like other long-time club stalwarts such as Tori and Larry Meredith, Bob Shor, Tanya Narath, Doug Courtemarche, Pam Horton, Lisa Isabeau, John Royston, Vall Sell, Dale Peterson, Shelly Lydon, Jerry Lyman, Dan Preston, Al Tagliaferri, Cathy Dubay, Mike McGuire, Dan Aldridge, and Peter Kirk (please forgive me for excluding here so many other worthies; my mind momentarily draws a blank), as well as more recent club movers and shakers that I unfortunately lack knowledge of, Alec was essentially responsible for making Sonoma County a healthier, more interesting, and more welcoming place with his unflagging efforts and salutory attitude.
Alec was a superb runner. He came to racing relatively late from competitive cycling, and did not really have the track background that many of his elite competition possessed. Where Alec particularly stood out was on the trail. His top times in our club’s Loop and Loop de Loop events, in addition to the Ilsanjo 10 mile and—most notably—the legendary Dipsea race in Marin County (where Alec earned at least three prized ‘Black Shirts’, I believe), compared favorably to many racers who otherwise boasted 10K track or road times 2 to 3 minutes faster than Alec’s. Doc was simply fearless on the trail, and the more arduous, the happier he was. At his best, he had both the springiness of a deer and the agility of a big cat over hills and dales. But most of all, he possessed a nearly unmatched ability to suffer on the trail in relentless pursuit of his goals. I remember the time when I think he was at his fittest. He was under Danny Aldridge’s tutelege in preparation for I think the 1994 or 95 edition of the Dipsea, and it was a Tuesday at the SRJC track. Danny was tapering Alec for the big day with a Mile-1320-880-440 interval set. I remember Alec being in the zone. His workout times as I recall were an amazing 4:48 – 3:30 – 2:16 – 59 with a short rest in between. Not bad for an avowed trail runner!
Alec was one of the most integrative people I have ever met, across many different walks of life. That is to say, his vocation, avocations, and character were remarkably in harmony with one another across the vicissitudes of time. I did not know him to be one to spend much time on idle amusements that did not directly feed one of his passions: Outdoor activity, spending quality time with Lisa and/or some of his other good friends in the club and beyond, contributing at a club event, or engaging in his professional practice. He practiced what he preached, stayed remarkably true to his passions and goals, and consistently treated others the way I believe he generally wished to be treated. In other words, as Larry and others have so astutely noted, Alec made the most of his time in this life. His lifespan as measured by earthly orbits around our sun may seem tragic in its brevity, and yet he packed the experiences and exuded the infectious joie de vivre of multiple normal lifetimes into his alloted moment.
The late mythologist Joseph Campbell opined (to paraphrase) that it isn’t really that people are searching and grasping for the meaning of life. Rather, it is the experience of being fully alive that we truly seek and crave. In this sense, I think Alec lived more truly than many of us. It seems to me that he continually pushed his mind, body and spirit to the limits not so much for worldly reasons, but rather to brush up to the very razor’s edge of transcendence itself. Although anything but a proponent of organized religion, it seemed to me from afar (Lisa and Mojo, among others, would be much better judges) that Alec shared a spiritual orientation towards the great outdoors embraced and espoused by many of the great American transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Walt Whitman, John Muir, and Louisa May Alcott.
I read this quote by Muir, and I think of Alec:
Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail (Our National Parks, 1901, Page 56).
In his ground-breaking studies of the archetypal hero across cultures and ages, Joseph Campbell often exemplified his insights with epic stories of legendary figures of days gone by. However, he also emphasized how every person—no matter how ‘ordinary’—has the potential to become an authentic hero in the mythological sense. The key was not only to courageously deal with the various challenges that arise within one’s evolving circumstances as a way to internally develop, but also to then bring one’s hard-earned insights to one’s home and community in order to serve others. And when one’s accomplishes this when also engaging in pursuits that nourish one’s deepest life passions, one is truly ‘following their bliss’, as Campbell said.
Alec Isabeau followed his bliss. And he will be sorely missed. I can only imagine what his beloved life partner Lisa Isabeau (nee Titus), surviving family members, and closest friends are experiencing in terms of loss. And what an enormous loss to our club and community it has been to also lose such long-time members as John ‘Mojo’ Royston, Bob Shor, Dan Preston, Ernst Bohn, George Urdzik, and now—as I literally just find out—Mike McGuire! as well as other Empire Runner’s Club luminaries who have passed on in recent months and years. As Larry Meredith so eloquently expressed in his recent memorium of Alec’s life, he (and Mojo) tragically left us far too soon, insofar as these things go. However, we can best serve their legacies—and of all those devoted club members who have come and gone before us—by giving back to our respective communities whenever we have the time and energy. Perhaps more than in living memory, our nation needs community-building of the kind that bridges difference and strengthens meaningful connections. Let us meet the challenge and continue this important task in our own, unique ways. R.I.P. Doc.