Benefield: Remembering 'Doc and Mojo,' best friends who loved running

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It was deemed too tame.

The Annadel Loop was the toughest race on the Empire Runners event calendar, but was considered too easy by the standards of club members Alec “Doc” Isabeau and John “Mojo” Royston. So the pair decided to dream up a new event — they doubled the distance and pushed the date from September to November, presumably to maximize the potential for gnarly weather.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the duo promised “prizes” to all finishers. One year they offered hats. When runners staggered across the finish line, they were handed sleeves that had been ripped from the shoulders of T-shirts. Voila — hats.

Isabeau and Royston found in each other — and shared with others — a love for going a little bit harder, a little bit farther. Their joint motto for their Empire Runners “Doc ’n’ Mojo Productions” was “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.” The idea had followers: The 26th running of the Annadel Loop-de-Loop is planned for Nov. 4.

“He and (Mojo) were really into suffer-fests,” longtime Empire Runner and past president of the club Larry Meredith said. “They would push and push. It was amazing how much energy they had.”

This year the Loop-de-Loop and another Doc ’n’ Mojo production, the Riverfront Relay, will be run without either Royston or Isabeau. Royston died in September at the age of 63 after being diagnosed with melanoma in February 2017. And Isabeau, who was diagnosed with lung cancer six years ago, died Saturday. He was 56.

“They were two brothers from another mother,” Royston’s wife, Christina, said. “They loved to spur each other on in all aspects of life.”

When Isabeau met Royston in the early 1990s, they became partners in crime. The kindred spirits began conjuring up all manner of above-and-beyond adventure events: running, climbing, hiking — they got after it and invited friends to try to keep up.

If your run went off course? That was deemed a positive. It was “bonus suffering.”

When they didn’t feel like organizing runs, they organized backpacking trips. No wimps need apply.

“A lot of us would go and we’d dread it because they were so brutal,” Meredith said, chuckling. “We’d complain about it on the trip, but then we’d have memories forever of what we did and saw.”

Isabeau’s wife of 25 years, Lisa Titus Isabeau, met her husband — yep — at an Empire Runners track meet in 1991.

A chiropractor by trade, Isabeau was directing one of the club’s summer track meets in his white lab coat and tie.

“It wasn’t love at first sight, but there was something there,” she said. “He had an easygoing presence about him, a funny sense of humor, very easy to be around.”

They had their first date in September 1991 and were married by August 1992.

“He got me to extraordinary places that I would have never gotten to,” Titus Isabeau said.

He might have been born with it.

When Isabeau was 4 years old, his family went for a hike. Nineteen miles later, the Isabeaus called it a day. Alec Isabeau had walked every mile except the last, when he finally allowed his dad to carry him.

A love of dirt, sweat and taking the tougher road was born.

Isabeau, an outdoorsman at heart, was a member and leader of Empire Runners for more than three decades.

He was, at various times, president, publicity director, race director and general cheerleader for Sonoma County’s largest running club, as it grew from about 200 people to more than 1,000 at one point. And, with his best friend Royston, he became one half of the duo responsible for many of the club’s gnarliest events.

“He came to Sonoma County to do his internship. He had no intention of staying,” Titus Isabeau said. “(Empire Runners) became his core group of friends. The friendship, the healthy living, the running, the camaraderie, the humor — these longtime members who are just these wonderful people.

“Alec goes back farther with Empire Runners than he does with me,” she said.

Isabeau joined the club and almost immediately became the de factor recruitment officer. Whenever he saw another runner on the trails of Trione-Annadel State Park or on the streets, he’d reel them in. He was a deep believer in fitness, in being physical and getting out there.

Isabeau and Royston were about building community — they just liked to do it while sweating somewhere out in nature.

They created a club relay race in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park that culminated in a barbecue and campout. It has evolved into an early-morning event followed by a massive breakfast. That event has been running 16 years strong.

They rostered relays teams that competed — and won — events around the North Bay.

“He was not competitive with other people, but he was competitive with himself,” Titus Isabeau said.

He ran with a watch, but wasn’t hypersensitive to pace or heart rate or other metrics. He did what Titus Isabeau called “squirrel workouts” in Annadel — using pullups from trees and shoulder presses on rocks to add a little extra oomph to a run.

“He was more about pushing his body to whatever he thought it needed that day,” she said.

Except for Mondays. Mondays were about time — 49 minutes, to be exact.

Every Monday night at 7 p.m., Isabeau hosted a group run from his house near Annadel. And every Monday night for 20 years, the participants would either run the streets or — when it was light enough — take to the trails and never come back before they had run 49 minutes.

I’ve asked around, but the genesis of why it was 49 minutes remains a mystery to me.

“Rain or shine, winter, didn’t matter,” Titus Isabeau said. “They would all come here, meet and then run.”

In fact, Royston’s widow, Christine, said if the weather was foul, all the better.

“They liked to have fun. It sounds so simplistic,” she said. “Every photo of them, they are smiling and laughing. It’s just amazing. They are sweaty and covered in dirt and mud and sometimes blood and yet they are grinning from ear to ear.”

“That was his soulmate,” Titus Isabeau said of her husband’s connection to Royston. “He was his best friend.”

In his chiropractor practice, Isabeau tended to scores of his fellow runners. He advocated more movement, not less.

Patients remembered him saying it’s not gnarly runs or epic bike rides that will hurt you; it’s sitting at a desk all day pounding on a computer.

Testimonials poured in after his death, many saying Isabeau went above and beyond to keep people on their feet doing what they love.

And in perhaps the greatest production ever put on by Doc ’n’ Mojo, both men continued to run, climb and hike for as long as they could after their diagnoses.

They had T-shirts made that read, “Slow is the new fast.”

In the end, they battled cancer together in the same way they had tackled so many other things in life. Isabeau had been fighting for years when Royston discovered that he, too, had a fight on his hands.

“The idea of Mojo losing his best friend and brother was pretty devastating,” said Christina Royston. “When Mojo was diagnosed, it was the same thing, Doc would research things for him. And Mojo was there every step of the way until his diagnosis.”

Christina Royston said her husband, slowed by the disease, would still head up to Annadel, cane in hand, to make his way along the trails. Isabeau was running until last fall and continue to go climbing and lift weights until relatively recently, Titus Isabeau said.

Those who knew them say the lives they lived honored their beliefs.

“It was ‘Don’t be afraid, don’t sit around, be active, enjoy life,’” Christina Royston said. “They loved to live.”

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