Hal Winton, a longtime co-director of the Angeles Crest 100, died last week in Torrance, California. He was 85.
His daughter, Cynthia Winton-Henry, said the likely cause was prostate cancer.
An institution for almost three decades, Angeles Crest has shaped the local ultrarunning scene and inspired generations of runners. Winton—“Uncle Hal,” to those who knew him—helped steer the race since its inception.
While co-race director Ken Hamada kept a lower profile, Winton served as the event’s public face. He would appear at various aid stations throughout the race, cheering on runners and chiding those inclined to quit.
“When you thought of Angeles Crest, that’s who you thought of,” says Howie Stern, a regular at the race since 1999.
Known for his indefatigable energy and tough-love approach, Winton wrangled permits from the Forest Service and advocated fiercely for the race.
“There were definitely years when the race was on the verge of being cancelled,” says Dominic Grossman, an area runner and two-time Angeles Crest winner. “He was that person that was willing to sit down with the Forest Service and work out any solution to maintain the race. He never stopped pushing.”
He sometimes railed against the land-management bureaucracy, as well as cuts to the Forest Service budget that left trails poorly maintained.
But he also felt a duty to pitch in. Made of wiry muscle, he led trail crews in the San Gabriel Mountains well into his 80s. He operated chain saws, went for hours under the broiling sun and held his volunteers to the same exacting standards. “They work their butts off,” Winton told the Pasadena Star-News in 2008. “I make them.” He had recently started cleaning toilets that the under-staffed Park Service couldn’t.
“His ethos was service in the form of volunteer work,” says Larry Gassan, a longtime friend and former Angeles Crest employee.
A loquacious storyteller, Winton narrated with a level of detail befitting the engineer that he was. “You couldn’t have a short conversation with my dad,” Winton-Henry says.
He could be gruff and hard to impress. Grossman won Angeles Crest in 2011 after overtaking the frontrunner, Jorge Pacheco. Later, at the awards ceremony, Winton told the assembled crowd, “If Jorge has a bad day, just keep running, because you may win like this young man.”
“He never actually complimented me for winning the race,” Grossman says. “He was definitely stubborn. He liked people who earned his trust.”
But he was also authentic and caring, present for his friends and a paternal figure to many. “As strict or stern as he could be, there was always a gentleness to him,” Stern says. “In some ways, for me, he was like a dad. You wanted to make him proud.”
Winton was born on August 7, 1931, in Atlanta, Indiana. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, then studied engineering at Purdue University and received his master’s at the University of Southern California.
He had two daughters, Winton-Henry and Valerie Miller, and a son, Daniel Winton, all of whom survive him.
A cross-country athlete in high school, he had a lifelong love of the outdoors, and returned to running in middle age.
In 1981, the first year the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent were held on different days, Winton became the first person to run the now iconic “double.” It was the weekend of his 50th birthday.
He began running ultramarathons around the same time, eventually finishing dozens, including premier 100-milers like Western States, Leadville, Old Dominion and Hardrock.
Faith infused his life. A committed Christian, he was never one to proselytize. To him, spirituality meant a personal connection to God.
“He had a very mystical relationship with everything, which he would call the Holy Spirit,” Winton-Henry says.
He once protested his church’s plans to buy a new carpet, arguing that the money would be better spent feeding the hungry. He sometimes donned a shirt that read “Winton 4 Jesus,” and wore a large cross pendant, pinned to a bolo tie to keep it from moving.
Every year, just before the 5 a.m. start of Angeles Crest, Winton led the runners in prayer. He asked for everyone’s safety, thanked the rangers for their work and thanked God for the mountains’ beauty.
“He had a way of doing it that, no matter what you believed in or didn’t believe in, it was something you looked forward to every year,” Stern says, “because the words that he would use and the things he was thankful for were just beautiful.”
Winton hardly slowed toward the end. In his mid-80s, he would disappear for hours to bushwhack up a mountainside, alone and without a cell phone, to his family’s worry and wonder.
At age 50, he decided he would run the Avalon 50 Mile Benefit Run, on Catalina Island, for 30 consecutive years. A fundraiser for local causes, it blended his twin passions of running and serving.
This January, he made it to 35.
“He was a death-defying guy,” Grossman says. “Every time we met someone who went, ‘I’m too old to run,’ we could point to Hal.”