As we departed from his car, Ted Winters, 78, hunched over, shuffled with determination toward the trailhead, saying, “It ain’t gonna be speedy, but we’re gonna get there.”
We were out for a jaunt on the Palos Verdes Peninsula when Ted stopped and motioned out to the landscape.
“This is one of the largest continuous landslides in North America,” he informed me, gesturing toward the hues of silver, brown and blue of the coastal-sage-scrub landscape. “It’s slid 700 feet since it began in 1956. People have tried all kinds of things to stop it; nothing’s worked though.”
As I pondered, Ted stopped to examine a cactus. He made quite a picture bending down, wisps of white hair sticking out from beneath his cap, wearing an Angeles Crest 100 shirt and short shorts, and sporting muscled legs and a gnarled wooden walking stick.
An Addictive Personality
This is roughly the same outfit he’s worn for many of his thousands of miles of running. Those miles reach back into the antiquity of ultrarunning, when Ted’s nickname was “Buffalo Red.” When races and runners alike were barely figuring it out back in the early 1980s, Ted traipsed across races from the Western States 100 to the Angeles Crest 100. All the while he was running his own adventurous jaunts of 20, 30 or 50 miles across places like Catalina Island and the San Gabriel Mountains in California.
“When the Spaniards came and encountered the Aztecs, they were shocked by the deep-red dyes that the Aztecs used. It comes from these little guys on this cactus here; they’re called cochineal,” Ted told me as he smeared some on his walking stick.
“How do you know all of this?” I asked.
“Well, I have kind of an addictive, curious personality I guess,” Ted responded with a smirk.
A Life-Changing Draft Card
Being born among the open spaces of rural West Virginia, Ted was naturally exposed to the outdoors. His father worked in the oil industry and moved the family to San Pedro, California, in 1950. As a child in San Pedro, Ted found gymnastics, then in his teenage years discovered joy through other means: rock-n-roll-playing, partying and hard drinking. Then a draft card came in the mail.
“The army straightened me up,” he says. “After the army, I went back home. I went back to school. I majored in geography, because it taught me a little bit about everything: biology, architecture, geology, anthropology.”
I looked at the shirt and thought, ‘Wow 50 miles in a day, I wonder if I can do that and, man, that shirt is cool’. I pretty much just wanted the shirt.
The world to Ted is a curiosity—something he wants to know as much about as possible. “Geography is about being able to read the patterns,” he says. “You read the patterns of the land, but soon you read the patterns of everything. Like a wall in someone’s home, you can read a life story from the pictures and decorations on a wall.”
Running didn’t come into play until 1978, when he was 40 years old and well into his career as an elementary-school teacher. Every day after work, Ted would sit on the porch swing in front of his house, a wild-west home, set back among a forest of trees. Every day, his friend Doug McCarthy would run past.
Doug began running in 1971, when his friends were getting on him to quit smoking three packs a day. Eventually Doug conceded, threw away his cigarettes and entered a marathon with his friend Elbert. After Doug finished, his friends gave him a plaque that read, “We didn’t think you could do it.”
“Dougie was passing by one day and asked if I wanted to join,” Ted says. “I said, ‘Sure,’ but maybe the beer in my hand influenced my decision. I stumbled through that run and just kept at it.”
Doug, who is still Ted’s neighbor some 40 years later, says, “Ted is a renaissance man. He’s an amazing man and his whole approach is so laid back.”
All About the T-Shirt
Longer distances came next. “There was a guy who had just come back from the American River 50 and he was wearing the shirt,” he says. “I looked at the shirt and thought, ‘Wow 50 miles in a day, I wonder if I can do that and, man, that shirt is cool’. I pretty much just wanted the shirt.”
Ted and his friends were soon frequenting the coastal Los Angeles hills to train. Tom Galbraith, a friend of Ted’s who began running simply to get in shape, did not take much to the training mindset. As Ted puts it, “Tom didn’t train much; he’d just go out and kill himself doing it.”
Another friend in the pack, Bill Shurmer, Ted describes as “a horse—he just kept going.” Bill began running with the Point Fermin Flyers, a local running group, and worked into longer distances. In 1982, 24 of the 100-strong Point Fermin Flyers signed up for their first ultramarathon, the inaugural Catalina Island 50. The race was a rainy day of suffering.
“It was a blast!” says Bill.
Catalina Island would become a sacred ground of training for Ted and his friends and where Ted’s nickname, Buffalo Red, was christened. Ted’s red hair and ability to run, clap and yell with abandonment to clear the buffalos from the trail earned him the avatar.
For Bill, Tom and Ted, running back then was all a grand adventure. Says Bill, “It was kind of like a bunch of guys going to war together.”
“But, you know we didn’t know anything,” Ted says. “Guys now-a-days are running so fast it’s just insane. Now it’s all science and sponsors and stuff. We just ran to run; we just ran to get the shirt.”
In those early days, Ted used a simple store-bought fanny pack to store chips and the PB&J sandwiches he would grab from aid stations. His homemade handheld water bottle featured a strap fashioned from an old wetsuit. To get the calories and energy they needed, Ted and his friends would make sugar water, and sometimes that didn’t work out.
During one Angeles Crest race, near dark, says Ted, “The sugar water I was drinking just turned on me. I plopped down and drank out of a little stream. It was hot out. Really hot, so I didn’t care about giardia or anything. That stream tasted like heaven.”
WS, AC, OD
Ted ultimately ran Western States three times (“three and a half times,” he says. “I say a half because I DNF’d once. Actually, I rode out in the truck that year, 1987, with Tom. If he wasn’t there I don’t know if I would have called it. Well, I also hadn’t peed for 35 miles so maybe it was good to call it”), in 1982, 1983 and 1984 and Angeles Crest twice in 1986 and 1987. In 1985, he placed in the top 10 at Old Dominion 100-miler.
Over time, Ted felt many of the races had become too expensive, so he simply ran on his own, often from his house. Whomever wanted to join him could. Outings ranged from 20 miles to 50 miles, some in the San Gabriel mountains or on Catalina Island.
On one Friday afternoon, he got home from teaching, took a nap, then at around 8 p.m. headed out for a run. He ended up running 50 miles around the Palos Verdes Peninsula, relying on Diet-Coke and PB&J food stashes he had made. The plan was to come home after the run, eat a bowl of cereal, then do it all over again—but he only got to the cereal part.
Up until recently, Ted continued to run, but due to knee and heart issues, is now mainly hiking. He spends his days in running shorts, and his main hobby is making Native American flutes.
Reflecting back on his running life, Ted says, “It was a little out of the ordinary, but I just enjoyed doing it. When my time comes, I hope that they find me dead on the trail with some mud hanging out of my mouth.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Trail Runner.