Pastor Mike Wolford's Dipsea history inspired by "Dipsea Demon"
Running in the Dipsea Race has become a spiritual awakening for Michael Wolford. Literally.
Now a pastor of three congregations in the beautiful hills of Arkansas near the Ouatchita mountain range, he has returned to a race from his childhood that he nearly won in 1968 and he is bringing his own family with him. Pastor Mike and his sons, Isaac and Seth, are entered in the 112th Dipsea aiming to improve on their performances in 2018 when the boys both qualified for Invitational status after their dad actually beat them both to the finish line in their Dipsea debuts in 2016.
Pastor Mike has words of wisdom for his family and for his congregation or anyone else who would like to listen.
“Running could help keep you healthy and balanced in life until you are 100 years old,” Pastor Mike says. “It did for Jack Kirk.”
Pastor Mike, now 65, speaks from experience. He was first inspired to run in the Dipsea by a Dipsea legend, the late Jack “The Dipsea Demon” Kirk. Pastor Mike met the Demon as a three-year-old when his dad, Monte Wolford – a two-time winner of the Pikes Peak Marathon -- worked with Kirk in Yosemite National Park. Kirk, perhaps the Dipsea’s greatest ambassador, often visited Monte and Pastor Mike’s two brothers at their family house in nearly and Oakhurst where they would run in the neighborhood hills.
They also attended the same church, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, as Kirk. He took the boys on nature walks after church and after lunch to show the family various flowers in the hills.
Kirk’s reclusive 400-acre property off Buckeye Road in Mariposa was filled with such wildflowers. The Wolford family was one of the few privileged people to be invited to the ranch, where Kirk lived for years without electricity and running water.
“He was like part of our family. He even let us keep our five horses on 40 acres of his property and helped fix fence,” Pastor Mike says. “When I began to date the girl, I am married to today, I took her to meet my friend Jack. It was a great visit.”
Naturally Kirk inspired and wooed the Wolfords to run the Dipsea race where he eventually compiled a record of 67 consecutive finishes. Kirk last entered the Dipsea at the age of 96 in 2002.
It was in 1966 that the Wolfords made their Dipsea debut as a family, including Patricia, Monte’s wife, who provided moral support. Pastor Mike placed 202nd in his first Dipsea. His dad finished 258th. Kirk placed 61st, but the next year the Dipsea Demon, at the age of 60, won the race for the second time, 16 years after winning the Dipsea for the first time.
Pastor Mike quickly learned the gospel about the Dipsea. In 1968, Pastor Mike, then 11 years old, came out of nowhere to contend for the championship. His main competition was Kirk, a longtime family friend, and Don “Mr. Dipsea” Pickett, who Pastor Mike had never met.
“I met Don Picket for the first time when he passed me and gained seven seconds on me by the finish,” Pastor Mike says. “He told me in more recent years around 2015 when he came to watch the Dipsea and be with the runners that when he caught me on the finish line in 1968, he almost let me go ahead and win. His coach was standing right there and shouted to him to Go!”
As it turned out, Pastor Mike finished runner-up to Mr. Dipsea in 1968, and one spot ahead of the Dipsea Demon, two of the greatest monikers in Dipsea history.
“Jack was very encouraging to me that day,” Pastor Mike recalls. “He was very energetic in waving his hand multiple times, urging me to go ahead of him. He wanted me to win!”
Three years later, in 1971, Pastor Mike won the fastest high school runner trophy. That year nine-year-old Michael Boitano became the youngest male winner of the Dipsea outlasting Norman Bright, another future Dipsea Hall of Famer, and Ron Elijah who set a course record that day with a time of 46:08. Elijah broke his own course record three years later.
That was Pastor Mike’s last Dipsea for a long time. It wasn’t until 2005, at the age of 47, that he returned to the Dipsea, but it took some getting used to. He started in the Runner’s Section and placed 609th overall in his return after 34 years, but his time was close to the time he posted when he was 14 years old. Mike got hooked by the Dipsea again.
Sharing the good news of the Bible can be time-consuming, however. His job and his purpose have taken him to seminars across the country and abroad as well as pastoring churches in Colorado, Indiana, California, and Arkansas.
“After running in 2005 my job made it impossible to run in 2006,” Pastor Mike says. “However, I received Invitational status to the Dipsea in 2007 and came in 36th place, followed by a 37th and a 40th and perhaps a 41st. finish. The course was still fun, and the race was a rewarding experience.”
Pastor Mike’s dedication to the Dipsea was rewarded, too. Finally, in 2014 and again in 2015, Pastor Mike earned his only two Dipsea Black Shirts by placing in the Top 35.
“I have the black shirts in my room at home. I also have most of the other survivor shirts still,” Pastor Mike says, “I think one thing that kept me coming back was the childhood memories and the simple excitement and fun of running with all the runners.”
Pastor Mike wanted to share that excitement with his sons. Then the pandemic happened, and they had to stay home and wait.
“I decided that it would be a good experience for my sons to run again and decided to join them even though I have some limitations with my knees,” Pastor Mike says, “My daughter and two sons have come with my wife and me to the Dipsea since they were babies. The boys ran in the race twice a few years back. We decided to come again. This will be about my 18th. time running it, maybe more.”