By: Mark Behan – April 24, 2013
Chances are you’ve seen him in the video that played over and over again – an endless loop shown on the news and all-sports stations, and all over the Internet.
Or perhaps you’ve seen his picture. It’s been plastered everywhere, including on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
If you haven’t seen him, then you most likely have heard him interviewed, as everyone’s been chatting up 78-year-old Marathon Man Bill Iffrig. Yes, he’s 78.
When Iffrig journeyed across the country from his home state of Washington to run the 117th Boston Marathon, he probably didn’t envision becoming the icon of this iconic race.
But when you are blown off your feet to the pavement by a senseless bomb blast, stagger to your feet with help from a volunteer, and muster the strength to cross the finish line, then, well, “icon” and “Iffrig” belong in the same sentence.
To recap: Iffrig was the gray-haired competitor wearing an orange singlet – running, um, shuffling down Boylston Street, just yards from the finish line, when the Boston Marathon changed forever.
It was 2:50 p.m. and the retired mason had run more than 26 miles in just north of four hours. He looked good or as good as anyone not from Kenya or Ethiopia would look after snaking his way from Hopkinton to Boston.
But wait. Iffrig was not only a few yards from the finish line, but he was also only yards away from the first bomb when it exploded.
A loud boom reverberated – like the sound of the cannon being fired at Gillette Stadium after a Patriots’ touchdown – and plumes of smoke filled the air. Iffrig went from shuffling to staggering – as if being tasered. His knees buckled, his legs were swept out from under him, and he crumpled to the ground. He shielded his face from the heavy smoke.
The endless-loop video begins to repeat after the shot of a dazed and disoriented Iffrig on the ground and streams of runners scurrying to the other side of the street away from the chaos caused by the explosion. We were left wondering what happened to him.
The still-photo, the one on the cover of Sports Illustrated, shows three police officers with guns drawn leaping into action around Iffrig on the pavement.
Thankfully, a race official soon came to Iffrig’s aid. He helped him to his feet, and the man wearing bib number 19200 crossed the finish line in an impressive 4 hours 3 minutes 47 seconds.
Iffrig’s 15 minutes (of fame) extended – a good thing because it meant he was alive – as he became something of an Internet sensation when the video of him being blown off his feet was viewed almost as often as Justin Bieber’s music video “Baby.”
Iffrig was not injured, fortunately, save for a scraped knee. The bomb’s energy, not shrapnel, drove him to the ground.
“The shockwaves must have hit my body, and my legs just started going like noodles and I knew I was going down right there,” Iffrig told reporters.
He never even considered not crossing the finish line because, well, he’s a marathon runner who has completed 45 marathons, including three Bostons.
“After you’ve run 26 miles you’re not going to stop there,” said Iffrig.
For over a week I have been following nothing but coverage of the Boston Marathon. I’ve been trying to mentally digest what took place. As a writer, I’ve been staring at a blank computer screen for a week searching for words to express the impact of the senseless marathon bombings. As someone who has watched the race in person and run it twice, I took the attack personally.
My last Boston Marathon was 20 years ago. I remember the euphoria surrounding the race – it’s like a 26.2-mile parade with strangers, ordinary people cheering you every step of the way as if you were Tom Brady. It’s a ceremony of innocence. It’s a salute to the human spirit and freedom. I could fill pages about what is good about the Boston Marathon.
I remember crossing the finish line – good race or bad race, everybody remembers finishing the Boston Marathon – thinking there’s no place in the world I’d rather be right now.
At 2:50 p.m. on April 15, 2013, the finish line of this year’s race became a crime scene, an unimaginable scene of horror.
By now you’ve heard runners’ poignant stories (each runner has a story). A woman I know from a local running club was running down Boylston Street approaching the finish when she heard one blast in front of her and then another one behind her. If she hadn’t stopped for a short walking break at 26 miles, thereby delaying her arrival at the first bomb site, she might not be alive today.
I singled out Iffrig because he embodies the spirit of this race. He got up after getting knocked down and finished. Figuratively, we all got knocked down on Marathon Monday. To return our lives to normalcy and to begin to move forward – whatever that may be – we first need to get back up on our feet. And remember, even an icon like Bill Iffrig needed help doing that.