By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
LAKE STEVENS — Over the ensuing days, there were to be many moments of surprise and astonishment for Bill Iffrig.
Like the scores of e-mail and phone messages from family and friends, all wishing him the best. Like the interview requests from international media, including all the major U.S. television networks. Like his picture on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated magazine. Like the mention from President Barack Obama during a Thursday speech.
But before all that — and, in fact, the reason for all that — there were those terrifying moments on the pavement of a bomb-stricken Boston street.
“When I was (falling), the thought rushed through my head that, ‘Hey, maybe this is it. Maybe I’m done,’” Iffrig said Saturday, one day after returning with his wife Donna to their Lake Stevens home.
Even now, he added, “I’m just so glad to be alive. I was so lucky and I realized that right away. I can’t get over how lucky I was.”
The 78-year-old Iffrig was in Boston for Monday’s 117th Boston Marathon, the most prestigious road race in this country and perhaps anywhere in the world. Having completed 26 miles, he had just turned onto Boylston Street for the final few blocks to the finish line when two bombs went off in succession.
Iffrig, who was running his 45th marathon, was the runner closest to the first blast, maybe 30 or 40 feet to his left. The explosion caused his knees to buckle, and his collapse was captured by video and still photographers at the scene. Those images were among the first to be transmitted around the world.
The explosion “was a blast I couldn’t believe,” Iffrig said. “It was so loud. It was deafening. And it seemed like it was right next to me.”
Though it took him a while “to get my wits about me again,” he never considered quitting the race. “I was pretty sure I wasn’t hurt … and I wanted to get to the finish line,” he explained. “The thought didn’t even enter my head to just lay there and forget about it.”
Eventually he rose and continued the few remaining strides to the line, completing his race in 4:09. “It was a good time,” he said. “I felt very happy with my time.”
There was, by then, chaos around him. Wheelchairs intended for injured runners were now being used to transport the wounded. Many of them “were bleeding badly,” Iffrig said. “It was a real battle scene.”
After convincing race officials and medical personnel that he was unhurt, he walked six blocks to the Park Plaza Hotel where Donna Iffrig — she had heard the explosions and the emergency sirens — was waiting in their hotel room.
“She was in tears because she was expecting the worst,” he said.
The incident, Donna Iffrig said, has been “hard to get through. I thought maybe he wasn’t going to return.”
Remarkably, Bill Iffrig suffered no injury worse than a slight scrape on his knee from the fall. “But the rest of the day things were pretty weird in my ears, this (left) one in particular,” he said.
The Iffrigs had planned to spend a few days sightseeing in Boston following the race, “but after this happened we just lost interest in doing anything like that,” he said. They stayed mostly in their hotel room, “glued to the TV and glued to the telephone.”
Once Iffrig’s identity became known, the interview requests began pouring in. He figures he did 15 interviews while in Boston, and he is still getting more calls. On Saturday, just before meeting a reporter and photographer from The Herald, Iffrig was on the phone with a reporter from Runners World magazine, setting up another interview for Tuesday.
Obama traveled to Boston on Thursday, and in his remarks at an interfaith memorial service for the victims — three killed, at least 180 wounded — he cited Iffrig as an example of courage and determination.
“Like Bill Iffrig, 78 years old, the runner in the orange tank top that we all saw get knocked down by the blast, we may be momentarily knocked off our feet,” Obama told the crowd. “But we’ll pick ourselves up. We’ll keep going. We will finish the race.”
Asked about the president’s praise, Iffrig smiled. “What I thought was, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It’s not that big a deal,” he said.
It was at the Boston airport on Friday that Iffrig got his first glimpse of this week’s Sports Illustrated. A flight attendant handed him a copy with the cover photo of Iffrig sprawled in the street and four police officers — one with pistol drawn — reacting to the bomb blasts.
Donna Iffrig finds the picture disturbing, but her husband figures he will get it framed and put it on the wall. Likewise, he will save other mementos from the race, including a souvenir program, his finisher’s medal, his bib number (No. 19200), and the distinctive orange singlet he wore on that fateful day.
They will evidently be his final Boston keepsakes because on Saturday he vowed that he would not enter the Boston Marathon again.
A year ago Iffrig ran on a hot, humid Boston day and it took him 7 1/2 hours to finish, leaving his wife to fret anxiously back in their hotel room as she waited to hear that he was OK. This year she was fretting again, albeit from different circumstances.
“It was pretty hard on my family (the last two years),” he said. “And they just don’t want me to put everybody through that again.” Although he expects to continue running, including more marathons, “I’m not going to Boston again,” he said.
“And I’m divorcing him if he does,” Donna Iffrig said, at last managing a smile.