Running champion and national symbol Bill Iffrig dies at 89

The longtime Lake Stevens resident and masters national champion became the symbol of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Bill Iffrig (Photo provided by Doug Beyerlein)

Bill Iffrig (Photo provided by Doug Beyerlein)

Bill Iffrig, the masters running national champion who gained national notoriety when his image became a symbol of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, has died. Iffrig passed away in Marysville on Jan. 8 from natural causes. He was 89.

Iffrig was one of the most accomplished masters runners ever produced by Snohomish County. The Everett native and longtime Lake Stevens resident won dozens of age-group national championships — he was a finalist for The Herald’s 2009 Man of the Year in Sports award after he won the USA Track and Field cross country national championship in the men’s ages 76-79 division.

But the moment that thrust Iffrig into the national spotlight came on April 15, 2013. Iffrig was just steps away from crossing the finish line at the Boston Marathon when the first of two bomb blasts detonated, the force of the blast knocking Iffrig to the ground. The photo of Iffrig, clad in his orange tank top and beginning to pull himself off the ground as police officers raced to his aid, became the defining image of the tragedy as it graced the cover of magazines and the front page of newspapers. His name was even invoked by then-President Barack Obama, who lauded Iffrig’s perseverance for getting back up and finishing the race.

“I kind of joked that falling down in that race was the best thing that ever happened to him,” longtime running partner Doug Beyerlein said. “It made him famous for all the wrong reasons. But in local running circles he was famous long before that because of his accomplishments.”

Iffrig was known for his humility and hard-working nature. He began working as a carpenter for Weyerhaeuser shortly after graduating from Everett High School in 1953, spending 20 years with the company before it closed its plant. He then worked as a brick mason for the Scott Paper Company before retiring in 1994.

While working for Weyerhaeuser Iffrig began building his house in east Everett, now Lake Stevens, all by himself, spending his evenings doing framing, plumbing and wiring after putting in a full shift at the plant. He and his family ended up occupying the house for 53 years.

“He was just a salt-of-the-earth type of guy,” Iffrig’s son, Mark, said. “He was just humble, hard working and kind.

“If you didn’t know he was a runner and didn’t bring it up, he’d never talk about it to you. If he lost a race he acted like nothing happened, and if he won a race he acted like nothing happened. He’d just come home and work in the yard.”

Iffrig didn’t discover running until he was in his 40s. His main outdoor pursuit at the time was mountain climbing, but when some of his fellow climbers invited Iffrig to join them in a training run it changed Iffrig’s destiny. Despite his late start to running, Iffrig became one of the nation’s top distance runners in his age group. At one point Iffrig owned Northwest Runner Magazine’s fastest times for runners in their 70s in all four distances the publication tracked: 5 kilometers, 10 kilometers, half marathon and marathon.

“He was just a phenomenal runner,” Beyerlein said. “He was one of those super-talented people, and he was very hard working, too. He just really had all the skills and determination to be a really good runner.

“He used to keep log books of every single run he did,” Beyerlein added. “He had all the statistics and information, including who he ran with that day. He could open the book up, pick out a date and say, ‘I did this at the track with these runners,’”

True to his humble nature, Iffrig never basked in the fame he gained from the Boston Marathon bombing.

“What I thought was, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It’s not that big a deal,” Iffrig said in a 2013 interview with The Herald after being asked about being name dropped by the president.

“I’m just so glad to be alive,” Iffrig added. “I was so lucky and I realized that right away. I can’t get over how lucky I was.”

Iffrig’s wife of 69 years, Donna, died in November. Iffrig is survived by his son Mark, his daughter Susan Shephard, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

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