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CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

Bomb blast couldn't keep him down in Boston

Blown off his feet by explosion, Bill Iffrig, 78, got up and finished his 45th marathon. He had only a scraped knee and is looking forward to his next race.

April 25, 2013|Chris Erskine
  • Bill Iffrig poses in his living room with wife Donna while holding the Sports Illustrated magazine that features him on Boylston Street in the blast zone near the Boston Marathon finish line.
Bill Iffrig poses in his living room with wife Donna while holding the Sports… (Ken Lambert / Associated…)

Called up Bill Iffrig the other morning; he answers — no agent, no publicist. We chat awhile about running and how he came to be America's most famous marathon man.

Iffrig is the older gentleman — all table legs and elbows — blown off his feet in Boston last week, crumpling to the ground as if fragged by shrapnel, bystanders rushing to his side.

Looped over and over in the hours after the crash, it was something you almost had to have seen on TV, or later on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

What you maybe didn't see, as the camera moved closer to the flash point amid the smoky mayhem, is Iffrig rising from the ground and taking the final 15 steps to the finish line — a sensational, improbable, inspiring Iwo Jima moment in American sports.

If anything proves that you will get up off the ground after being knocked down, it's getting up off the ground after being knocked down ... in an apparent terrorist attack, at the tender age of 78, hell's bells ringing in your ears.

If anyone should make us feel good about our better selves, it's Bill Iffrig, a carpenter by trade, but a man who made history with his feet in Boston, the town where America was born.

Fifteen wobbly steps to the finish. Fifteen wobbly steps to moving on.

::

How tough is this guy?

Iffrig has run 45 marathons, three in Boston. Last year's race, in ridiculous heat, took him seven hours.

This year, in near-perfect running weather, the race took him four hours and nine minutes, a fine time at any age, a mini-miracle in itself.

The Boston Marathon is famously tough to begin with, hilly and punishing. Starts out narrow, nothing more than a cattle chute, with a field of runners so thick that you can hardly pass anyone in the first five miles.

Iffrig finished fourth among men ages 75-79, with only a scraped knee as a result of the blast.

How tough is this guy? Tougher than the streets he fell on.

"The noise was deafening, the kind that you never forget," he says by phone from Lake Stevens, Wash., north of Seattle, in the house he built with his own hands when he was 30.

"As I was going down, I was thinking this might be it for me," he says. "One of the guys at the finish line came and helped me up.

"Non-runners don't know what that's like, the last part of a race like this, but the finish line was 20 feet away. I had to finish.

"After I finished, they brought out a wheelchair and I said, 'Why don't you give that to someone who needs it more?'"

His first concern was to assure his wife of 58 years, Donna, that he was OK. On race-weary legs, he walked six blocks to the Park Plaza and found her — the woman he met on a blind date six decades ago. As sirens blared outside, they went to their hotel room and tried to settle jangled nerves.

"When it really sunk in is when I talked to my son," Iffrig remembers. "He said 'Dad, do you realize how lucky you are?'

"What are the chances of that happening?" the retired carpenter says now. "How lucky was I?"

It's not entirely a question.

::

Iffrig will be 79 in June, a point in life when it's fair to think you've seen it all.

He dwells now on how fortunate and unfortunate he was at the same time in Boston, to be in that exact spot at that particular time, yet to come away with only a scraped knee and a little soreness.

He thinks now about how a 26.2-mile race almost cost him his life, but also how 40 years of distance running have made him happier, stronger, grittier than he ever would've been otherwise.

He thinks of his next race, in May up in Spokane, a 12K called the Bloomsday, and about how he needs to start training for that right away.

He thinks about running next year in Boston, a race that will be especially resonant.

"I don't have any plans of going back right now — that's what my wife says," he explains with a chuckle.

Yep, after 78 years, 45 marathons, 58 years of marriage, a passel of kids, you'd think you'd seen all that life can throw your way.

Fifteen wobbly steps later, Bill Iffrig finally has.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com/erskinetimes

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