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A year after Boston Marathon bombings, Bill Iffrig reflects on tragedy

Photo: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Bill Iffrig was blown off his feet after the Boston Marathon bombs last year, but finished the race.

The bomb went off, and as Bill Iffrig tumbled forward, he smelled gunpowder and saw smoke. Then, chaos.

Roughly a year later, the small details have stuck with him: the legs that felt like cooked spaghetti ... the can that flew by his head ... the other runners in wheelchairs, blood everywhere, their legs covered in shrapnel. He knew right away what had happened -- a terrorist attack.

From the ground, Iffrig could see the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Maybe it was 20 yards away. Maybe it was 20 feet. Someone asked if he was OK. He checked his limbs. No blood. No broken bones. No damaged joints. It did not dawn on Iffrig until later that he managed to escape a bomb blast with a shattered ear drum and all of one scrape.

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One thought overrode all others: I'm going to go over there and finish this thing. So he did. Iffrig picked himself up and stumbled toward the finish. He plodded sideways at times and needed assistance at others. But he crossed, his time good for fourth place among men age 75 to 79, bomb delay included.

"I don't think about it every day," Iffrig said last week as the anniversary approached. "I've not forgotten it. I'll never forget it. I don't dwell on it or anything like that.

"I was so damn lucky."

The world noticed. Even president Barack Obama invoked Iffrig as a metaphor -- the runner in the orange tank top knocked down momentarily but able to rise again. Americans could do the same. People everywhere could do the same.

But Iffrig never saw himself that way, as hero or an icon or a metaphor. He defines himself in simpler terms: father, husband, retired carpenter, as a runner, then and now. He said he did only what any other participant would have done. He finished the race.

Then he trudged six blocks back to the Park Plaza hotel. He figured his wife, Donna, would be worried. They met more than 60 years ago, on a blind date. He knocked, and she feared an official stood on the other side of the door to deliver the news that she most dreaded, to say her husband was in the hospital, or an ambulance, or worse. But it was him, and they hugged and cried and called their children.

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They never expected what happened next. The 24-hour news cycle descended, closed in tight. Reporters called and called. Producers begged and pleaded for interviews. They knocked on the door of the Iffrig's hotel room and sat around like invited guests. Anderson Cooper's producers phoned. So did those for George Stephanopoulos.

Iffrig became a celebrity, if not a reluctant one. He and his wife took walks to avoid the crush. They ate lunches in and around Copley Square. So many patrons recognized them, they hardly ever paid.

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Back home, in Lake Stevens, Wash., neighbors honked and waved at Iffrig when he jogged. They stopped him at the grocery store. He signed autographs. Imagine that. Iffrig said it felt funny, the retired carpenter in such demand.

Mostly, he signed copies of Sports Illustrated, the one where he landed on the cover, in that bright orange tank top, the background smoky and filled with police officers. Iffrig first saw the cover on an airplane. A stewardess handed him a copy. He still has it, somewhere, although he can't remember where exactly. "I was amazed," Iffrig said. "It was such a perfect, iconic shot. It looked like it had been staged."

For months, Sports Illustrated's arrived in the mail. Iffrig estimated he must have signed between 50 and 100 of them. About four or five a day arrived at first. One time, the head of a Boy Scout troop mailed seven copies, one for each member. Iffrig signed his name and marathon time and sent them back.

As weeks turned into months, Iffrig promised his wife all the madness would soon end. "I'm not going to do any more interviews," he told her. For a while, anyway, life approached normal, at least until the anniversary came closer, and then his phone started to ring again.

Iffrig may not dwell on the blast, but the impact lingers. His left eardrum shattered. He has permanent and significant hearing damage. His doctor suggested hearing aids, but he is not sure he can afford them. Iffrig also sustained damage to his right quadriceps, where the muscle anchors at the knee. That happened later. He's able to run and walk and because the injury hardly bothers him and the fact he's 79 years old, he said his doctor recommended against surgery.

Reporters keep calling. One will watch the Boston Marathon with Iffrig on April 21. Others invaded his house to shoot video. Someone else called from France. All of them, Iffrig said, want to know if he planned to run the Boston Marathon this year. The answer is no. Race officials have not even communicated with him.

"I never heard from anybody in that capacity," Iffrig said. "They have kind of ignored the whole thing. They want it to go away."

For Iffrig, it never will. He is a runner, after all, a man who logged more than 45,000 miles, who jogged a few dozen marathons, who completed one in Boston that left him with permanent hearing damage and a never-ending cascade of attention. He survived all that with grace and humility and returned to what he knew. That makes him a hero, reluctant or not.

Iffrig still runs. Of course he does. He runs around his neighborhood. On June 1, he is scheduled to run the Windermere Marathon, in and around Spokane, Wash. Next year, legs willing, he hopes to again run the Boston Marathon. Imagine that. Iffrig will be 80 then, he noted, and better equipped to win his age group. "I'd like to go back," Iffrig said. But if not, he holds no regrets.

He already finished.

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