April 16, 2013

Silver-Haired Silver-Lining to the Boston Marathon Explosions. ~ Julie Miller, MSW

In the wake of yesterday’s Boston Marathon Explosions, several images will remain burned in the nation’s memories for years to come: runners, sweaty, 25 miles deep into the race of their lifetimes; bystanders, dazed and forlorn; limbs bloodied and exposed; and flags from around the world toppled to the ground, sprawled among glass and debris.

One of the first images and pieces of footage surfacing from yesterday’s explosions on Boylston Street offered an unlikely glimmer of hope amidst chaos and darkness: a thin, silver-haired runner just a feet away from the finish line, propping himself up. This image has been e-mailed, shared, tweeted and re-tweeted.

Who is this man?

He is Bill Iffrig and he is not your poster-child marathon runner. Bill Iffrig is 78 years old. This was his third time running the Boston Marathon. He is a veteran of 45 marathons. He regularly competes in national sporting championships, and wins.

According to Iffrig, he has logged over 46,000 miles to date of pounding the pavement. He is a retired mason worker from Lake Stevens, Washington. Iffrig, wearing bib number 19200 over an orange tank top (pictured) was running on the opposite side of the street from most runners, which is why he was the only runner to fall to the ground. “I got down to within 15 feet of the finishing apron and just tremendous explosion, sounded like a bomb went off right next to me.”

His knees buckled and down he went. As we see in the video footage (:10), runners either rushed towards the finish line out of sheer determination (or confusion) or stopped, knowing that something was, indeed, very wrong.

The photo of Iffrig circulating around the world captures a moment that will live on in infamy: a brief and profound blip in time.

Smoke is beginning to curl in the air, the police officer on the left has drawn her gun, and the crowds are beginning to scatter.

Says John Tlumacki, photographer responsible for this photo, “I was focused on a couple children coming over the finish line. And then the blast occurred, and everybody was just screaming,” he explained. “[Iffrig] fell in front of me and then the Boston police officers that were near him started drawing their guns. It was just a panic on people’s faces.”

Just moments after this shot was taken, Iffrig was helped to his feet by the city officials pictured, and then proceeded to walk the last 12 feet across the finish line. “I ended up second in my division,” he said. “After you’ve run 26 miles you’re not going to stop there.” When all was said and done, Iffrig’s timing chip marked his final time at 4 hours, 3 minutes, 47 seconds. He then walked a half-mile to his hotel.”Not many old guys are as fast as me,” he says.

We are looking at triumph in the face of tragedy and perseverance and resiliency beyond belief.

This photo of Bill Iffrig captures more than just “an old guy crossing the finish line.” This photo captures change in its most nuanced state. We see the deterioration of an American tradition with the emergence of an American icon. We see the scope of international terrorism widen as the constraints of generational stereotypes crumble.

As terrorism continues to take on new shades, so does the face of aging. 78 is no longer parked in front of your TV. 78 is running 45 marathons and finishing that last twentieth of a mile, explosion or no explosion, dammit.


The Herald Business Journal: “Lake Stevens Runner Just Feet From Blast in Boston,” by Bill Sheets

The Huffington Post: “Bill Iffrig, 78-Year Old Runner Knocked Down In Boston Explosion Photo, Got Up And Finished Race”

CNN Online Blog: “Bill Iffrig, subject of iconic “Boston Globe” photo: “The shock waves hit my whole body…my legs just started jittering around…I knew I was going down,” by Jason Kurtz

Photo Credit: John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe via Associated Press

Julie Miller, MSW is a Research Associate at the MIT AgeLab and an Adjunct Instructor at Northeastern University. She is a gerontological social worker by training and producer of “Vibrant Aging” films. She can be reached via email at: [email protected].


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Ed: Sara Crolick/Kate Bartolotta


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