Brad Blakeman and his Omaha-based Blakeman Engineering signed up to be a first-time sponsor of the 43rd running of the Quad-City Times Bix 7 mainly because his aunt, Elda Mae “Toodie” Ehlers, who lived for many years in Milan.

His company will sponsor the military portion of the Bix, which means all active duty military and up to 2,000 reservists receive free entry to the race.

Sadly, the effervescent woman they lovingly called Aunt Toodie passed away on Dec. 13 at age 89, but that didn’t deter Blakeman.

“I told Ed (Race Director Ed Froehlich) that I would still do it,” Blakeman told a crowd of about 125 who had gathered Wednesday at the Isle Casino Hotel in Bettendorf for the 2017 Bix kickoff event.

But Blakeman admitted another motivation for sponsoring the military portion of the race. His son, Slade 19, is now in the U.S. Navy, assigned to the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, which recently completed a $4 billion refit.

“We’re going to do something special for the military running the race,” Blakeman said. “I won’t say what it is. They’ll find it in their packets, which are just for them.”

Blakeman was one of four new Bix sponsors announced at the event. Dr. Pepper-Snapple Group will provide beverages at the post-race party, while MidAmerican Energy and Western Illinois University will be contributing sponsors.

Joe Rives, vice president for WIU’s planning and technology at the Quad-City Campus in Moline, said that it might seem strange that the university would be a sponsor during a time of “scarce financial resources.”

But, Rives said, the Q2030 Regional Action Plan of the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce indicated that, “we should be a cool place and there’s nothing cooler than a race.”

Besides, Rives said, “a race promotes health and wellness, which we are all for at Western.”

Froehlich said this will be the fifth time the Bix 7 will host the USA Track and Field National 7 Mile Championships for both men and women.

“That means we will be devoting all of our prize money to American athletes this year,” Froehlich said. “So, we do this because we want to supply money to these young people that are trying to make the Olympic teams and contribute to their careers.”

Each winner in the men’s and women’s races will receive $12,500.

“There is more than $50,000 in prize money this year that will go to the American athletes,” Froehlich said.

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Quad-City Times publisher Deb Anselm told the crowd she experienced her first Bix 7 last year.

After hearing all about it, time and again from people, Anselm said, “the hype did not disappoint.”

“Every single event that we were able to take part in last year leading up to the Bix, and I mean event after event after event, was nothing but first class,” she said.

Compliment Froehlich and the teams of volunteers, Anselm said.

“Not only do you bring a world-class event for world-class runners, and every day runners," she said. "But you do it for people like myself who wanted to walk with my family and have fun. We had a ton of fun.”

As the primary sponsor of the event, Anselm told the crowd and the other sponsors that, “It’s an honor to stand next to you, all these companies that support such a great, great event for the Quad-Cities.

“This brand rings loud across many, many states and it rings loud all year long,” Anselm said. “Thanks for letting us be a part of it.”