Subscribe for 33¢ / day

The first one was a rocky enough experience that you kind of wondered if it might be the last one.

The inaugural Alcoa Jr. Bix 7, in 1998, was that awful.

“It was organized chaos … and I might be stretching the organized part,’’ said Ron Egger, a longtime assistant race director for the Quad-City Times Bix 7. “But we survived and made some changes.’’

The event has survived, too. It will be held for the 20th time on July 28, as always on the eve of the iconic race through the streets of Davenport.

It now will be known as the Arconic’s Jr. Bix 7 — the company that has sponsored the event from the very beginning has changed its name — and it will again provide a chance for about 3,000 youngsters to test their athletic acumen, in many cases for the very first time.

It has become of one of the best junior road races in the country after a beginning that long-time Bix 7 race director Ed Froehlich admits was “a mess.’’

“But it was only a mess for one year,’’ he said. “After that, we got really organized and the whole thing has run really smoothly since then. It’s one of the best events of its kind in the country.’’

Perennial Bix 7 participant Joan Samuelson, who has developed a kids race in conjunction with her own Beach to Beacon 10k in Maine, said she thinks races like the Jr. Bix 7 fill an important role on the running scene.

“I think it’s a good thing for running,’’ she said. “I think it’s great to have an event for them as opposed to having kids run 10k or 7-mile races before they really should be running. It gives them an alternative for the upper age groups, where they can be competitive …

“I really don’t think kids under 14 should be running 10ks so it provides a forum for them to run age-appropriate distances.’’

Through the years, the Jr. Bix 7 has helped foster interest in distance running among local youth. Many local track stars point to it as a catalyst in their development into running stars.

Included in that group is recent Davenport Assumption graduate Joy Ripslinger, who this spring became the first Iowa high school athlete to win the 400, 800, 1500 and 3000 meters at the state track meet, and who will serve as the Beat the Elite entry for this year’s Bix 7.

“That’s where my passion for running began,’’ Ripslinger said, pointing back to her participation as a 7-year-old in the 2006 Jr. Bix 7.

Froehlich said he first got the idea for a kids race when he attended the Carlsbad 5,000 in California in the 1990s.

Carlsbad had pioneered the idea of having a junior race and Froehlich liked the idea of doing something similar in Davenport.

Alcoa had been involved for many years as a supporting sponsor of the main Bix 7 race and the company’s vice president of communications, Tim Wilkinson, was interested in becoming more involved. It was a perfect fit. Alcoa became the first and only sponsor of the junior race.

Rough start

The first Alcoa Jr. Bix 7 was held on July 24, 1998, the night before the regular Bix 7.

Froehlich, Egger and other Bix 7 officials thought they had things very well-organized. They were going to run all the races, for runners ages 1 through 12, on 4th Street in Davenport with the big post-race party taking place in the Quad-City Times parking lot.

And it was going to be quite a party, featuring all sorts of different refreshments for the kids plus balloons, clowns, a dunk tank, a moonwalk, karaoke, face-painting, a petting zoo and an autograph booth with local minor league athletes.

They had measured off varying distances for the different age groups, ranging from 70 yards for kids ages 5 and under all the way up to 7/10s of a mile for kids 8 to 12.

Egger said as the day of the inaugural event approached, there were about 1,500 entries. It all seemed very manageable.

Since it was a new event, many local parents weren’t sure whether or not to enter their kids. But with the weather unseasonably pleasant in the week leading up to the race, the number of entries swelled on the final day of registration to about 5,000.

It remains the largest first-time junior race ever held. Anywhere. Any time.

“The biggest thing was it was just too many kids,’’ Egger said. “We thought we were going to have 1,500.’’

The result was little bits of chaos everywhere. Kids running everywhere, not sure where or when to line up. Parents and grandparents milling about, not sure what to do or how to act.

“I think we had many more parents and grandparents than we had kids,’’ long-time Bix committee member Karl Ungurean said.

Froehlich had planned to just stand back and be a spectator, but he finally jumped into the mayhem he saw and tried to get things organized.

KWQC had a motorcycle that was supposed to lead one of the races but it took off too early with all the kids following. Froehlich ran after the throng of runners, screaming for them to stop. He finally was able to get that race organized and started properly.

The organizers also had underestimated how much time it would take to run that many races on one street. Things got started at 6 p.m. and darkness was beginning to creep across the horizon by the time the final race was run.

“It was quite a kickoff to it,’’ Egger said, able to smile about it now.

The number of entries is now capped at 3,500 to protect against overcrowding. And the races are now run on both 3rd and 4th Streets with the littlest kids on one side, older kids on the other.

“It was the only way we could run that many kids and keep it in some sort of a time frame,’’ Egger said.

There is more signage to direct people where to go and a public address announcer oversees the whole thing from an elevated position in the Times parking lot to let people know what is happening. There is a “lost parents’’ tent for people who have trouble finding their children following races.

Suffice it to say the kinks have been ironed out.

Star-studded field

That first Jr. Bix 7 was like the others that have followed in one way: It included plenty of kids who were destined to do big things in sports.

Among the entries that first year were 4-year-old Bennett Moser of Wapello, Iowa, who went on to win state high school championships in the 1,600 and 3,200 in 2012; 8-year-old Devin Albaugh, who ran track at Iowa State and Minnesota State; 10-year-old Jenna Bieri, who attended Syracuse University on a track and cross country scholarship; and 2-year-old Mason Tope, who became a high school star at Davenport Central and won the Bix 7’s High School Challenge in 2014.

Two kids who ran in that first Jr. Bix 7 — 11-year-old Tim Jackson of Bettendorf and 8-year-old Willie Argo of Davenport — later were named Quad-City Times high school athletes of the year for their exploits in major team sports.

Other kids in that first race who went on to become star athletes in various sports included Anna Cullinan, Zach Fries, Sydney Lunardi, Alexa Harris, Billy Daniel, Mallory Youngblut, Lisa Trizzino, Kaycee Kallenberger and Jacob Scudder.

And there was a little 11-year-old from Bettendorf named Patrick Angerer, who has since been inducted into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame for his exploits as a linebacker at Iowa and in the NFL.

Egger, a former high school track coach, said he thinks the Jr. Bix 7 has helped spur kids’ interest in all sports, not just running.

“I just think it’s a fun event,’’ he said. “We try to make it fun … Even though it’s work, they like to have fun. And that was part of the thing when the Jr. Bix started, we had the hot dogs and the food and all that kind of stuff. And they come out and everybody got a medal, and it just continues to grow.’’