There was a period back around the turn of the millennium when the last week in July meant I’d be boarding a plane to fly to Davenport, Iowa, for one of the fixtures of the U.S. summer racing circuit, the Bix 7.
The 7-mile race along the banks of the Mississippi forms the third leg of the July Holy Trinity of road racing, which begins in Independence Day with Atlanta’s Peachtree 10K and continues with the Boilermaker 15K in Utica, N.Y. Elite runners from East Africa can make a year’s worth of winnings taking a busman’s holiday on this circuit, and if they find they’re in good form and placing well, extend it into August at Beach to Beacon and Falmouth.
What defines Bix, which celebrates its 40th running this Saturday, are the 3 H’s – heat, humidity, and hills. I’d been warned about the first two before my first trip to the Quad Cities, but there’s nothing to fully prepare you for the steamy air roiling off the Big Muddy, raised to energy-sapping levels by the mid-summer Iowa sun.
The hills were more of a surprise when I first saw them. My expectations of cornfield-flat terrain were shattered when I saw Brady Street, the steep incline that creates instant oxygen debt in the race’s opening mile. The rest of the route, save the final half mile, is unrelentingly undulating, and due to the out and back layout, what is climbed must be descended, and vice versa. There’s an apocryphal story that when Bix was first being planned, organizers envisioned a 10K, but the person measuring the course ran short of time at the 3.5 mile point and figured that was good enough.
The out and back nature of the course means you get to see the leaders coming back on the opposite side of McClelland Boulevard, which can be inspiring or depressing, depending on how far ahead of you they are.
It also allows spectators to get a double dose of race watching; as a result, elaborate and extensive viewing parties, some of which continue hours after the race’s end, line much of the route, and increase the decibel level of the cheering that propels the racers up the hills.
Like many big events, Bix is more than just one race. Besides the obligatory kids races the night before, Bix caters to short distance or climbing specialists with the Brady Street Sprints as a appetizer for the main race. And even within the big Bix, there’s a subset, the Quick Bix, a two miler that sends runners up Brady Street then right back down to a separate finish. You can even opt out of the 7 miler at the top of the hill, and beat everyone else back to the post-race party.
Like virtually every other big race in the country Bix is now timed using transponders embedded in the back of the runners’ race bibs, but it wasn’t always that way. Bix was one of the last big events to stay with pull tags as a scoring system, and my job for the half dozen years I attended the race was to double check those results in time for the noon awards ceremony.
The finish line at Bix was a work of manual scoring art: three separate finish lines, each with six chutes, runners being diverted from one to the other as the flow of finishers grew denser. Hundreds of volunteers, from timers to tag spindlers to callers and recorders, some of whom had been doing the same task for 20 or 25 years, made it all function like a well-oiled machine. For a devotee of timing systems like me, it was like watching an old steam locomotive in operation, a throwback to the technology of a
disappearing age, still functioning as well as the most modern alternative.
So on Saturday I’ll be checking the Quad Cities weather (I hear it’s a rare cool year out there) and looking at the results to see which man and woman walk off with one of the most unique trophies on the circuit, a silver coronet (an homage to Davenport and the race’s namesake, jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbeck).
As it completes its fourth decade, the Bix 7 continues to hold its place in the pantheon of great American road races, events that give the sport continuity, throughout individual seasons and over years and years of history.