EAST MOLINE — A cannon went off. Smoke filled the crowded street. Soldiers and civilians scattered, their faces hard with the look of battle.
All at once everyone cheered with joy.
This was not a war zone or a site of tragedy, but the starting line of the Freedom Run, on 15th Avenue in downtown East Moline.
The military-themed race, now in its seventh year, supports members of the armed forces. It’s an opportunity for civilians and soldiers — populations that share the Quad-Cities but don’t always meet eye-to-eye — to toil together, sweat together, dance together and, at the end of the competition, drink beer together.
“It’s something we can do to come together to celebrate our great nation,” said Julie Johnson, president of the Rock Island Arsenal chapter of the Association of the United States Army (AUSA), about the event.
Proceeds from the race get split between the AUSA and the armed forces nonprofit the United Service Organizations (USO). As previously reported, race funds get used for all sorts of needs for veterans and active soldiers — from helping pay off mortgage payments to assisting veterans who've lost everything in floods.
The 5K race began at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday with the shot heard round the Quad Cities: half a pound of black powder blasted from a Civil War-era replica cannon. The cannon’s owner, Bruce Kindig, of Davenport, said he hopes the cannon brings out the “prestige, nostalgia and heritage” of the United States.
Unlike other races, which begin early on a weekend morning, the Freedom Run is held in the evening, on a Thursday in August.
The unusual timing is by design, said Joe Moreno, race founder and director.
“We wanted to be different. There’s so much going on here on the weekends, so we decided to do what the big cities do," Moreno said. "New York, Chicago, Atlanta — they have races during the week. Why can’t we?”
The race, which is sponsored by Trinity, was moved from the first to the second Thursday in August so as not to conflict with Mississippi Valley Fair last week in Davenport.
This year’s participants lucked out. After an early afternoon downpour, East Moline was comfortably hot and clear-skied through Thursday evening.
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Hundreds of runners, walkers and supporters attended, watching from the sidewalk as participants jetted across the finish line or milling about the warm August dusk with a beer in hand.
In addition to food and drink, the race has live music on the stage at Runners Park. Every race participant received a dog-tag medal placed around their neck by soldiers.
Moreno, who also directs the Quad Cities Marathon and the Firecracker Run, on the Fourth of July, was singled out by numerous race participants for his patriotism and leadership.
“Joe’s races are always top notch,” said Lindsay Cornick, of Davenport, who ran the "double-time loop" race, a roughly 6-mile extension of the 5K course. The Thursday-evening slot didn’t faze her or her husband, who was also running. “We always think of this as our way to kick off our weekend,” Cornick said.
The race is a modest and meaningful boon to downtown East Moline, which has struggled with store vacancies.
Moreno said that East Moline was the only place he wanted the race to be.
“This has been my community forever,” Moreno said. “I grew up here, I went to school here, I was mayor of the city, I served on the city council for 16 years. It’s only natural that I do it in my hometown.”
For several years the talk of East Moline has been the development at The Bend, between 12th Ave and the Mississippi River. The ambitious construction project has netted a new hotel, the Hyatt Place, with a stately top-floor lounge; a new Bass Street restaurant, Combine; a bandshell and festival area; and the sprawling concert and event space The Rust Belt, among other businesses.
Downtown East Moline has benefited from the nearby commerce, but often indirectly.
Events like the Freedom Run bring thousands from across the region directly into the heart of the city. It's a shot of social and economic vitality in a place that needs it.
On the race course, Moreno called this year’s race the “best one” yet.
“When I started this event, I thought we’d be lucky to have 300 runners,” Moreno said. “Now we have 1,300. I’m so proud of the Quad-Cities.”