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American Past Time
A novel by Len Joy

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Down and Out in the Land Beyond O’Hare

The key to a successful race is preparation. I was prepared for the Evergreen Lake Triathlon. On Friday I had checked out all my equipment, done a mini-triathlon training set (20 minutes for each segment) and started drinking Gatorade and water to get ready for the expected heat and humidity of downstate Illinois.

I drove away at 1:15 PM and figured I would be pulling into the race site right after it opened up at four o'clock. I would get my bike racked in one of the coveted outside positions and then check-in to my hotel for a leisurely early dinner.

The route that Google maps had plotted for me went through Chicago on I-94 and then south on I-55 to Normal. There was construction on I-94 and traffic was slow but still moving and I figured once I got to I-55 everything would be fine. And sure enough, as soon as I took the exit off 94 the highway was virtually empty. Until I went around the last bend and then, for as far as they eye could see, I-55 was a gigantic parking lot. We crept along at about 3 mph for forty minutes.

I wasn't worried. It was cool and comfortable in the car and even if I got to the race site at 6 pm, I would still have plenty of time to set up.

Then I looked at the car's temperature gauge.

It was almost to the red zone – the engine was close to overheating. I immediately turned off the air and opened the windows. The needle dropped back a fraction. I figured once the traffic jam ended I would be fine. The airflow would cool off the engine once the car started moving. We continue to creep along and the stream of cars and trucks ahead of me appeared endless. And now it was full-fledged Friday afternoon rush hour and more cars were anxious to join the parking lot. The needle crept upwards again almost touching the red zone.

At 3:45 I called my friend Andy for advice. He owns the service station where I take my car. He said to turn on the heater full blast. He told me why that was a good idea, but it was so loud with all the trucks all around me I couldn't hear. I followed his advice and the needle dropped, slightly. I was sweating like I was already in the race. I started drinking my race day Gatorade.

At 4:20 we turned a bend in the road and I saw the problem. A tractor trailer truck had crashed on the ramp and there were emergency vehicles and police everywhere. After I passed the carnage, the road was relatively clear. I accelerated to 60 mph, expecting the needle to drop back to the normal zone. It didn't. It moved into the red zone.

I called Andy again. He said it might be that the thermostat is stuck – preventing the radiator from providing coolant. I wasn't going to make it to Normal without getting the car fixed. I live in the northern suburbs. It had taken me three hours to get to the land beyond O'Hare.

I need a new plan. I wasn't going to make it 120 miles. I needed to get the car fixed. Quickly. On a Friday afternoon. And I had no clue where I was. I took the first exit I came to. I stopped at a ramshackle gasmart and asked the kid behind the counter if he knew where there might be a garage. He shook his head. Apparently only paying customers were allowed to hear his voice. I just stared back at him hoping I was using the look that my daughters said used to scare their friends.

Finally he told me there was a Broadway station up the street. I drove there. It was another gasmart. I asked the counterman if he knew of anyplace that could help with an overheated car. He pointed down the road. AutoDoc on Highway 83, he said. I pulled into AutoDoc at 4:55 PM. It looked promising. Multiple bays with real mechanics and a guy working the front counter, with "Mark", embroidered on his workshirt.

Mark was friendly and professional, but he told me they couldn't get to the car until Saturday. He asked if I wanted to leave it. I asked if there was a rental car nearby. My luck had changed. Next door (literally) was an Enterprise location and they had a small SUV that would accommodate my bike easily. It was $132 per day, and I had to rent if for the whole weekend. I told Mark I'd leave my car, and then switched all my gear to the rental car and was back on the road by 5:30 PM.

I made it to Evergreen Lake minutes before they closed down for the evening. I racked my bike and got my race numbers. I drove on to my hotel, checked in, and then hustled over to Steak and Shake for a pre-race meal of cheeseburger and fries (I only ate half). I was four hours behind schedule.

I told myself that I wouldn't let the disruption affect my race performance.

Sometimes I listen to myself. Sometimes I don't.

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