Heat and humidity can do funny things TO a marathoner's brain. It was 70° and muggy in New York City on Sunday, so one began to fear for Bob Kempainen when 21 miles into the New York City Marathon, he pulled even with the leader, Andrès Espinosa of Mexico. Was this move a product of cool reason or of a fevered brain?
The 30-year-old Espinosa. after all, had a marathon best of 2:10:00. He had finished second in New York the past two years and was one of the stars in this year's glittering field. The 27-year-old Kempainen, on the other hand, is a student at the University of Minnesota medical school who had just begun his rotation in neurology at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and had worked until late Thursday afternoon. His best marathon before Sunday had been a relatively humble 2:12:12. "If I were betting on the basis of our credentials," Kempainen confessed later, "I wouldn't have put a lot on me."
But Kempainen is the very soul of shrewd patience, a competitor whose long career has taught him that steady gains are the essence of distance running. He took up the sport as a fifth-grader in Minnetonka, Minn., but it was not until his senior year at Hopkins-Lindbergh High that he won a state track title. At Dartmouth, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1988, Kempainen steadily lowered his 10,000-meter times. He ran his first marathon in 1991, finishing second in the Twin Cities Marathon. The following spring he qualified for the '92 U.S. Olympic marathon team despite having to run the trials race with a stress fracture in one knee and tendinitis in the other. He finished 17th in Barcelona and waited 15 months to run another marathon.
"He fits into a unique group of American distance runners," says Dr. David Martin, an exercise physiologist who advises the top U.S. runners. "He focuses on a big race for six months. You won't see much of him, but when you do, he'll be extraordinarily motivated."
That is precisely the way Kempainen ran on Sunday. For the first half of the race, he was nowhere to be seen. While the runners in the lead pack made little sorties to the front, he waited. They fell away one by one. At 21 miles, as Kempainen and Espinosa swept into Harlem, the 6-foot Kempainen briefly took the lead, his long strides carrying him ahead of the efficient little ones of the 5'1" Espinosa. But in the 23rd mile Espinosa surged. "He shifted into a gear I didn't have," said Kempainen. Even over the hills of Central Park, Espinosa ran sub-five-minute miles. He finished in 2:10:04.
Kempainen did not falter either. He finished second, in 2:11:03. "Maybe because of the heat it was a better performance than I realize," he said. Indeed, it was the fastest marathon by an American in more than three years and was good enough to claim some impressive scalps. Coming in third, in 2:12:21, was Arturo Barrios, the former world-record holder in the 10,000.
Thus, onto Kempainen's bony shoulders fall many of the expectations for U.S. marathoning. It has been a long time since an American looked capable of competing with the Africans and Mexicans who have dominated the event for a decade. With his sights set on Atlanta, Kempainen has persuaded Minnesota to let him stretch his final two years of school over three. One suspects that this will give him a healthy balance. "I wouldn't react well to having just one thing in my life," said Kempainen.
No need to worry: He was due back in the hospital the next morning at eight o'clock sharp.