Senior writer Tim Layden reports on Bob Kempainen's courageous
performance at the U.S. Men's Olympic Marathon Trials last
Saturday morning in Charlotte, N.C.
This is an article from the Feb. 26, 1996 issue
A world-class marathoner's misery is usually private, an issue
between the runner and his body, the depth of which is left to
the observer's imagination. There are small clues--a grimace or,
perhaps, an ungainly step--but the best runners are efficient
even in deep distress, and we usually forget how difficult it is
to run so far so fast.
In winning the trials, Kempainen reminded us, graphically and
heroically, just how tough it can be. In the final two miles of
a cold, hostile 26.2-mile race of attrition, after dropping Mark
Coogan and Keith Brantly with three withering surges, Kempainen
became so ill that he vomited five times. These were not routine
pause-and-burp pit stops. Kempainen expelled more fluids than a
month's worth of visitors to E.R.'s trauma rooms. Think orange,
a stomach full of sports drinks consumed en route. Think gallons.
But if Kempainen was carving himself a slice of ignominy with
his televised regurgitation, it was his response to the sickness
that was truly memorable. He twice staggered, as if about to
fall, but never truly broke stride. While engaged in an activity
that people usually conduct hunched over a toilet, he ran two
full miles in 10:05 and actually extended his lead over fellow
Olympic qualifiers Coogan, who would finish second, and Brantly,
who was third. Kempainen won by more than 100 yards, in 2:12:45,
and earned $100,000 for the victory.
His performance left fellow runners awestruck, no small feat in
a sport whose essence is pain tolerance. "This guy is the
toughest human being on the earth," said Brantly. "I would have
started crying and stopped [running]." Ed Eyestone, a two-time
Olympic marathoner who finished 15th, said, "Ralphing for the
last two miles, now that's gutsy.'' Vin Lananna, Kempainen's
coach since 1984, said, "I've never seen anything like this,
from Bob or anybody else.''
Kempainen, a 29-year-old Dartmouth graduate who is scheduled to
finish medical school at Minnesota in April, graciously accepted
the humor in his circumstance. "I ran well between hurling,'' he
said following the race. And later that night the slight, impish
Kempainen allowed that his pressing on amid the upheaval did
"make me look like a hard guy."
He is. Although Kempainen finished 17th in the Barcelona Olympic
marathon, he will go to Atlanta more mature, stronger and deeply
tested. It is hard to imagine an Olympian more deserving of the