It takes guts to run 26.2 miles on a hilly course in 30-degree weather with an upset stomach. But that’s just what University Medical School graduate Bob Kempainen had to do at the U.S. men’s Olympic marathon trials on Feb. 17 in Charlotte to qualify for the Olympics.
Not only did Kempainen win the race in a record time of 2:12:45, but he had to fight off his own stomach virus.
Kempainen was running ahead of the pack with only three miles left when he turned to his right and vomited.
He refused to stop, slow down, or even bend over, as he continued to maintain a comfortable lead in the race.
“I wasn’t really surprised that he threw up at the trials,” said Ralph Kempainen, Bob’s father. “Things like that happen.”
In all, Kempainen threw up six times in the last three miles, including a final heave at the finish line.
Along with his first win in a marathon, Kempainen qualified for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field team.
“I think it’s fantastic that he has an opportunity to compete in the greatest athletic thrill in the world,” said Gophers track coach Phil Lundin. “It’s always good to see a hometown boy do good.”
Kempainen excelled in cross- country and track at Hopkins High School. He continued running both sports in college at Dartmouth, where he won the 1990 collegiate national cross-country championship.
His father said Kempainen displayed skills at the high school level to make him one of the nations best runners.
“I really don’t know when I first realized he might be good enough to run at the Olympics,” Ralph Kempainen said. “He had good potential in junior high and high school and his dedication to the sport has paid off.”
An American record-holder in the marathon, Kempainen finished 17th at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. He expects to place in the top 10 on Sunday at the men’s marathon in Atlanta, despite several physical ailments. Since the trials, Kempainen has suffered from tendinitis in both legs, strained quadriceps and a tender hamstring.
His father, however, said the injuries are not on his family’s mind.
“All we’ll have to do is wait and see how well he runs,” Ralph Kempainen said.
In June, Kempainen, 30, graduated from the University Medical School. He will begin a three-year residency Sept. 4 in internal medicine at a Minneapolis hospital.
Kempainen and the other two American men’s marathon runners, Mark Coogan and Keith Brantly, don’t exactly have a positive Olympic history on their sides.
In the last 108 years of the Summer Olympics, the United States has only won two medals in the men’s marathon. Both of those medals, a gold in the 1972 Munich Games and a silver in the 1976 Montreal Games, were won by Frank Shorter.
Despite difficult odds, Kempainen will put his heart — and his stomach — on the line Sunday morning in Atlanta.