Queasy Kempainen captures marathon He gets Olympic spot despite upset stomach

February 18, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In marathons, weary legs often betray the strongest of hearts. Bob Kempainen's legs weren't the problem at yesterday's U.S. Olympic men's marathon trials. Neither was his heart.

His stomach was. In one of the most bizarre and courageous scenes played out at a sports event in recent memory, Kempainen won despite throwing up several times in the last four miles. In fact, the sicker he became, the bigger his lead seemed to grow.

Kempainen threw up no fewer than six times, causing him to stagger once but never stop. The last time came after Kempainen crossed the finish line in a time of 2 hours, 12 minutes, 45 seconds, which was 20 seconds ahead of Mark Coogan and 37 seconds in front of Keith Brantly.

His first marathon victory was worth $100,000 to the 29-year-old medical student. Kempainen broke away from Coogan and Brantly by running a sizzling 4:42 mile between the 22- and 23-mile mark. Coogan sprinted away from Brantly to win the $40,000 second prize. They also made the Olympic team.

"Between hurling, I felt pretty good," said Kempainen, who will resume the last seven weeks of his medical studies at the University of Minnesota a week from tomorrow. "I just tried to focus on staying relaxed. Whenever I started to grind, I could feel it coming."

Kempainen, who plans to practice internal medicine, said that something like that had happened only once before in his six previous marathons, at the end of his first marathon five years ago. Though he figured his legs were strong enough to finish, he wasn't sure his "upset tummy" would allow him to hold onto his lead.

"I was a little worried," said Kempainen, a former Olympian (17th in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992) whose best previous finish in a marathon was a pair of seconds. "But after I threw up the first time, they [Coogan and Brantly] didn't come back."

Afterward, Brantly said that upon first seeing Kempainen get sick, "I thought, 'This guy is the toughest human being on the face of the Earth.' I would have started crying and stopped."

Kempainen's problem was certainly the most visible, but it not the only one suffered on this chilly morning. Though the temperature was not as cold as predicted -- 27 degrees at the start, 38 at the finish -- there were several notable dropouts.

Arturo Barrios, who came in ranked second behind only Brantly, pulled out between the 13th and 14th miles with a torn muscle in his right calf. Mark Plaatjes, who won the marathon in the 1993 world championships shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen, dropped out at a similar point because of an inflammation in the groin area.

"I just got tight because of the cold," said two-time Olympian Ed Eyestone, who nearly dropped out a couple of times before finishing 15th. "I just didn't have it today."

Barely anyone noticed when Paul Zimmerman stopped running. Zimmerman, a 34-year-old engineer considered among the second tier of U.S. marathoners, built more than a minute lead over the first eight miles, sustained it through 12 miles, hung onto a slim lead at 15 miles, and was passed by a huge pack at 16. The rabbit was cooked, dropping out at 20 miles with cold-induced cramps.

"I didn't know who it was," said Kempainen. "I just looked around and saw that all the people who everyone was talking about before the race were still around me."

Said Brantly, "I didn't even know someone was out there until we almost ran over him."

The pack of more than a dozen runners thinned out, leaving the eventual top three to fight it out for first place. It then became what Brantly would call "a drag race." But despite his stomach trouble, Kempainen had more left than Coogan and Brantly.

Kempainen's last drink was an adventure in itself. After failing to grab his bottle of sports drink at 18 miles, Kempainen nearly missed again at 22 miles. He reached behind him and spun around 360 degrees, facing the competition.

"I said to him, 'What are you doing? The race is that way," recalled Brantly.

Asked why he didn't take another drink, Kempainen said, "I took one little sip [at 22 miles) and I said, 'This isn't tasting too good.' I was feeling kind of queasy. It was a sign of the future."

While Kempainen staggered to the finish, Coogan and Brantly celebrated making their first Olympic team with an impromptu low-five with a mile to go. Fierce competitors, it was sweet redemption for both.

Brantly, who earned $30,000 yesterday, had just missed qualifying for the last two Olympic teams, finishing fourth in the 5,000 meters in 1988 and fourth in the marathon in 1992. Though Coogan hadn't come that close, his wife, Gwyn, had finished fourth in the U.S. women's marathon trials a week ago in Columbia, S.C.

"The monkey has been on my back for a long time," said Brantly, 33, who wasn't bothered by the cold weather despite training in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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