In the track world, Bob Kempainen is most famous for something he would probably rather forget.
He threw up six times during the 1996 Olympic Trials Marathon, an event which was replayed numerous times on the evening news. Kempainen finished first — actually pulling away from the field — while vomiting.
This, and the fact that he attended medical school during Olympic training, made him known for mental toughness and intensity. About the Olympic trials he says only that “I certainly felt better after I vomited.”
Kempainen dominated American distance running in the 1990s. He won the national cross country championship in 1990, and was the nation’s premier marathoner until he retired from running after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. At the 1994 Boston Marathon he set the U.S. record. Since then only one American, Khalid Khannoucci, has run faster.
Growing up in Minnetonka, Minn., Kempainen followed his brothers into running, first tagging along when as a fourth grader. He starting training in the seventh grade, and went on to win the Minnesota state 3,200-meter championship as a high school senior.
His oldest brother, who attended the University of Vermont, suggested Dartmouth. Kempainen wanted a school with strong academics that had Division I track and cross country. He wanted to leave the Midwest but avoid big cities, and though Dartmouth’s running program was good, “it wasn’t one of the elite programs in the country so I felt I eventually had a chance to make the varsity squad.”
At Dartmouth Kempainen ran for the legendary Vin Lananna — who would remain his coach until 1996. Lananna spent 12 years at Dartmouth before moving to Stanford in 1992. While at Dartmouth his cross country teams went to the NCAA championships every year, and finished second in 1986 and 1987 with Kempainen. Lananna and Kempainen also helped Dartmouth to a track and field Heps title in 1988. It is Dartmouth’s only such title in 72 years .
Kempainen took a year off from the University of Minnesota Medical School to train with Lananna for the Olympics, and later took six-week breaks from medical school to train in Palo Alto. According to Kempainen attending medical school during marathon training was easy because “Minnesota allowed me to take six years to complete medical school. This allowed the extra time to train properly for marathons.”
While at Dartmouth Kempainen majored in biochemistry, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. He found that balancing athletics and academics wasn’t a problem, saying “it’s difficult for me to study for sustained periods without becoming inefficient. Getting out for runs provided a needed break.”
He feels he missed little as a result of his running because his team provided its own social life and he studied about as much as he was able — running or not.
The high point of his Dartmouth running career was “when our team took second place in our first appearance at the NCAA cross country championships. The team exceeded expectations and I ran well (fourth overall).”
Lananna took his teams of good, but not highly recruited, runners and “had a way of getting us not only physically prepared, but also sufficiently motivated and confident to compete with any program in the country.”
After college, Kempainen feels the high points of his career were the national cross country championships and his two U.S. marathon trials in 1992 and 1996. His disappointing, injury-plagued Olympic efforts do not make his list. He enjoyed running cross country the most, but feels there is something special about a marathon because “it merits a certain amount of respect regardless of whether one is fast or slow.”
Currently Dr. Kempainen is at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine in the division of pulmonary, allergy and critical care medicine, where his research interests are the care of cystic fibrosis patients and post-graduate medical education.
Curiously, he feels that the two-year delay in completing his medical education was a good thing for him. “As a competitive athlete I was pretty self-absorbed” he remembers. “By the time I retired from racing, I was ready to focus outward and medicine is a good venue for doing that. I also think the discipline of being an athlete is similar to the discipline it takes to be a good physician.”
Reminiscing about his running career with Lananna, Kempainen says, “Vin certainly has an edge to him. Running for him was simultaneously hard work and a good time. I’d like to think I have some of his passion, high expectations, and enjoyment of work embedded in me.”
It’s a fair bet that Lannana is proud to know that Kempainen sees him as the source of these qualities. And more than one young athlete with medical aspirations must wish he or she had never heard of Kempainen, because while they’re putting off medical school until after their athletic career — Kempainen was able to do it all at the same time.
This story was written by Suzanne Eschenbach in 2007 in conjunction with the Ivy@50 celebration.