GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – It's been 40 years since a runner earned the legendary nickname 'Bullet Man' in one of the most bizarre, harrowing marathon tales ever.
On November 4, 1978, a then-26-year-old Dennis Rainer was attempting to qualify for the Boston Marathon by competing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Much of the old course wound its way through rural areas near Grand Valley State’s campus and, as Rainer approached the 10-mile mark, he was unexpectedly knocked to the ground.
“I literally got knocked off my feet,” Rainer said. “It pitched me forward. Almost hit the ground.”
At first, Rainer thought it was a rock or brick thrown by spectators – maybe kids. He did a quick self-check, realized he was alright and kept running.
“Wasn’t a lot of pain, just a throbbing, kind of, in my head and a ringing in my ears,” he said. “Didn’t even occur to me to stop. I just looked around and [kept] going.”
Rainer finished the remaining 16 miles and met his wife. Together, the two went to the medical tent to get checked out. Rainer even grabbed a hot dog on the way. It didn’t take doctors long to see the problem.
“Finally, he said, you know, I don’t know, but I think you’ve been shot,” Rainer recalled the doctor telling him. “I suddenly got real nervous, real sick and thought ‘That explains a lot if that’s what really happened.’”
And, it was. At Butterworth Hospital later, doctors found a .22 caliber slug lodged in the upper part of Rainer’s skull.
Amazingly, he was fine. The bullet was removed, and Rainer was released from the hospital. But, his woes weren’t over – he had still failed to hit the qualifying time for Boston… until his story went public.
“Within an hour, the phone started ringing and didn’t stop ringing for like three days,” he said. “I suddenly became Bullet Man, and it was a lot of fun.”
One of the calls was from the race directors in Boston. They offered him a spot in the 1979 race, despite his time in the Grand Rapids race.
Even to this day, Rainer still runs marathons (he’s done Boston twice), Iron Man races and long-distance endurance runs.
“I don’t know if I could have ever achieved those without the motivation from the Bullet Man incident,” he said. “I think this is gonna be on my tombstone, don’t you?”
Maybe, but not yet.