Mike McGuire was standing at the finish line of the men’s distance medley relay. His arms were crossed, and he was staring at a stopwatch. He was chuckling.
“Wait until you see how fast you ran,” said McGuire, the assistant coach of the Michigan women’s track and field team, to Mason Ferlic.
The fifth-year senior — who had just finished the anchor 1,600-meter leg — had caught up to the lead runners and put the Wolverines in third place after the pack had trailed for most of the race.
“3:55,” McGuire said.
Overhead on the board, the final time of 9:27.67 flashed. It was good enough to qualify for nationals and three seconds better than their goal of 9:30. And, even though nobody knew it at the time, they broke the school record made in 2004 by national champions Nate Brennan, DarNell Talbert, Andrew Ellerton and Nick Willis. Both Brennan and Willis went on to be Olympians.
All Ferlic could respond was, “How did this happen?”
* * *
In the Alex Wilson Invitational last weekend in South Bend, Ind., the Michigan distance medley relay team was run by, in order, sophomore Chase Barnett in the 1,200-meter leg, fifth-year senior Phil Washington III in the 400-meter segment, sophomore Brennan Munley in the 800-meter portion and Ferlic.
Originally, however, Washington was only considered an alternate. Freshman Taylor McLaughlin was set to run just that morning.
“I actually came to the track in khakis and (Timberlands) so I was really not prepared to run,” Washington said. “But (McLaughlin) said, ‘Oh, I threw up this morning,’ so I was like, ‘All right.’ I just started warming up with him, and throughout the warmup, he was filling me in and saying he felt queasy, but he wasn’t sure if it was nerves or not. So I told him to keep on warming up because this was a huge opportunity.
“(Assistant coach Kevin Sullivan) made the call 10 minutes before (that I was running) and at that point I was freaking out. Outside I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready,’ but on the inside I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ ”
Washington — who has been plagued by injuries for the past two seasons — has been struggling to regain footing as a competitor for the Wolverines. Going into the meet, he was divided between cheering for his teammates and being disappointed in potentially only riding his teammate’s success to championship season without contributing.
“I had to start stretching and doing some sprints,” Washington said. “Normally, I think about my race, but this was a lot different because I didn’t have to think. I just went right in, and when I got the baton, I kind of blanked out and just went for it.”
The rest of his teammates had the same “go for it,” attitude. Program history dictates Michigan has been a formidable opponent in the distance medley relay event, but Michigan coach Jerry Clayton and Sullivan had been wary of putting athletes in the event until this year.
They were waiting for the right group of guys.
“We needed to have the right athletes in place to make (the distance medley relay team),” Sullivan said. “We weren’t going to waste a race on the DMR. We just weren’t at that place last year. This has been, historically, a great event for track and field. We have some of the fastest times ever in the country. It has been a really important part of our program. We wanted to build until we had a team that had a group of guys ready to compete for nationals.”
But this season’s distance medley relay team was not expecting to do anything but try to secure a spot in nationals.
In Michigan’s indoor training facility, a board that is hung up lists off the records. Every Wolverine dreams of having their name up there.
“I remember looking at the board and seeing it and thinking there’s not a chance in hell we’re going to beat that,” Munley said. “I saw the names, and I didn’t even have to look at the times, I thought, ‘That’s not happening.’ ”
* * *
Barnett started off the race with a split time of 2:56.9. He passed the baton to Washington last among his competitors. Yet it wasn’t the fact that he was doing poorly, it was just others were doing extremely well.
Washington was able to pass a couple of guys after completing his leg in 47.5 seconds, but by the time the baton got to Munley for the third leg, the Wolverines were battling to stay relevant in the race.
“We were either the second to last or last,” Munley said, who finished his leg in 1:47.3. “There were some really fast guys (in the first two legs). We were competing with guys that were top in the nation. I was hurting (in the last 200 meters), but I was trying to get the baton to (Ferlic). Once I did I was like, ‘Let’s see what you can do, I tried my best.’ ”
The final leg, run by Ferlic, was where the distance medley relay team caught up to the lead pack. Not surprising, considering the laundry list of impressive performances he’s had over his collegiate career. His name is almost synonymous with Michigan track and field.
Ferlic’s strategy was clear: eyes forward, pass competitors and go fast.
“Before I got the baton, I was worried,” Ferlic said. “I had a little bit of self-doubt because the guys who were anchoring the other DMRs were dedicated milers. I was hoping to run four flat. And if we were that far behind, the pressure was on to run just that much faster to catch these guys. I didn’t know if I was able to do that. But I figured that we were here and we had one shot and I can’t have negative thoughts before I get the baton because then we’re not going to be in it.”
Ferlic has been angling to run a sub-four mile for his entire collegiate career, coming away disappointed in the Iowa State Classic, where he achieved his standing personal best of 4:00.50.
But, while Ferlic has run a 1,600-meter race in 3:55, 1,600 meters isn’t a mile — it’s nine meters short. And those nine meters mean a lot to Ferlic, who refuses, understandably, to count 3:55 as meeting his goal.
“As soon as I finished in third I was like, ‘Damn that actually went pretty well,’ ” Ferlic said. “But I still didn’t know the time until I saw it flash on the board and I saw 9:27, and I was like, ‘Holy crap, are you serious?’ ”
According to Barnett, there were whispers that the time was close to the school record set more than a decade before — but no one was sure.
It wasn’t until they were back at their “camp” at the meet that Sullivan thought to look up on his phone what the standing record was. And when he saw the result, the entire distance medley relay team was in shock.
“In a DMR, the legs are so uneven you don’t really know where you are in the race or on the clock, so you don’t really get a sense of what you’re doing until after,” Barnett said. “We were still on this high that we didn’t only hit a national time, we hit a really good national time and then to come off that … there was a lot of hugging and yelling.”
* * *
A lot of the success has been chalked up to a culture change on the team, partly due to the new coaching staff of Clayton and Sullivan in their third and second years, respectively.
Sullivan, who also serves as the Michigan men’s cross country coach, is noted, especially, as transitioning the team to a more inclusive environment, stemming all the way back to training for cross country season.
“As a fifth-year senior, I’ve definitely been through a lot and I’ve definitely seen the team go from a last-place, not-taken-seriously team in the Big Ten to now possibly contending for a top-three spot in the Big Ten,” Washington said.
But according to both coaches and Munley, the captains of the team have also stepped up to the line and have instituted team bonding events like cookouts and movie outings. Other changes have included switching the location of the athletes’ lockers frequently to prevent cliques and a whiteboard in the locker room that lets the athletes keep track of each other’s goals.
“You can literally go there, read it and have that connection with that person,” Washington said. “And if you see them in practice, you can encourage it.”
Added Ferlic: “With that culture change of going toward excellence and having everyone on the team expected to contribute, it kind of just increased the competitive atmosphere among all pockets of athletes on the team. Everyone now wanted to do their part to help the team be good. I think it united the team in a common cause. Instead of it being certain guys or one event group is good and the other isn’t as good, we all wanted to do well and motivate each other.”
Within the four distance medley relay team members, especially, the sense of camaraderie is palpable. The group joked that in 15 years, they’re still going to be calling each other up asking how they are.
Because, according to Barnett, “it’s a lifelong thing.”
“To look up on the board that’s up there right now and see the names that are up there, it’s pretty special to have a part in it,” Barnett said. “It’s special to be more of a piece (of the team), not just someone who was here, but someone who did something. I still have goals for the next couple years and stuff to get done. But it’s cool to actually leave that mark.”
And, according to Washington, they’re “tight.”
Unabashedly, the quarter informally thinks of themselves as a “misfit crew.”
* * *
Despite the high the four have been riding, there’s no denying that the NCAA Indoor Championships, where they’ll run the distance medley relay again, looms large. The competition will take place March 11 and 12 in Birmingham, Ala.
But if Clayton and Sullivan, particularly, have taught their team anything, it’s that each race should be approached individually and you can’t “make a race bigger than it is.” Sullivan preaches that no matter the setting, the distance medley relay will still always be 4,000 meters.
“I know at nationals, when I get the baton, I’m going to run until my legs break,” Munley said. “I have to do it for these guys because they’re working just as hard as I am for it. You never know what could happen, anything could happen on any given day. But I have to do my best and strive for my hardest, and maybe some good will come out of it.”
It’s going to take a lot of practice, but nothing is impossible anymore. The four Wolverines have already displaced four national champions overlapped with two Olympians.
“I don’t think people expected us four,” Washington said.
“We’re this weird dream team — we just ran faster,” Ferlic said.
And nobody on the distance medley relay team is exactly sure how they did it.