FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The final result wouldn’t be posted until nearly all of the 5,006 fans had left the Randal Tyson Track Center. It took an hour and a half after the event ended before Michigan would find out that they were champions at the distance medley relay of the 2005 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships.
In the final leg of the relay, Michigan senior Nate Brannen overcame a 30-meter deficit to pull behind Arkansas’s Said Ahmed with 100 meters to go. Although Ahmed edged him at the line by .03 seconds, the tight finish created some controversy as Ahmed drifted into Brannen’s lane down the stretch.
But there was no red flag, and the results were posted on the scoreboard: 1. Arkansas, 2. Michigan. The home crowd erupted as the Razorback foursome jogged their victory lap.
But fifteen minutes later, a referee filed a protest, claiming that Ahmed violated rule 5-5-3B, which states, “The referee, after consulting with the appropriate officials, shall disqualify a competitor who veers to the right or left so as to impede a challenging runner or forces the challenging runner to run a great distance.”
The revised results were announced 30 minutes later while the Michigan quartet was warming down — Arkansas was disqualified and the Wolverines were the DMR national champions with their time of 9:30.82.
The committee reconvened for 45 more minutes while Arkansas appealed the protest. But the decision was upheld and, at 11 p.m., the few Wolverines still in the building could breathe a sigh of relief.
“It’s unfortunate it had to happen this way,” Michigan coach Ron Warhurst said. “Arkansas is in the middle of a fight for a national championship, but so are we. You can’t impede or move left or right when a guy is coming on you. You can’t come off the turn drifting to lane four. You just can’t do that.”
Brannen would have preferred a clear-cut Michigan win but had no qualms about the controversial ending.
“I was definitely upset about how things turned out,” Brannen said. “If I’m going to lose, I don’t mind losing fair. To win it because a team got disqualified is pretty crappy, but if they’re going to take the win by cheating, we have a legit reason for taking it from them.”
The race that ended in a photo finish never came into focus until the end.
Rondell Ruff kicked off the relay with the 1,200-meter leg and was running in third place until he was tripped up while coming around the last bend. Ruff regained his balance, but, his split of 2:56.3 left Michigan in fifth place entering the first exchange.
“Someone clipped my heel,” Ruff said. “For a second, I thought I was going to take a dive, but I pulled it together.”
Sophomore Stann Waithe held his position following the handoff before turning on the jets in the final 100 meters. His 400-meter split of 45.8 was fast enough to put the Wolverines in second place entering the 800-meter leg.
“There were four guys in front of me, and I knew I couldn’t get it all from fifth,” Waithe said. “(The split) could have been faster, but it was the smartest race I could have run at the time.”
But the exchange to Andrew Ellerton was not a smooth one, and the junior started the third leg in fifth place.
“There was a lot of traffic — a lot of bumping and elbows thrown (at the exchange),” Ellerton said. “Even the race was a pretty tight because we weren’t running too fast.”
Ellerton made up ground in the final two laps, moving the Wolverines into third place behind UCLA and Arkansas. His split of 1:49.8 put Brannen 10 meters behind the leaders entering the last leg. But UCLA’s Jon Rankin and Ahmed exploded off the final handoff, creating a 30-meter margin over the rest of the field. Brannen opted to stay off the fast pace despite the large gap.
“I knew they got out pretty fast, so I tried to run my own race thinking they would come back to me at some point,” Brannen said. “They took a bit longer than I thought, and I really didn’t catch them until a lap to go.”
Brannen eventually caught up to the pair with 200 meters remaining. He passed Rankin entering the final bend and began his sprint to the finish — just off the heels of Ahmed — before he was cut off at the finish line.
It was the second consecutive national title in the DMR for the Wolverines. Brannen and Ellerton were a part of last year’s championship relay team as well.
For Waithe and Ruff, the victory was a first-time achievement.
“I wish we could have gotten our victory lap,” Ruff said. “But it took me four years to get here, so it’s pretty sweet.”
Waithe, who was supposed to run the relay last year, echoed similar sentiments.
“It feels great,” Waithe said. “I was looking forward to this since last year because I was supposed to be on it but I got hurt. We didn’t get to celebrate though, which is a big part of everything.”
The DMR victory put Michigan in a tie for tenth place heading into Saturday.