Aaron Taylor bent over, his lungs begged for air, his body screamed uncle. His next race was less than an hour away.

“Can’t walk,” gasped the junior sprinter.

At some point — before he hobbled gingerly, testing out his exhausted legs — Taylor decided enduring the pain would be worth winning the 400-meter dash. His teammate, sophomore sprinter Eric Oliver, hugged the inside lane the entire race as Taylor followed closely. The two Ohio State runners couldn’t pass from the outside, but Taylor could. In the stretch run, his long strides gobbled up Oliver’s lead and devoured it just as they crossed the finish line.

Taylor in first at 48.72 seconds. Oliver in second at 48.73 seconds.

“That’s the manliest — Aaron ran the best open 400 he’s ever run in his life,” said redshirt junior captain Matt Campbell.

The 1-2 finish was the lone bright spot for Michigan coach Fred LaPlante, whose team lost for a fourth-consecutive time to Ohio State in “The Dual.” This version, a 91.5-70.5 win for the Buckeyes, proved to be a contradiction — important enough that LaPlante’s athletes trained over winter break, but not important enough to push key contributors to run through injuries.

Widely known as a strong distance-running team, Michigan competed without two of its best: fifth-year senior Craig Forys (Achilles tendon) and redshirt junior Bobby Aprill (knee). LaPlante said that had they competed, they would’ve finished 1-2 in the 3,000-meter race, no matter who Ohio State had running. Instead, a Buckeye finished first. Aprill’s injury is considered more serious, while Forys came out at the last minute.

Still, if there ever were a year the seniors could have toppled the Buckeyes in the Dual, it was this one. Ohio State stayed cautious, holding out six-time All-American sprinter Thomas Murdaugh, who tweaked his hamstring the prior week. And Michael Hartfield, a former Big Ten triple-jump champion, was shelved due to a lingering high ankle sprain he suffered three months ago playing pick-up basketball.

“(Murdaugh’s) thing was like Forys’s,” LaPlante said. “Maybe if the meet meant it, he could’ve run.”

But Ohio State’s depth meant the meet’s result was all but predetermined.

“In our sport, it’s really about your championships,” LaPlante said. “So, this is like an exhibition. But it’s important because it’s Michigan-Ohio State.”

In last year’s Dual, Hartfield won the long jump and triple jump, while Murdaugh, now a senior, coasted to a win in the 400 and built a comfortable lead running second in the 4×400-meter relay. For three years, Murdaugh in particular has tormented the Wolverines, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, building untouchable leads. As he led Ohio State’s three-year domination — featuring a 14-point win in 2011, a 20-point win the previous year and an 8-point win his freshman year — all Murdaugh lacked was the cape.

His absence left a gaping hole, and initially, Michigan took advantage. Taylor and Oliver’s 1-2 finish likely would’ve been a 2-3 finish had Murdaugh raced (his 2010 time of 47.18 is a Dual record), but he didn’t, and Michigan won the event.

Afterward, LaPlante warned how top-heavy his team was — and thus revealed just how much he leaned on his stars.

Campbell won the 200-meter dash (21.96 seconds), one of just four events Michigan could take.

For a fleeting moment, there was hope. With Hartfield sidelined, Wolverine sophomore Patrick Cochran set a personal best and won the triple jump with his parents watching from the stands. It was a high for a heady jumper who needed to taste success.

“Pat’s one of those guys, when things are going well for him, it’s great,” said volunteer assistant coach Jade Ellis, who coaches the jumpers. “It’s just a matter of keeping him focused. When things are going bad, he loses himself.”

Though Cochran lost the long jump earlier in the meet, he had a bounce in his step.

“That was just great for him,” LaPlante said. “A year ago, as a freshman, he was a whole different guy. Here, he was having fun, enjoying himself.”

In that moment, the crowd could forget Ohio State’s growing lead and lose itself — Wolverine redshirt sophomore high jumper Bradley James put on a show.

No Buckeye cleared higher than 1.97 meters (6-foot-5.5 inches), yet James kept climbing.

But in warm-ups, his new, faster technique felt off.

“I was jumping like garbage,” James said. “Everything was right, except nothing was right.”

When the competition started, everything came together, and long after the Buckeyes dropped out, LaPlante urged James to go for a personal best 2.16 meters. James set the bar at 2.17, a Dual record, then made it.

“He was a man among boys in that event,” LaPlante said.

For nearly every other event, LaPlante would’ve been talking about one of the Buckeyes. Ohio State distance runner Cory Leslie built enough of a lead in the mile race — about 40 meters — that he could turn his body and watch how his teammates fared before he crossed the finish line. All hope was lost when Ohio State swept the 800-meter dash, taking all four of the point-scoring spots.

“There were probably three events that were swing events in there that we had a pretty decent chance at winning,” LaPlante said. “In weight throw, our guy threw his lifetime best; their guy threw better. Our guy had a meet record in the (pole) vault and their guy did better.”

By the time Campbell settled into the starting block for the 4×400-meter relay, Ohio State had won the “Dual,” and Campbell was preparing for his second race in less than half an hour.

He quickly fell behind, then when he tried to go to his second gear, it wasn’t there. Instead of handing the baton to Taylor with a lead, he was more than a few steps behind.

Taylor, gassed, drifted farther and farther behind. Despite the absence of Murdaugh, who built a reputation on demoralizing runs in this relay, Ohio State romped while Michigan whimpered.

“As great of a focus we had all meet, it came tumbling down,” LaPlante said. “Here it is. We’re not going to win the meet. We’re tired. They’re ahead. And I just think our guys lost their focus.”

In the grand scheme of the season — where the indoor season is merely a way to train for the outdoor season and Big Ten championships — it won’t resonate more than in the lessons learned, how an “exhibition” could make LaPlante angry but simultaneously full of hope.

“It’s gut-check time,” he said. “To think about it and say, ‘OK, we don’t want that to happen to us again.’”

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