Easily the most controversial moment of the U Sports Track and Field Championships came near the end of the men’s 3,000m.
As three athletes, Western’s Jack Sheffar, Laval’s Antoine Thibeault and Guelph’s Connor Black, approached the penultimate lap of the 15-lap race, an official sounded the bell, signalling 200m to go. However, to the knowledge of only a select few, there was still 400m to go in the race.
In a turn of events rarely seen in athletics, Sheffar and Black duked it out over the final 200m both leaning at what they believed to be the finish. Both were exhausted but there was still one lap to go. Thibeault, meanwhile, stayed back and ended up winning while Black rebounded to run the extra 200m, but faded to finish in fourth. Sheffar, understandably, collapsed after thinking he had finished and did not continue.
According to eye witnesses, the official on duty changed the lap counter from “8” to “6” around the halfway point of the race effectively reducing the distance by 200m. (Reminder: the U Sports Championships were held on a 200m track, typical of the indoor circuit.) The race, held at the Butterdome in Edmonton, occurred Friday evening, during the second of the event’s three days.
Thibeault’s coach, Laval’s Félix-Antoine Lapointe, told Canadian Running that he yelled at his athlete that there was 400m to go despite the bell sounding. Thibeault defended his U Sports 3,000m championship running 8:12.98. Laval’s Igor Bougnot was second in 8:19.16; Guelph’s Brayden Seneca was third in 8:20.23, 0.14 seconds ahead of Black, the victim of misfortune. Thibeault did not appear to respond to either Black’s or Sheffar’s moves between 2,600m and 2,800m.
We spoke with Black on Monday morning to get a sense of what exactly went down during one of the most bizarre races you will ever see. Video can also be seen below.
Walk us through what many believed was the final lap.
Connor Black: “Well, it was a pretty crazy last 15 seconds. I was coming into the finishing straight (50m to go) and I couldn’t see Jack [Sheffar] or Antoine [Thibeault] and thought ‘I’m going to win this.’ I saw Jack pull up on my right and knew I needed to dip at the line. I dipped and thought ‘wow, I just won the title.’ Then, I see Jack go off and bail and a split second later, I see Antoine go by on my left. [Guelph coach] Dave Scott-Thomas yelled at me that there was still a lap to run. The feeling went from ‘holy crap, I won’ to ‘I have another 200m to go.’ Thankfully, Dave was on me or who knows whether I would have finished the race. From what I recall, the other Laval athlete (Igor Bougnot) eventually passed me on the final bend then my teammate (Brayden Seneca) went by just before the actual finish line. It was absolutely the toughest lap ever. Physically, I unleashed everything I had in the finishing kick and I was fully in the hole. Emotionally I was drained. It weighs heavy, going from what I thought was a national win to having to run another lap and finishing fourth.”
Video (fast forward to 3:25 for the “bell lap”)
Do you recall when the official first made an error in the lap counting?
CB: “I remember going through the halfway point in 4:15, so I knew the race was slow. That was the only point in the race that I knew where I was at in terms of time, I didn’t look at the clock at any other point. In a championship race, you’re not worried about time, you just try to keep the contenders in check.”
Did any Guelph athletes or coaches try to tell you during the race that there was a problem?
“I had heard the bell and going into the race, I figured that was when I was going to begin my kick. Nothing else was on my mind. After the race, I was talking with (assistant coach) Taylor [Milne] who tried to tell me there was still a lap to go. At that point, I felt Jack [Sheffar] rigging and I’m in a haze.”
Did you overhear any of the other coaches yelling at their athletes?
“I didn’t hear anything around the finish line.”
Have you ever experienced anything like that in a race before?
“Not at all. Going into a race, you try to think of all the scenarios that may occur. [Ringing the bell one lap early] was never something I thought would happen.”
What did the officials say to you after the race?
“The officials waited until all the events that day had concluded. They then called us over to the podium area (near the finish line) and told us that the 3,000m results were going to stand. They said there would be more discussion but there never was. The 2,800m results were disregarded.”
Is it a runner’s responsibility to know where they are in the race or is it the official’s responsibility to ensure laps are counted correctly?
“I do agree that the runner is responsible for knowing where they are in the race. However, in a nationally-sanctioned race, when you’re running and hear the bell, it’s go-time. I had no idea it was only 2,800m and I don’t know if Jack did either. I think if everyone would have finished at 2,800m, they (the officials) couldn’t have done anything to change the results.”
What do you think a proper solution would have been?
“There were a few people who mentioned a re-run. In my opinion, you can’t do a re-run. It’s too long of a race and it’s often tactical. You have to prepare for it mentally, and physically, and for both to come together, that’s a special thing. It came together for me that day.”
How did you rebound mentally to race the men’s 1,500m the following day?
“I knew I couldn’t digest it very much. I needed to get reloaded for the 1,500m or else I was going to be out of it right from the gun. I took a lot of confidence with how I raced the 3,000m knowing I was there at the end. It really began to sink in after the flight back [to Guelph, Ont.]. It’s hard to come to terms with. All year, we prepare for the national championships and before each race, I visualize winning. Trying to get everything like tapering and being mentally focused is tough. It all came together that day. I’ll look to continue this (strong running at nationals) for the next two years. We scored in all events and came home with the men’s team championship. I’m stoked to be part of this team.”
What sort of precautions do you think could have been taken to prevent such a mistake?
“What was weird was that the times for 2,800m came up on the scoreboard. (Editor’s note: This would indicate that the timers believed that the 2,800m point was the end of the race.) As far as prevention, I don’t really have a suggestion. It’s in our nature to make mistakes. All we can do is hope we don’t cross a situation like that again.”