What had developed into an exciting four-man finish at the Run For Liberty eight-kilometer road race ended in anger and confusion yesterday. More than 20 of the fastest runners took a wrong turn at the final corner of the race and were disqualified.

As a result, Douglas Van Voren was declared the official winner by race director John Sanders, nearly 2 1/2 hours after the race had concluded. Van Voren was well off the pace, finishing the 4.96-mile course in 28 minutes 8 seconds. Sanders said he will also have separate awards for the disqualified runners.

The women's race was not affected, since by the time the first woman had finished, the runners were being directed to the correct finish line. Cathy Ventura-Merkel, 29, of Arlington led after 1 1/2 miles and won in 30:20. Kira Scholtz was second in 31:40 and Mary Birk placed third in 31:51.

Moments after Sebastian Junger had outsprinted Tim Tays, Jeff Peterson and Jim Clelland by a couple of feet yesterday, he noticed that the rest of the estimated 3,000 runners were not following him across what he thought was the finish line. Instead of turning left from Constitution Avenue onto Seventh Street NW, the other runners were going right and up the street 200 yards to the point indicated on the race application as the finish line.

"Someone was pointing that way (to the left)," said Junger, 22, from Boston, who finished the course in about 25 minutes. "I think it was a cop, I'm not sure. And I saw a (finish line) banner to the left, and the guy next to me (Tays) was going off to the left. I didn't see anything to the right, so it all added up to go left."

Confusion pervaded the race even before the starting gun was fired. The course, consisting of a short loop and a longer loop, had been redesigned a week before the event because of certification requirements. The original course began with a short loop, then followed with the longer loop. But Sanders was concerned that the runners who were finishing would be confused when they saw those completing the first loop.

Sanders then notified the police less than an hour before the race that the longer loop would be run first. Metropolitan Police Sgt. Earl Drescher quickly clarified the change of route with officers stationed along the course. According to several finishers, few understood the changes but decided to follow the runners in front.

Though the race began more than 15 minutes late, due in part to an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 people registering yesterday morning, the run proceeded as expected. But, as the four leaders approached the corner of Constitution Avenue and Ninth Street, Drescher realized there was no officer at that intersection. He stopped and blocked the intersection, and motioned the runners to proceed, without a lead vehicle, down Constitution to Seventh Street and the finish.

"I assumed we were going to have a lead vehicle taking the runners through the finish," said Sanders.

"It's not our responsibility to tell people where to go," Drescher replied. "I asked him (Sanders) this morning if, when he changed the course a week ago, he had notified the police department, and he said 'no.' "

"I wasn't aware that I had to notify the police,' Sanders responded. "It was my responsibility. It was my fault."

"This race was a real joke, a real fiasco," said Peterson, 29, of Springfield. "With a race of this stature, you need monitors on the course. There needed to be someone at the corner directing us. And you need mile markers at more than just the first mile so we know how fast and how far we've run."

Sanders said the last-minute registrants kept his volunteers preoccupied and prevented them from setting up the mile markers.