On Sept. 15, Emily Clark sprinted across the finish line at the PeaceHealth AppleTree half-marathon in Vancouver, Wash., her arms held high in triumph.
Clark finished second in the women's category, ahead of some of the region's top amateur distance runners, a remarkable achievement for a 28-year-old who'd never run competitively. She finished the race in just 86 minutes—a speedy, sub-7 minute per mile pace.
By Clark's reckoning, she'd overcome a lot: personal trauma, persistent anxiety and body-shaming. (Clark's driver's license says she's 5-foot-6, 170 pounds, hardly unhealthy but not a typical build for an elite distance runner.) She had built a small following on social media platforms like Instagram, where she crusaded against weight stigma in sports.
And she wasn't just getting recognized in races: Clark made a living from providing advice and an example to others.
A Harvard-trained neuroscientist, according to her LinkedIn profile, who lives in Portland and runs a counseling practice that focuses on young women, Clark lived her words.
"I became a therapist not to 'help' but because your liberation is wound up with mine and together we can start a healing revolution," she wrote on her website.
And yet, there were red flags.
Her educational claims didn't quite add up. She didn't attend Harvard, WW has learned. She offered clinical therapy with an inactive social work license. And people were skeptical when she told them she could run 13.1 miles in the time she claimed—and some wondered if she'd run that distance at all.
In the clubby world of competitive distance running, most marathoners know each other. They put in miles together, trade tips about equipment, track each others' times and cheer each others' successes. It's not often a newcomer shows up and smokes nearly the entire field.
Sherri McMillan, who organized the Vancouver half-marathon, didn't know Clark, but she'd cycled the course with her the day before the race. McMillan described her as friendly but not particularly chatty.
"She was so normal," says McMillan.
It wasn't until several days later that McMillan arrived at a nauseating realization. Emily Clark didn't finish second. She didn't finish at all.
People lie about their accomplishments all the time. College students plagiarize term papers. Painters sign more famous artists' names to their work. "Stolen valor" soldiers claim medals they didn't earn.
Rosie Ruiz put fake running on the map in 1980, when she crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon in first place, but in fact had hopped on a subway train for a 16-mile stretch of the route.
Derek Murphy, who runs a website from Cincinnati dedicated to busting marathon cheaters, says he's seen about 25 cases of what he calls "serial" cheaters. He says few of the people he's caught matched Clark's level of deception.
"In any race, there are a hundred people who cut the course in some manner or another," says Murphy. "But for the people who cheat repeatedly, there's other stuff to it."
Both McMillan and Murphy believe Clark did just that: cheated over and over, in races large and small across the country, over a period of years. After McMillan confronted her on Sept. 17, Clark confessed in writing a week later to repeated fraud—one that included her riding a bicycle or sitting in a hotel room while she claimed to have been running.
She admitted to cheating in Eugene, in Chicago, in Massachusetts, and in South Carolina. And while she didn't admit it, WW has found finishes in other races that appear suspiciously fast: in St. Louis, Savannah, Ga., and Portland's own Shamrock Run.
What happened after her confession was a bizarre saga, marked by apologies, defiance and shaming on a national stage. Across the country, curious onlookers had their attention drawn, at least for a moment, to Portland.
And Clark, a vibrant online presence who exhorted her followers and clients to speak up unashamedly and be heard, did something uncharacteristic. She disappeared.
On the chilly morning of Sept. 14, the day before the PeaceHealth marathon, Sherri McMillan got on a bicycle to give 15 people an introduction to the half-marathon course on the Columbia River's north bank.
The person she spent the most time riding next to was Clark.
McMillan remembers pointing out water stations and the electronic timing mats runners would have to cross to track "split times." Those times measure how quickly a runner is traversing each segment of the race. Runners are equipped with an electronic chip in their bib that connects with the timing mats as they cross them.
At the farthest point of the race, around mile 5 or 6, McMillan pointed out a mat. It was placed there, she explained, because inevitably some bad apples were tempted to cheat and turn back before reaching that point.
The Vancouver race is one of hundreds of smaller, more relaxed contests held annually across the U.S. (The race's motto this year was, "Fast or slow, let's go!") But competitive runners can still use these smaller races to qualify for more prestigious marathons.
"We have very high-level athletes who reach our podium, and then we have walkers," says McMillan. "We have people who cross the finish line and cry."
During the bike ride, Clark told McMillan she wanted to average 6-minute miles and was planning to run the Chicago Marathon a few weeks later.
"And I was like, 'Oh my God, that's really, really fast!'" McMillan recalls saying. "I can't even do one 6-minute mile, and I've been running for 30 years."
Shawn Dodd was a manager at the marathon who also went on the preparatory bike ride. He says Clark came alive when she started talking about how people doubted she could run fast because of her build.
"She's very quiet, to herself at first," says Dodd. "But once we started getting her to talk, she didn't stop. She said she liked to prove people wrong. It was like, 'Where is this person coming from?"'
A lot of what's known about Emily Clark must be pieced together from social media. WW contacted two dozen friends, family members and acquaintances, all of whom either declined to talk or did not respond.
Clark grew up the daughter of two dentists in an affluent suburb of Detroit, attended expensive Catholic universities, and has short hair, dark eyes and an infectious smile. She lives in an apartment in Southwest Portland, drives a 2016 Honda CRV and works in a converted house in Northwest Portland. She has a dog named Morgan, an Australian Labradoodle.
Greg Kaplan, an associate professor at St. Louis University, where Clark majored in theological studies, described Clark as having a "bubbly, happy personality" and remembers her as "well liked."
Clark graduated from St. Louis in 2013, and shortly after earning a master's degree in social work from Boston College in 2015, she moved to Portland, where she received her license as a clinical social work associate. She opened a private therapy practice while also working at other therapy institutes in town.
"I work primarily with millennial women who are struggling with trauma and shame," she said in a 2017 podcast. "That's exactly who I'm trying to attract."
Clark built her online presence, both professional and personal, on a platform of empowerment. She said women should take control of the stories about their bodies—not be defined by what others thought those bodies should look like or what they could do with them.
She wrote that she specialized in "vaporizing shame, rewriting trauma stories, creating lives that don't need eating disorders, and helping young women stop hating their lives by starting to trust themselves."
She filled her Instagram posts with inspirational quotes such as: "If you come for me, come hard. I'm learning to fight back. And I'll win. I promise." She touted personal accountability and truthfulness.
In an Instagram caption from this fall, which now appears significant, Clark wrote under a photo of a woman donning a T-shirt lettered "No thank you": "No thank you to the cheating fuckers in sport who never get caught." And from another of her Instagram posts Aug. 1: "Do they say they're sorry but they do the thing again? Red flag. Big big red flag."
As proof of her resilience, Clark identified herself as an "elite marathon runner" and posted frequently about running.
On one of her four Instagram profiles, she lists her run times: two hours and 52 minutes for a marathon, one hour and 21 minutes for a half-marathon—very solid performances, if they occurred.
The day of the Vancouver half-marathon, McMillan monitored racers from her bike. Around mile 5, she saw a woman wearing a rainbow-colored jacket pedaling her bike away from the course.
That struck her as odd. McMillan recognized the woman from the bike ride the day before: She was Emily Clark.
After the marathon ended, McMillan says Clark excitedly ran up to her and announced she had finished second.
"I was like, 'That's amazing, but I'm so confused because I saw you on your bike!'" McMillan recalls. "And Emily was like, 'No, that was my twin sister! If you look closer, she has more freckles.'"
Clark has no twin. Records reviewed by WW show Clark has a sister—but she's four years younger and lives in Michigan.
Following the race, a few runners and event staff told McMillan they'd seen Clark on her bike during the race. Two top female runners said Clark was nowhere to be seen in the top fleet of runners during the race.
McMillan says she confronted Clark two days later via phone. Clark initially denied cheating—and maintained it was her twin sister on the bike, saying that no one believed a woman with her stature could log competitive times.
Later that day, McMillan says, Clark finally confessed.
"I asked her, 'Help me understand. Why are you doing this?' and she said, 'I don't know,'" recalls McMillan.
McMillan convinced Clark she should release a joint statement along with McMillan's events company.
In that statement, published Sept. 23, Clark confessed to cheating in six races since 2013. She attributed her behavior to anxiety and panic attacks.
In perhaps the most peculiar account, Clark said she had run a portion of the Eugene Marathon earlier this year, returned to her hotel room, and then re-entered the race. (She placed eighth out of 625 female runners.) She blamed shin splints, poor training and fear of being seen as incapable.
She admitted to biking in the PeaceHealth marathon.
Yet the same day, Clark posted an Instagram story claiming she had been treated unfairly because of her size.
"I've been disqualified from races because they 'found it impossible to believe someone of my build could hold those times,'" the story read, next to a photo of herself running by a river.
McMillan's reaction to seeing the Instagram story was shock: "I was like, 'What? Don't you remember we disqualified you because you rode on your bike and you cheated?'"
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to McMillan, Clark was preparing for a higher-profile race.
In the weeks leading up to the Oct. 13 Chicago Marathon, she hired a running coach. The coach, who works remotely from the Southeast and asked WW that she remain anonymous, said Clark seemed genuine, kind and determined to prove that people with untraditional running builds could run fast, too. She says she sensed Emily had a "kind heart."
Three weeks after she confessed, on Oct. 13, the starter's pistol sounded at the Chicago Marathon.
Nobody recognized Emily Clark at the race. If her approach was unorthodox, no one mentioned it. But Derek Murphy knew she was running—and spotted her split times once again drastically fluctuating.
Murphy works in Cincinnati as a data analyst. He moonlights as the running world's go-to guy for exposing cheaters in big races.
Murphy began his private investigation shop four years ago. A former avid marathoner, he channeled his love of running into a quest to identify cheaters. "I just got curious," he says.
Murphy says marathon cheating is common. Very common. Cheaters take shortcuts, swap bibs with superior runners and study course maps to find loopholes.
He says Clark's tactics were clearly premeditated: "You don't have a bike at the ready if it's not pre-planned."
Murphy says he first became aware of Clark after he received complaints of her cheating at the Eugene Marathon earlier this year. He helped McMillan persuade Clark to write a confession.
Murphy says serial cheaters are rare. Even rarer are runners who continue to cheat after he's outed them.
"They typically don't run again after their cheating was made so public," says Murphy.
But Clark did.
McMillan was hosting a race that same day, but she periodically checked in on the live online results. She could see that Clark's split times were, once again, wildly inconsistent.
"Instantly, I was like, 'Oh my God, she's in Chicago. And she's cheating.' I couldn't believe it," says McMillan. "She was cutting the course, I knew instantly."
Murphy was watching, too. Clark's split times dropped from 12-minute miles to 6-minute miles halfway through the race.
He posted his suspicions to his website, marathoninvestigation.com, that evening. Within days, the story drew national attention: Portland's marathon cheater had cheated again.
Clark told media outlets she had suffered two asthma attacks, forcing her to stop and then restart.
"This meant I had to stop and sit on the side of the course for a chunk of time and that I had to walk at other times," she told the New York Daily News in an email. "The friends who were out there to support me can attest to that. I was badly wheezing and used their inhaler at the halfway point."
On Oct. 28, the Chicago Marathon disqualified Clark.
In mid-October, after media outlets reported Clark's inconsistent split times, she started to wipe her online presence. After WW started asking questions, her
LinkedIn and Facebook profiles went dark.
WW repeatedly called, emailed and texted Clark, seeking an interview and stopping by her home and office. For a week, she didn't reply. Finally, after WW asked the state about her professional licensure, Clark emailed back. She asked WW to stop contacting her.
The Oregon Board of Licensed Social Workers confirms it rendered Clark's license inactive in March 2018. Licensees who no longer have active status may not treat patients using clinical therapies, says the board's executive director, Randy Harnisch.
Clark altered her personal practice website in the weeks following the controversy and rebranded herself as a "life coach." Her website now says she helps clients with shame, "adulting," and anxiety and depression—but makes no mention of two highly specialized types of clinical therapy she offered prior to the makeover.
Correspondence with the licensing board shows uneven performance.
Clark's supervisor while she was employed at a therapy clinic in Portland wrote in mid-2016 that Clark's strengths were that she was "passionate, eager, intelligent, driven, motivated."
But in a report six months later, that same supervisor recorded concerns noting that Clark was involved in an unspecified ethics violation.
"At this time, we (myself and practice directors) have become increasingly concerned about Emily's awareness and willingness to accurately and effectively balance care of self and own goals with the needs and vulnerabilities of her clinical setting," the comment read. "An ethics violation has been identified…in addition to violations of clinic contract…without, apparently, appropriate caution to avoid these errors."
Social workers have to renew their licenses annually. Board records show Clark's license was not renewed earlier this year after it appeared she answered "yes" to a question asking whether she was under investigation or disciplinary action by any board or court. The board confirms her license was eventually renewed.
However, despite having a valid license, it is currently inactive, and has been for a year and a half.
Clark's last supervisor, Wayne Scott, tells WW she inaccurately claimed on one of her professional profiles that she was working under the supervision of a qualified superior when she was not. This, he says, is a problem.
"It's a fraudulent representation of her competence, saying she's under supervision when she's not," says Scott. "It gives the reassurance to potential consumers that there are checks and accountabilities to the work she's doing, when in fact they don't exist."
Sarah Bradley, a social work professor at Portland State University, says that while she doesn't know Clark personally, her serial cheating in races reflects on her professional work.
"Her behavior, in a whole other realm of her life, is really problematic and raises questions about what kind of therapy she's providing," says Bradley. "My code of ethics would really raise some questions about somebody's judgment and ability to be helpful to other people."
Social media reaction to Clark's cheating is mixed.
Unlike writers who plagiarize or artists who copy, amateur runners don't have to compete and they rarely get anything of material value, unless they are in the highest echelons of the sport. Clark wasn't claiming to be that fast.
"Let the race directors do their jobs and keep it from being a public pile-on," one commenter wrote. "Show some humanity."
But comments from runners have been harsh. Clark has been called a narcissist who's desperate for social media recognition. "She simply has no sense of shame," another commenter replied, "that she is so self-centered that she doesn't care whom she hurts or whom she fools."
Murphy admits he's thought twice about continuing to moonlight in the business of busting cheaters after realizing it sometimes forces people to reckon with potentially deeper issues.
"I just wanted to write about running and clean the sport up," says Murphy. "I didn't expect it to go down the road that it has. If I write about someone, that's going to affect their life in some way."
Carrie Farrell, a licensed Vancouver counselor who specializes in sports psychology, says many social workers and therapists specialize in helping people with areas of their life in which they themselves have endured the most hurt.
"Usually, we go into the area where we've been most hurt in our life," says Farrell. "Everybody needs something to love, to believe in, and to do. And so many people will do whatever it takes to find that cause because it gives them self-worth."
Lots of people make mistakes in their 20s, then regain their balance. Perhaps that potential for redemption explains why few people who know Clark are willing to discuss her puzzling behavior on the record. But in unguarded moments, they describe her in ways that show more than a cheater.
In an Instagram post by one of Clark's friends from August—weeks before the marathon that ultimately put Clark in the spotlight—the friend gushes about Clark under a grainy picture of the two on a beach. Clark has her dog, Morgan, hoisted in her arms. The two friends grin side by side.
"This human helped me get out of my head on Sunday. Listened to my hamster wheel brain, laughed with me, walked the beach while I sat and wrote," the friend's caption read. "Thank you for being my friend."
WW intern Scout Brobst assisted in reporting this story.
Correction: This story initially reported that Emily Clark was disqualified from a Vancouver marathon for wildly fluctuating split times. In fact, her split times were consistent, but she was seen riding a bicycle and the top fleet of runners didn't recall seeing her among them. WW regrets the error.