SQUAMISH, British Columbia — The race was tough and the conditions dreadful — 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and 26.2 miles of running, mostly in freezing rain — but Susanne Davis crossed the Ironman Canada finish line last July certain that she had won her category, women aged 40-44.
Davis, who comes from Carlsbad, Calif., and is one of the top triathletes in her age group in the world, had been first out of the water and first off her bike — she was sure of it. Spectators using a mobile phone race app that shows competitors’ relative positions called out encouragement, telling her she was ahead by a comfortable 10 minutes. As she ran, Davis looked out for rivals, asking the age of every woman she passed or who passed her, and encountered none from her age group.
Yet there she was, accepting the medal for second place at the awards ceremony the next day, five minutes behind a Canadian triathlete named Julie Miller who seemed to have materialized from nowhere and somehow won the race.
Miller, the mother of two young daughters, is a mental-health counselor specializing in body-image disorders here in Squamish. She is also a serious triathlete with a long record of success. Before last year’s race, in Whistler, she had also won her division in the 2013 Ironman Canada, the 2014 Vancouver Triathlon and the 2014 Long Course World Championships in Weihai, China, where she competed for Canada and where her win briefly made her the world champion for her age group.
Davis knew none of that. All she knew was that in more than three hours of hyperconscious running, she had not seen Miller once.
The winners were announced: Julie Miller first, Susanne Davis second. “She didn’t come down and shake our hands,” said Davis, speaking of Miller. “In my entire 20 years of racing, I’ve never had that happen. That’s when I looked at her and said, ‘Gosh, I didn’t see you. Where did you pass me?’”
Miller replied that she had been easily recognizable in her bright green socks and then all but ran off the awards stage, Davis said, telling Davis that she would see her at the world championships in Kona, Hawaii.
Davis compared notes with the third- and fourth-place finishers. They, too, were mystified. They had not seen Miller on the course, either.
This odd series of events eventually touched off an extraordinary feat of forensic detective work by a group of athletes who were convinced that Miller had committed what they consider the triathlon’s worst possible transgression. They believed she had deliberately cut the course and then lied about it.
Dissatisfied with the response of race officials, they methodically gathered evidence from the minutiae of her record — official race photographs, timing data, photographs from spectators along the routes, the accounts of other competitors and volunteers who saw, or did not see, Miller at various points. Much of it suggested that Miller simply could not have completed some segments of the race in the times she claimed, and all of it raised grave questions about the integrity of her results at Whistler and other races.
Miller, they concluded, was triathlon’s version of Rosie Ruiz, the infamous runner who won the 1980 Boston Marathon in a stunningly fast time but was later found to have run only a fraction of the race. Just as Ruiz did back then, Miller has repeatedly insisted that she completed the course fairly, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
Three weeks after winning Ironman Canada, Miller was disqualified from the race, her time erased, her first-place finish voided. Soon after, she was disqualified from two previous races that she had also won. Officials are investigating her 2014 victory in China. Triathlon Canada has barred her from competing for the next two years, citing “repeated rule violations,” while Ironman has barred her indefinitely from its competitions.
“We can’t prove what happened on the course in Ironman Canada in 2015, or what her intent was,” the regional director for Ironman, Keats McGonigal, said in an interview. “People can make their own judgments and decisions. But what we can prove is that it would have been impossible for her to be at specific points at specific times and still get to the finish line when she did.”
Miller denies it all, in the most emphatic tones. She says that she is the victim of a smear campaign by envious, spiteful athletes who cannot cope with her success and high profile and that the only thing she did wrong, besides winning too often, was to lose her timing chip in a couple of races.
“I did not cheat in the Whistler Ironman competition,” she said in an email, “nor would I ever cheat or have I ever cheated in any competition.”
A Worse Offense
There are a lot of ways to cheat in sports, of course, and the most notorious is probably doping, whose methods become ever more subtle and complex even as officials devise ever more sophisticated ways to spot them. But runners and long-distance competitors — marathoners, cyclists, triathletes — reserve a special circle of contempt, and feel a special sort of outrage, for athletes who deliberately cut courses, covering only part of the distance while claiming they covered it all.
“My readers think that doping is reprehensible, but that cutting the course is worse, almost incomprehensible,” said Dan Empfield, a triathlete who runs Slowtwitch, a company whose website includes an influential web forum for triathletes. “At least if you dope, you’re still trying to win the race by actually completing it.”
For weeks last fall, Miller’s case was topic No. 1 on the Slowtwitch forum. At times the conversation became so vicious and angry that Empfield had to take down posts and instruct contributors not to make personal attacks.
“They’re emotionally and financially invested in this sport,” Empfield said of triathletes. “When someone cuts a course, they feel highly violated. From their point of view, it’s tearing at the fabric of trust required to have a sport at all.”
Since Ruiz, there have been other prominent examples of athletes cheating their way through races. In Britain, for instance, the man who took third place in the 2011 Kielder Marathon, Rob Sloan, did not run the entire distance, but took the bus part of the way. “Witnesses reported seeing him hide behind a tree until the first and second placed runners went past,” The Daily Telegraph reported, “then rejoining the race behind them.”
In the United States, perhaps the most egregious case in recent years was that of Kip Litton. Litton, a Michigan dentist in his 40s, was a champion marathon runner who claimed to regularly run marathons in under three hours and who was, he said, setting some sort of record by completing marathons in all 50 states. Neither assertion was correct, but give him points for effort. Once, he went so far as to invent a fake marathon in Wyoming, complete with a fake website, fake competitors, fake race officials and a fake winner (himself).
(He, too, has always claimed that he finished all the courses fairly.)
Whatever the circumstances, such stories inevitably leave many questions unanswered. What motivates athletes who seem to cheat systematically, with forethought and planning, rather than, say, indulging in one-off opportunistic lapses? How can they justify it to themselves? And how, exactly, did they pull it off?
“It doesn’t really make any sense,” said Claire Young, of Kelowna, B.C., who, after Miller was ultimately disqualified, took second place in Ironman Canada. “Most of us are essentially racing against ourselves. There’s no money and no glory. It’s just a hobby, and if you cheat, who are you cheating? You’re only cheating yourself.”
The difference between cheating in 1980 and cheating today is that it’s much harder to get away with now. What trips up contemporary cheaters, Empfield said, is their false assumption that the only thing they have to worry about is their timing chip, the device they wear that records their time at various points along a course.
But the use of additional technology — especially the ubiquitous course photos taken by spectators and professional photographers, which provide a wealth of information about athletes’ positions and times throughout a race — makes it difficult for people to cover their tracks after the fact.
“What these people don’t understand is that the photos contain so much data — they don’t know that this exists,” Empfield said of cheaters. “They think that if they hide in the bushes and re-emerge or take the chip off or whatever, they’re in the clear. But the problem is that people can now forensically recreate your race.”
A Serious Athlete
While Miller’s case brings to mind that of Ruiz, hers is harder to understand and, in a way, more unsettling.
Ruiz was unknown in the marathon world, possibly troubled and motivated by reasons that are still obscure. She apparently made no real effort to run the race she claimed to have won, other than spontaneously emerging toward the end of the course to cross the finish line first. But Miller is a serious athlete with many years of competing behind her, and a long and, until now, distinguished record of turning in competitive and even winning times, not just in triathlons but also in mountain bike races and other events.
“If she’s really guilty of these acts, she was especially good at this, because she was doing it for years,” Empfield said.
Here in Squamish, a city whose spectacular natural beauty makes it a mecca for athletes and whose small size ensures that people know one another’s business, Miller is considered an outgoing, upbeat person and a passionate sportswoman who has made competing central to her life.
Miller has never been a professional triathlete, and at the time of Ironman Canada last summer she wasn’t particularly well known in the greater triathlon world. But with her many responsibilities — she also runs a company that helps new parents deal with babies’ sleep problems — Miller had established herself as a minor celebrity in town, an inspirational, warm, sympathetic woman who could apparently handle it all: work, motherhood, training and high-level sports competition.
“There was a crowd of girls who almost hero-worshiped her,” said Sheena Harris, a triathlete in Squamish. “She had a full-time job, ran her own business, trained full time — she was always killing it.”
With the help of PowHERhouse, a brand-building website that promotes female athletes, Miller had elevated her profile, establishing herself as a prominent local role model. (In 2014, PowHERhouse called her “an emerging rockstar in the world of triathlons.”) Local businesses sponsored her and gave her discounts on equipment; she set up a Facebook page to raise air miles for her ticket to China in 2014; she spread a public message of positivity and determination for other women.
Emotions here are still so raw on the subject of Miller that many people interviewed — other athletes, race volunteers and spectators, social acquaintances — refused to allow their names to be used in this article. Some said they were afraid of running into Miller in town; others said that Miller had responded to criticism so aggressively that they were leery of being bad-mouthed or even sued if they raised questions about her conduct. Even people who feel sympathetic toward her said they did not want to be seen speaking publicly about a subject so fraught.
“As a person, she’s really great — she’s a really nice person,” said a cyclist who knows her from their informal cycling training group, 100 or so people who ride together once a week. “She’s a strong rider, a little firecracker, and she was really positive and got a lot of people interested in the sport.”
The friend said that when the revelations came out, they divided the community as people debated whether something so grave could possibly be true. A lot of people turned against Miller, he said, gossiping and using the opportunity “to crucify her, to spread a lot of information about her, whether true or not, that was harmful and hurtful.”
Since last fall, Miller has not come riding with the other bikers in the group, he said, leaving them mystified about what exactly she did, confused about her state of mind and deeply frustrated. She has, he said, never offered a plausible explanation of what happened.
A Missing Timing Chip
Questions swirled around Miller’s performance as soon as she crossed the finish line at Ironman Canada, on July 26, 2015. The race was held in Whistler, a site of the 2010 Winter Olympics just north of Squamish. The day had begun with heavy, freezing rain, and many athletes had dropped out, defeated by the conditions.
But Miller stayed, finishing in 10 hours 49 minutes 3 seconds, a time recorded manually by an official positioned at the finish line and confirmed by photographs and video images of her crossing it.
There was a problem, though: she was missing her timing chip.
Ironman athletes are required to wear timing chips, affixed to Velcro straps they usually wrap around their ankles. The chips are recognized electronically at timing mats positioned along the course, recording an athlete’s time at those points (the interim times are known as splits). Although the Velcro straps sometimes come off, it is practically unheard of for the chip to become dislodged from the strap.
But Miller’s somehow did.
Miller said that the chip had come off as she changed her clothes during the bike-to-run transition, when, apparently, she took off the Velcro strap and then put it back on over her socks. Race records show that, indeed, her chip had recorded a time of 7:17:50 at the end of the bike ride, before going silent.
According to Ironman rules, no chip means no time. Miller was on the verge of being disqualified.
After the triathlon, Claire Young went to a coffee shop in Whistler with her husband, James, also an Ironman athlete. She had finished the race in 11:06:24, right behind Susanne Davis. As far as she had been told, Miller had beaten them both. The Youngs were discussing how odd this seemed when they were interrupted by a woman at a nearby table.
“She said, ‘Are you talking about Julie Miller?’” James Young said in an interview. “‘I’m from the same town as her, and there’s no way she won that race.’”
Later that night, the official results, posted online, showed that Miller had been disqualified. Word got out that she had had some kind of issue with her timing chip. “It didn’t even cross our minds that there might be foul play,” James Young said.
But athletes can plead for reinstatement under special circumstances. That’s what Miller did the next morning, hours before the official awards ceremony. In a confrontation with McGonigal, the Ironman regional director, she argued that losing her chip had been an unfortunate accident that should not disqualify her from the race. He believed her, he said in an interview, because she seemed so sympathetic, and because parts of her story checked out.
For one thing, he said, volunteers at aid stations along the course confirmed Miller’s claim that she had mentioned the missing chip to them when she ran by. Also, when he examined her winning times in two previous races — Ironman Canada in 2013, and the 2014 long-course world championships in China — he found them to be consistent with her 2015 finish.
“Based on previous results, could this athlete have completed the course in 10 hours 49 minutes?” McGonigal said he asked himself. He concluded that she could.
“So based on all of that, I made the decision to insert her in the results,” he explained. That meant she won her age group and, more important, qualified for the world championships in Kona.
The awards ceremony took place at Whistler’s Olympic Plaza, and three women — Susanne Davis, Claire Young and Marla Zucht — arrived believing that they had taken the first three spots in their division. No one had told them that Miller had successfully argued her way back into first place.
The winners were announced, in reverse order. “Fifth place, fourth place,” James Young recalled, “and then they say, ‘Third place, Claire Young; second place, Susanne Davis; first place … Julie Miller.’”
Puzzled, Young, Davis, and Zucht accepted their awards. “Julie didn’t say anything or shake anyone’s hand — she literally ran off the stage,” James Young said. That’s when Davis confronted her. “Susanne grabbed her shoulder and said, ‘Where did you pass me? I was looking for everyone in the age group and I would have seen you.’
“For a triathlete to say that to another triathlete is a very serious thing,” he continued, “and it’s what made me think that there’s more to this than meets the eye.”
Indeed, few people who had been paying close attention seemed to think that Miller had legitimately won the race the day before. As they replayed the race in their minds, they found things that did not add up. Some spectators and volunteers said in interviews, for instance, said they had seen Miller running slowly, outpaced by speedier runners, near the start of the marathon, and wondered how she could have made up for all that lost time.
The marathon course covers varied terrain – woods, a beach, a residential neighborhood – and comprises two distinct parts, a loop and then an out-and-back section in which athletes retrace their steps. Each athlete runs the whole thing twice. Some spectators who said they were specifically looking for Squamish athletes to cheer on said that in places where they would have expected to see Miller several times, they had seen her just once.
A few days later, people connected to the race began receiving emails from an anonymous sender identified as “Honest Athlete.” The messages cast doubt on Miller’s performance and cited evidence that seemed to suggest something was awry. Other athletes, including James Young, began to investigate further, digging deep into the record.
Among other things, Young studied the images taken by cameras positioned along the course and posted on race websites. They proved to be invaluable, because they showed where various athletes were in relation to each other at particular times in the race.
He found startling anomalies.
Because Miller had no timing chip, there was no official record of her marathon split times, which would have shown her progress in the race. But some of the photographs showed her running near other athletes who did have timing chips, providing contemporaneous evidence for what time she reached various points in the race.
One series of photographs Young found had been taken at a timing mat that athletes crossed on the first lap of the marathon, at about the 1.4-mile mark, and again on the second lap, at the 13.8-mile mark.
The photos showed that Miller and four other athletes, all men, had reached the spot at about the same time, between 8:43:33 and 8:44:07 into the race.
Timing chip records show that two of the men were on the first lap of the marathon and the other two were already running their second lap, having completed the swim and the bike portions much more quickly and started the marathon sooner. But what about Miller? Was she crossing that point in the marathon course for the first or second time? In other words, was she 1.4 miles or 13.8 miles into the course?
Miller’s last official time, recorded when she was still wearing her timing chip, showed that she finished the bike portion 7:17:50 into the race. Allowing her an additional three minutes to change into her running gear, that indicated that she had begun the marathon at a time of about 7:20:50.
Miller, then, had reached the spot where the photos were taken about 1 hour 27 minutes into her run. If she had run 1.4 miles in that time, it would have been at an absurdly slow pace, slower than a casual stroll. If she had run 13.8 miles, it would have been at a prohibitively swift pace, faster even than most professional men. (The overall race winner, Viktor Zyemtsev, ran the same distance in 1:30:13, the fastest recorded run split that day.)
“It’s a ridiculous, beyond-male-professional, world-class, winning-the-world-championship pace,” James Young said.
In interviews, competitors and volunteers said that as they looked back on past races, they recalled things that had made them suspicious about Miller’s performances. But they had never said anything, they explained, because they had not wanted to make such a grave accusation against a fellow athlete.
An aid-station volunteer from Squamish who was cheering on local athletes in the 2013 Ironman Canada race, for instance, said that based on her position and the number of times she saw Miller, it looked as if Miller had failed to complete all the laps. She thought she might be mistaken. But it happened again in 2015 — she saw Miller just once, when she would have expected to see her twice.
“I thought, ‘Twice in a row?’” the volunteer said. She submitted a report to Ironman officials.
Back in Squamish, Sheena Harris, who had raced against Miller before and had occasionally been with her in groups that trained together, was also experiencing serious doubts.
Miller had beaten Harris in the Ironman in 2013 under what seemed at the time to be dubious circumstances. Miller had apparently started one of the out-and-back sections of the course ahead of Harris, but Harris, who knew she was gaining on Miller because of what spectators told her, had not seen her anywhere.
“It was just a feeling; I had no proof,” Harris said. “‘I went to my coach and she said, ‘Sheena, zip it.’”
As a spectator in the 2015 race, Harris had looked out for Miller and other Squamish athletes, and she, too, suspected that Miller had not completed all the laps. She saw everyone else when she would have expected to see them, but she did not see Miller. “Nothing added up,” she said.
Angry that Miller’s win had denied another athlete a spot at the world championships in Kona, Harris was one of the athletes who contacted race officials and told them of her suspicions.
“I wanted to know how they could give someone a first spot in Kona who should have been disqualified,” she said. “It’s about fairness in the sport, and there was no way for me to say nothing. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she had cheated.”
Ironman officials say they were not aware of the other athletes’ concerns until early August, when McGonigal, the Ironman official, received a flurry of angry emails — some anonymous and some not — urging him to reconsider the results.
“I’ve gone through similar procedures in dozens of races in the last six or seven years,” McGonigal said, referring to situations where athletes protested their own disqualifications. “But I’ve never seen anything like what we’re dealing with here.”
The photographic evidence of Miller’s times and positions along the course troubled him. But what he found even more damning, in a way, was the question of what became of Miller’s timing chip. Photographs showed, he said, that when she set out on her run, she was still wearing the Velcro strap — only without the chip attached to it.
“That’s what gave me pause,” he said. “Because in all my history, I’ve heard of timing straps falling off, but I’ve never seen a chip come off a strap while the strap stays on.”
He decided to test for himself. “I tried to personally manipulate multiple timing straps to see what it would take to get a chip to fall off accidentally,” he said. “And it’s not an accidental act. To get a chip to come off the strap, you’re literally having to pull the chip off. It’s a physical act that requires some force with both hands.”
In various statements to news organizations, Miller has said she has no idea what happened to the chip.
“I wish I knew what happened to my timing chip during the Ironman event so there would be a reliable record of my race activity,” she told The Vancouver Sun in November.
Disqualifying an athlete is not done lightly, Ironman officials said, and they gave Miller ample opportunity to defend herself.
“Even then we gave her the benefit of the doubt,” McGonigal said. “We said, if you can explain yourself, if you can prove that you completed the entire course, we’ll go about our merry way and keep the results and you can race in the world championships.”
The head referee for Ironman, Jimmy Riccitello, sent Miller an email on Aug. 10 formally notifying her that she was facing disqualification. He also spoke to her by telephone, he said, to tell her “that our data indicated that she didn’t complete the entire course.”
From photographs, Riccitello saw that in previous races, Miller had apparently often worn a Garmin GPS sports watch, which could have provided data to back up her story. “I asked her for proof — GPS evidence, or anything,” Riccitello said. “But she said she didn’t have the GPS data.”
Miller asked Ironman officials for more time to gather evidence, Riccitello said, and she was given 96 hours. But she never produced anything beyond asserting that she had not cheated. She was disqualified for good. She was also disqualified from two previous races: Ironman Canada 2013, which officials said she did not complete (and where she said she also lost her chip) and the 2014 Vancouver Triathlon.
In the 2014 race, an analysis of her performance showed widely divergent times on the four loops of the bike course, suggesting that she had completed some segments of the course in virtually impossible times — faster than the fastest male professionals in the race, officials said.
Ironman barred Miller indefinitely from its races, citing repeated rule violations — the harshest penalty given to a competitor in memory. (In recent years, two other athletes have been given two-year suspensions for cutting courses, officials said.) In November, Triathlon Canada announced that Miller would be barred from its races, too, for two years, for “multiple breaches” of its rules. It also banned her from competing for Team Canada outside the country, and stripped her of an award she had previously won, the Triathlon Canada Award of Excellence.
Meanwhile, the International Triathlon Union opened an investigation into the gold medal Miller won in Weihai, China, in 2014.
In Squamish, Miller’s coach, Bjoern Ossenbrink, dropped her as a client, saying that perhaps he had been remiss in relying on her word — and not on independent data — to monitor her times during training sessions.
“I don’t know what it takes for a person to do something like this,” he said on the Slowtwitch forum, in a statement that was later taken down. “I’m not out there to question every race result athletes produce.”
Publicity about the case resonated in Squamish, too, and not just among triathletes. Cyclists remembered that Miller had won her age group in 2014 and 2015 in the Test of Metal, a 41.6-mile mountain bike race through steep terrain. In 2015, Miller completed the course in 3:20:33 — a surprise to some of the men who trained with her, and to some of the competitors who turned in similar times to hers but said they did not see her along parts of the course.
“She’s fairly strong but not able to handle complex terrain,” said Dwayne Kress, a member of the training group that rides together weekly. “When I saw the results from Julie Miller, they did not match up with her performances on the group rides. There was no consistency there.”
Cyclists do not wear timing chips in the Test of Metal; they affix numbers to the front of their bikes. Miller’s somehow became detached from her bike in the 2015 race, the only such incident among more than 800 competitors.
Cliff Miller, the founder and chief executive of Test of Metal, said that multiple questions had been raised about Miller’s performance, but that she had not been disqualified.
“It’s entirely volunteer-run and we don’t have a sophisticated timing system or photographers along the course,” Cliff Miller said. “We don’t have any way to even attempt to go back and ascertain whether or not she cheated.”
When her results have been challenged, Miller has always vigorously defended her performances. In addition to protesting at Ironman Canada 2015, she also protested at the 2014 China race when officials initially failed to record her as the winner after confusion over her time. (They later reversed themselves and gave her the gold medal; the race is now under investigation.)
Miller has continued to stick to her position, even when confronted with the evidence to the contrary: the analyses of her performances, the official disqualifications, the sanctions.
After Triathlon Canada suspended her, she accused the group of relying on “anecdotal and inaccurate information” and said she had not been given enough time to present evidence of her innocence.
Tim Wilson, the group’s chief executive, said that while Miller had failed to respond when given the chance to appeal her suspension. “She chose not to,” he said.
At the time, Miller told The Vancouver Sun that she had been sandbagged. “I was contacted before the review and given 72 hours to defend myself,” she said. “I have young children and a full-time job as well as my volunteer commitments, so this wasn’t fair or realistic.”
While she kept a low profile in Squamish this fall and winter, Miller vociferously maintained her innocence to some friends and neighbors. For a time she was active on social media, criticizing people who she said were targeting her unfairly. She positioned herself as a victim of cyberbullying, at one point blaming “mean girls” for the accusations.
“After achieving a goal I had set for myself years ago, for reasons I will never know, a hateful and false rumor was started by another woman that dampened my celebration,” Miller said on Facebook. “Ultimately, I and others close to me know my integrity, and that is what matters to me.”
The post was eventually taken down, and Miller closed her Facebook account, reopening a new one under another name.
In several email exchanges, on the telephone, and in a brief conversation at the front door of her house in Squamish, Miller declined to be interviewed for this article, saying that she would derive no benefit from trying to explain how she completed the races in the times she claimed. Her critics would find a way to rebut her story no matter what, she said. At one point she promised to provide evidence that she had completed one of the suspect races, but never followed through with the complete information.
In every exchange, she portrayed herself as an innocent victim who had just wanted to train and compete.
“I do know for certain in my heart — and people who know me know this, too — that I would never, ever knowingly do anything to disrespect or disparage my fellow competitors, the race organizers and volunteers, myself, my friends or — most importantly to me — my children, husband and family,” she said in a written statement she provided for publication. “We are moving on with our lives, I continue to train and compete and I wish everyone the joy that family and sport bring to me.”
Miller’s aggressive defense and her failure to provide a full account have left many athletes in the triathlon community angry and frustrated. They compare the situation to the Lance Armstrong case, when Armstrong denied doping, fighting belligerently against his accusers, even when it was clear he was guilty.
People who believe Miller cheated have their theories about how she did it, and most include missing at least one section, if not an entire lap, of the two-lap marathon in the 2013 and 2015 Ironman races. But without an explanation from Miller — either evidence of how she completed the courses fairly, or an admission of guilt and perhaps even an apology — they will never have a definitive answer.
“I’d really like to hear how she did it,” Sheena Harris said. “I’d read that story.”