One of the most unbelievable races of Pat Huffman's life was winding down. Her watch suggested that she'd never run faster, and she knew the finish line wasn't far away.

The final stretch was the toughest. She was coughing up blood. She'd fallen and gashed her knee. She was out of breath, and everything felt a bit fuzzy.

Huffman knew she was making good time in the Marine Corps Historic Half-Marathon but didn't realise that only two female runners were ahead of her - and they were both at least 15 years younger.

For Huffman, 52, running is life - the crux of her identity in many ways - and the Marine Corps Marathon events always carried the most weight.

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She'd used them to raise tens of thousands of dollars over the years for different charities. She collected the medals and attached the patches each year to her Marine Corps jacket.

But it's the causes she runs for that spur her on. That's what helped her make those last few steps on the Fredericksburg, Virginia, course.

Huffman had no idea at the time, but she was apparently the third-fastest woman across the finish line. In many ways, it was the race of her life. There was only one problem: race organisers would later call it the most egregious case of cheating they'd ever seen.

"Nothing added up," said Rick Nealis, the executive director of the Marine Corps Marathon. "Why would you cheat in this race? We're not giving out prize money. This race doesn't get you to Boston. So why would you cheat?"

Huffman had competed in Marine Corps events 15 times in the past - everything from 10km races to the full marathon. She'd never before caused anyone to raise an eyebrow.

But last year's May 15 race set off a bizarre string of events. Race officials investigated and issued a one-year ban.

Huffman protested, and thousands of supporters lined up behind her.

Then came an internet confession followed by claims of online identity theft.

Now, 1½ years later, Huffman maintains her innocence and says her reputation as a runner has been damaged, perhaps irretrievably so. She poses the same question as race officials: Why in the world would she ever cheat?

"You've got to understand, this is my whole life. Why would I do that?" she said. "I'm not about the award. I have a whole basement of awards. I don't need the award. I train for everything I do. There's no need to cheat."

Pat Huffman trains with student Jessica Allen, 10. Photo / Washington Post
Pat Huffman trains with student Jessica Allen, 10. Photo / Washington Post
After tripping and falling near Hospital Hill, Pat Huffman finished the race bloodied. Photo / Marine Corps Marathon
After tripping and falling near Hospital Hill, Pat Huffman finished the race bloodied. Photo / Marine Corps Marathon

About 16km into the race, she suffered her only real calamity: She tripped near an area known as Hospital Hill. A local runner who was on hand to encourage racers approached her. Huffman dusted herself off, ignored the pain and continued toward the finish line, accompanied part of the way by the local runner.

She said she was surprised there were so many others around her near the finish line, given her pace, until she remembered the slower 10km runners were also finishing at the same time. Race officials didn't notice Huffman crossing the finish line, despite her fast time and her blood-stained shirt. Huffman recalls finishing the race in less than 1 hour 34 minutes; race organisers were unable to confirm that time because her result has been purged from their system.

At the awards ceremony that afternoon, another woman was honoured as the third-place finisher. The next day, race officials looked at the finishing times and noticed Huffman's name.

"My first reaction was, 'we messed up'," Nealis said. "It bothered me that we made a mistake, but I was going to fix it and make it right."

As race officials delved further, though, things didn't add up, and they weren't always satisfied with Huffman's explanations. Finally, after more than a week of discussions, Nealis was convinced that Huffman had cheated.

After the race director made his ruling, Huffman's friends and supporters rallied around her. Within hours, more than 1000 names appeared on an online petition demanding that her punishment be lifted. Soon there would be nearly 5000.

Nealis' phone started ringing. People showed up at his office. No one could understand how race officials would accuse this woman of cheating, someone who was doing it all for charity.

Nealis didn't pretend to know her motivation, but he had no doubts.

On a recent October afternoon, Nealis was in his Quantico office preparing for the 41st running of the Marine Corps Marathon. He pulled a purple folder out of a filing cabinet, labeled "Cheater".

He said he'd gone through all of this before with Huffman. He remembered back to the days following the race and asking Angela Anderson, the race's deputy director, to investigate.

"She came back and said, 'This is an incredible lady. She works with Team Fisher House; she's a veteran fundraiser; she was brutally attacked and suffered PTSD. She wouldn't cheat. She's a wonderful lady', " Nealis recalled.

"I said, 'I'm glad she's a wonderful lady, but this doesn't add up'."

Pat Huffman says the cheating claims have
Pat Huffman says the cheating claims have "changed everything". Photo / Washington Post

A matter of time

Cheating is considered a cardinal sin among runners; a dedicated, tireless lot who respect the effort and sacrifices it takes to simply reach the starting line. In Huffman's case, Nealis felt he had more than enough evidence.

The Marine Corps Marathon contracts a photography company, which stations a photographer every mile or so. More are placed downtown to capture the picturesque backdrops and classic buildings. More than a dozen are spread across the course.

He told them to search for Huffman's bib, No. 7243. There are plenty of photographs and eyewitnesses that show Huffman at both the start and the finish, but none could be found for a nearly 11km stretch in the middle of the course. She's like a ghost for the bulk of the race.

In the photos that do exist of Huffman, Nealis felt her gait looked suspicious, her feet close together and too close to the ground. She didn't look like an elite runner who typically posts such a fast time, he said.

He requested the data from the timing chip that runners carry throughout the race. Five mats on the course register when a runner has passed: the start/finish and four more every 5km or so.

Huffman's chip showed her at the start and hitting the first mat 4.8km into the race.

But the chip didn't record her crossing the next two mats. She doesn't show up on the course again until the 19km mark.

Huffman said race organisers initially told her that her chip didn't register at the start of the race. Nealis denies this and said he was vague in his explanation while they investigated, keeping his cards close to his chest.

Huffman said she can't be held responsible for cameras that didn't catch her or timing equipment that didn't work properly. Nealis pointed out that no other runner experienced a similar timing malfunction.

Even if the cameras simply missed her and the chip did malfunction, Nealis said, the times don't add up.

Her mile-split at the three-mile mark indicated she was running 10-minute miles - he says, on pace for a 2:11 finish.

To finish when she did required her to run the remainder of the race at a pace more than 33 per cent faster than she ran the first leg.

More than two dozen race results for Huffman are available in various online databases.

Her times vary widely. Her best mile pace appears to be a 7:29 in a Marine Corps 10k in 2011.

Most of her mile-splits are in the nine-minute range. On the same course one year earlier, Huffman finished in 2:06:41, a 9:39 mile pace. And just two weeks before the Fredericksburg race, she completed a half-marathon in Pittsburgh in 2:09:16 - a mile-split of 9:51.

She finished 89th in her age category there and was 2793rd among women, more than a half-hour slower than her Fredericksburg result.

Her personal record entering the Marine Corps race came one year earlier when she completed the Garden Spot Village HalfMarathon in New Holland, Pennsylvania, in 1:40:46, a 7:41 mile pace.

"I remember hearing at some point what her [Marine Corps] time was and thought, 'Wow. That's pretty darn fast'," said Lang, who has coached Huffman in the past. "It didn't seem to me it was totally out of the question, just a really good race. 'Wow, she popped a good one. Good for her'."

Nealis, though, is convinced, and because Huffman wouldn't admit to any wrongdoing, he banned her from any Marine Corps races for a year.

"The egregious thing to me really goes back to the remorse," Nealis said.

"You're caught - there's no doubt she's out there running and I have no doubt that she could run a half-marathon, at least from looking at other races she's done. She can run, she can do it - so why not do it? Why wake up and decide to cheat and skip those six or seven miles?"

Huffman chuckles and shakes her head at the mention of the word "remorse".

"I didn't show remorse because I didn't do anything wrong," she said.

Pat Huffman instructs young runners with the Bullseye Running Junior Striders Club. Photo / Washington Post
Pat Huffman instructs young runners with the Bullseye Running Junior Striders Club. Photo / Washington Post

Taking the next step

Nealis had wrapped his investigation when a posting appeared on Facebook under Huffman's name admitting to cheating in the Fredericksburg race. Huffman's phone began lighting up with friends confused about the surprising confession. Huffman said she didn't write the post; her account was hacked.

Nealis said it had no bearing on his decision, but more than a year later, Huffman is still grappling with the idea that her credibility has been questioned, that she might never clear her name and that anyone might doubt her integrity. She has struggled with depression and stopped competing for several months after the Marine Corps ban.

"This affected everything I do," she said. "Every ounce of my life. Being accused of this changed everything."

One recent October afternoon, Huffman was preparing for her running class behind Centennial High in Ellicott City. She coaches youth runners, ages 8-13, there twice a week. She was laughing and smiling as she gave instruction, clearly enjoying herself. She doesn't want the children or their parents to think she'd ever cheat in a race.

"I just can't explain how badly it hurts that someone would even conceive of me doing that," she said shortly before the class began. "That's one of the things I tell my kids: If you can't make it, walk, whatever. But don't come back and tell me you did it."

Huffman has dealt with injuries but is competing again. She ran the Boston Marathon this year for the first time, exempt from qualifying because she met a fundraising threshold. She also ran an event called the Tough Ruck, in which competitors must march 26.2 miles (42.1km) carrying a 30-pound (13.6kg) ruck sack, an American flag and a soldier's boot filled with cement.

If Nealis is right and Huffman cheated the Fredericksburg course, it certainly serves as a black mark on a prolific race resumé. But then again, Huffman was never really out there running for herself anyway. Her donation to the Fisher House that day counted all the same.

"Obviously, putting up something individually special is one thing," Lang said, "but being able to contribute to others as she has done is so much more important."