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Joanne Morrison should have paid more attention at the starting line, but she did learn something about herself that day

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Running is one of the many things that didn't come easily to me. In fact, it's right up there with algebra and public speaking. But as I got older, life became more stressful, stubborn belly fat became tougher to lose and running suddenly seemed to make sense. It didn't cost anything beyond investment in a decent pair of running shoes, it didn't require any special talent and it took only 30 minutes out of my day.

While running five kilometres probably isn't a big deal for most runners, it took me two years of interval training to finally get there and another two years before I actually started to enjoy it (or at least enjoy the way I felt when it was over).

Although I had been running 5K runs on a semi-daily basis for a few years, I was a little intimidated when a friend suggested we participate in a competitive 5K women's run. Running had always been a solitary activity for me so I had no idea how I'd compare with other runners. My confidence in my speed was low at best. I had visions of coming last, passing out, getting lost – and worst of all – not being able to finish. Anticipating that I'd be slow, I registered for the slowest possible heat.

A few days before the big race, a mysterious pain developed in my hip, which further reinforced my concern that my race performance would be abysmal at best.

Although it was spring, the race day temperature was record breaking. Toronto was in the midst of an unusually early heat wave and it was one of those days when radio announcers advise people to stay indoors out of the sun, seek air-conditioned shelter and drink plenty of fluids. It was dangerously hot.

My friend and I arrived at the race a little early and decided to leave the starting point with the first group of runners rather than wait until our scheduled time.

We figured it didn't matter what time we left since our start and end time would be automatically clocked by the chip in our bibs. We were excited to get going and I quickly realized that running with other people was much more fun than going it alone. Not wanting to burn ourselves out, we started at an easy pace and enjoyed the scenery of Sunnybrook Park. I still felt full of energy once we were past the halfway mark and decided to sprint the last couple of kilometres.

I don't consider myself competitive by nature, but something kicked in at the moment and I had the sudden urge to win, or if not win, at least beat as many sweaty women as I could manage.

I ran my heart out, as fast as my legs and lungs would take me. The finish line had to be close by now. It should be appearing any minute. But it didn't.

This seemed like the longest 5K I had ever run. Where the heck was that finish line? I continued running, passing other runners as often as I could and I was startled when I saw the six-kilometre marker on the side of the trail. Wasn't this race supposed to be over by now? Maybe the route was just a little more than five kilometres.

I continued, slowing my pace a little this time. Then the eight-kilometre marker appeared on my right. What? I continued running until I found a race marshal to find out where I was, what was going on and where that finish line had disappeared to.

"Oh my, you're on the half-marathon route," the marshal said.

Yikes! How had that happened? I asked her how I could get back and she shook her head. "You can't. You just have to keep going."

Ugh! There was no easy way out. So I kept running. And passing people. The 10-kilometre marker appeared. I had never run 10 kilometres before. And, surprisingly, I still had energy.

By the time I reached the 12-kilometre marker, I started to feel something I had only heard about but never personally experienced – the runner's high. I was feeling euphoric. I passed a few more runners.

I had doubted I'd be able to finish the 5K, but now I had already run 14 kilometres and I was still going, still passing people.

This funny mix up of accidentally getting into the wrong race made me question my entire life. If I had grossly underestimated my ability to run, it made me wonder about all the other areas in my life where I was very likely underestimating my abilities. I realized I had lacked confidence. I was selling myself short, not just with respect to the race, but in my career, my ambitions and my relationships. I was settling instead of stretching myself.

When I finally crossed the finish line, I felt like I could do anything. It turned out that the half marathon had been shortened to 16 kilometres because of concerns about heat exhaustion. But still, I had run more than three times as far as I ever had before.

And even later on, after the runner's high was over, I understood that I could give so much more and go so much faster and farther when I knew I could no longer go back, when I had no choice but to keep going.

It was a mistake that changed my life. And am I training for that full half-marathon run? You bet.

Joanne Morrison lives in Vaughan, Ont.