Beyond the Very Extremity of Fatigue Distress

William James? Scott Jurek? Apocryphal?

runner09Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement about endurance is popular with long-distance runners and others who face demanding situations:

Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction

These words have appeared on many web pages and in several books. The influential American psychologist and philosopher William James has usually been credited. Yet, I have never seen a supporting citation. Is the ascription to James accurate?

Quote Investigator: In December 1906 William James delivered a Presidential Address titled “The Energies of Men” before the American Philosophical Association. James discussed the ability of humans to draw upon surprisingly large reserves of both physical and mental energy. Below is a section of his 1906 speech; a segment from one sentence was later rephrased to generate the modern quotation. James used the word “extremity” instead of “extreme”, and he used the term “fatigue distress” instead of “fatigue and distress”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The existence of reservoirs of energy that habitually are not tapped is most familiar to us in the phenomenon of ‘second wind.’ Ordinarily we stop when we meet the first effective layer, so to call it, of fatigue. We have then walked, played, or worked ‘enough,’ and desist. That amount of fatigue is an efficacious obstruction, on this side of which our usual life is cast.

But if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed. There may be layer after layer of this experience. A third and a fourth ‘wind’ may supervene.

Mental activity shows the phenomenon as well as physical, and in exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In January 1907 the oration by James was published in “The Philosophical Review”, and it was noticed by other publications. For example, in December 1907 “The Review of Reviews” in London published an excerpt under the title “The Wasted Powers of Man” which included the boldface text given above. 2 In 1910 “Field Notes” from the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company reprinted a long excerpt which also included the text above. 3

In 1998 a collection of quotations titled “Wisdom Through the Ages” was published, and it included a passage attributed to William James that strongly matched the text above. However, some words were omitted and some parts were rephrased: 4

If an unusual necessity forces us onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain point, when, gradually or suddenly, it passes away and we are fresher than before! We have evidently tapped a new level of energy. There may be layer after layer of this experience, a third and fourth “wind.” We find amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, sources of strength habitually not taxed, because habitually we never push through the obstruction of fatigue.
WILLIAM JAMES

In 2009 “Born to Run: The hidden tribe, the ultra-runners, and the greatest race the world has never seen” by Christopher McDougall was published. The author referred to an emerging group of ultra-long-distance runners known as “Young Guns”, and he reported that the modern quotation ascribed to James appeared in emails from Scott Jurek, a top ultramarathoner and best-selling author: 5

Ultra god Scott Jurek summed up the Young Guns’ unofficial creed with a quote from William James he stuck on the end of every e-mail he sent: “Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.”

In 2011 “The Independent on Sunday” newspaper based in London reviewed a book about running by Robin Harvie which included a short instance of the quotation: 6

Harvie talks of how running helps him on his “journey into adulthood”, without quite specifying what that means, and offers gnomic clues through the words of others, such as: “There is only one antidote to mental suffering, and that is physical pain” (Karl Marx); or “Beyond the extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own” (William James).

In conclusion, William James did write an essay and deliver a speech containing a passage that strongly matched the quotation under examination. But the words were not identical. QI suggests that an excerpt from the original speech/essay should be presented and referenced.

Image Notes: Portrait of William James circa 1903 from the Houghton Library at Harvard University via Wikimedia Commons. Superhero-style runner from alan9187 at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Dan Jones of Sydney, Australia whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Jones pointed to the citation in “Born To Run”.)

Notes:

  1. 1907 January, The Philosophical Review, Volume 16, Number 1, The Energies of Men, (Footnote: “Delivered as the Presidential Address before the American Philosophical Association at Columbia University, December 28, 1906”), Start Page 1, Quote Page 4, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1907 December, The Review of Reviews, Volume 36, Number 216, Section: Leading Articles in the Reviews, The Wasted Powers of Man, Quote Page 601, Published at The Review of Reviews Offices, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1910 March, Field Notes, Volume 9, Number 7, Will, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Published by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1998, Wisdom Through the Ages: A Collection of Favorite Quotations, Compiled by Helen Granat, Quote Page 58 and 59, Miklen Press, Poulsbo, Washington. (Google Books Preview)
  5. 2010 (Reprint of 2009 edition), Born to Run: The hidden tribe, the ultra-runners, and the greatest race the world has never seen by Christopher McDougall, Quote Page 112, Profile Books, London. (Google Books Preview)
  6. 2011 April 24, The Independent on Sunday (The Independent), Why We Run by Robin Harvie – SportBOOK OF THEWEEK, Author/Byline: Simon Redfern, Section: Sport, Quote Page 22 and 23, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News)