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.

Continue reading Beyond the Very Extremity of Fatigue Distress


  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