From Chapter 12 “Indefatigable” in Ingredients of Outliers.
What do I mean by “empty the tank?” Well, it’s described in lots of ways: going the extra mile, and beyond; giving it all you’ve got; going for broke; and, to borrow a term from the popular poker game Texas Hold ‘Em, going “all in,” or betting your entire resources on winning. It’s going above and beyond, to the absolute limits of your talents and strengths, over whatever barriers have kept you from becoming the best you can possibly be.
Most barriers are imaginary. Most people have greater capacity than they ever give themselves credit for. And most of us have never been truly tested. Some, sad to say, never get beyond simply doing what’s required of them.
Think of people who run the Badwater Ultramarathon—135 miles in 120° heat— or Navy SEALs during Hell Week, or people who, against all odds, perform heroic feats to save others or themselves from admit to “knowing” they could have accomplished something that, up to that point, was unimaginable.
One such person is a woman named Pam Reed. To help overcome a 15-year-long battle with anorexia, this wife, mother, and entrepreneur decided to start running—and she hasn’t stopped. She set her sights on entering, and completing, the Badwater event. It begins in mid-July in the Badwater Basin in California’s Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level, and ends at the trailhead to Mount Whitney, 135 miles away and more than 8,000 feet above sea level.
In 2002 she not only entered and completed the event, she won it, finishing five hours ahead of her closest competitor. Then, to prove her victory was no fluke, she won it again the following year.
In her 2006 book, The Extra Mile: One Woman’s Personal Journey to Ultra-Running Greatness, Reed described what it takes to empty the tank: “Runners are allowed up to 60 hours to complete the course. But if you want to finish among the leaders, you’ve got to cover the distance in well under a day and a half. That means no sleeping and minimal stopping. The winning time is usually in the range of 25 to 30 hours. In 2002, when I was the overall winner of the race, I set the current women’s record of 27:56.”
Out of Their Comfort Zone
In its January 2013 issue, SUCCESS magazine included an article titled “52+ Ways to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone,” which included brief profiles of men and women who had learned how to overcome barriers in their lives and go on to empty the tank.
One item featured a woman named Cecilia Aragon who, as a child, was so afraid of heights that simply climbing a ladder caused her to break out in a sweat. Even the simple act of shaking hands with someone terrified her. To overcome her fears, she says: “I realized that if I was ever going to do anything, I had to expand my comfort zone pretty dramatically.” Today, she’s an award-winning computer scientist and university professor.
But there’s a lot more to her story. As a graduate student, she swallowed her fear and accepted an invitation from a friend to take a flight in a small, four-seater airplane. During the flight, her friend challenged her to take the controls. It was a life-changing, empty-the-tank experience. As soon as the plane landed, she signed up for flying lessons. In 1991, within six years after her first solo flight, she was invited to join the United States Aerobatic Team. During her four years on that team, her skills as a daredevil pilot helped her amass dozens of trophies. Today she’s among the world’s leading aerobatic pilots, and I assume she’s no longer afraid of climbing a ladder.
The SUCCESS magazine article also featured a 44-year-old Florida trial lawyer named Heath Eskalyo. As a child, he never was a swimmer because of his mother’s nervousness about the water. Today, with the help of a coach, he’s become an accomplished competitor in Ironman Triathlons. These events, which I think of as triathlons on steroids, require a 2.4-mile swim, followed immediately by a 112-mile bike ride, followed immediately by a 26.2-mile marathon. That’s nearly twice the distance of an Olympic-class triathlon.
In the article, Eskalyo described what it’s like to plunge into the ocean along with some 1,500 others: “It’s a washing machine. You’re going to be kicked, punched, elbowed.” That’s just the start of an event that will cover more than 138 miles—with no breaks. Those who finish, both male and female, earn the coveted title of “Ironman.”