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What does "I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking" mean?

It was said in The Bourne Identity.

I am not a native English speaker. I know the meaning of the individual words, but have never heard the expression "run flat out" before.

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General Reference - flat out - at top speed; "he ran flat out to catch the bus" –  FumbleFingers Jan 29 at 6:04
    
I have retracted my earlier closevote. per comments under binarysubstrate's answer, although I still think the headline question (what does it mean here?) is GR, the etymology of how the idiomatic flat-out came to have two now-distinct senses (at top speed and bluntly, truthfully) seems less clear-cut. –  FumbleFingers Jan 29 at 13:38

2 Answers 2

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Flat out is an expression used to describe one of three things, depending on the context:

  1. Doing something as hard or as quickly as you can: e.g. I worked flat out to finish the assignment.
  2. Doing something without hesitating or any second thought: I flat-out disagree with your view.
  3. Lying down completely stretched out: After winning the race, I was exhausted and collapsed flat-out on the ground.

In this case, it's the second or the first use, depending on the context, though in either case he's making a statement about his physical condition. The speaker is saying one of two things:

  1. He can run as quickly as he can for half a mile before his hands start shaking
  2. The speaker can, without a moment's hesitation, run half a mile, without a warm-up, before his hands start shaking.
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You're not 100% wrong, but it's misleading to suggest that #2 might apply at all in OP's context, let alone to mention is first. Besides which, your paraphrasing "He can run as quickly as he can" simply isn't a credible utterance. –  FumbleFingers Jan 29 at 6:10
    
Thank you. I believe that #1 makes more sense in the context of the movie. –  Hans-Peter E. Kristiansen Jan 29 at 6:24
    
Yes, #1 is the correct interpretation. The protagonist has an erased memory and is surprised to find out he has great physical training. Running flat-out for half a mile would send most people gasping for air :) –  oerkelens Jan 29 at 9:01

Meaning

Flat-out is an idiom which can be used in several contexts as already written by @newb. In the context of the original question it means to go at a maximum speed. Merriam-Webster offers several definitions online (listed under "flat out" and "flat-out") including:

  1. informal (chiefly US): Absolute and complete.
  2. Greatest possible. Maximum.

Origins

@ws2 indicated flat-out may have originated with automobiles and specifically references having your foot flat on the accelerator pedal, similar to the phrase “Put the pedal to the metal.”

@oldcat indicated the origins may derive from horse racing where a rider or jockey must lie as flat as possible during a race to decrease wind resistance.

Intuitively both of these ideas seem plausible. However, if any origin is officially recognized, I haven’t found a reference to it yet.

(Rewritten based on comments.)

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I'm afraid that's totally the wrong sense wrong for OP's context. –  FumbleFingers Jan 29 at 6:06
    
Don't be daft. Of course it has a definition. Probably several, but the dictionary I linked to under the question gives two. The one which I copied into my comment is the one that applies here. Yours is the other, which doesn't. –  FumbleFingers Jan 29 at 6:14
    
I don't know what I'm supposed to do with that link. Would it help you to know that OED definitely has the relevant definition, but appears not to explicitly include your honestly, bluntly sense at all. Which I'm sure is in any case a derivative of at top speed -> quickly -> directly -> bluntly -> truthfully (nothing to do with "lying flat, spread out, on the ground"). –  FumbleFingers Jan 29 at 6:35
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@FumbleFingers I haven't looked up the OED, but I always assumed 'flat-out' started in the age of the motor car. It is about having your foot flat on the accelerator pedal, isn't it? Australians, when overworked, will say 'I'm flat to the boards with so-and-so job'. –  WS2 Jan 29 at 7:17
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There could be another derivation of flat-out from horse racing. To achieve top speed the rider lies as flat on the horse as possible to decrease wind resistance. –  Oldcat Jan 30 at 1:34

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