Laura Hillenbrand on ‘leaving frailty behind’

What the Seabiscuit author can teach us about resilience


One of the things you’ve probably gathered is that this is a different kind of running newsletter. Of course, we share a great deal about how to become a better runner, the mechanics of running, and other practical tips.

But what really interests me about running is how it affects — and can improve — what happens between the ears. That’s why I think I’ve taken to the sport for most of my adult life, and even when I drop off for a while, I keep coming back.

Now, I’ve read (like you probably have too) plenty of articles with instructions and tips on how to become mentally more resilient, stronger, etc. But to be honest, they always fall a little flat for me.

What really interests me are actual, flesh-and-blood human beings who’ve experienced something really difficult in their lives, and hearing their stories of how they overcame it, in their own words.

That’s why I think I love the author Laura Hillenbrand so much. Now 53 and living in Oregon, she has battled chronic fatigue syndrome since she was 20 years old, often experiencing symptoms so bad she was confined to her home for years at a time.

CFS didn’t stop her from becoming one of America’s best-selling writers, however. Hillenbrand’s books Seabiscuit (published in 2001) and Unbroken (in 2010) have together spent years on the New York Times bestseller list.

Researching and writing those books — though she of course loved what she was doing — was exhausting. There were days she was so depleted by her disease that she’d have to write from her bed, lying down as she wrote on her notepad upside down.

A few years ago, she began taking new medications for her CFS that began to give her more energy, and thus more freedom. But gaining that newfound freedom still came at a cost that would stagger most of us, I’d imagine.

Here’s how she described it in an interview back in 2016:

“It took years to get ready to do this. To put you in the perspective of where I was, I had not left Washington, D.C., since 1990 because of vertigo, which has been a problem for me for most of the time I’ve had CFS. It’s not a common kind of vertigo: It has been absolutely constant. It feels like the floor is pitching up and down. It looks like the room is moving around me. My desk is moving. Everything looks and feels like it’s moving. It’s hell.

I began to try to inure myself by getting in a car and riding for five minutes. It would be awful and I would feel terrible. I was so dizzy for an hour afterward, but I just wanted to see: If I keep doing this, can I teach my brain how to tolerate it? I’d go a little longer and a little longer. And over two years, I went from being just miserably dizzy after five minutes to being able to go two hours.”

Can you imagine having that kind of will, that kind of stick-to-it-ive-ness to stay with the process of trying to get better? Even though you could never be certain you would?

Hillenbrand did. She had begun a new relationship, and wanted to move to be with her boyfriend. (Amazing how love can inspire us to do things like that, isn’t it?)

“Once I hit two hours, I started thinking maybe I could come across the country. My boyfriend was living in Oregon. I wanted to be with him. I wanted to start a new life. D.C. was not the right place to be for someone with CFS who was very intolerant of heat. I also wanted a simpler world around me because complicated things are difficult with the cognitive problems from CFS.

I was in love and I wanted to be with the man I was in love with. We got an RV and we took a monthlong trip crossing the country and it was a miracle for me. It was the most wondrous thing.”

It wasn’t obvious to me when I stumbled across that interview a couple years ago, but Hillenbrand really was risking her life to take the trip across the country she mentions. She could have fallen ill anywhere along the way, and needed treatment that would’ve been hours or days away.

That kind of courage has served her well. Today, she lives happily in Oregon with her boyfriend, but earlier this year she came down with a coronavirus infection — which she talks much more about in this podcast interview.

Even though her case was not life-threatening, it has been serious. She experienced incredible difficulty breathing, she says: “It felt like I was breathing through a honeycomb. I was just gasping, only getting half breath.”

What impresses me so much about the interview, though, is the joy she takes in her life, despite — or perhaps even because of — the extraordinary difficulties placed in her path.

I’m going to quote a passage at length here, in which Hillenbrand tells the full story about her move to Oregon and why she values this time in her life so much, because it’s so good:

“My boyfriend lived out here and I can’t fly because of vertigo. So he in 2015 drove to (Washington) D.C. and we took a drive across the country. It took 24 days. It was 3,700 miles because we meandered so I could see all the things I’d never seen. I’d never seen the mountains. There were so many things I’d never seen. I’d never traveled the country.

And so the whole thing was this wondrous experience where I would scream with delight in the car at the redness of the grass in Kansas or the Badlands or all of these resplendent things in nature that I’d never been able to see and great cities.

And it was it the best experience of my life to do that. It was hard. It was scary. It was very dangerous for me to do. I just had to believe I could do it. We just had to manage it very carefully, only drive a little bit each day. But we made it. And I arrived healthier than when I left. That was the most amazing thing.

[Oregon is] such a different world because I mean, I’m a DC born and bred kind of girl. My dad was a lobbyist. My mother wrote for The Washington Post. It’s such a different world... Everything has been magical out here. It’s really a beautiful place.”

Here’s the part of the interview I really want you to see:

“I never thought that I would get out of that bedroom. I never imagined anything like this. The breadth of possibility in a person’s life is so much greater than most of us recognize because I thought that I would live the rest of my life in that bedroom and die there. And I was wrong. I was so wrong.

Honestly, I get choked up reading those words. (It must be dusty where I am, something keeps getting in my eye!)

The spirit it took to overcome what Hillenbrand has, it’s something I aspire to. And hope to teach my kids about. And hope they’ll find the same kind of strength when they face challenges in their own lives.

It’s why I love the title of her second book so much: Unbroken. To me, it suggests the subject isn’t someone who is perfect, who has it all together. But someone who found a way to take the broken pieces and put them back together.

It’s a resilience I think we all have within us, and can find out there on the run — or at least catch a glimpse of it.

Hope each of you guys has an awesome 4-mile run out there today, and be sure to let us know how it goes!

— Terrell