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Despite Illness, Author Pushed to the Finish Line

* Laura Hillenbrand battled chronic fatigue to write the story of Seabiscuit, the underdog racehorse who became a legend.

March 27, 2001|JENNIFER FREY | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — The little room on the second floor of the row house is organized to perfection, though this is something that an outsider would not understand. The water cooler, the glasses, the bowls and spoons--all sit only a small lift of the wrist away. Cereal boxes line the top of the desk, and milk is stored in a mini-refrigerator that doubles as a table for a fax machine and half a dozen bottles of pills. Scrapbooks are piled on the floor, within easy reach.

For nearly four years, Laura Hillenbrand sat in this room for up to eight hours a day and painstakingly, re-created the story of a Depression-era racehorse and the three eccentric men who made up his world. She almost never went out. Some days, she didn't even go downstairs. Instead, she pored over old racing programs and newspaper clippings, did telephone interviews with 100-year-old track veterans, scoured EBay for racing memorabilia, begged strangers at faraway racetracks to copy documents and ship them to her house.

The book all that work produced, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," arrived in bookstores earlier this month, with a first printing of 50,000 copies and a movie adaptation in the early stages of production at Universal Pictures. Published by Random House, the book has been greeted by rave reviews and is predicted to be one of spring's nonfiction sensations.

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It is a story about horse racing, yes, but it is also a tale of the Depression and of a ragtag group of underdogs who enthralled a nation. Seabiscuit, as Hillenbrand writes, was such a phenomenon in his day that his name was mentioned in more newspaper articles in 1938 than Franklin Roosevelt's or Hitler's. His epic battle that year against War Admiral at Pimlico stands as perhaps the greatest horse race in history.

But he also was a "rough-hewn, undersized horse with a sad little tail and a knee that wouldn't straighten all the way," shepherded to his success by a half-blind jockey, an almost mute trainer and an owner who once made his living in bicycle repair.

Hillenbrand tells all their stories with incredible empathy. There is good reason for that. Just 33 years old, she can't walk more than a block without becoming extremely tired. Her morning shower exhausts her. Vertigo causes the words on her computer screen to dip and weave as she types. Her live-in boyfriend, Borden Flanagan, has to help her with the smallest of needs.

Hillenbrand has chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition that can be so disabling--as it is in her case--that it leaves many of its victims cloistered from the outside world, lucky to be able to perform the most basic daily tasks. There is minimal treatment--or cure.

Random House editor Jon Karp "once said that Seabiscuit is a metaphor for my life, and he's right," Hillenbrand says. "The subjects that I've written about--the men and the horse--were radically different individuals, but the one thread that pulls through all of their lives and through the events that they lived through together is this struggle between overwhelming hardship and the will to overcome it.

"It's a central theme in this book, and it is the central struggle of my life as well."

It was March 20, 1987, when as a college student, Hillenbrand's life changed. Six months into her relationship with Flanagan, she was driving with him back to campus from Washington when she ate some bad chicken and became violently ill. By the time she reached school, she was so overcome that her friends called the paramedics.

She suffered with the food poisoning for days, struggled to return to classes but seemed to be gradually losing energy. Two weeks later, she awoke and couldn't sit up. Speaking was difficult. She called her parents, dropped out of school and went home to live.

*

She was bedridden for the next 10 months, fighting fevers that spiked and receded in six-hour intervals. Her mouth filled with sores, her lymph nodes swelled, she lost 20 pounds. Doctors suspected illnesses such as AIDS and multiple sclerosis but could never make a definitive diagnosis. One told her, dismissively, that her illness was psychosomatic. One told her she was--at 19--experiencing symptoms of adolescence. One accused her of being bulimic and stalked her on trips to the bathroom.

Even some of those closest to her had trouble understanding, or accepting, how ill Hillenbrand was. "I had difficulties with just about everyone taking it seriously at first," she says. "I definitely had a lot of problems with people thinking that this is some sort of hypochondria or some sort of willful attempt to get attention."

Finally, Hillenbrand received a diagnosis from John Bartlett, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Chronic fatigue syndrome, he said. Hillenbrand thought then--and does now--that it was a ridiculous name for the disease that has ravaged her life. Since then she has battled the often negative public perceptions of the illness.

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