As the director of coaching for the most recognizable triathlon training team in the region, VO2 MultiSport, Ben Bigglestone’s clients fall across a broad spectrum of athletic ability and come from varying histories in the sport’s three disciplines – swimming, biking and running.
But even for Bigglestone, a longtime veteran of the triathlon lifestyle as a competitor and coach, Navin Singh is unique.
Now a 47-year-old Sammamish father, Singh was just out of high school and on the brink of his physical prime when his health took an unexpected and dramatic turn. After returning from a vacation, Singh began feeling flu-like symptoms that quickly turned into intense abdominal cramping. When he tried to make his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, things got worse.
“My legs just shut off and I dropped to my knees,” he said. “I made it to the bathroom and when I tried to splash some water on my face, I couldn’t close my fingers.”
A trip to the emergency room followed, and luckily for Singh, the physician in the ER recognized the symptoms were likely caused by something more than dehydration. After agreeing to a diagnostic test, which came in the form of a spinal tap, Singh sat motionless in his bed awaiting the diagnosis.
The results of the spinal tap revealed Singh was suffering from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare affliction (roughly every one in 100,000) where the immune system attacks the nerves and can leave patients paralyzed.
By the time he was given the go-ahead to move again, it was too late.
“That was a scary moment,” Singh said. “The doctors couldn’t tell me much. They knew it was a long haul, but they couldn’t tell me how long.”
The recovery process was indeed a slow one, starting with sitting upright and eventually getting out of the hospital bed. Singh suffered from severe muscle atrophy throughout his body, leaving his limbs frail and the rest of his body without the necessary strength to even remain rigid.
“When I first tried to sit up, I just collapsed,” he said. “It looked like the skin was just hanging off the bones of my hands.”
Singh moved from laying down in the ICU, where he spent six weeks, to sitting up and eventually sitting in a wheelchair. Crutches followed, then forearm crutches and finally a cane. But despite the long, difficult process to get back on his feet, Singh knew early on he wanted to do more than just maintain.
While he was in the hospital, Singh watched the IronMan World Championships from his room and was immediately inspired by their feats.
Like traditional triathlons, Iron Man competitions include a swim, bike and running portion to test endurance and overall fitness. The main difference comes in the distances, with a 2.4 mile open water swim, 112 mile bike ride and a full marathon of 26.2 miles by foot, exponentially longer distances than other triathlon formats.
“It was always in the back of my mind,” Singh said of becoming an Iron Man. “I finally realized I had nothing to lose.”
Kona, Hawaii is the site of the Iron Man World Championships and while the best triathletes in the world attempt to earn qualifying times at satellite events, the championships also play host to “Kona Inspired,” a video submission contest to earn a spot in the race. The theme, “Anything is Possible,” was a natural segue for Singh.
After falling into what he called, “the typical suburban dad routine,” which did not include a lot of exercise, Singh connected with Bigglestone and VO2 to begin training. Even with his unique medical history, Bigglestone was adamant he could make Singh’s dream of completing an Iron Man attainable.
“I knew we would face some challenges we wouldn’t face with someone who had full function of their lower legs,” Bigglestone said. “I had to find out where we were and where we wanted to travel.”
The initial meetings included formulating a plan for getting Singh, self-described as out of shape at the time, into condition to complete the triathlon
The two have focused on building the biking and swimming skills and endurance of Singh in the saddle and pool, and using alternative technology like an Alter-G treadmill to work to the goal of completing the final marathon leg.
“He’s arguably one of the most dedicated athletes I have in my roster,” Bigglestone said, adding VO2 is home to professional level triathletes. “His willingness to put himself in that position of discomfort is probably, because of what he’s been through, higher than most people.”
Whether or not his video submission earns him one of the seven available entries, Singh wants his message of perseverance to be his lasting image.
“If I can do this,” Singh said. “Anyone can.”