Health

How a Healthcare Professional Balances Competing in Ironman Triathlons, 4:45 AM Wake-Up Calls, and Parenting

"I put a half-Ironman race on my calendar and I had a goal. A goal that terrified me, thrilled me, and gave me purpose everyday."

All photographs courtesy of Stephanie van Bebber.

Welcome to Busy Bodies, where we ask busy Washingtonians how they balance health and fitness while working crazy hours, raising a family, and meeting the demands of the daily hustle. Know someone who’s killing the fitness game while getting it done (maybe it’s you)? Email mmontgomery@washingtonian.com. 

Stephanie van Bebber isn’t just the clinical trial director at the Inova Schar Cancer Institute. She’s also a seasoned triathlete who has placed in several Ironman competitions and represented the US in world championships.

But she wasn’t always an avid athlete. When her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2010, she dedicated all her energy to caring for him. “It seemed the only goal I really had anymore was making it to the next MRI,” she says. “That is when triathlons found me.”

She started going to 5:15 AM Lifetime Fitness cycle classes as a way to prioritize her health, became hooked, and then decided to join a triathlon team. “I put a half-Ironman race on my calendar and I had a goal. A goal that terrified me, thrilled me, and gave me purpose everyday,” she says. “A goal that was mine.”

Here’s how she gets it done.

Here is a typical work day in August when my son Walter has football: At 4:45 AM, I wake up, brush my teeth, fill two water bottles, and put my training clothes on. At 5:00 AM, I do a 90-minute indoor trainer ride in my basement. At 6:30 AM, I’m finished and do a warm down and foam-rolling. Then it’s breakfast, shower, check work email for anything urgent, wake Walter, get medications for Chris, and leave for work.

“By 8:00 AM, I arrive at work, check in with my Inova Schar Clinical Trials team, attend multiple meetings, email, make phone calls, and keep myself available to the staff for support. I eat my morning, lunch, and afternoon snacks at my desk from a snack drawer (a terrible habit!). 

I arrive back home by 4:30 PM, change out of work clothes, and pull out clothes for the next day, including for training. I prepare dinner and lunches for the next day, feed Walter for football, catch up with Chris, eat dinner or pack a picnic for the field, and get out the door for practice.

During football practice, I’m checking email, finishing up work, and doing an easy run around the track. By 8 PM, it’s home, phone off, shower, hang out with Chris, and double check the training plan for the next day to make sure everything is ready to go (gear, nutrition, hydration needs, and the right music). And by 9 PM, bed.” 

“Some things I do to maximize my time: cook a lot of our food on Sundays, use the slow cooker for dinners, always have things prepared to-go for the next morning, and keep it simple!”

“I try really hard to work 40 hours a week, but in my position, this is not always possible. We’ve been extremely busy opening the new site of the Inova Schar Cancer Institute, and so the hours have been a lot lately. Inova is extremely supportive of a healthy, balanced life and I want to model that for my team. Fill your cup and it makes it possible to care and cheer for others at work, home, and on the race course.”

“My greatest accomplishment as an athlete is not the world championships I’ve qualified for or the podiums I’ve reached. It’s that I have inspired young girls and women to believe in themselves and achieve their goals. As women, we hear stories of bringing each other down, but I’ve experienced the opposite. I have had many opportunities to lift women up. I’ve met women who never swam until they were adults, and yet finished the 2.4-mile swim of the Ironman. I’ve supervised women who are juggling school, kids, and work and been there to support them as they reach their goals. (I may have inspired the occasional man, too, especially as I pass them on a tough climb.) I’d like to inspire more caregivers.”

“It is not without challenges to be a caregiver and live with cancer. I am not the first, the last, or the only one to do this. Most caregivers won’t want or need to train and race at the level I do, but the key is finding something for you and taking care of your needs and wants. And don’t forget to ask for help and find a team who has your back.”

“Today, I find myself nearing another five years with Chris still surpassing the odds and me living a life that is both ours and mine. I have triathlons to thank. My fear of commitment and my worry that if Chris wasn’t doing well, I wouldn’t perform well have been replaced by a strong appreciation that there are a team of individuals—at Inova, among my family and friends, and in triathlon—who have my back.”

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Associate Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. She previously was the editorial assistant at Walter Magazine in Raleigh, North Carolina, and her work has appeared in Washington City Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Originally from North Carolina, she now lives in Adams Morgan.