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Posted 8/3/2015

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By Eileen L. Williamson, Public Affairs Specialist
Omaha District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

This is the first article in a four part series on Omaha District Electrical Engineer, Joe Chamberlain, who competed in the Boston Marathon in 2014 and is training to run the New York City Marathon this November.

How do you handle the stress of your job? Or your daily life for that matter…

For Joe Chamberlain, an electrical engineer, who designs electrical systems for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, his answer is “run”. Not run away, just “run it off” or “run it out”.

He started running when he was 10. He was a sprinter in junior high school and then transitioned to running cross country and distance on the track before he graduated.

As a college student at South Dakota State University (SDSU), Chamberlain was a walk-on athlete for the cross country team, where his regular weekly running routine became too much for him as a freshman. Knowing he’s been running nearly 80 miles a week lately, you might wonder how many miles a week is too much (110-120 miles a week), but for a college student, it led him to take a semester off from participating with the junior varsity team.

“It wasn’t too long into the semester that I realized I was more stressed just studying and running was my stress reliever,” said Chamberlain.

“I returned to the team after that semester. I made it to the varsity team and once I graduated, I felt like I no longer needed to run to compete,” said Chamberlain. “My friends thought differently so the peer pressure was still there to enter road races and be competitive.”

In 1999, Chamberlain took a break from competitive running. “Well, I was still competing with my stress but I did not enter races even just to finish,” he said. But before taking his break, he finished the Austin Marathon in Austin, Texas with a time of 2:33 at age 38.

For the next 14 years, Chamberlain ran when he felt like running and because he felt like running. He says, “I’m a competitive person, so sometimes I need to be told when to let up”.

Things began to change again however, in 2010 with the loss of his father.

“I still remember that day. I came to work and the weather seemed calm. I remember telling a coworker that it was a nice calm day and was quickly corrected and told how windy it was. I looked out the window and the American flag outside the building was out horizontal.”

Although his father was in South Dakota, similar weather conditions turned on him while he was burning some brush on their land near Arlington. His father was overcome by the flames and succumbed to his injuries two weeks later.

“Running helped get me through it… well, you never get past it. But it helped me cope,” says Chamberlain.

Running kept him “running” for the next three years but Chamberlain believed he was approaching an age where doctors were prescribing his friends and classmates pills for every ailment.

“I didn’t want that. I set out and interviewed doctors with a primary goal, get me healthy but don’t medicate me,” he said. He said he felt overweight, which at 183 pounds is probably ideal for some, but it was not healthy for Chamberlain. He felt sluggish, tired and the weekly miles were there but not in the numbers he felt they should be.

I learned to improve my nutrition. I didn’t have to drastically change my diet, (he says while eating a cheeseburger and French fries) but increasing proteins and decreasing glutens helped me improve nutrition and eating habits and, in general, my health.

Work was a bit more stressful too. Many coworkers had endured several months fighting flooding along the Missouri River in 2011. Then came talk of a government shutdown in 2012 and the unknowns of what would happen with sequestration and by 2013, coworkers were receiving furlough notices.

Though work was sometimes stressful, for Chamberlain, improved health meant he started feeling better, his weekly mileage was gradually increasing from 25 to 30 to 40 to 50 – it kept going up. 

“I knew my total miles were increasing and I knew I felt healthier but I wasn’t doing it as part of any specific goal,” said Chamberlain.

During that time, Chamberlain, like many others, entered the realm of social media. “I had this great group of supporters online. There was a bit of prodding and teasing. But the thing about runners and social media… It helps hold you accountable.”

One day a comment to a Facebook post might be, “What? You didn’t run today!” and the next was “I know. You ran six miles again today.”

“Wehrspann Lake was my safe place. I could go and run six miles on my own, it was quiet and I was with myself. Then, one day, I ran 10 miles just to stick it to someone who got smart on one of my posts,” said Chamberlain.

He found different kinds of motivation from others online. Some might see an athlete setting a world record as motivation, but one of the people who inspired his return to running most was Maria, a Facebook friend in New Jersey who was in a running forum with Chamberlain.

Maria started running because someone had commented on one of her photos that she had a big butt… “Really? Why do people tear each other down like that? She’s a mom, she has three kids,” said Chamberlain. Maria set a goal to run a marathon. “Truthfully, I wondered if she could do it. I mean there are premiere athletes who crash and don’t finish marathons,” said Chamberlain. “But Maria took my excuses away. She finished the New York Marathon in 2012 and the New Jersey Marathon in 2013.”

Chamberlain described the motivation he gets from others… “It is seeing the people who come the farthest that are the ones who have the greatest achievement.”

When he noticed he was running about 60 miles a week, and taking longer runs of 15 to 18 miles just to test himself, he decided he needed a goal.