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Posted 11/6/2015

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

This is the final article in a four part series on Omaha District Electrical Engineer, Joe Chamberlain, who competed in the Boston Marathon in 2014 and the New York City Marathon on November 1.

On November 1, 2015, Joe Chamberlain finished the New York City Marathon with a time of 3:10:20.

His advice to himself upon leaving Omaha was simply “finish strong”.

Little did he know what that would mean. Within the first mile of the race, while crossing the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, a runner leapt down from the sidewalk kicking Chamberlain in the left calf.

“The kick caused my calf to cramp up,” said Chamberlain. “At mile 4, it hurt so badly, I thought I was going to have to quit. I was so upset. I thought I was going to have to get a DNF (did not finish), early into the marathon.”

The cramping let up at about mile 8 and he kept running.

Lessons from running aren’t too different from the advice Chamberlain gives students in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Pathways program, which brings college students to work temporarily for the Corps.

People, work, life, whatever it may be, things happen to trip a person up, the perseverance to push through is what gives the lessons to learn from. “We’ve only lost when we quit,” said Chamberlain.

He says one of the best pieces of career advice one of his mentors gave him was pursue a job because it’s your passion, not for a pay raise.

Chamberlain says engineering design is his passion, as is running. “If I finish strong, I can keep running. If I push myself to the point of exhaustion, I have nowhere to go,” said Chamberlain. “I’ve been encouraged to consider other jobs with the Corps but I love design. I want to do the designing not review someone else’s work.”

When Chamberlain came to work for the Omaha District in 1983, he says there were about 30 electrical engineers in the organization. After downsizing in the 1990s, the number of electrical engineers in the Omaha District dropped to 15.

The races he ran were limited to the Corporate Cup races for a few years in the 1990s.

He says after 9/11, his workload increased tremendously but the workforce didn't increase with it.

"I was regularly working nights and weekends and traveling what felt like everywhere," said Chamberlain. "That’s the same time I took off from running competitively. I still ran, but to burn off stress and enjoy the outdoors. It wasn’t just for me and I wasn't running for my health."

Eating healthy and exercising regularly was more difficult with frequent and prolonged travel. "It can be done, but you have to commit to it," said Chamberlain. "On the other hand, collaborative learning and decision making takes place when groups traveling together sit down for a meal."

Aiming for a beneficial work/ life balance means not letting work get in the way of a workout.

"When I began entering races again in 2013, I realized I’m reaching a point where I can no longer make up for lost health," he said. "I started looking at health as a savings account."

Missed workouts happen, but long breaks from regular exercise or a decline in overall fitness is like carrying an ever-increasing balance on your credit card.

"If I compromise my health on a bigger paycheck, I risk spending the additional earning later in life on medical bills," said Chamberlain.

"I don't want to take more than three pills a day for an ailment I caused because I didn't take care of myself. My dad worked every day until he died. He loved what he did but I want work to give me the rest of my life, not the opposite. Whenever I retire, I plan to enjoy it. Medication for something I could have prevented, is loan on my health I can never pay back."

"I can lose myself designing an electrical system," said Chamberlain. "I can spend hours on a design project and find great satisfaction knowing my work is appreciated by project managers who ask to work with me. I find great reward in mentoring electrical engineers in our Pathways program. We should be preparing our replacements. Not everyone will be the next great leader but we should all come to work to do our best."

Chamberlain even provided a little mentoring during the NYC Marathon. While crossing the long steep Queensboro Bridge, he passed a young woman who was faltering and softly crying.

“I asked if she was okay and if she was cramping up,” said Chamberlain. She said no, but she was exhausted and doubted she could make it.

He ran with her a while, told her she could and would make it, told her to slow down and walk through the water stops. He told her to ignore her watch and look around at the sights. Then, ever an engineer, he reminded her of the great sights ahead of her: the buildings in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn and Central Park and the finish. He said the crowd would carry her.

“I got her to promise me she would see it through. Then I wished her my best and went on,” said Chamberlain. “It haunts me that I didn't get her race number. I’ll always believe she finished.”

“My time during that mile was 8:55. I’ve never run that slowly in a race. It horrified me at first, but it was worth it. I couldn't pass her and ignore her. I hope with all my heart that she made it to the finish line. I’ll always believe she did. We owe it to each other to slow down and reach out a hand to one another.”

Chamberlain pushed through to the finish, despite the cramping calf pain he felt with every hill climb during his first 8 miles and slowing to help another runner.

Chamberlain has found a pretty good life/ work balance.

After the race, he and his wife walked around New York City, went to Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and enjoyed dinner together.

"I’ve run the Boston Marathon and the New York City Marathon," said Chamberlain. "For runners, they’re dream races. Some don't understand banking for the future rather than banking on the future. Success can mistakenly be defined as running the marathon until you crawl across the finish line. I want to finish strong and enjoy every moment of it."

As Chamberlain reached the south end of Central Park, the noise went from deafening silence to a deafening roar from the crowd. “I couldn’t believe I was there,” he said. “Their cheers echoed off the buildings. They really did carry runners to the finish, I wanted to keep running as soon as I saw the buildings and heard them. Usually, the last 3 miles are tough but those 3 miles were fantastic and I’ve won races.”

Chamberlain is already registered to run the Boston Marathon in 2016. His finish in the NYC Marathon qualified him for 2016, which he is contemplating as well.