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Fighting back from adversity – Jocelyn McCauley overcomes trials to go from zero to hero

"We have to endure those setbacks in life to be able to accomplish the good magical things."

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It’s been a rollercoaster season for American pro Jocelyn McCauley but she’s a world away now from where she started the year and heads into 2024 with plenty to look forward to and build on.

Two surgeries as a result of the birth of her second child – inguinal hernia surgery after a hip labral repair surgery – took place within 10 days of one another and led to what she openly admits was a hugely difficult period at the start of 2023 as she was unable to train for an extended period.

In an in-depth interview with TRI247, she explained: “It was one of the hardest times in my life to be honest. When something that you absolutely love is taken away from you, it’s not just your job, but it’s also your hobby.

“It’s something that you absolutely have so much passion about. And then it’s also your coping mechanism. And so all of that just ripped away and trying to find other ways to cope was just all sorts of really hard.”

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Finding joy in the journey

Faith is incredibly important to McCauley – and something we’ll focus on in the second part of this interview – and a sense of perspective clearly helped during these difficult times.

She told us: “We have to endure those setbacks in life to be able to accomplish the good magical things that we want to.

“And I really enjoyed eventually finding joy in the whole process and not just in swim, bike and run. I did eventually turn it around but at the beginning it was awfully hard.

I think what I really learned out of that whole process is that we have to love whatever we’re faced with because we’re not going to have all butterflies and roses for the rest of our lives.

“And we have to find joy in the journey of whatever we’re faced with and turn it into, ‘I get to go through this instead of, I have to go through this’.”

Tackling mission ‘impossible’

But after such a struggle at the start of the year came an extraordinary fight back.

Jocelyn McCauley Family IRONMAN Texas 2022
Jocelyn McCauley celebrates with her family after winning IRONMAN Texas 2022 (Meg Oliphant, Getty Images for IRONMAN).

Jocelyn takes up the story from the moment when she wondered if there was any chance that IRONMAN Texas in April – a race she had won 12 months previously – might be a realistic first event of the season.

“So when we were having those surgeries, I remember asking my surgeon, do you think I could run a marathon at the end of an IRONMAN in April? That sounds great, right?

“And he’s like, no way – there’s no way that you’ll be muscularly strong enough to be able to do that.

In his mind, it was impossible, literally impossible to him.

“And I love being told things are impossible because I think then that I get to prove people wrong, and what cooler opportunity is it to then just prove my surgeon wrong. Safely, obviously, as he wasn’t concerned about the structural integrity of the repair at all. He was just saying I would not be ready because I would not have the muscular strength to do it.

“And so I said to Bjorn [Geesman] my coach I know this is a massive goal and a big ask, but I want to at least try. I don’t ever want to make a decision out of the fear of failure. I promised myself that a long time ago. And so I was like, let’s try.”

‘Zero expectations’

So what were the timescales she was looking at for ‘Mission Impossible’?

“I was on my bed until about eight or nine weeks before the race and when I did my very first ride, that was like a 20 minutes at 80 watts, that kind of thing.

“Then about four weeks before the race, I did my first run. I did an eight or nine mile run the week before the race and that was my longest run, building into that race. I had so little run volume, it was pathetic! And before all of that, it had been six months since I’d run. And the last time I’d run a marathon was a year ago, at Texas in 2022.

“So just all of that combined, it’s just amazing what the body can do when the mind tells it that you can do this.

“And I went into the race with zero expectations, which is kind of freeing and amazing to do. In all my pre-race interviews I was like, I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to finish this. Honestly I don’t know. But I’m putting myself out there and I’m going to go do it, I’m going to have fun and this is joy to me.”

An incredible turnaround

And on race day something remarkable happened.

“So yeah, I ended up crushing the bike. I mean, obviously I was able to do a lot of biking at that point and so I came off in the lead and ended up not running a stellar marathon by any means, but was able to hold it together long enough to get on the podium and punch my ticket to Kona.

“That was the main goal of the Texas, see if I can get my ticket and then we’ll actually get fit. So, yeah, it was so fun and so freeing and liberating.

“And it was honestly probably one of the most fun experiences that I’ve had in a race, and the proudest I’ve been of what I could do with what I was given in that race.”

Typical of Jocelyn – and chatting to her this comes through time and time again – she was just as happy for others.

For also on an incredible – and well-documented journey – going into that race was Kat Matthews after she suffered terrible injuries when a person drove into her when she was on a training ride in Texas ahead of Kona 2022.

Matthews would overtake McCauley on the marathon en route to an emotional victory and Jocelyn recalls: “Yeah, I remember when she passed me just going on to the last lap – she is a crazy stellar runner and I just yelled ‘you’ve got this, Kat. You know, you have this’.

“She wasn’t leading at that point but going into second when she overtook me. And I really love Maja Stage Nielsen [who was in front], and do want to see her succeed but I think there was something about Texas that all of us wanted to see Kat be able to win that race.”

Maja Stage Nielsen Kat Matthews Jocelyn McCauley IRONMAN Texas 2023 podium photo credit IRONMAN
The podium at IRONMAN Texas, with Jocelyn taking the selfie [Photo credit: Kyle Rivas / Getty Images for IRONMAN]

‘I feel I should be running 2:55 regularly’

It hasn’t been plain sailing or a smooth upward trajectory since Texas though and Jocelyn admits she still has work to do in order to get her run back to where she wants it.

When I ask if she was happy with her 10th-placed finish at Kona in October against arguably the strongest female full-distance field ever assembled, she replied: “Yes, it was an amazing field but I honestly would have loved top five.

“We always strive for more and better and higher and faster and everything, and it’s been a year of struggling to get my run back. Well, it’s been actually two years of struggling to get my run back, and I still don’t have it 100%. And it’s about trying to figure out why and where and how.

“But I thought I could run a lot faster off of that off the bike from my training. And so I feel like I should be running 2:55 regularly, and am just trying to figure out why I’m not.

I know what I’ve done in training before to be able to run sub-three-hour marathons – and that was before carbon super shoes.

There were some more promising signs as she signed off her 2023 campaign with a third place at IRONMAN Florida after a 3:06 marathon and she adds: “I think this is my lifelong journey that God has said, you need more patience, so I’m going to give you so many trials to try to strengthen that for you.

“And I hope that this off-season will be a good opportunity to get a lot more strength and fitness in the run, to be able to show it on the race course next year.”

Two different ‘disconnects’ – one bad, one good

And having enjoyed her off-season break, that is now the focus as she begins the build up to the 2024 campaign: “Things are definitely moving in the right direction. I definitely just need more strength in my right leg – it’s visibly smaller than my left leg just from that’s where all of my surgeries have been, on the right side.

“I work with a swim coach, Tim Floyd of Magnolia Masters down in Texas. He has a swim camp every year, and whenever I’m in Texas, which is my second training home, I always swim with him. And he came up with this idea which is a big thing here in the US right now called ‘rucking’.

“It’s just basically hiking with a heavy backpack. It’s glorified backpacking that now they can sell a whole bunch of expensive equipment for! I bought a little toddler carrier like a backpack, and so I’ve been rucking with my toddler a couple of times a week, and we have trails about five minutes from my house. And so just going up into the mountains, going on walks with her, and I really felt like, actually, that has helped my core engagement a lot.

“And that is the biggest disconnect for me right now in my run, is that my core is not engaging. I just don’t have all of that cross-connectiveness and the snap that you need for a run. And I’ve been really frustrated because my swim hasn’t been progressing, and it might have regressed a tiny bit as well. And it actually opened my eyes with this, too, is like, you need so much core connection in the swim as well to be able to get that powerful stroke and pull you forward through the water. On the bike, you can muscle your way through.

“So that was a big eye opener, and I feel like a big limiter that I can now correct.”

And she’s also mentally refreshed – even if physically a little tired – after her annual fortnight away from the sport, explaining “I stop everything. I really feel like you needed to give your body and your mind an opportunity to just totally disconnect from triathlon and from anything like that for a bit.

“So I take two weeks pretty completely off and I had someone ask me how my off-season was going and I said tiring because we started doing a whole bunch of house projects, cleaning out the garage and all this stuff!

“It’s also about giving back to the family. My husband has said that the two weeks that I take after every season are the most cherished and loved two weeks that he has of every year.”

Looking ahead to the 2024 season is the focus in the second part of this interview, with Jocelyn telling us why it’s so important to her not to race or train on Sundays and how she is able to plan her race calendar around that.

Jonathan Turner
Written by
Jonathan Turner
Jonathan Turner is News Director for both TRI247 and RUN247, and is accustomed to big-name interviews, breaking news stories and providing unrivalled coverage for endurance sports.  
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