Addiction: A condition of being unable to stop using or doing something as a habit, especially something harmful.
Triathlete Noel Mulkey has experienced the lows of addiction. The Tulsa-based American suffered from a crippling heroin addiction in his youth – spending up to $500-a-day to feed his habit.
But that addictive trait has also been his saviour of sorts. The 27-year-old now competes at home and abroad after throwing himself into the sport of triathlon.
“I think my addictive personality has somewhat actually helped me in triathlon,” Noel told us when we caught up to discuss his past, present and future.
“It is also very scary, a lot of people out there who don’t have an outlet like sports or triathlon who are still stuck in addiction – I get how they feel, I know what they are going through.”
$500-a-day heroin habit
Mulkey’s first experience with drugs formulated during his high school years – in an institution that had no sports programmes that may have allowed him an outlet for his addictive personality trait.
What started as a marijuana and alcohol habit soon turned into something more serious:
“I was a heroin addict, I was pretty much into drugs my entire high school life. All of high school I was pretty bad into drugs.
“I got up to a $500-a-day heroin habit – my family was a wreck, it was just a really bad five years – I had no outlets, I had nothing going for me, there were no sports.
“I had gone to rehab twice, and towards the end of it – I guess that is what they call rock bottom.”
Mulkey previously stated in an in-depth interview with the ‘I quit … and started running podcast’ after his first period in rehab he knew he ‘wasn’t done with that lifestyle’ and sunk even further into his drug habit after moving to Miami with a fellow rehab attendee.
Mulkey maintained jobs serving tables throughout his addiction – he worked to ensure he had the money to feed his habit. He admits at his lowest point he even pawned his mother’s 35th anniversary earrings to ensure he could afford his fix.
The turning point for Mulkey was when he was forced to drive a friend and fellow user to hospital after an overdose – that friend survived, but was revived three times at the hospital.
Route to triathlon
Mulkey, who completed his first IRONMAN in 2019, did manage to get sober in the coming years, but with that came a separate issue – he required an outlet that wasn’t there at the time.
“I did get clean, and then what happened was – one of the things that happens in sobriety is you gain weight – as you replace alcohol, drugs with food. I was eating a lot, I wasn’t exercising, I was depressed.
“I was sober, but I wasn’t doing anything with my life.”
“So one day I decided I hated how I looked, and I went on a run around my block and could barely make it round, but I went on the run and I loved it, absolutely loved it.”
Mulkey had a strong helping hand from his family during this time – his mother was a former IRONMAN World Championship qualifier and his father dabbled in the sport alongside being an ultra-runner.
“I went from no exercise to running 60/70 mile weeks and I lost 58 pounds in four months,” explained Mulkey as that addictive trait once again took hold, this time in a positive way.
“This is where my mom and dad come in. Long story short, my dad suggested for me to get a max VO2 test because he knew it wasn’t sustainable the run mileage I was doing. He knew I was going to get injured and they knew if I got injured then I could relapse on drugs because running was my outlet.
“I was loving running, loving it, so I did the V02 test, it turns out I have a high max VO2 which is good for endurance sports.”
“I got this guy on board who suggested I do swimming and cycling as well – somehow triathlon got brought up and there was actually a race like 30 minutes down the road – a sprint triathlon – I signed up for it, came third overall.”
“The next one I did was an Olympic distance race and I won that on my dad’s road bike and it kind of just took off, I was like immediately all-in to it.”
All-in, a motto in tune with Lionel Sanders’ ‘No Limits’ mantra – Sanders himself having broken into the sport after issues with substance abuse.
“I think this sport goes very well with people who have an addictive personality,” explains Mulkey.
“I’d say most athletes, especially at the professional level, they are 100% addicted to the sport – they’re addicted to going fast, working out.
‘Most of them found this addiction before other things, bad things.
“Triathlon is all-encompassing. You can do something all day long, it is relentless.”
Noel is a global social media star – he has nearly 70,000 followers on Instagram, 1.3million fans on TikTok – and 100.2million likes – and owns a mental health brand, Noel Soul.
He uses his social media presence to educate and support those struggling with addiction and mental health problems by telling his story.
“I am actually bi-polar, which was my final diagnosis, which was the reason – which we never knew – I’ve been very open about that, I’ve actually talked about it a lot on TikTok.
“I started sharing this all over social media – my recovery to now being a decent triathlete and travelling and stuff – and my social media blew up, people loved this story. That is when I started Noel Soul.
“Social media is like my full-time job now because of what I was sharing. My platform is 100% all about mental health, I think we have a big problem in America – actually everywhere has a problem, it needs to be talked about.
“I know that if they have some perspective, there is a way out.
“Maybe they just can’t see it – I remember thinking like ‘what else is there to do in life than get high’. I know it’s very brash to say that but that was my whole thinking.
“But now I know there is so much more to life – and that’s what triathlon is to me, triathlon is 100% my addiction.”
In the second part of this interview, we discuss Noel’s plans for this summer – which include him taking part in IRONMAN France Nice, for which places are still available.