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'Exercise saved my life': Triathlete's incredible recovery journey grips thousands on TikTok

Justin Chan
·5-min read

This article contains mentions of substance use disorder. Please take care while reading, and note the helpful resources at the end of this story.

Triathlete Noel Mulkey was in eighth grade when he first used marijuana and drank alcohol. But what began as an experiment turned into a routine a year later after he lost his home to a fire.

“It started going from kind of a weekend thing to literally every day I needed to find something,” Mulkey told In The Know.

For Mulkey, who had played soccer and swam to escape bullying in middle school, it was difficult to find an outlet to channel some of the pain and frustration he had experienced in high school. His high school didn’t have any sports teams, so the Oklahoma native, who later learned he had bipolar II disorder (which is characterized by hypomanic episodes and bouts of depression), said he turned to drugs as a release.

“Without properly being medicated, this was me self-medicating,” he said. “I was never able to be properly diagnosed and had gone to years of therapy, seeing different therapists … I tried all these different psych meds and nothing was working, except me doing what I was doing.”

Soon enough, Mulkey said he was in party mode. At one point, during his junior year of high school, he started using heroin after being introduced to it by a senior.

“First, it’s like fun,” he said of his substance use. “You feel like you’re loving — or I was loving — getting high. I was loving drinking. I was having fun. It really started to take over.”

But things briefly came to a halt after he graduated from high school. One day, Mulkey, who was 20 years old at the time, woke up to his family — his mother, father and sister — demanding that he go to rehab or he would otherwise be kicked out of their home. Reluctant and unwilling, Mulkey spent three months at a rehab facility before moving to an apartment in Florida.

“I ended up spending like a year in Florida, and none of it worked,” he said, adding that he moved back home in Oklahoma only to use drugs again.

Upon his return, Mulkey said he regularly spent $500 on heroin while using three to four times per day. But, at a certain point, he no longer found that it gave him the escape he wanted. He also began to realize how his drug use affected his family and how drug use, in general, impacted those around him after he had to get help for a friend who overdosed. So, with his mother’s help, Mulkey checked into the Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital.

Still, the journey to recovery wasn’t easy.

“Withdrawing from opiates is like your skin is crawling in terms of, like, it feels like [there’s] no position you can get comfortable in,” he said. “You’re itching, but you’re also anxious and in shame.”

To combat his urge, Mulkey replaced his substance use with food, gaining weight in the process. One night, however, he decided that he would make an effort to lose it and went out for a run. His determination to burn calories while running eventually became an obsession. On most weeks, Mulkey ran between 60 and 70 miles, all without eating properly.

“I was starting to have heart palpitations, and I was anemic,” he said. “And my dad finally suggested, you know, [I was] running way too much for someone with no base. He was worried that had I got really injured, I would have gone back to drugs because I’m still very fresh into this kind of new life.”

Sport physiologists suggested that Mulkey instead vary his exercise. To supplement his running, he biked and swam — taking part in a workout triathlon of sorts. It only seemed natural, then, that the triathlete, who had been competitively athletic prior to his substance use, would go on to enter a number of races. Over the past six years, he has achieved a number of accomplishments: an Ironman 70.3 World Championship, a course record at the Summer Roundup Triathlon in Missouri and recognition as a USA Triathlon All-American.

“I look forward to waking up every day and training,” Mulkey said. “It’s obviously a lot more healthy addiction … [Having] won a race, there is no better high in the whole world than winning a race or even just finish or even just doing good at a race.”

Since getting into triathlons, Mulkey has been documenting his day-to-day on social media. When the pandemic hit in 2020, he, along with millions of others, took a liking to TikTok. Mulkey’s profile description simply reads “Exercise saved my life,” and much of his posts focus on his training regimen. In one TikTok, for instance, the triathlete shares that he wakes up at 3:30 a.m., goes on a 60-mile indoor bike ride and runs for four miles — all before noon.

In another, Mulkey shares how to do a fartlek run, which conditions the body to run faster over long distances.

In the short time the triathlete has been on TikTok, his infectious personality has earned him more than 462,000 followers.

“The comments I read — the positive feedback — [have] been amazing,” Mulkey said. “I love [the] platform. I love it.”

While he’s quickly become a social media celebrity in his own right, the 26-year-old understands how much of an impact his platform can have on those who have similarly experienced substance use disorder and are looking to turn their lives around.

“I know there are people watching who this is helping,” he said. “I know because they tell me.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder, call The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-4357 for resources, or find a treatment option near you through The National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers directory. Visit the American Addiction Centers website to learn more about the possible signs of substance use disorder.

In The Know is now available on Apple News — follow us here!

More from In The Know:

How Chris Nikic became the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon

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The post Triathlete Noel Mulkey is turning a dark experience into a force for good appeared first on In The Know.