Noel Mulkey, 27, looked every inch the athlete heading into the VinFast IRONMAN World Championship in Nice, France. Having trained to his fullest; setting his alarm for 3am in the days leading up to the competition, the Tulsa, OK, native undertook 60-mile indoor bike rides followed by 4-mile runs to prepare for the intense competition that took place September 10.

It’s hard to believe then, that this driven athlete was once on a downward spiral that threatened to take him from this earth before hitting the age of 30. But, as a result of a debilitating heroin addiction, imminent death became the norm before Mulkey turned his life around through exercise.

Now grateful for each and every new day that he wakes up and realizes that he’s still in the land of the living, this inspiration opens up to M&F about the depths that he once sunk to, and the highs that he now receives by pushing through the exhilarating obstacles of healthy competition.

“I started experimenting with substances when I first got to high school,” says Mulkey. “It seemed like everyone in high school was smoking weed and drinking. The first mind-altering substances that I tried gave me the relief I’d been looking for my whole life.”

A mixture of peer pressure and his own mental health problems had caused Mulkey to self-medicate. “I first tried heroin when I was 16,” he shares. As the server at his local restaurant, Mulkey poured every cent that he earned into feeding his spiraling $500-a-day drug addiction. Prioritizing heroin over everything and everyone else, he pawned items of his mom’s jewelry and even found himself forging her checks. “I was destroying my body,” reflects Mulkey. “I was always cold and had heart palpitations. I hated how I felt all the time. I had bruises, cuts, and a massive cyst on my bicep from missing a vein one time. It became a hard bump that swelled up to the size of a golf ball. I was pale and had no muscle or energy for anything.”

It would be a life-changing moment that finally caused Mulkey to make some serious changes to his lifeless lifestyle. “I was sitting in a garage with a guy that I went to middle school with,” he recalls. “We were smoking meth and he shot up with heroin. He overdosed, and as I was rushing him to the hospital, I could tell he was dying. When we arrived at the hospital, he flat-lined three-times right there on the table. My friend lived that night, but that was it for me. As I’d listened to his lungs make the death rattle sound in the backseat of my car, I remember thinking that life is not supposed to be this hard.”

Noel Mulkey competing in an IRONMAN race
Donald Miralle / IRONMAN

Noel Mulkey Found that Beating Addiction Is Rarely a Linear Process

While Mulkey had finally faced up to the fact that he was a drug addict, he soon found that beating an addiction often comes with its own highs and lows. Mulkey spent several stints in rehab, but didn’t completely stop taking heroin in those early days. When he finally got control of his substance abuse, Mulkey found himself replacing drugs with unhealthy foods. “I had zero regard for what I was putting into my body,” says Mulkey. “I was depressed, eating garbage, and had no aspirations or motivation for life. I was ‘sober’ from drugs, but still felt miserable. I would binge on Sonic drive-through food. One time, I sat down and ate 18 donuts in one sitting. I never just ‘take it easy.’ It seems I go from zero to 100 with everything I get myself into.” Fortunately, Mulkey was about to replace negative habits with positive ones since he felt tired of always feeling tired, and decided to get into shape. “At my heaviest, I was 198 pounds,” says Mulkey, who is 5’11”.

“Now, 198 pounds doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was all fat, and I could barely run around the block. I lost 58 pounds in three months when I first started exercising and getting back on track.”

Noel Mulkey Dug Deep to Trade Drugs for Daily Workouts

Instead of drowning in negative thoughts, Mulkey decided to focus his attentions on pushing his physical potential. “It all became a possibility when I decided to lose weight,” he recalls. “I was completely disgusted with how I looked and hated going out in public. I decided that I wanted to lose weight and I became obsessed with that instead. One day, I went on a run around the block and although I could barely run the whole block, I absolutely loved the feeling that it gave me. Soon, I was running 60 to 70-miles a week.”

Fortunately, Mulkey’s family were able to help him harness his new found obsession with losing weight and becoming fitter.

“My dad was a runner, and he told me that I was going to get injured from running so many miles on no base. He suggested biking and swimming because they are good methods for cross-training. I already had a swimming background (Mulkey swam competitively in his eighth grade) and so I picked that up easily too. Some time later, we heard of a local triathlon. I signed up and did well. I fell in love with endurance racing after that. Ten IRONMAN triathlons later, I’m hooked!” Of course, going from the couch to becoming highly active is something that should be adjusted to slowly. It is recommended to seek the advice of a medical or fitness professional before embarking on your own positive fitness journey.

Noel Mulkey Now Helps Others to Vanquish Their Own Negative Habits

After logging on to social media, Mulkey began to share clips of his life, training progress, and efforts in competition. “I’ve received messages telling me that my videos are the reason someone didn’t commit suicide,” he shares. “I’ve had messages telling me that my videos are the reason someone lost 50 pounds. I have unbelievable support and I never thought that would happen. I’ve received mail and gifts. Some of the messages and gifts that I’ve received have made me cry. Those are genuinely some of the best moments I’ve had, and easily the reason that I continue to document this journey day after day.”

On Sept. 10 in Nice, Mulkey did himself proud once again, completing the IRONMAN World Championship in 11 hours, 50 minutes, and 38 seconds. That time put him comfortably in the top half of competitors performing the 3.8km (2.4 miles) swim, 180.2km (112 miles) on the bike, and (26.2 mile) run. Of course, becoming a winner is an individual journey, and having amassed more than 1.5m viewers on TikTok, this addict turned athlete and inspiration is as victorious as they come. “There is always a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Mulkey, giving hope to anyone who is suffering with their own addiction issues. “Exercising or getting outside, even for just 10 minutes each day can turn your whole day around. Reach out to people and join a community, I’m also here if anyone needs some advice and a friend.”

Next up for Mulkey is the IRONMAN World Championship Kona qualification taking place at IRONMAN Western Australia on December 3. “In my opinion, exercise and training are the best mental health medications that anyone can get,” concludes Mulkey. “I went my whole life trying to find an outlet or some sort of ‘drug’ but nothing makes me feel the way that training does.” Follow Noel Mulkey on TikTok and learn about IRONMAN at