How Endurance Athlete Bruce Balch Faced Down Diabetes—and Kept on Racing


There are two facts that dumbfound people who meet Bruce Balch, a former Ironman triathlete and avid bicyclist who raced with a pre-scandal Lance Armstrong in the 1990s. The first is that he’s 51—a lifetime of exercise has kept him youthful and fit. The second is that he’s diabetic. The endurance athlete was as surprised as anyone else when he was diagnosed with the disease in 2007. But like testicular cancer before that, diabetes failed to slow Balch down. He’ll ride 100 miles in the Las Vegas Tour de Cure on May 3 to help raise awareness about diabetes.

You survived testicular cancer, then discovered you were diabetic. What was more traumatic?

The cancer was scary. They went in and they removed my right testicle. They cut my stomach open and they took out 30 of my lymph nodes. I got through that, and it was fine. The diabetes just ticked me off. Just, “You gotta be kidding me.” The thing that’s difference about it is with cancer, either you beat it or you don’t. Diabetes becomes a lifetime of management.

How’d you discover you were diabetic? You don’t fit the stereotypical profile.

I was 45. I was getting back into shape and starting to race, but what I noticed as I was training was that the street signs were starting to get fuzzy. I thought that was a function of getting old. Then a little bit later, I just felt fatigued. I thought: I’ve been training really hard; I’m getting older. But nothing felt right. I just couldn’t go. I tried an allergy shot but that put me in the hospital.

Had it not been for that shot, I probably would not have known that I had type 1 diabetes. I was diagnosed on a Monday and spent the night in the emergency room. I got it back under control and did a bike race that weekend. [I thought,] “Diabetes didn’t kill me for the last six months, it’s not going to kill me now.”

How has diabetes affected your training and competing?

I had a pretty good diet before I was diagnosed because I was an athlete. But what I realized was how carb-heavy my diet was. I would wake up in the morning and have oatmeal and a bagel. For lunch I’d have a sandwich and for dinner I’d have some bread. I started counting my carbs. The irony is when I improved my diet because of the diabetes, I got leaner and my diet actually improved more. I hardly eat anything processed.

I try to let my close friends know that I have this condition, just in case. They don’t give me any mercy when we’re racing, but they’re aware if anything odd happens.

The only time it was an issue, I was doing a triathlon and my blood-sugar level fell. I was 50 yards away from the finish of the swim. I thought, “I’m going to die today.” I was in full-on panic mode to get to shore. There were people around, I’m still moving forward. It wasn’t like I was stopped. Somehow I made it to the transition area. I tried to get on my bike and fell over. My wife ran over, gave me some liquid glucose and in five minutes my blood sugar level shot up and I raced. I actually finished fourth overall.

Las Vegas Tour de Cure

May 3 at M Resort, 12300 S. Las Vegas Blvd. Participants can ride in 20-, 35-, 65- and 100-mile routes. Start times vary.

Team SEVEN will be riding to help stop diabetes. Join us.