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  • Writer's pictureMichael Van Elsberg

Kung Fu and Trail Running

Updated: Mar 6, 2021

I began practicing Asian martial arts in 1970, formally studying many styles before I began to learn Hung Kuen more than 20 years ago. It was then that I first met my friend Chris Toepker, who later introduced me to the Hung Kuen community in Hong Kong on my first trip there last year. The Lam family welcomed me there and for that I will be forever grateful. I believe that rich tradition that the Lam Family has handed down for generations is a deep and profound treasure and the benefits of its study and practice can be applied to many other aspects of life.

The first martial art’s style I studied was Kenpo, which is a modern American style with roots in China and Japan--by way of Hawaii. I later moved on to traditional and modern Tae Kwon Do, and Hapkido, which have their roots in Korea (Taekkyeon) and Japan (Karate and Jujutsu). I then branched out to Shorin-ryu and Shotokan Karate which have their roots in Okinawa, and Japan, respectively, as well as Muay Thai and Jeet Kune Do. All but Muay Thai have their primary antecedents in Chinese traditions.

Some of those styles practiced forms and some did not. And if they had forms, they were, for the most part, relatively simple and short. Most were striking arts--and few had many weapons forms, if any. And strikes were generally directed at vital spots primarily in the head and body, the major exceptions being Muay Thai, and Jeet Kune Do, which often directed kicks (especially) at the legs. Some emphasized hand techniques over kicks, and therefore longer or shorter stances and different ranges.

The first difference that I noticed between Hung Kuen and those other martial arts was the length and complexity of its forms, both with and without weapons. The second thing that I noticed was the practicality and effectiveness of the applications to be found within the forms. There are also a substantial range of techniques that utilize the hands, arms, elbows, legs, knees and feet in ways that I had never seen before in the other styles I practiced. For example, there are many strikes and techniques that are directed at the limbs, including arm breaks and leg breaks. Long range, short range, sweeps, grappling, internal and external. And these forms and techniques have been handed down not for fifty, or a hundred years or so, but for literally hundreds of years. Forms based on animals. Forms based on elements. A dozen or more hand forms. And dozens of weapons forms. A treasure trove of richly diverse movements that one could spend a lifetime learning and benefiting from.

How does Hung Kuen training and practice benefit you in other aspects of life? Chris and I are both training for the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge (HK4TUC) next year. The challenge is to complete all four of the major Hong Kong trails (298 kilometers, with 14,500 meters of gain and loss) in under 60 hours. We both attribute our Hung Kuen training, in large part, for providing us with the strong legs and bodies (and minds) to do this kind of training—as neither of us are competitive trail runners nor distance runners to begin with. The long forms of Hung Kuen, which include great upper and lower-body training, and long, deep-rooted stances, provide substantial cross training for long-distance endurance events like the HK4TUC.

The HK4TUC has many long sections with stairs that seem to climb upward forever. In fact, those stair climbs are so hard that participants often cite them as one of their main reasons for quitting. And many of those who finish the challenge say that those stairs are one of the most difficult parts of the event. Our Hung Kuen training has helped build a strong foundation for climbing those stairs. In 2019, at the Lam Family Hung Kuen worldwide championships in Hong Kong, Chris and I literally alternated between Hung Kuen training and running the trails. And when I went back in 2020, I divided my time, again, between Hung Kuen training and more running on those trails. My Hung Kuen training has helped me not only with building a strong foundation for health and physical conditioning, but also the mental fortitude that is required to take on these sorts of big challenges.

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