A few years ago, Glen Heggstad was in Mexico taking an early-morning stroll through the streets of Tijuana when a passing group of men set upon him. The first one clotheslined him and slipped into a rear chokehold as the others looked to rob him. A former nationally ranked judoka with a vast and varied martial arts background — not to mention a one-time member of an outlaw motorcycle gang with more than a few street fights under his belt — Heggstad was caught off-guard only for a moment.
by Mark Jacobs
I'd never been attacked in broad daylight like that before," said Heggstad, now 65. “But the only thing that really counts in martial arts is what you can do in chaos."
It didn't take Heggstad long to recover his poise, then execute a shoulder throw on the man choking him. He hit a second man with a low roundhouse kick that crumpled him. When the rest of the would-be assailants took flight, Heggstad chased after them, laughing to himself with the realization that he probably shouldn't be doing that.
But it was hardly the first time Heggstad found himself in perilous situations doing things he probably shouldn't be doing, nor was it the only time the martial arts may have saved his life. The most notable of these incidents occurred in 2001 when a rebel army in Colombia held the world traveler hostage for five weeks.
Born in San Francisco, Heggstad developed a love for adventure travel at a young age. His rebellious nature got him kicked out of his home at 13, inspired him to hitchhike cross- country at 16 and eventually led him to join a motorcycle gang.
“I was their youngest sergeant at arms and would get into a fight every night," he said.
The outlaw life ultimately led to a prison term, and when he got out, he began bouncing in bars. But Heggstad realized that the path he was on was a self-destructive one. Looking to make a positive change, he started training in the Chinese martial arts.
“I already knew how to fight," he said. “I got into martial arts to calm down. I began training with Dr. Mark Cazares six hours a day, every day. Other martial artists told me no one trains six hours a day, but I said, 'I'm doing this to save my life.'"
Heggstad learned a hybrid kung fu style that included elements of yoga, mediation and fasting. From that background, he progressed to gosoku-ryu karate with Black Belt Hall of Famer Tak Kubota. After earning a black belt under Kubota, Heggstad came to realize that all the toughest karateka he met were also black belts in judo. So he began working out with the legendary “Judo" Gene LeBell. When Heggstad showed an aptitude for competition, LeBell suggested he begin training at Tenri Dojo, known for producing some of the best tournament competitors in the country.
Competing nationally and then internationally, Heggstad eventually encountered some Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners on the judo circuit and began training in that art, as well. His fondness for travel — in particular, motorcycling around the globe — also gave him the chance to learn various arts in their homeland. He's studied muay Thai in Thailand, silat in Indonesia and kung fu in Hong Kong.
“When you do martial arts, you've got something in common with a lot of people around the world," he said. “Between martial arts and motorcycles, there's an instant connection with everyone I meet."
Although most of Heggstad's motorcycle journeys have been pleasant, it's the one he took in 2001, later documented on the National Geographic channel and in his book Two Wheels Through Terror, that remains the most memorable and the most daunting.
He was attempting to ride from California to the tip of South America when things went horrifyingly wrong in Colombia. There, on a lonely highway, Heggstad was stopped by members of an armed rebel army and taken prisoner. For the next five weeks, he was marched up and down mountain terrain, threatened with death and subject to various abuses.
“I heard stories about them holding prisoners for years," he said. “They would ask for $5 million in ransom and wait a year, and when they didn't get it, they'd ask for $4 million. And this drags on and on."
But rather than surrender to this fate, Heggstad decided to take matters into his own hands. After already being reduced to eating nothing but one bowl of rice a day, he decided to go on a hunger strike to force his captors to make a decision on what to do with him.
Heggstad had already lied to the rebels about his health, telling them he suffered from prostate cancer. Now, to up the ante, he began drawing blood from himself by ramming a key up his nose at night, allowing the blood to drip down onto his lap so that in the morning, the guards would find him covered in it and believe he was urinating blood as a result of the prostate cancer.
As his captors debated what to do with him, Heggstad continued to fast. He went from 220 pounds to 170 pounds. To help him get through the ordeal, he called on his past martial arts training, spending long periods in deep meditation.
“It's weird because when you go on a fast, you get into a state of mind where there are no negatives," he said. “There's no anger or jealousy or fear. That's why you see religious leaders do it. Even while your body is becoming physically weak, it gives you absolute clarity of mind."
When the rebels saw that Heggstad was serious about carrying his fast to its ultimate conclusion, they decided it would be more expedient to let him go, so they turned him over to the Red Cross. But Heggstad's journey didn't end there. On being released from the hospital in
Colombia, he informed officials that rather than go back to the United States immediately, he'd be continuing his trip through South America.
“I figured if I get on the plane to go home, they win," he said. “If I keep going, I win," he said.
Surprisingly, the biggest lesson Heggstad learned from his captivity was forgiveness. He realized that if he allowed thoughts of revenge to fill his mind, he might end up going down a dark path he'd never come back from. That doesn't quite mean he's turned into a complete pacifist, however — as one unfortunate criminal recently learned.
“About a year ago, someone burglarized my cabin in the mountain," Heggstad said. “A few days later, I drove home and saw him parked in front, trying to rob me again. He had all my stuff in the back of his truck. He came flying out of his truck at me, so I cross-gripped his jacket and threw him down. He had a buck knife and tried to stab me, but I got the knife away from him and said, 'OK, now we're going to play.'"
The end result was the burglar ended up with broken hands, a broken nose and a broken wrist. When the police asked Heggstad to testify against the man, he refused, though.
“I got my point across," the martial artist said.
Glen Heggstad's website is strikingviking.net.