ATLANTA -- Stan Cottrell has no idea how to set modest goals for himself. Born with an ample appetite for accomplishment, Cottrell would rather set his sights on running across China or maybe saving the world.
Cottrell, an ultra-marathoner who describes himself as a 'sports ambassador,' has yet to save the world -- although he has not given up trying -- but he has run across China and that 2,125-mile adventure is chronicled in a new movie, 'China Run,' which is remarkable for its subject matter as well as its mere existence.
'This has been eight years worth of work,' said Cottrell, 44, who was born in the backwoods of Kentucky, now lives in Atlanta and has logged more than 130,000 miles in 19 nations including a 12-country trek through Europe during his running career. 'It certainly has been a long, long road, but finally the curtain is going up. This movie is the exclamation point to my life.'
Cottrell first embraced the idea of running in China in 1979 when he overheard two acquaintances discussing his future and one remarked off-handedly that 'Stan probably will do something crazy like run the Great Wall of China.'
Recalls Cottrell, 'The idea just sort of stuck.'
Cottrell, founder of Friendship Sports Inc., an organization that uses sports to promote goodwill around the world, wrote Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, saying, 'I'd like to run your wall' in an attempt to promote U.S.-Chinese friendship. It was a simple request that led to a not-so-simple result.
Five years and countless diplomatic calls later -- from people such as Howard Baker, George Bush and Jimmy Carter -- Cottrell had permission. Then all he needed was money.
With sponsors few and far between, Cottrell took on the suggestion to make a movie in conjunction with his run to fund the venture. It wound up costing $650,000 from hundreds of investors to make the run and the movie -- including payments to the Chinese Sports Association and a Chinese film crew.
Illustrating the shoestring financing of the deal, the final payments did not arrive until midway through the 53-day run in the fall of 1984, long after the Chinese had grown anxious about the money. Only a congratulatory telex from Bush kept the Chinese from stopping the run altogether before the cash arrived.
Besides the expected language and cultural barriers, there were clashes between the Americans -- Cottrell and Texas director Mickey Grant - who sought a tell-it-like-it-is documentary and the Chinese film crew that seemed to believe its mission was a travelogue. In most cases, Cottrell and Grant won, but it was not easy.
But then, neither was gaining possession of the film. It required 18 months for Cottrell to secure the film -- 'bureaucracy,' he sighs - and another 8 months with three editors working to trim the miles of film into a 90-minute movie.
The result is an enthralling production, more personal than most theatrical releases and more powerful than run-of-the-mill sports movies. 'China Run' is definitely a documentary -- the quality of the film itself announces that -- but it harnesses viewers like few documentaries can.
'Boy, this is a long way from Kentucky,' the slight but sinewy Cottrell twangs at one point in the movie as he trots through a city square.
It is precisely that gee-whiz approach that keeps 'China Run' appealing throughout, but this is much more than a Ma and Pa Kettle episode in China. There was running -- Cottrell estimates an incredible 40 miles a day, although the movie is a bit vague about details -- and there were blisters and fatigue, as well as warm receptions from curious villagers.
But there were also internal struggles. Cottrell wrestles with money woes and publicly fights even more revealing personal battles that emerge during the journey, such as his unresolved relationship with his father whom Cottrell believes he could never please. From the start of his journey at'the Great Wall north of Beijing to the end in Guangzhou and all the wonderful scenery in between, some of which had not been seen by Western eyes for decades, 'China Run' captures Cottrell in rice paddies and mountains, in ecstasy and gloom.
'I had a lot of feelings of inferiority and inadequacy,' Cottrell said. 'But I think I finally came to the realization that I don't have to prove anything to anyone anymore. China made me whole.'
'China Run,' named best feature documentary at the Houston Film Festival, made its theatrical debut in Atlanta. It was not immediately booked in other cities, although Cottrell and Grant have been working feverishly to remedy that situation.
In Cottrell's estimation, it's just another mountain to climb.
'This movie is not just a victory for Stan Cottrell but a victory for all mankind,' said Cottrell, who already is making plans to run in Cuba later this year. 'I'm just one of those characters who really truly believes that each and every person can make a difference in the world.'