A corner of the sports world best avoided is the one set aside for the setters of nutty records and the performers of cornball feats.
The problem is that most people who take up underwater marathon badminton or fungo-bat juggling, do so for the purpose of blatant self-promotion.
Once in a while, though, you run into the genuine article, the sports wacko driven by some inner motive, inspired by a Muse to do something that seems silly to others, but isn't.
About 12 years ago, I met one of these types, a man named Plennie Wingo. He was about 70 then and he was walking all over the world, backward. He wore an old suit and tie, and had a tiny side-view mirror attached to the frame of his spectacles. He had no PR man, no press packet.
Mr. Wingo got some publicity, including a story from me when he walked through the small town I was working in. But the ink seemed extraneous to the pursuit of his true calling.
The other day I met a young Plennie Wingo, only traveling fast-forward. His name is Stan Cottrell and he runs across countries. He ran across China and made a movie out of it, which makes his motives suspect, but I'm convinced he's not Jim and Tammy in running shoes.
If you want to make a fast buck, there must be easier ways to do it than eating puppy meat and suffering a broken back and foot while plodding across 2,100 miles of mucky mountain trails and dusty dirt roads in 53 days, about 40 miles a day.
Cottrell is a Tennessee farm boy who became a marketing executive, dropped out to start his own fitness business, failed, and somehow got this idea of running across countries to make people feel good. I never said he was rational.
He had done some running before, standard stuff.
"But I was running for me, and that's a very hollow existence," Stan says in a Tennessee mountain twang thicker than the Sears Christmas catalogue. "What I do now is to use what I do to encourage other people to discover what they do well and do more of it. The world is robbed of many victories a day because people never put themselves in a position to have a victory."
What Cottrell is trying to do when he runs across a foreign country is to promote a little international friendship and make people feel good.
If you think the idea sounds a little tenuous, Stan is with you. Midway across his "China Run" (the name of the movie, playing at the Westside Pavilion), Cottrell pauses to ask himself angrily, "What kind of idiot would think a run across China would shorten the distance between us (two countries)?"
Getting permission to run China took four years, and Cottrell had to beg like a bunkhouse dog for private sponsors when no corporation would help him out. The only suspense in the movie was which would break down first--Stan's flimsy financing or Stan's flimsy body. I'll give away the ending: He makes it.
It's a travel movie, a journey deep into rural China and deep into Stan's psyche. There is Stan stopping to marvel at the spiel of a market-place rat-poison salesman and his pile of dead rats. There is Stan politely crashing a peasant wedding. There is Stan plowing a peasant's field, and stopping at a peasant barbershop for yet another bad haircut.
Then there is Stan breaking down and crying when he realizes an inner motive for the run.
"My dad's been dead for five years," he sobs, "and I'm still trying to prove to him . . . "
The footage of the countryside is great, even if Stan is in the foreground most of the time. The reaching-out-and-touching bit works well, too. The Chinese don't seem to have any clearer idea exactly what it is this guy is doing on their turf than Stan does, but there's a lot of smiling and laughing and warm interaction between the former Tennessee peasant and thousands of present Chinese peasants.
"The run is a symbolic form of communication," Stan says in the movie. "Trust is the ultimate goal."
So far Cottrell hasn't made a nickel off the movie. His wife and kids back home are living lean, but Stan is a man with a plan. Next, he wants to run across Russia, possibly to make up for the bad international feelings caused by Bobby Knight.
"I have a pal who walks around carrying a big cross," Stan says. "He goes up to a 7-Eleven, kicks the door open and yells out, 'Who in here loves Jesus?' Now, I couldn't do that, but every person has a way of reaching people."
I suggest Stan leave this particular pal home when he does the Russia run. They don't have convenience marts in the Soviet Union. If Stan wants company, he should look up my old pal Plennie Wingo, if he's still around. The Russian peasants wouldn't know if these guys were coming or going.