By Sallie W. Boyles | Photography courtesy of Stan Cottrell
On May 7, 2021, his seventy-eighth birthday, ultramarathoner Stan Cottrell embarked on a 3,000-mile “friendship run” from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. Averaging thirty miles daily over a hundred consecutive days, he arrived at the Washington Monument on August 14. His age and the 270,000 miles he has logged to date—equivalent to circling the globe about twelve times—make him an unofficial world-record setter among an elite class of distance runners.
As he approached the end, Cottrell says, “I was thinking, with only 2,000 steps to go, I had 2,999 miles and seventy-eight years behind me, along with all the voices of my past echoing in my mind—their cheers, their skepticism, their ridicule.”
Having dreamed of this run for ten years, Cottrell met various setbacks before finally being ready in 2020. However, even after COVID-19 lockdowns were lifted, mandates would have forced him to quarantine after crossing certain states’ lines. He chose to wait another year. Looking back on planning the run, he says, “I didn’t realize a full decade would go by before it would become real, etched in my mind, and potentially written about in books. There might be someone else who comes along and breaks my records, and I know I didn’t get here alone, but my little victory is in this moment. I wouldn’t change places with anyone. I finished this race!”
Upon crossing this finish line, Cottrell completed his third trans-USA run. In 1980, at age thirty-seven, he set a Guinness World Record by running east to west in forty-eight days (sixty-six miles daily)—despite “headwinds going across Kansas.”
The west-to-east route is considered more forgiving, but Cottrell’s course would have tested a long-distance runner half his age. For one, to accommodate a sponsor’s request to stop in Santa Fe, Cottrell was routed through Death Valley, where temperatures topped 118 degrees! From there, he lumbered through Colorado’s high altitudes with freezing rain and snow into Denver. The heartland greeted him with dust storms and hailstorms, while record-breaking heat and humidity blanketed much of the country.
In 1980, at age thirty-seven, he set a Guinness World Record by running east-to-west in forty-eight days
“For fifty-three days, the lowest temperature was 102 degrees,” Cottrell attests. Often, to avoid feeling like “a piece of bacon shriveling in a microwave,” he says, “I’d start at four in the morning, stop around 9:45, and finish in the evening.” Other obstacles, including distracted drivers on their phones, snakes, precarious drop-offs along winding mountainsides, and rocky, rutted lanes, required mental and physical agility.
Challenges aside, running for Cottrell is akin to breathing; he does not get winded. He inherited his uncanny stamina and determination from his six-foot-four father, who was “built like an ox.” His mother also once pointed out to him, “You know, it was your daddy who put the iron in your soul.” Her genes, in turn, are responsible for Cottrell’s perfectly proportioned runner’s frame. “Momma was as fast as greased lightning,” he says.
Cottrell optimizes his high-functioning body—he requires about a quarter of the calories other top athletes would need for fuel—with ongoing training. Having earned six different certifications by the American Council on Exercise, including ACE Personal Trainer and ACE Medical Exercise Specialist designations, he conditions like a pro. “I’ve prepared my entire life,” he says, adding that he ran twenty miles per day for several weeks preceding his latest ultramarathon.
Growing up in rural Kentucky, Cottrell was only seven when the word spread that he’d been missing for hours and reappeared holding a rabbit that he’d been chasing the entire time. Soon, local farmers were asking his father if they could “borrow” the boy to retrieve any mule or cow that breached a fence. Guaranteed to return with the tired-out animal in tow, he loved running after them as onlookers cheered, “Run, Stan, run!”
Wishing his father would give him a pat on the back, which didn’t come until later in life, Cottrell was eleven when he won a blue ribbon for a race at a county fair. Considering it “a major marker in my life,” he recalls, “A social worker came up to me after and said, ‘Good Lord, you are little, but your legs sure can fly. You might just grow up to be a champion one day.’ It was like a light switch went off in my soul. Until then, I didn’t know what a champion was; I had never felt significant. Suddenly, people were telling me, ‘Way to go!’ and ‘Atta boy!’ I liked that feeling.”
Running also changed Cottrell’s trajectory in life by granting a modest college scholarship. “Momma was always saying, ‘Get yourself a good education; you don’t have to live this way,’” he remembers. After graduating from Western Kentucky University, he spent some years teaching before doing well for himself in pharmaceutical sales and management. Although he enjoyed the work, Cottrell says, “Running is where I was finding my significance.”
After moving to Georgia, Cottrell made regional headlines for achievements like completing a five-day, 405-mile run across the state for the Georgia Lung Association in 1978. The following year, he raised money for the American Heart Association with a 167-mile run in 24 hours around an Atlanta high school’s track. Speculation over what he might do next prompted a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to publish an article entitled “Cottrell’s Next Feat to Run Great Wall of China.”
Amused by the media buzz, Cottrell wrote a letter to Deng Xiaoping, then the leader of the People’s Republic of China, in which he introduced himself as a record-setting long-distance runner. “I humbly ask your permission to run the Great Wall of China,” he wrote. “I think this run can go a long way in promoting the spirit of friendship between our two nations.” A few weeks later, Cottrell was astonished to receive a reply that expressed, “We want to develop these thoughts.” He had nothing to lose, so he kept up the correspondence with daily telexes over the next five years.
In the meantime, setting the Guinness World Record in 1980 for the trans-USA run and completing a 3,500-mile Friendship Run across twelve European countries in eighty consecutive days in 1982 led to television appearances and celebrity and political introductions. Cottrell was also forging friendships with VIPs like Martha and Billy Graham. However, a 1983 run across the Dominican Republic caused him to reassess his purpose. “Suddenly, there was a soberness in my soul,” he recalls. “I hadn’t won an Olympic medal, but I needed to model excellence of behavior, lifestyle, and mind.”
In 1984, “five years to the day” from his initial correspondence, Cottrell says, “I was told to be in China in two weeks to start the Friendship Run.” Considering his humble beginnings, the invitation—to run 2,125 miles from the Great Wall of China to Guangzhou, where Westerners were forbidden—astonished him. He has since run through forty countries and made eighty-one trips to China.
With all his education and travel, Cottrell still espouses Kentucky colloquialisms at every opportunity. Accordingly, he has a disarming way of befriending people of all walks of life, including international heads of state. His down-to-earth demeanor has garnered their trust and landed him unofficial ambassador roles on multiple occasions. Fittingly, he has received Nobel Peace Prize nominations from forty different countries and the keys to numerous cities.
Along with encouraging friendship, Cottrell continues to run for charitable causes. For example, his trans-USA run is still collecting money for children living in an impoverished Kentucky region, where basics like winter coats and shoes are sorely needed.
Another mission for Cottrell is to inspire people to get fit so they can live an optimal life. Compared to his routine, he doesn’t ask much of them. “Walk seven-and-a-half minutes in that direction and then seven-and-a-half minutes back,” he says. “Just look at your watch and say, ready, set, go. After about the fourth or fifth time, the voices inside will be saying, We have a pattern going on. After about two weeks, one Saturday morning, you’ll say, ‘I just went twenty minutes. I’m feeling like I have a little energy in me.’”
Above all, he says his Friendship Run events and corresponding Friendship Sports Association are “vehicles to bring messages of encouragement and hope to people where hope has run out. As they look at me and see what I’m doing, I’m letting them know that they, too, are unique. They are divine originals. They each have gifts to give the world.”
Stan Cottrell Running Highlights
- 1955 – Launched running career by winning the county fair 100-yard dash.
- 1960 – Life-defining, 10-mile run to earn Kentucky Historical Society Plaque
- 1961 – One semester, partial probationary worth $60 (paid books, tuition) Western KY State College (now University)
- 1964 – First Southerner to run the Boston Marathon
- 1978 – 5-day, 405-mile run across Georgia for the Georgia Lung Association
- 1979 – 167-mile run in 24 hours for the American Heart Association at Lovett School in Atlanta
- 1980 – 80-mile training run from Atlanta to Augusta, GA
- 1980 – 3,103.5-mile run from New York to San Francisco in 48 days, a Guinness World Record
- 1981 –276-mile run from Savannah to Atlanta, GA, for Carnival for Cure (Leukemia Foundation)
- 1982 – 146-mile run across Kentucky to benefit the Kentucky Lung Association and Tennessee Heart Association.
- 1982 – 3,500-mile Friendship Run across 12 European countries from Edinburg, Scotland, to the Rock of Gibraltar in 80 consecutive days.
- 1983 – 382-mile run from Atlanta, GA, to Mobile, AL, to benefit the Muscular Injuries & Skeletal Disease Foundation
- 1983 – 150-mile Friendship Run across the Dominican Republic
- 1984 – 165-mile Friendship Run across the Dominican Republic
- 1984 – 405-mile Friendship Run around the Island of Jamaica
- 1984 – 200-mile run from Atlanta to Albany, GA, to promote Easter Seals
- 1984 – 2,125-mile Great Friendship Run across People’s Republic of China from The Great Wall to Guangzhou in 53 days
- 1985 - 3,600-mile Friendship Run, a Trans-USA Relay (San Francisco to Washington, DC) in 45 days with three runners from People’s Republic of China
- 1986 – 375-mile Friendship Run from Pusan to Seoul, Korea
- 1987 – 350-mile Friendship Run from MokPo to Seoul, Korea
- 1988 – 486-mile Friendship Run from Hanoi to DaNang, Vietnam
- 1990 – 500-mile Friendship Run from Brandenburg Gate, East Berlin, to Warsaw, Poland
- 1990 – 500-mile Friendship Run from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
- 1992 – 50-mile Promotional Run in Washington, DC, for the 500th Anniversary Run in South America
- 1992 – 1,492-kilometer Carrera De La Amistad from Mendoza, Argentina, to Puerto Puyuhuapi, Chile, via Santiago
- 1999 – 357-mile Run for Cure, American Diabetes Association, Philadelphia to Pittsburg, PA.
- 2000 – 160-mile Friendship Run for BICO Corporation from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, UAE
- 2002 – 350-mile Friendship Run for Global Action & Mission Possible from Burgas to Sofia, Bulgaria
- 2003 – 350-mile Friendship Run 2 for Global Action & Mission Possible from Burgas to Sofia, Bulgaria
- 2004 – 360-mile Friendship Run 3 for Global Action & Mission Possible, Achtopol to Silistra, Bulgaria
- 2004 – 400-mile Friendship Run for Global Action from Kerch to Yalta to Simferopol, Crimea
- 2005 – 150-mile Friendship Run for Friendship Sports across Trinidad and Tobago
- 2005 – 150-mile Friendship Run for Friendship Sports in Nairobi, Kenya
- 2007 – 200-mile Preparation Run for The Great USA-China Friendship Run through Beijing, Shanghai, Ningbo, and Myuan City, People’s Republic of China
- 2008 – 125-mile Friendship Run from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca, Malaysia
- 2009 & 2010 – 100 miles per week with many 50-mile runs, leading teams of people running 50 miles on their 50th birthday
- 2013 – 500-mile Great Friendship Run across Ethiopia
- 2021 – 3,000-mile Amazing Friendship Run across the USA
— V —
Eager to give more of himself, Stan is planning another trans-USA run for the near future. He’s also working on book and movie projects, speaking events, and coaching clients. The easiest way to follow or reach him is via Stan Cottrell on Facebook. You can also learn more at FriendshipSportsAssociation.org.