A Welsh grandmother, a mission to run solo across the U.S.

What makes Rosie run?

What makes Rosie run?

There must be a good reason that 68-year-old Rosie Swale Pope is running across the United States from New York to San Francisco, far away from her home in Wales.

There must be a compelling cause for this grandmother of two to run in the rain and snow — and it was doing both Monday morning — and for her to shampoo her hair in water collected from roadside ponds and to cook a spaghetti dinner on a camp stove and to sleep most nights in a small, bright orange tentlike contraption on wheels that she has named "Icebird."

If someone asks, she'll answer by talking about the many kind and generous strangers she's met right here in Maryland, which she's traveling through this week.

"The idea for this journey is to run across America and to run into America and to celebrate the lives of people nobody knows," she said. "At my age, you can't wait for the world to come to you. You have to come to the world."

So that was Rosie (as she prefers to be called) jogging along Route 2 in Annapolis on Monday and wearing a black harness over a royal blue jacket and pulling Icebird behind her on her way to the State House. She met with state Sen. James Brochin, a Towson Democrat, who later introduced her on the Senate floor, where she attracted quite an audience ("I love Maryland," she told the Senate.).

"I've been working hard," Brochin said. "I got a special exemption for her to wear tennis shoes on the floor."

Then he added more seriously: "She's very dynamic and spirited, and anybody who has had the experiences she's had has a lot to offer."

The cause that perhaps is closest to Rosie's heart is early screening for prostate cancer, the disease that killed Clive Pope, her second husband and the love of her life, in 2002. Had Clive received that diagnostic test, she believes, he would still be alive today.

Rosie prefers, however, that her well-wishers donate to a cause that has a personal meaning for them. Passersby who try to press money on her frequently find to their surprise that she presses it right back into their hands.

"I'm very keen to find out what people believe in, and then I encourage them to give their money there," she said.

Rosie's run across America began in October. Her schedule is flexible, but she expects it will take her about nine months to reach the Pacific Ocean. After leaving Annapolis, she'll visit Washington, and then it's on to West Virginia and Kentucky.

Her trek across the country isn't her first solo journey, and chances are it won't be her last. She said she developed a taste for wandering the Irish countryside when she was 9 years old. She was raised by her grandmother, and after the older woman fell ill with a degenerative joint disease, she frequently sent the girl out for the day on her bicycle or donkey.

"I wasn't allowed to come home until I'd had an adventure and had a story to tell," she said.

In 1971, Rosie sailed around the world with her first husband, Colin Swale, and their daughter, Eve. Their son, James, was born aboard the ship.

That trip was followed by subsequent expeditions in the 1980s in which Rosie sailed solo across the Atlantic Ocean and took a 3,000-mile horseback ride across Chile. But she didn't start running until she was nearly 50 years old and was searching for a way to cope with her grief after Pope's sudden death.

"When Clive died, I could have curled up into a ball," she said. "I was heartbroken. But if you give up, it never gets any better. I'm a happier person because I've gone on and done challenges."

In 2008, after completing a five-year, 20,000-mile run around the world that raised money for several worthy causes, including cancer research and Russian orphans, she was named a Member of the British Empire — an honor a step or two below being knighted — by Queen Elizabeth.

Though her experiences sound like the stuff of legend, key details have been corroborated by independent news reports and service organizations.

It's safe to say that her odysseys aren't easy. Though Rosie has sponsorship for a few practical items — her coral-colored Saucony running shoes, which she replaces about every 300 miles, and her PHD Designs jackets and sleeping bags — she mostly finances her adventures herself.

Over the years, she's become used to living on a minimal budget, which she cobbles together from selling articles to running publications, motivational speeches for corporations and, in the past, rental income from her home in Wales, which she recently sold.

She says she never asks for money, though she'll accept an occasional meal or night's lodging or other assistance of a practical nature. For instance, a few weeks ago, she struck up a friendship with Kerri Classen, 49, of Towson, whom she met at a Fresh Market grocery store.

"It was one of those really cold days, and Rosie was jogging by the side of the road," Classen recalled. "She looked like an Eskimo pulling a sled. I wondered who she was and what she was doing."

After running a few errands, Classen pulled into the store parking lot just as Rosie was arriving.

"She started talking a mile a minute, and I was utterly captivated by her story," Classen said.

"I said, 'Listen, if you need any help while you're in town, give me a call.' The next day, there was a message on my answering machine saying that she had to go ... give a talk, and asking me if she could leave Icebird with me for a few weeks."

The treks can be physically grueling; on this one, she's averaging about 10 miles a day. Icebird might be on wheels, but when stuffed with necessities to sustain life, including spare wheels and hot water bottles, the vehicle weighs 300 pounds.

The journeys also occasionally are dangerous.

In 2006, midway through her around-the-world run, Rosie developed frostbite on her toes in late winter while following Alaska's Iditarod Trail.

She had to be airlifted to safety by the Alaska National Guard — but was back on the road the following week.

"There's a community on the road," she said. "You meet everybody from college professors to the down and out. I've met so many dogs, I've started to carry dog biscuits with me."

It's not surprising that people are drawn to the intrepid woman pulling a cart emblazoned with the words, "God Bless America. Running for a Cause. Completed: 27 marathons in 27 days."

During a recent stop at Whole Foods in Annapolis, a music teacher sitting in the cafe ran up and pressed all his spare cash — $2 — into her hands. A woman who identified herself as a cancer survivor stopped by to tell Rosie that she appreciated her dedication.

At the Boost Mobile Store in Brooklyn Park, where Rosie stopped Friday for help with her computer, she posed for pictures with Melvin Gutierrez and gave him a copy of her autobiography, "Just a Little Run Around the World."

"She is a real sweetheart," Gutierrez said over the phone, adding that he's started reading the book. "It feels good to know that I helped someone special who is making a difference in the world."

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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