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Biergarten at Olbrich Park is teeming with sweaty runners, in line for mini brats or standing in clusters sipping local craft brews and talking about races past and future. This isn’t an unusual sight in Madison on a cool Thursday evening in June. It’s just a larger than normal gathering of runners who have worked up a hunger and thirst.
In fact it’s the site of a post-run organized by Fleet Feet Sports in Middleton and Sun Prairie and Berkeley Running Co. in Madison — specialty running stores that individually organize weekly group runs. A runner in a Movin’ Shoes tank top is in the crowd, indicating that store is represented, too.
“There’s really no ‘I only run with people from this store’ mentality in Madison,” Rick Smith says. Smith leads a Saturday morning marathon training group for Berkeley and participates in an unaffiliated weekly pub run (one of several in town that also includes the added motivation of a beer after your run).
Most of the 50 or so runners who showed up at Olbrich Park for the five-mile run and a beer chaser are more social than competitive runners, according to Megan Dolan, training program coordinator for Fleet Feet.
And they’re just a fraction of the thousands of runners in the Madison area — semi-regular solo joggers, charity run loyalists, 5K and 10K weekend warriors, pursuers of Boston Marathon-qualifying times and 50- and 100-mile ultramarathoners.
Madison embraces them all. Not a week goes by, it seems, without several organized group runs and a weekend race. In fact, the sheer number of running events and the runnability of the city’s streets, parks and trails landed Madison on the top of SmartAsset.com’s list of the 2017 “best cities for runners.” This year Madison slipped to a third-place tie with San Francisco.
At the center of Madison’s running community are the running specialty stores — organizing training groups, races and clinics in addition to selling shoes, accessories and apparel in-store and online.
“We run around 14 programs a year,” says Jessica Anderson, co-owner of the Fleet Feet Sports stores in Middleton and Sun Prairie. There are eight-week and longer training programs for beginners to marathoners that meet throughout the area, she says.
Berkeley has a trail running group 200-members strong, says store owner David Meixelsperger. The Berkeley Babes are primarily former female college runners and the Red Socks are ultramarathoners whose three-times weekly runs start at 5 a.m.
Most group outings are not that intimidating, though. Movin’ Shoes offers group runs on weeknights — including a slower paced group on Monday nights, all-ages track workouts on Tuesdays and a women’s group on Thursdays. And Endurance House, a more triathlon-oriented store in Middleton, has a running club that meets on Tuesday nights, too.
“We may be the store for the serious runner or competitive athlete, but that’s not a major component of our business,” says Tom Kaufman, the longest-serving employee at Movin’ Shoes on Park Street. “Maybe 40 percent of our customers are walkers, not runners. Or they say, ‘I used to run.’ ”
The co-owner of two other area running stores is among those hesitant to call themselves runners. Jessica Anderson worked at Fleet Feet Sports in Sacramento, California, for two years before she and her husband, Matt, moved back to Wisconsin and opened the state’s first Fleet Feet franchise in Middleton in 2004. They opened another in Sun Prairie in 2014.
“I took up running when I met my husband. So when someone asks me, ‘Are you a runner?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I run.’ But I’ve never said to someone ‘I’m a runner,’ ” Anderson says.
At times she admits feeling that “real” runners are those who competed in high school or college or who still run races — and run them fast.
But Anderson says she often runs to and from races — not to compete but to cheer on her friends, staff and customers participating in the events.
The seven runners profiled on the following pages — some of whom run to raise money for causes or help those who can’t run; accomplished sprinters who overcame injuries; Ironman competitors and trail specialists — represent a wide range of active area residents.
Because races can serve as goals for individuals seeking a certain level of fitness, we list many here. But you don't need to line up with other runners to consider yourself one. Running alone or with others, you’re still a member of the tribe. By putting one foot in front of the other on a regular basis, you do immeasurable good for your physical health and mental outlook.
So lace up and head out the door. It’s always a good time for a run — especially in Madison.
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