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Madison, Wisconsin: A Runner-Friendly Midwestern City

This modern metropolis offers plenty of trails and running routes.

This modern metropolis offers plenty of trails and running routes.

Forget the cliché of dairy farms and hats made of foam cheese—Madison, Wis. is a modern metropolis with a serious love for running. In addition to developing top-tier collegiate runners, Madtown, as the locals call it, is home to a vibrant age-group running scene and a beautiful network of running routes.

“I spend a lot of time running by the lakes,” said marathon enthusiast and Madison resident Brett Anderson, “but if I want to change it up, I’ll run through the [University of Wisconsin] campus or one of the trail networks. I’ve lived here for six years, and I still find new places to run all the time.”

If you’re looking for company on the trail, there’s no shortage of running partners in Madison. Wisconsin’s capitol city retains its small-town Midwestern friendliness, with many runners offering words of encouragement in passing and an open invitation to the many free group runs in the area.

Post-run, treat yourself to a local brew and a plate of cheese curds, or a big bowl of creamy frozen custard—OK, perhaps the dairy cliché is a little bit true.

City Of Lakes

The Madison landscape is defined by three lakes—Mendota, Monona and Wingra. In the cold Wisconsin winters, the lakes freeze over, creating an additional network of trails for the adventurous (and spike-wearing!) runner.

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Where To Run

Follow the yellow brick road—er, arrows! Organizers of the city’s annual Lake Monona 20K race spray-paint LMR arrows and mile markers on local favorite Lake Monona Loop to aid runners in training. Start at the “S” in Winnequah Park and follow the route, which takes you over rolling hills and along the scenic shores of the city’s most famous lake.

A calming respite within the bustling city, the UW Arboretum offers more than one thousand acres of prairies, forests, and wetlands—and many miles of trails for your running pleasure.

In the winter, Elver Park is the place to be for cross-country skiing. But when there’s no snow, it’s Hill Repeat Central for Madison runners.

Feeling the need for speed? Start on Randall Avenue on the University of Wisconsin Campus and follow the Southwest Bike Trail, a flat, paved and shaded path. Markers every 800 meters makes measuring your intervals a cinch.

Where To Race

As the harvest moon rises, runners take to the city streets to howl during the Full Moon 5K. Race organizers unleash a werewolf (no, it’s not real – or is it?) halfway through the race to chase down participants. Those who beat the werewolf to the finish line win special prizes.

If multisport is your thing, grab your buddies and a few oars for the Isthmus Paddle and Portage. The race begins with a 1.5-mile canoe paddle in Lake Mendota. Once shoreside, athletes race one mile across the city center carrying their canoe to Lake Monona. For the full race experience, bring crazy costumes and beer—lots of beer.

Want the full city tour? Sign up for the Madison Marathon. Each November, racers follow the 26.2-mile path to all the city landmarks, including the Wisconsin Badger football stadium, the capitol building, and all three lakes. City pride is evident on race morning, as many residents take to their front yards to cheer on athletes.

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The four seasons cycle beautifully in this southern Wisconsin town—spring brings an abundance of lilac blossoms to the trails, while summer’s mild humidity is quickly removed by a post-run dip in the lake. Fall’s crisp air makes Madison a perfect fall race destination. Winter, however, is Madison’s biggest season, with the season lasting up to five months. Though the city is beautiful when covered by a blanket of snow, winter temperatures frequently dip into the negative degrees, sending even the hardiest runners to the treadmill.

Where To Eat And Drink

Since opening in 1947, Mickie’s Dairy Bar (1511 Monroe St.) hasn’t changed much—and judging by the line out the door every morning, it doesn’t need to. The hole-in-the-wall diner still serves up classic breakfasts like The Scrambler, a platter of hashbrowns, scrambled eggs, cheese and gravy.

Try a Wisconsin staple—beer-battered cheese curds—at The Old Fashioned, named after the state’s signature cocktail, a sweet mixture of brandy, fruit and aromatic bitters. (23 N. Pickney St.)

For the fresh taste of local food, eat at Merchant (121 S. Pickney St.), a casual farm-to-table restaurant that utilizes goods delivered that day by local farmers, bakers and butchers. The menu changes with the day’s crops, but the quality is consistently high. After dinner, stay for a drink—the friendly bartenders create craft cocktails on the spot from your favorite liquors and garden-fresh fruits and herbs.

Dessert is served at Michael’s Frozen Custard (5602 Schroeder Rd), where ice cream’s cooler cousin is dished up in chocolate, vanilla and creative flavor-of-the-day specials like Caramel Cashew, Peanut Butter Oreo and Raspberry Truffle Cheesecake.

Where To Shop

Stock up at Movin’ Shoes (528 S. Park St.), the original running specialty store in Madison and a fixture in the city’s running scene. The well-trained staff is usually made up of UW runners (former American 10,000 meter record holder Chris Solinsky once donned a Movin’ Shoes name badge), who will put you in the right pair while directing you to the best trails and bars for post-run brews. Group runs leave from the shop almost every day of the week—call or visit the website ( for the full schedule.

Unique Sites

Take in the sights, smells and sounds of Dane County Farmer’s Market (Saturday Morning, Capitol Square).

Grab a cup of tea and watch the sun set over the lake from the iconic sunburst chairs of Union Terrace.

Come for the 20-page menu, stay for the carnival at family favorite Ella’s Deli.