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Saturday, December 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 37.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Meet the Meetups: My foray into the world of online social groups
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Andrea Rutledge, 43, an organizer with Madison's Forever Young Meetup group, decided to become more active as she faced the prospect of the empty nest.

"I knew my son would be graduating in a few years, and at that point my life had revolved around him," she says. Through the Forever Young group, Rutledge has since taken part in "lots of really fun activities that I'd never heard of before or done by myself."

These activities even included ziplining, which pushed her out of her comfort zone. Just as important is the opportunity to meet people outside of her normal circle. "It's really nice to branch out," she says.

Meetup.com is a social-networking portal that allows members to find groups unified by a common interest. The hundreds of Meetup groups in Madison range from the expected (Madison Moms, Madison Area Outdoor Meetup Group) to the quirky (Holistic Moms, Travel Divas) to the niche (Dachshund Meetup Group, Clutter Eliminators Group).

The first event I attended was sort of a meetup of Meetups at Pedro's Tuesday night pub quiz. Two groups - the Young Professionals (20s and 30s) and the Forever Young Big Kids - had organized teams.

Pedro's quiz is hosted by an emcee but run through a computer program, DJ Trivia, with music for each question that often offers a hint at the answer. The final question presented teams with the opportunity to risk it all. With a "go big or go home" mentality, we put it all on the line for the final question: Who discovered that the square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit?

Don't know? Don't feel too bad. No team did (Johannes Kepler was the answer). The Young Professionals took first place with its team of 15.

The next night I found myself in a cozy room full of Diamond Way Buddhists and aspiring Buddhists. I came with an open mind and hope for finding some wisdom in a new experience.

I was a bit intimidated to meditate in a room full of strangers. Every time my mind strayed to school, work, the upcoming holidays, fantasy football playoffs or the Packers' Super Bowl hopes, I fingered my prayer beads and brought myself back to the now. The guided meditation helped me focus my thoughts.

I may not have found inner peace in 30 minutes, but I left feeling relaxed and buoyed by the kindness of people I'd just met.

Then it was time for a physical test. In 30-degree weather, with long underwear and a neon reflective top, I commenced a Meetup with the Madison Run Club, outside the Up North Bar. I felt less absurd among fellow neon-garbed, shorts-clad runners.

About two dozen runners made our way down the Lakeshore path, past Monona Terrace and Olin-Turville Park. The group split into smaller packs and solo runners. I kept up with two other runners as we circled Monona Bay, treated with splendid views of downtown as we made our way through Brittingham Park and back along the lakeshore.

In the decade or so I've been running, I've never run with another person. I like to run at my own pace and not have to wait for anyone or have anyone wait for me. But after knocking two minutes a mile off my typical 10-minute-a-mile pace to keep up with a couple triathletes in training, I may have to change my habits. Halfway around Monona Bay, I knew I'd be back for another Tuesday night run. Afterwards, we enjoyed food and drinks at the Come Back In.

The Madison Run Club meets several times a week. It was founded in 2010 as an outgrowth of the Madison Area Outdoor Group and has organized 800-plus events. David C. Smith, 52, is one of the group's co-organizers and leader of the club's Thursday night and Sunday morning runs. He never imagined the group would take off as it has.

"I thought it would die out in the winter and come back in the spring, but it kept getting bigger and bigger," says Smith.

While the Run Club theoretically has over 500 members, at least 300 have never attended a run, according to Smith. The group has a strong core of 25 and another two dozen who show up occasionally. Some attend once and never show up again.

Meetup is simple to use, and anyone can join; just register for a free account and find an event or group that interests you. Just as the stigma has disappeared from online dating, it's no longer weird to meet friends that way.

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