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Meet Peter Downing of Suffer Better

Today we’d like to introduce you to Peter Downing.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Peter. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
My pal and Suffer Better co-founder, Bob Africa, and I have been running pals since the late 90s. We spent hours out there on the trails training for 50-mile and 100-mile races together and spent a whole lotta time up in the hills exploring Colorado’s spectacular high country. It always struck us how lucky we were to be able to do what we did and enjoy the special places we got to explore on our two feet. We talked a lot about how we could give back for all that good fortune. Some five years ago, Bob was running one of the Leadville races in the Leadman competition, which he ended up winning. He finished strong, even passing a number of runners over the last few miles. When asked about that, he simply said, “well, you might be younger or stronger, but I suffer better.” Boom. The idea was hatched. We thought it all made sense – a company that brought together the growing endurance community – runners, cyclists, hikers, triathletes – to recognize just how good we had it and encourage everyone to give back. Our tagline was give your all and give back. We started by selling simple T-shirts with Suffer Better printed on the front; no fancy logo or branding. It was and still is, all about the message. We donated 10% of everything we made to select nonprofits whose missions fit with our thinking. We even began printing The 110 on the sleeves to remind people that we all had an obligation to give our all and give back. People dug it and we expanded to offer hats, socks, hoodies, arm sleeves, and even bike kits. Our community grew and we could do more and more. We’ve helped build latrines in Kenya, supported Special Olympics, raised money for breast cancer and men’s health, given to challenged athletes and urban youth. We eventually decided that it made sense to become a legit nonprofit. Just two months ago, the IRS deemed us worthy of that status and we became an official 501c3 charity. We now put on organized mountain events to raise money for protecting/preserving our precious public lands (our Fall Tough Ten Mile Trail Run) and for improving the quality of our air (our winter Running Up for Air-Colorado run where runners run up and down a mountain for 3, 6 or 12 hours to raise $ and awareness for better air). We still offer hats, Ts, socks, etc. for athletes around the globe to fly the flag and spread the word. We organize presentations for running shops about what we do, we are now building a plogging program for local runners and we are raising money for a new grant program to support athletes with brilliant ideas that effectively combine endurance activities and giving back. It’s definitely a labor of love but we get to work and hang out with such amazing people that it’s worth it all.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Ha. There is no such thing as a smooth road, or in our case trail, in the startup world. Shoot, here we are five years in and we still feel like each and every day throws a wrinkle in it all. We’ve always struggled with too many ideas and not enough cash to make them reality. And there is just never enough time to get it all done. It’s a constant scramble. We fight the same battles as many nonprofits – getting seen and heard through all the others out there. We said from the get-go that did not want to be just another T-shirt/Hat company – that we needed to be out there doing more “real” things to build our community. We started our races to create a way for athletes to gather and put their energy into something meaningful. Events are hard work – organizing, marking trails (nothing worse than losing a runner in the woods!), begging for volunteers. But when you step back and see a group of smiling athletes post-race, enjoying a cold beer and conversation about things that matter, you see it’s all worth it.

Initially, we found it challenging to find partners – companies largely – with whom our message resonated and who saw our work as worthy of their support. As we’ve grown, though, we’ve been incredibly lucky to connect with an amazing array of incredible people at great companies and they’ve supported us in our events, programs and grants. It’s true though that with each thing you get done you look for ways to do it better. It’s like all these athletes we work with – never satisfied, wanting to go faster and farther. That’s how it is and how it should be.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Suffer Better – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
We are definitely a niche business: our focus is the community of endurance athletes and providing them with ways to engage with each other and the bigger community in meaningful ways. Yeah, we sell trucker hats and T-shirts and socks and hoodies, which help us spread the word outside of our little bubble. But what distinguishes us are our events and our thinking. Our events are designed not to just as events for athletes to test their mettle, but to focus the conversation on things way bigger than that. The places we play – these wild and natural outdoor places – are both incredibly special and, at the same, facing major challenges. We want the endurance community to both recognize and use their voices to spread that message. Likewise, our air, that stuff we breathe and need, and not just for running or cycling, is increasingly poor. As both athletes and humans, we have an obligation to speak up and use our Running Up for Air event to enable and encourage that. We also work hard to walk the walk at our events: we do not provide cups at our aid stations, we ask and encourage our athletes to carpool to our events and we only work with like minded partners. And we keep our events smaller and intimate – we don’t want to host thousands of runners; we love offering an experience where runners linger after their race to mingle and talk.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
There is so much more we can do. Of course, we are already planning for our upcoming races – how to improve them and how to find new partners. And we’re looking to add new events – more runs, rides and gatherings – that help share the message of giving our all and giving back to more athletes, both here in CO and beyond. Our fundraising for our grant program is also a major focus – being able to support more athletes doing amazing things while doing good. Someday we even hope to hire a few bodies to help do things around the shop. We’re always looking to build on what we’ve started – make it bigger and better. And we’re always interested in getting something in our store (well, it’s an online store, but….) that our community wants-something they’re stoked to wear and share. Since becoming a nonprofit, we also became a nonprofit partner in 1% for the planet, and we hope to be able to do more with them.

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