Many of us choose to suffer as we push the limits of our bodies through the longest distances across the roughest terrains. But far too many suffer without choice in a world that can be just as cruel as it is kind. This is why long-time endurance athletes, Bob Africa and Peter Downing, are finding ways for the former to help the latter.
Endurance athletes suffer, mostly by choice. We’re drawn to pushing ourselves beyond reasonable comfort levels. For some, suffering—by taxing our lungs, muscles, and heartates—is what makes us feel alive. But how can we suffer better?
The name of the non-profit organization Suffer Better might have been born out of 49-year-old Bob Africa’s response to why he was able to beat a host of younger athletes at the Leadville Trail Marathon years ago. Managing the physical pain with mental toughness and wily self-care is part of what had gotten Africa to the top of his game: Winning Leadman (now called “Lead Challenge”), the multi-event, high-altitude endurance feat not even attempted by many, adventure racing for days on end around the world, and competing in numerous races on foot and mountain bike.
But suffering better. Suffering not only on purpose, but for a purpose. Giving your all but then giving back. That’s the mission behind the Suffer Better organization created by Africa, an entrepreneurial strategist and CEO of start-ups, and longtime friend and fellow endurance athlete, Peter Downing who is a retired lawyer. The two had met through a mutual friend in the late 1990s and trained together for a couple of decades, then started talking about something bigger. Africa created a document with his idea for Suffer Better and shared it with Downing.
“I was at a time in my life where I had just turned 40, was going through divorce, just had knee surgery…just kind of like this introspective part of life where I thought, ‘There’s more to it. How do you build community? Do more, do good?’ And that’s kind of where it started.”
Africa says the two of them talked about putting meaning behind the suffering. They wanted to raise money while they were voluntarily suffering so that those who suffer in real-life scenarios—and not by choice—could be helped in some way. And they wanted to fight for the environment, for clean air and water, open spaces and natural resources.
“We used to put “110%” on all our t-shirts when we first started,” explains Downing. “Because you can’t really do that. You give 100%. But that was our way of saying, ‘You give your all, and then you give back. You do the 100, then you give back.’” They launched the company Suffer Better, LLC in early 2014 and started selling merchandise, donating 10% of what they brought in to other non-profits with the remaining going toward launching their own business.
“We’re just two guys, right?” says Downing. “We don’t have this big bank account, but we have energy, and a community and a commitment."
These days, they partner with like-minded organizations like Patagonia, Ultimate Direction, La Sportiva, Hoka and more, and raise funds through their races, events, donations from individuals, and merchandise sales, to raise money for environmental and community causes.
Their Running Up for Air trail race is part of the greater Up for Air series which raises money and awareness around clean and healthy air for all, while their Fall Trail Runs raise funds for Protect Our Winters (POW), Conservation Colorado, and others like the Annie Casey Foundation. “We’ve raised $24K from in one event,” says Downing, who adds that two individual runners raised over $4,000 themselves. “It’s just really cool to see people come together to do that kind of thing.” Suffer Better also donates regularly to the Special Olympics, which is near and dear to Africa’s heart as he has a nephew who’s a Special Olympian bowler and basketball player.
Aside from races, events, and Suffer Better-logo’d merchandise printed on apparel and accessories from partner brand, Craft, the organization offers what they call “Do Good” grants to athletes and organizations aiming to better the environment or community, or who are looking to raise awareness for causes of their own.
In the summer of 2021, Suffer Better awarded a $1,000 grant to the Run Wild Trail Camp, an organization that offers free programming—including runs on trails with an environmental education focus—in partnership with a YMCA that serves a couple tough neighborhoods in Denver. That connection, and Suffer Better’s previous connections, led the Run Wild Trail Camp to earn a $10,000 Colorado Outdoor Equity grant, backed by Colorado State Parks. “I got a really nice letter from a camp founder saying that second grant allowed them to continue the camp,” says Downing, “which was really meaningful.”
“It’s almost like we’re connectors, versus having our own mission and vision. We have that, but it’s also about how we can connect people or purposes within the endurance community?” adds Africa.
Pre-pandemic, they connected a local venue to LA- and Boulder-based filmmakers and helped host an independent film about their friend, amputee, and Leadman competitor Dave Mackey. Hundreds attended the viewing, and proceeds were donated to an organization Mackey had been working with, the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
With Boulder-based CrossFit Roots, a gym where Africa works out, Suffer Better partnered to print “Suffer Better/CrossFit Roots” shirts that were sold to members. One year, proceeds went towards entries to the Bolder Boulder 10K road race for members of Achilles International, which aims to transform lives of people with disabilities. Another year, timed with the CrossFit Memorial Day workout called “Murph,” (if you know, you know: It’s brutal), proceeds were donated to the Big Fish Foundation, which helps veterans transition to life after the military.
Over the past six years, Downing says they’ve raised over $100,000. But like any organization trying to do good, they want to do more.
“We’re just two guys, right?” says Downing. “We don’t have this big bank account, but we have energy, and a community and a commitment. There’s so much more we can do if we could just figure out how to do some of it. We feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of what we could do.”
“It’s brick by brick, building slowly,” adds Africa, “but it’s a very dedicated core community and getting bigger.”
Africa and Downing hope people and brands from around the world will reach out to them with ideas for causes tied to protecting the environment, building community, and doing good in general. “If you have an idea, come to us,” says Africa. “Let us be a part of it and help you build it. Partnerships, and the vision-to-reality piece is really fun.”
This coming year, they’ll host an annual farm-to-table dinner in Longmont, Colorado to raise funds for various causes, and their fall endurance trail races in Colorado’s Staunton State Park. Individually, Africa will help coach the Leadville Trail 100 running camps, plans on competing in the Telluride Mountain Run, and tackling the 41.2-mile Grand Canyon Rim2Rim2Rim, something he’s done a few times. Downing, on the other hand, says his racing days are in the rearview. Still, he enjoys getting out and running the trails of the Colorado mountains.
“For us, suffering is a voluntary piece,” says Downing. “We intentionally put ourselves in the position of doing endurance sports and the suffering that comes with that. That’s why we also try hard to support other communities that need help. There are lots of people who suffer that don’t choose to—that’s their lot in life, the world isn’t aligned with them. That’s a big part of this: to support those people and groups who struggle.”
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