Please welcome the twenty fourth American Trail Running Association (ATRA) Trail Ambassador presented by CamelBak, and the twelfth and final in 2018. Runner, race director, volunteer, and trail advocate all describe Peter Downing who, at age 64, has been in the outdoor industry for nearly four decades.
Nominator Ellen Miller wrote, “I have known Peter for about 35 years. We ran the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (RTRTR) in the Grand Canyon together many years ago, and when I was just starting to run the Leadville 100, he was placing on the podium at the race. He was a mentor to me in my early running days.
“As an endurance runner, Peter has endured his share of challenges,” continued Miller. “He’s won and finished in the top at numerous ultra and trail races, but injuries and professional challenges left him unsatisfied and unfulfilled. This led him to create programs for trail runners, and fund raising endeavors to give back to the community.”
Downing’s hometown is Denver, CO, where he’s lived most of his life except for his collegiate and law school years as well as a stint in Ghana, West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer science teacher. He and his wife of 31 years – Mary – have two grown children, Ellen and Graham, both avid trail runners.
Throughout his professional career, Downing has worn a variety of hats including that of public school science teacher, attorney, and director of an innovative teacher-training program. In 2001, he co-founded SPARK, a marketing/PR consulting firm focused on the outdoor industry, and is now the sole owner. He is also the co-founder and executive director of Suffer Better, a nonprofit focused on engaging the endurance athlete community and creating opportunities for athletes to give back to their communities and become a voice for resource conservation.
“Suffer Better was founded in 2014, launched by my good friend and training partner, Bob Africa and me,” said Downing. “It all started when he was running – and winning – the Leadman Competition and, after a stellar finish at the marathon was asked how he did that. His response was simply, ‘Well, you may be younger or stronger or have a bigger engine, but I suffer better.’
“That response resonated with both of us on so many levels, so we formed a company to connect the endurance community around our two foundational principles: Giving your all in all you do and giving back,” continued Downing. “We have since become a nonprofit, still focused on those two ideals, but also doing more to create opportunities for athletes to get involved and give back.”
Suffer Better organizes two trail races every year, The Suffer Better Trail Run –10 miles of rough and tumble mountain trail and RUFA-CO (Running Up for Air) – 3, 6, or 12 hours of mountain running each focused on raising awareness and funds for conservation issues. Additionally, the organization has launched a grant program – Do Good Grants – which provides funding for athletes who have innovative projects that combine endurance sports and philanthropy. As well, a variety of products including trucker hats, beanies, T-shirts, hoodies, and socks are sold to enable the community to fly the flag of which proceeds are donated to a variety of meaningful causes.
Downing grew up playing youth league sports – baseball in the spring and football in the fall. “My running was limited to getting around the bases and to the goal line,” said Downing. “I started running in college as a way to feel better and be outside, running the quiet, rural roads in farm country. My first trail run really came during my two and a half years living and teaching in Ghana, where I lived with a couple of Englishmen, both teachers and serving time as the British equivalent of Peace Corps. One of them was an avid runner and we immediately took to one another and enjoyed daily runs through the dense forests around our small town in Ghana.
“It was darn hot, crazy humid and seriously fun,” continued Downing. “Running between and through local villages was not common where we lived; the local belief was that the only folks who ran were thieves, running away from something. That kept us running fast. I ran my first trail race there too – a 10K competing against the students at our school. After the first ½ mile my roommate and I were dead last, but by mile two we were comfortably in first and second, where we ultimately finished. Our award: A potato! Trail running did then and still does – connect me with the outdoors and a way to clear my head, work through the never-ending issues and challenges I face, and renew/refresh.”
His early roots in the sport led to a competitive career where, in his 30s and 40s, he raced everything from 10ks to road marathons (he holds a 2;37 PR), to 100 milers. Top finishes included a second and fourth place finish at the Leadville Trail 100, four wins at the Collegiate Peaks 50, and a seventh-place finish at the Pikes Peak Marathon with an impressive time of 4:00:39. But, the first trail race he ran was the now-defunct Doc Holliday Run, a 35-miler in Glenwood Springs, CO.
“All runners had to drop a carnation on the Doc’s grave in the local cemetery and race photos were taken in a wooden casket. I couldn’t believe how much fun it was and what a great group of people came out to play,” recalled Downing. “Dropping that carnation helped me win a little cash – a whopping $150 – for finishing in third place behind two legends of the Colorado running world, Tom Sobal and Skip Hamilton.”
Reflecting on his career, Downing said his ideal distance was 50 miles. “I could run virtually all of it, and recovery was a whole lot easier and less painful than running 100 miles. After racing for years, I focused more on long outdoor adventure runs – things like the unparalleled 4-Pass Loop and the Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon. These days my racing is virtually nonexistent, but there is still nothing I enjoy more than a long solitary run in our Colorado mountains.”
Running and volunteering have always gone hand in hand for Downing. “I’ve been volunteering at trail races since I first got into them, doing everything from trail work to aid stations to course marking, to just doing whatever the race director needed doing. For my 40th birthday, we created an event – The Big 4-0 – that involved people running 40 miles, 40 km or 4 miles and raising money for a local food bank. We raised thousands of dollars and everyone had such a blast. That showed me in such clear terms the power of putting what you love to good.”
Downing says the best part about volunteering at trail races is the incredible camaraderie. “Inevitably it seems, volunteers are what makes a race successful or not – that unselfish commitment to ensuring that others have a positive experience,” said Downing. “I’ve never been a volunteer and not been surrounded by smiling, happy people who take such joy in giving something to others, even strangers.”
You can find Downing on the trails these days where he spends dozens of hours several times a year building and maintaining the courses for Suffer Better events. “My chief volunteer, my brother Jeff, and I are constantly tweaking and maintaining the courses so that our runners enjoy their experience. It’s a never ending battle!”
There’s no question that Downing has learned a lot from trail running. “It’s a long list,” he said. “Everything from discovering my own limits and finding the ways to push through them to the healing and renewing power of our natural world to the camaraderie that comes from sharing the trail and the experience with friends and running colleagues. Even though, for example, I’ve run certain trails literally hundreds of times, each time brings something new and different. No two experiences are the same. That freshness is addictive.”
His advice for someone considering getting into trail running or racing is ever so simple. “Do it. You’ll discover so many new things about yourself and your world. Of course, that advice starts with being smart about getting into a well-fitted pair of shoes, taking care of things like nutrition and hydration, and knowing your own limits. There are so many trail running groups that joining up with one of them in your community will introduce you to fellow runners, trails and the strength of that community.”
In 2019, Downing has two goals related to trail running. “I want to build our Suffer Better events and attract more men and women to get involved and join the fun, while raising funds for two great causes – POW (Protect Our Winters) and Conservation CO’s public lands preservation efforts, while raising our profile to attract more companies to support our events and grant program. Secondly, on the personal front, to continue to run trails and enjoy all the things that come from being outdoors.”