The Signs are clear


“There is knowledge only the wild can give us, knowledge specific to the experience of it. These are gifts to us. The problem is that we no longer know what these gifts are.”

Jack Tuner

In 2016 I raced the Miwok 100K in the coastal headlands of California. It was spring. I

had no other races on the horizon. I felt free to engage in other pursuits and adventures

besides just training and running. At that same time, I started to notice an abundance of

feathers in my life. They seemed to appear particularly when my sense of freedom and

openness felt charged. I shared some thoughts about feathers at the time.

“I’ve been noticing more feathers in my life lately, seemingly random encounters while out

adventuring and running. I found a beautiful eagle feather a few weeks ago while paddling a

kayak to sleep on an island on the Columbia River just north of Portland. A week before that

I found a sleek and broad feather while on an overnight bike-packing adventure. I almost

crushed it with my tire and then circled back to pick it up, wondering where it came from.

Yesterday a robin buzzed my head and dropped a perfect, tiny quill directly in front of me

while I was running on Wildwood Trail in Forest Park. There's honestly nothing to make of

this but I'm still drawn to the metaphor of feathers. They are powerful, otherworldly, and

beautiful. They soar, signal and communicate, bend air, and hold a writer’s ink. For many,

including me, they are potent symbols of freedom. No doubt I’m reaching for meaning as I

ponder the presence of feathers in my life but I’d still like to think of them as a sort of

confirmation that I'm on the right path, and that by stepping into wild places and new

adventures I’m constantly finding the keys to unlock my own sense of freedom.” June, 2016

Last year marked my fifth consecutive year of failing to gain entry into the iconic

Western States 100 mile race lottery. So in September I ran the course with my friend,

Jeff Boggess. We set out on a Saturday morning with no fanfare, no aid stations, no

course markings, and no outside support. We finished in Auburn the next evening. It felt

incredible to finally be out there on that line, to connect with that trail on my own terms,

to come full circle, and to round the corner of the track at Placer High School, my alma


And, oh my, there were so many feathers. I’ve honestly never seen so many different

individual feathers at one time. It was remarkable. Jeff was amazed, too. At almost

every turn, every mile, there was a shiny plume pointing the way, like someone had

marked the entire length of the trail. Some I picked up, arranging little feather bouquets

behind straps in my running pack. They mostly blew away in the wind as I ran. Like

prayer flags, Jeff said.


I spent a lot of time during that run thinking about what all the feathers meant.

What exactly were they saying? I thought about all the years and miles I’d been pursuing

the experience of the Western States 100. The obsessiveness of it all.

It reminded me of Yvon Chouinard’s 80 percenter rule, which is basically about being

proficient in many things. The idea is to throw yourself passionately into an activity until

you gain about 80 percent proficiency. Then you change things up, because that last 20

percent requires an untenable obsession.

I like this concept, and I’m usually pretty good at following it. But maybe not so

much with ultra distance racing, and Western States in particular. Racing ultras requires a

certain type of obsessiveness for sure, a kind of tunnel vision, but it’s also easy to over

do it. It’s easy to overlook all the other stuff that gets excluded when you’re so focused.

Being on the Western States course on my own terms was like finally seeing the 3D

image in one of those magic eye puzzles. It had been there all along. Now my eyes

could finally see it. In that sense, the crazy show of feathers felt mostly like a celebration

of this shift in perspective and the long journey getting to that moment and place. The

feathers seemed to be shouting, in all caps, You’re free dude! Just keep trying new

things. And keep trying old things in new ways.


I think I’m done with entering race lotteries for now. I have some exciting running

adventures planned this year, some FKT attempts, and I’ll probably do a little racing,

too. Along the way, I’ll be looking for more feathers. For me, that means plenty of skiing,

biking, pack-rafting, fast-packing, surfing, and even skateboarding (I just got a sweet new

board for Christmas). I’m also really excited to continue to combine these passions into

satisfying human-powered adventures. That’s the right path for me.

The signs are clear.

Willie McBride1 Comment