Tending the Soul: Still In the Race

I’m a fervent follower of track and field events - every four years when the Olympics roll around. Ok, that doesn’t make me a credentialed fan. But I find one particular moment especially intriguing amid all the speed, athleticism, skill, and power: the stillness of the sprinter’s starting block.

Whatever the escalating frenzy of the crowd, a hush falls as the announcer intones, “Take your marks.” Suddenly it's so quiet that only camera clicks are heard. Each athlete loosely shakes her arms and then stretches a back leg, flexes the other, and pushes fingertips into the track surface. Heads bow. The sum of energy in all eight lanes - and in the entire stadium - coils like a spring. A final firming of feet against the block pads, and then nothing moves at all.

For now, and now only, there is no clock. If we were to glance at it, which we don’t, it would show only zeroes. Irrelevant now, and motionless too. This now is un-timed; a now untethered from time.

We have come to watch a race. We have traveled around the world, or we have set aside our evening to tune in. This taking of marks, this hush - is this part of the race? The moment actually bears no resemblance to a race at all. Nothing moves, let alone races.

Amid hype and highest stakes - incredibly - all is calm. Singularly still.


Is this a mere formality, this stillness? A choreographed element of track and field pageantry? Sure helps build suspense for the show. We put down our drinks and pause chomping our snacks. Taking marks is practical; gotta get everybody lined up in the right place, and we can’t have people starting at different times for a fair contest. In a matter of seconds we could have a world record, and we’ll want to be certain about it.

As an every-four-year-fan whose two feet have never wandered anywhere near sprinters’ blocks, I can only imagine the strategic discipline of the starting stance: Each contestant’s power gathers into this perfect stillness. Every gram of body mass is perfectly centered - balanced left and right, toe to nose. Muscle memory summons itself to maximum capacity - awake, attuned, alert. The mind stills as well; purpose narrows to a needle tip. For those who will run the course well, all subsequent motion will flow unbroken from this centered, still point.

So the form carries function. The runner atop the podium, draped in gold as her anthem plays, will have done the pre-race moment well - along with so many other critical details that shave slivers of seconds off finish times.

Maybe that’s all there is to it. If so, it is magnificent, and worth the price of admission. What a rush! What an explosion of power out of those blocks, with an accelerating crescendo of speed through the tape! Such unleashing of emotion in the crumpling bodies of some runners and the arms aloft of the victors. Next time it’s in Tokyo, three years away. It will draw me every time, TV remote in hand.

Undoubtedly for all runners and most all fans, the race is the thing and rightfully so. Why my fascination with this timeless, suspended moment in the blocks? In seasons of my life, I have been compelled toward contemplative stillness for its function: I needed calming. In desperate times, stillness became a desperate measure. In more ordinary times, stillness provided a way to refocus my spirit for daily tasks and goals. If that’s all there is to it, I could not recommend it more highly. You have to work at it, but it really works.

In desperate times, stillness became a desperate measure.
In more ordinary times, stillness provided a way
to refocus my spirit for daily tasks and goals.

There is more. Vastly more. I cannot explain the “more” of stillness, or of motion for that matter, or of how stillness and motion entwine like a double helix tethered ultimately not to time but to the timeless and infinite. I cannot explain the “less” of it either - how the core of all, and beyond all, is so stunningly One.

I can only look, and perhaps point. Poets are among the better pointers, and artists and lovers. In its own little way for me every four years, sprinters at their marks are pointers. Scripture is a pointer if we allow it, and the hard and lovely natural world.

Contemplative practice - Centering Prayer, for just one simple and trustworthy example - is a pointer, ushering us closer and deeper.

For Soul Tending

What in your experience points you toward the One beyond all? How, practically, do you allow yourself to be ushered closer and deeper?