The Three-Block Marathon

“The Three-Block Marathon,” Ensign, Oct. 1988, 44–45

The Three-Block Marathon

I stared at the picture that had come in the mail, hardly recognizing the handsome missionary. I remembered Manuel as a brown-skinned boy whose big black eyes sparkled with fun. His teeth were big, too—pearl white—and usually showed through a wide grin.

I first met Manuel at the Salem, Utah, elementary school. He came charging into me as I rounded the corner from my daughter’s fourth-grade classroom. He wasn’t smiling then. A blond boy was chasing him and blowing spit wads at him through a straw. The boy also kept hollering the name of a government housing project—a group of homes for low-income families that had recently been constructed in our community. Obviously, Manuel lived in one of those homes.

I recognized the blond boy as a student in my Valiant A class. As he whizzed by, I caught him by the arm, snatched the straw away from him, and said loudly, “Hi, Jerry, why don’t you introduce me to your friend?”

“Oh, uh, Sister Wistisen … uh, this is Manuel.”

“I’m happy to meet you, Manuel. You must be new here.”

“Yes, Señora … I mean yes, Ma’am.”

“How would you like to come to Primary today after school? The church is only three blocks away. We have stories and games. You might like it. Jerry, you’d be glad to bring Manuel to class, wouldn’t you?”

Jerry looked down at his tennis shoes. He always did that when he was thinking. “Say,” he said after a minute. “Manuel thinks he’s Speedy Gonzales. I’ll bet if you raced him before Primary and won, he’d come.”

I gulped hard and found myself saying, “Would you like me to race you, Manuel?”

Manuel’s mouth widened in a semicircle and his black curls shook as he eagerly nodded yes. Right then, I regretted the deal.

I had three hours before I needed to worry about charley horses, so I went home to finish my lesson preparation and some household chores. Then I put on my fullest skirt, heaviest support hose, and my teenage daughter’s tennis shoes. After saying a prayer for youthful strength, I knew I was as ready as I could be for Primary and a three-block marathon.

“Ready … set (I took in five gallons of air) … go!” hollered Jerry. I shot a quick glance at lithe Manuel and took off. I couldn’t believe it, but the rhythm and breathing I’d learned twenty years earlier on the junior high track team came back into three-quarter swing. The Lord wanted Manuel in Primary that day, because I won the race by a head.

I hadn’t realized it during the race, but a large pack of children had followed, cheering for Manuel. Some of them punched his shoulder and said, “You’ll get ’er next time Manuel!” I was too breathless to protest.

I raced Manuel on the next six Primary days. The crowds dwindled each week, and I began to suspect that Manuel had decided to let me win. As we walked outside after that sixth lesson, I had one hand on Jerry’s shoulder and the other on Manuel’s. “Look guys,” I said. “It’s snowing outside. I wonder where I can get some snow track shoes; I’ll probably need them for our race next week.”

“Nah,” said Manuel. “No racing anymore. I like Primary. You teach we are all God’s children. I like to look at the pictures of boys and girls from all the world.”

Before long, Jerry and Manuel were actually buddies. By the end of that spring, we had moved to another state, but I continued to send Manuel a Christmas card each year.

I stared at the picture. I realize that it takes a lot of people to influence a boy like Manuel. I know I’ve only been a small part of the Lord’s plan for him, but I will always treasure this picture and the opportunity I had to race in the three-block marathon.