So there were these two guys hanging around a bar in Watertown, Mass., back in 1967, see, and they had put away a good deal of beer, and they got to arguing about whether you could get from Watertown up to Marblehead faster by land or by sea. There being only one way to resolve the thing, they waited for their hangovers to subside and got up very, very early one morning and set out into the darkness, one fellow in his track shoes and the other in his canoe . . .

And thus was born the Great Race. Somehow the world got around, and the next year there were dozens. Then there were hundreds. Now it is 6,000 people (or maybe 10,000: nobody counts), all of them hooting and waving their arms; paddling, bicycling, skateboarding, or go-karting the whole crazed 26 miles to Marblehead Beach; fueling themselves with truly humbling quantities of beer.

The tenth running of the Great Race surged out of Watertown Saturday morning: first the roller skaters and the war canoes, then the cycle-drawn chariot, the 12-man bicycle, the velocipede, and the rolling surgical table (complete with TV tubes and ordelies), and finally a great whooping path of 10-speeds that terrorized the quiet streets of Cambridge. A total of 2,948 people paid $8 apiece (the money goes to charity) for official Great Race T-shirts. The Marblehead Elks, who run the race, figure at least that may unofficial ones came along for the ride. They made it as far as the first Coors.

It was 8:30 in the morning. "I thought you were kidding when you said they stopped at every liquor store," breathed a young woman, looking grave. Her companion beamed. "Would I lie?"

Because that is the whole point, of course. You do not race in the Great Race. It is against the rules. Nobody remembers who won that first contest between the runner and the canoeist, and furthermore, nobody cares. The winner is kicked out of the race.

"Whoever comes in fist lied," explained an Elk. "If a winner indicates that he won, he's automatically disqualified, because he must have cheated."

Now this frees everyone from all that competitive nonsense and permits full concentration on the serious business of the day, which is drinking beer. It takes some dexterity to pedal a bicycle while chugging a can of Schlitz, but the racers were up to it; in fact in moments of inspiration, they passed beer cans back and forth and snatched them from attendant trucks, all without breaking speed.

"Here's to you, lads," cried a bare-chested biker, the voice musical Boston Irish, brandishing a Michelob.

The roller skaters forged on, perspiring, propelled by applause. The Sigma Phi Epsilon six-wheel dayglo green and orange go-kart rolled valiantly down Rte. 1-A, its captain wearing a black pit helmet. The 12-man bicycle creaked along until its tires went flat and the riders retired to their beer stores, awaiting a tow.

The racers cheered the 1886 Columbia Velocipede, each time it tootled smartly by. They cheered the matronly lady in a station wagon, who found herself surrounded by bicycles. Mostly, they cheered each othr, particularly the males, who spent a great deal of their rest time encountering old friends with that bear-mauling half-embrace and the great gutteral roar of "AwwwrIGHT" that only American men with large chests seem able to get right.

The canoeists, meanwhile, paddled furiously up the Charles and into Chelsea Creek. They hauled their canoes out and portaged to the ocean and then kept paddling, into the headwinds and sweels, some of them contemplating their own mental health. "Why did I do this?" mused Bill Daley, a Boston structural designer on his second Great Race. "Because I'm a masochist. Two years ago I was a masochist. You've got to be out of your mind."

The whole adventure used to culminate at Mattie's Sail Loft, where everybody would stagger in and drink draft all afternoon. But now there are so many people that the finish line had to be moved to Marblehead Beach, and so from 7 o'clock on (the first ones across, who were disqualified, were said to be a male runner and a woman on a unicycle) the Great Race rolled in and descended on the 3,500 gallons of Labatt's Beer.By noon, the T-shirts and sunburned noses lined the beach like an advancing army and most everybody was crocked.

Six people jumped out of an airplane and parachuted toward the beer; one hit to hard and broke his leg, but the hospital said he was in stable condition.