Racing isn't for everyone, but I think every runner should try competition of one sort or another. For one thing, the era of the "fun racer" - the average runner - has emerged. The competition is not to win, but to better personal goals. After all, in most races today there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of entrants, but only a few top athletes.

The rest of us battle not against them, but against ourselves. And we win by meeting realistic goals, like simply finishing the race.

I love converting goof runners to good racers, even though it contradicts much of the advice given earlier to the beginner runner. It can cause both physical and mental breakdowns in fitness. It can lead to frustration. It works against the theories of "talk test" and "be sociable." Only a fool wants to destroy himself during a race - but we're all fools to varying degrees. The race exists because it makes us play the edges, realize boundaries, follow common sense. We overcome pain, and that's exhilarating.

How do I feel during the race? I hate it. I want to quit over and over. But I love it, too. The challenge of defeating fatigue, of reaching beyond my potential, keeps me going forward. When I finish, I invariably throw up. I moan and groan and pray to be saved from the grasps of the Demon Pain. Fortunately, all this fades with my first post-race beer. After the second, I'm to say I loved the race. Then, analyzing it, I know I could have run faster "if I had made my move sooner."

The sense of accomplishment, the telling of stories - "Wow, what did you think of the [delated] hill?" - binds the young and old, fast and slow. I hate races. I love races.

If you're running at the intermediate level or better, you're ready. Surprisingly, many beginner runners are also almost ready to run in short (five-mile) races. In fact, almost anyone who has been running for eight weeks is good enough to race.

The first step is to train your mind. Persuade yourself to train regularly, and to follow the fundamental guidelines of the Run-Easy Method.

Next, develop a base of endurance for racing. Pace yourself during your workouts to get a feeling of running at a steady clip.

The general rule of thumb is that you should run at least twice the distance of the race itself weekly for several weeks before the race. For a six-mile race you should build up to 12 miles a week; never increase the mileage by more than 10 percent per week. For best results break down the mileage into long and average runs, all at a conversational pace.

Look what Mary Rodriguez, a 55-year-old secretary, was able to do. She started running for her health. After attending a beginner's clinic, she ran for the first time in her life, and couldn't make it around a quartermile track. She walked-jogged-walked with me for a 1 2/3-loop of the Central Park reservoir in New York. Three weeks later she completed an entire loop, and her husband met her with a smile and kiss at the finish.

Mary then decided to aim for the women's mini-marathon. She worked out three times a week running two miles in a local park. On Saturdays she and I jogged and bantered, and she completed two loops of the reservoir (about 3 1/2 miles). After this test, she was ready for the hilly roads of Central Park. We ran with a group of 20 men and women. Chatting all the way, they hardly noticed the hills, and all finished enthusiastically. The next Saturday, Mary Rodriguez ran five miles. The week before the mini, she and several others like her ran the entire six-mile course comfortably. Just 70 days after her first run, Mary started the 6.2-mile race, and finished in one hour and 13 minutes. She had progressed from a 55-year-old woman who hadn't exercised in 35 years to a smiling, energetic "fun racer" in 10 weeks! As she says, "Stick with it. It's worth it."

Your best bet for a first race is a local "fun run" of two to six miles for which no awards are given or places recorded. Competition is minimized. Your next best bet for a first race is to run it with a friend who is willing to chat with you all the way, holding you back at the start when you feel like quitting. Whatever you do, the key word is "finish."

It's important to realize that you can walk during a race if you have to. You may need a slight breather or perhaps the hills may be too much for you. Your goal, of course, is to run to the finish nonstop with comfort.

Food and drink Beginners should not worry about pre-race diets. On race day, don't eat anything unusual, and nothing at all for few hours before the race. Do drink liquids, including while you are running.

Beginner competitors tend to wear too much clothing, or race in new shoes. Your body will heat up during a race, and even clothing that's comfortable for a training run may become uncomfortable in the heat of competition. A proper shoe should provide support and cupping of the heel, firm arch supprt, protection of the ball of the foot and flexibility. New shoes should be broken in gradually or they'll cause blisters.

The morning of your first race may find your heat pounding. Pre-race nerves strike the fast and slow. Standing among the crowd of runners you may suddenly feel all alone, insecure, intimidated.

Spend half an hour or more stretching, walking and talking, and preparing your mind and body for the race. Periodically jog for a few yards, and then stretch and relax.

The crack of the gun propels you along with the flowing mass of runners down the road. "Why did I start on this madness?" you scream. But you're off. You fight adrenalin and hold back. Maintain a comfortable, slightly slow pace. Find a group of runners going at your pace and join them. All will pull each other very easily for the first three miles. Then you hit a tough hill, or just run out of gas and feel the urge to quit. If you're running with a friend, encourage each other. Just knowing that you can always quit sometime is often enough to keep you going to the finish line.

I'm a veteran racer who's on the edge of quitting dozens of times in every one of my 300 races, and dropped out of only two of them. Once I had the flu, and another time a foot injury. If you become physically tired, slow your pace, walk or even walk slowly.

Nearing the finish line brings a new life, new confidence. The taste of personal victory overwhelms you; you drive toward the finish with a controlled spirit and uncontrolled smile. You finish out of breath and momentarily bend forward, hands resting on your knees as you catch your breath. Then you walk for a few minutes, stretch and relax. Now comes the fun: You brag to everyone in sight about how great you felt in your first race. Secretly, you'll begin plotting strategy for improving your time in the next race. After you stretch and shower, you can cheer the top runners and know that you, too, are a winner.