"The warm weather means freedom to me - I want to shed some clothes and run!"

For John Davenport and thousands of other area runners, spring represents the liberating force, the end of the Dark Ages. And after a couple of false starts, spring has settled in on D.C., bringing thousands of fair-weather striders to their feet. It seems as if everybody has dusted off the old track shoes to quench that vernal thirst for The Great Outdoors. Growing attendance at the D.C. Road Runners' weekly meets stands as evidence.

For some of the participants, running serves as a outlet for energy; for others, running is the raison d'etre . Just ask Rockville marathon man George Marienthal, who recently finished the big one in Boston in 2 hours, 49 minutes and 15 seconds. "It's a way of life - you don't have this kind of spirit with anything else."

The spirited at the Road Runner meets range from those who breeze through the Boston Marathon to those who wheeze after a jog around the block, from little kids barely old enough to walk to spry senior citizens. All diligently stretch limbs, run in place and peel off warmup suits in the morning sunlight. Eventually, they congregate behind a starting line, ready to kick those legs.

What exactly are they trying to prove? Marienthal, 40, a Road Runner for nine years and a runner for 28, stops to clarify that point. "Running is an end, not a means - it's like food, water, sleep." He adds that he runs 10 miles daily to this end, joining co-workers every morning and evening for jaunts around the Pentagon. Regardless of the weather, which all too frequently varies from the ideal conditions of 45 F with no wind and no rain.

"The key is to finish with a little dignity - even a smile," he says, stooping to lace his shoes.

"You come out to run for fun; the physical-fitness benefits are extra," emphasizes John Davenport, awards chairman and past president of the D.C. Road Runners. Davenport, 57, has been running since the bug bit him in 1966, long before the sport's popularity surged.

The Road Runners of America formed in the early 1960s as an offshoot of an English organization. The Washington chapter initially enrolled a scant 40 members. Membership rapidly increased after 1968, soon paralleled by booms in the track-shoe and warmup-suit businesses.

Today, fitness fever has swept Washingtonians off their sedentary spreads and onto their feet. What better setting exists for the tension-relieving sport than the anxiety-ridden Nation's Capital? The D.C. Road Runners, one of 200 chapters nationwide, now claims a membership of 2,200.

"I see the same old stand-bys in the group, but there have been a lot of new faces since running became so big," Davenport comments. "We have a turnover of 700 a year." The mix of newcomers indicates an across-the-board renaissance of interest in the anywhere, anytime recreational sport. A greater number of women, Davenport notes, are participating in the runs in comparison with past years.

"A lot of them are trying to get in shape for their new bikinis."

As an open-membership group, the Road Runners focus all attention on running. Young and old, male and female, neighborhood jogger and marathon master - they all gather at Road Runner meets for one reason: to run. Socially oriented pursuits are left to the plethora of smaller area running clubs, many of which maintain affiliation with the D.C. Road Runners and compete as teams at the umbrella organization's meets. The sweaty chic has provided Washington fitness enthusiasts with a dual opportunity to join the active crowd and meet people, though the only common bond may be a tolerance for pavement-pounding.

Davenport maintains that it's the simplicity of the sport that accounts for its appeal. "Some buy new paraphernalia, others just wear cruddy clothes."

Like Marienthal, the other Road Runners claim more interest in challenging themselves than in competing with others. Perhaps they're seeking some sort of nirvana in physical exertion, pounding ground, expanding lungs, firming muscles. However, they're more likely to admit that they run for self-improvement.

Several Road Runners cluster to discuss theories on pacing for various courses, building endurance and avoiding injury. Beyond the nouveau jogger's aches and pains often come afflicted hamstrings and Achilles tendons.

Then erupts an intensive discussion of the "20-mile-wall," the point in the 26-mile, 385-yard marathon when the body has consumed all of its stored calories. It's this kind of discussion that shows who's been studying the running magazines.

A common problem is finding a suitable course for each race. Held at such sites as Hains Point, Fort Hunt and the Beltsville Agricultural Center, the Road Runners' weekly meets include a distance run, drawing 300 to 400 participants, and a "fun run" usually involving 100. The meets are held on weekend mornings or summer evenings. To put in the miles, many also run daily through parks, along busy streets or around the Mall.

Unfortunately, large, extended flocks of runners sometimes slow traffic and, consequently, inflame tempers.

"Seems like the younger macho types and slobby fat ones protest the most. My theory is that the more sedentary an individual is, the more he resents us," a lithe, perky Road Runner says. "What's really embarrassing is the way drivers yell at the women." Negative experiences occasionally encountered by the female gender range from foul words to flaashers.

Another problem involves the organizational limitations of races. The Road Runners have to turn away as many applicants for the Cherry Blossom Classic as they accept - this year the April race's 3,500 limit was reached in one icy week in January. Even so, the starting line is always obscured by mobs of distance runners.

"Things are bad the first quarter-mile, but the faster move to the front and the slower stay back. At Boston, it takes two or three minutes for some to reach the starting line. You might hear a few bad words exchanged as they step on feet and cut in front of others."

Not everyone who dons running shoes aspires to compete in a marathon: Spring traditiionally lures many untrained athletes, often easily detected through their heavy panting, onto the pavement and asphalt.

"I can always tell new people on the track: They run their tails off in their new clothes, and then I never see them again," Davenport laughs. He and other seasoned runners assure the novices that the soreness and blisters eventually pass.

"We don't encourage people to go beyond their capacity, but to progress gradually," he says. "In our society, everyone's obsessed with being No. 1," he continues, even though only one can come in first; "but the Road Runners feel that everyone who gets out and exercise is a winner."

To support this attitude, the organization provides recognition not only for accomplishment but also for effort: Anyone who competes in eight consecutive runs gets a trophy.

Meanwhile, the distance bunch gallops onward, ignoring the pervasive skepticism generated to set the running movement back a few steps. Pausing only to nibble at orange slices and sip water from jugs, they run till they've run out of energy or ambition for the day.

"It takes a lot to stop a runner - the camaraderie keeps people going," Davenport says. "You can always tell a runner, but you can't tell him much." CAPTION: Picture, LOGGING THE MILES. By James A. Parcell.