The first hint that something was amiss was a directional sign on the highway: "10K Marathon." Right then I should have turned the car around and driven home. Every runner knows that a footrace shorter than 26.2 miles is not called a marathon.

I was on my way to one of a half-dozen road races being held that day. I'd reached the race director's wife by phone the night before: The entry fee was $3, she told me, and there would be age-group awards. Since the race was close to home, it seemed like a good deal.

I followed the signs to the community center of a large suburban housing development, where the sponsor, a businessmen's service club, had set up a registration table. When I paid my $3, the registrar took my name and phone number but not my age.

"What about the age-group awards?" I asked.

"That's for kids 15 and under," she replied.

Looking over at an adjacent table, I counted five lonely trophies: three for the top finishers, one for the first woman and one for the first boy or girl under 16. No souvenir T-shirts, patches or ribbons. The sponsor certainly hadn't overspent his budget for prizes!

There were other disturbing signs as the start drew closer: A community center employee arrived and locked up the building after clearing it of runners who wanted to use the water fountain and toilets. Nobody had arranged to keep the center open for the race.

As we lined up, the race director told us we'd get our finishing time in minutes but not seconds. "You guys want seconds?" he asked in response to a chorus of groans. "Okay, we'll do the best we can."

The race started smoothly enough, and soon we were running through a maze of residential streets in 80-degree sunshine without a speck of shade. There was one water stop, but the cups were mostly filled with ice, not water. Midway through the race the flour arrows marking turns disappeared, and several of the leaders went off course by as much as a half-mile. The rest of us followed the new leaders back to the finish.

It was an angry, disappointed group of runners that assembled for the awards ceremony. After presenting the five trophies, the race director conceded that he would need to make "some refinements" before next year's race. Meanwhile, he hoped to obtain certification for the course, which had measured 6.25 miles exactly on his car's odometer. (A running course should be measured with a calibrated wheel, not a car, jeep or motorcycle.)

The race director was not a larcenous rip-off artist; in fact, he seemed rather a nice guy. But he was not a runner himself, and he was almost totally ignorant about organizing a footrace. In his zeal to raise money for his club, he had not bothered to consult anyone who could have prevented his mistakes. Just about everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. Fortunately, nobody collapsed from heat exhaustion.

I had heard of disastrous "charity races" in other towns and cities, but I did not believe they could occur in this area -- there are too many runners, I thought, and too many good races to serve as models. Yet that fiasco was proof that even Washington is not immune to poorly organized and hazardous running events: A month later, two runners died in a 10-mile race in Herndon, run in 80-degree temperatures.

Two or three years ago, before the explosion of interest in running, most races were put on by the D.C. Road Runners Club. They were well-organized, and the fields were small. Now everyone wants to get in on the act. There are weekend races put on by beer and soft drink companies, hospitals and other charities, and even politicians.

While the new abundance of races has largely benefited both runners and sponsoring organizations, it has unfortunately spawned a class of ignorant or careless race promoters. Inflated entry fees, poorly measured courses and sloppy procedures are all too common. In the absence of a system for evaluating and sanctioning races -- and possibly even with such a system -- there will be bad races along with the good.

One individual trying to address this problem is Ben Buckner, an Ohio State University professor who has grown increasingly concerned about poorly organized races in the Midwest. A registered engineer and surveyor, Buckner recently published a modest 40-page booklet, "Planning Road Races for the Competitive Runner."

"Cheating runners out of the possibility of a good competitive experience cannot be justified for any cause, no matter how charitable," Buckner writes in an introduction. "In other words, runners should not be used for profit without returning the tangible and intangible qualities . . . consistent with their aspirations and good sportsmanship . . .

"There is no truly successful event between a race and a fun-run. On one extreme are fun-runs with no awards or entry fees, and there are quality races with all the details. Poorly planned races are no 'fun' for anybody and cannot be somehow rationalized as events to serve the runners." They serve only, Buckner insists, "to satisfy the whims and misunderstanding of their promoters and unfortunately . . . further ingrain misunderstood concepts into the minds of other promoters, as well as some runners." PLANNING ROAD RACES -- In his booklet ($5), Buckner tells novice race directors how to plan a race and lists for runners the "unforgiveables" to look out for: an inaccurate course, a mistake in times, allowing wrong turns, running out of water on a hot day, and backup and confusion at the finish line. Write to Ben Buckner, 274 Winthrop Road, Columbus, Ohio 43214.