KATHY KELLY is a serious runner these days. She runs nearly every day, races from time to time and even directs a major road race in town. But it wasn't that way before 1980, when a friend persuaded her to compete in the Bonne Bell 10-kilometer run, a race for women only.

"I never even considered running in a race until the 1980 Bonne Bell," said Kelly, last year's Bonne Bell director. "I had been running no more than three miles for the two years before the race, and the Bonne Bell was the farthest I had ever run."

Kelly's story is not unusual. She said that most women she has talked to first participated in a women-only race before moving on to the coed races.

"There is a real motivational factor for women to run in women-only races," Kelly said. "It gives women a goal because it is especially for them."

In addition, Kelly said, "I'm really up at the front of the pack in women's races. You don't have that feeling in the races with the men. It's a lot of fun to compete with other women."

Which is why Kelly is so happy about this weekend's celebration of women's running.

She helped organize the sixth installment of the Women's Distance Festival this Saturday and Sunday. Seventy-two chapters of the Road Runners Club of America will stage 5,000- meter (3.1-mile) races, four of them in the Washington area. It's possible for an individual runner to compete in three of the four races, since they are run at different times. But their purpose is the same: to encourage women to take up the sport and to push for the establishment of a 5,000-meter distance for women in the Olympics.

". . . We have the thrill of Joan Benoit's victory (in the Olympic marathon) to remember," said Henley Roughton Gibble, chairman of the Women's Distance Committee of the RRCA. "However, full equality still eludes us -- our champions at 5,000 meters still cannot compete at that distance in the Olympic games."

If past successes are any gauge, people like Gibble and Kelly may well see their goals realized. First came the inclusion of the marathon in 1984; now the 10,000 meters for women has been added to the 1988 Olympics.

And there's certainly no doubt that more and more women are being drawn to the sport. A recent Miller Lite study on sports found that 17 million to 19 million U.S. women engage in some form of running. Another study estimated the figure at 18.3 million. Those figures show a tripling of interest since a 1979 Harris poll reported that 6.5 million women were running.

Avon dropped its 13-city series of women- only races last year, and Bonne Bell is considering dropping its national tour -- both companies said they want to target their market efforts elsewhere -- but the support for women-only races continues. There was enough interest by the women in the area for a new sponsor to take over the Washington stop on the now-defunct Avon tour. And there are a number of women-only races scheduled through the fall.

All those women-only races are tailor-made, Kelly said, for beginning runners "who are embarrassed about their bodies and aren't so competitive" but are looking for a "non- threatening, joyful experience."

And then they can discover some added bonuses, Kelly said: "For most women, you love to eat, and you can eat when you run."

WOMEN'S DISTANCE FESTIVAL

Women can register for the festival races right up to race time. Costs range from $1 to $5.

COLUMBIA -- Columbia Mall parking lot, Friday at midnight; $5; call 301/997-0805.

ALEXANDRIA -- Fort Hunt Park, off the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria, Saturday at 8 a.m.; $1.50; 360-3416.

ANNAPOLIS -- Naval Academy (on King George Street, one block inside the academy's main gate), Saturday at 8 a.m.; $4; 301/267-0524.

KENSINGTON -- Ken-Gar Rec Center, on Beach Drive in Kensington, Sunday at 8 a.m.; $1; 301/942-9146.

Here's a sampling of other women-only races in coming weeks:

5K FOR WOMEN -- July 30, 7 p.m., at American University; 301/474-7177.

MOVING COMFORT 10K -- September 14, East Potomac Park. Send SASE to Box 734, Great Falls, Va. 22066. The Moving Comfort series, in its 10th running, is one of the oldest women-only races in the country and the oldest in the area.

WOMEN ON THE RUN -- October 27, five- runs, George Mason University, Fairfax. Includes an educational seminar featuring Drs. Mona Shangold and Gabe Mirkin and a fashion show.