ODDS ARE that nobody ever presented Carl Lewis with a box of cornflakes for winning a race, or Sebastian Coe with a pound of Swiss cheese. After all, it's not exactly traditional for world-class runners to compete for food -- except in Arlington.

This Sunday at 10 a.m. more than a hundred sprinters and middle-distance runners will race for food coupons in the Thomas Jefferson Indoor Races at Arlington's Thomas Jefferson Community Center. It will be the center's sixth of seven bimonthly winter meets in which athletes challenge for chow instead of medals, a novel idea that officials feel has kept the races competitive but informal.

"We wanted to cut off that materialistic edge," says Thomas Sciabica, a meet coordinator. "When we held similar races last summer, everybody got too greedy. All they were concerned about was their gold medals. But the coupons help keep the whole thing low- key."

Event winners are awarded coupons worth $2.50 from the Uncommon Market, a food co- op in Arlington specializing in organic fruits and vegetables, fresh bread and imported cheeses.

The lack of traditional awards has not affected the quality of competition, however, as topnotch times have been posted in all six events -- the 55-meter sprint, 220, 440, 880, one-mile and two-mile runs. Kablan Georzy, a member of the Ivory Coast's 1984 Olympic team, posted a time of 6.36 seconds in the 55, while Darrell General of Temple Hills, Md., one of the region's top marathoners, ran the two-mile event in 9:43. Runners have also come from as far away as Ohio and West Virginia to take part.

Still, Sciabica insists that the focus be on community involvement. Every event is open to anyone willing to pay the $1 entry fee ($2 for two or more events), and past heats have included runners as young as seven and as old as seventy. A growing number of women and race walkers also compete regularly. (Depending on how many show up, the race-walkers either have their own heats in the distance races, or simply race the clock from the outer lanes in the running events.)

"Every week we get a range, from world- class runners flying around the track to little kids struggling to get across the finish line," Sciabica says. "We also encourage the runners to help out with timing when they're not actually competing. It relieves the tension."

The Thomas Jefferson Indoor Races are the only regularly scheduled indoor meet in the area, so many of the running clubs in the area have incorporated them into their training schedules.

"The meet is a terrific incentive to stay in shape," says Jay Wind, a member of the Washington Running Club who also serves as the meet's director. "By keeping the event low- key we encourage people to keep training at a time when most let up because of the weather."

The Potomac Valley Seniors, a club for runners over 30 whose members include 54-year- old Rudy Enders of Potomac, the national masters champion in the 440, uses the T.J. Races to prepare its runners for major meets such as the Millrose Games in New York and Penn Relays in Philadelphia.

"You can experiment and do things you wouldn't do in a major meet," says Sal Corrallo of Arlington, past president of the PVS. "In the winter, our long-distance people can't get much sprint work done. But they can use the shorter races (at Thomas Jefferson) for their sprints.

"Those meets also give us the quality competition we need," Corrallo continues. "When you're in there running against youngsters, it tends to make you work harder."

One of the most attractive aspects of the T.J. Races is the facility itself. Its 220-meter track, which cost more than $100,000 to lay last year, is praised by runners for its wide turns and springy surface.

Although Sciabica is pleased with the current race format, he's also interested in attracting major corporate sponsorship for the races next year in hopes of enticing "name" runners to compete.

But even if that comes to pass, he says, "we want to keep this a family meet. We want to preserve the fun and enjoyment."

THOMAS JEFFERSON INDOOR RACES -- The races -- 55-meter sprint, 220, 440, 880, mile and two-mile -- are scheduled from 10 till noon this Sunday and again March 9. Registration is at 9:30. There is no age limit, but the races are designed for older teens and adults. For the past two meets, women's heats have been held in every event. But if enough women don't appear, then those who do show up run with the men and compete against the clock. The Thomas Jefferson Community Center is at 3501 Second Street, at the intersection with Glebe Road, in Arlington. For information, call 553-8522.


Below is a partial list of the many running clubs in the area, some of which enter members in the Thomas Jefferson Indoor Races. In return for the membership fee, most clubs offer a regular newsletter, organized runs and training sessions, coaching and bulletins concerning upcoming races. Some also offer discounts on running equipment.

RESTON RUNNERS -- $7 for single membership, $12 for family. Call 437-5199.

D.C. ROADRUNNERS -- $10 for single membership, $15 for family. Call 474-7177.

POTOMAC VALLEY SENIORS -- $10 for single membership. Call 273-0859.

THOMAS JEFFERSON ROADRUNNERS CLUB -- $2 lifetime membership. Call 751-7755.

WASHINGTON RUNNING CLUB -- $15 for single membership, $20 for family. Call 649-4909.

D.C. CAPITOLS TRACK CLUB -- $15 single membership. Call 232-4812.