THE LONELINESS of the long-distance runner: To the millions of the sport's adherents, it's a part of life -- both a blessing and a curse. Running in solitude can give the mind time to roam and to contemplate. But sometimes the solitude can get downright boring, especially when you face it day after day.

It's easy to get stuck in a rut: You start losing the impetus to take that first step out the door in the morning, you're too tired in the evening when you get home from work, and pretty soon you notice your running program slipping away. Or let's say you enjoy racing on the weekends: After a while, you reach a plateau and your times stop improving; your 10K PR (that's personal record to you and me) had been improving by leaps and bounds when you started racing, but now the easy improvements of several minutes have become struggles to gain precious seconds.

Having to train in solitude can also be a stumbling block to beginning runners. You want to start running but you need someone along for motivation. Or you don't know any good places to run. Or you don't know anything about how to train. Or -- and this is especially true for women runners -- you just don't think it's a good idea to go running by yourself.

Let's face it: You need to add some spice to your running. Well, join the club -- a running club, that is. The national Road Running Clubs of America counts 16 Washington-area chapters among its 450 clubs (115,000 members nationally), and reports its numbers -- and probably those of unaffiliated clubs -- are growing. Running clubs have something to offer every kind of runner: camaraderie, training advice, training partners, workouts and, best of all, some adventure. And all this for a bargain price -- somewhere between $10 and $20 per year.

For those who are thinking about taking up running, clubs can provide useful information on how to get started, what kind of equipment you need (a lot of area clubs have negotiated discounts for club members at local running stores) and a choice of good places to run. Clubs hold their activities in a wide variety of locations -- speed training sessions on local tracks, and distance runs and club races along recreational trails such as the Rock Creek hike/bike path or the C&O Canal towpath, scenic parks such as Maryland's Seneca Creek State Park and Wheaton Regional Park and urban areas such as Alexandria's waterfront. (I've learned more about D.C.-area geography from going to running events than from any other source.)

Most running clubs operate much like any other type of club: There are monthly meetings, elected officers and member banquets, but the majority of activities are group running events. Group running events come in many forms, but they all divide themselves into two categories: training runs and races. Training runs are the meat and potatoes of any running program; races are the gravy. Without proper training, your racing cannot have substance, and without at least a little racing, it's harder to keep motivated to train.

The keys to a successful running program are consistency and variety. Consistency comes in the form of keeping a minimum of three training sessions per week; variety means not doing the same distance at the same pace for every run. Running clubs offer everything from interval training on the track to improve your speed to long-distance runs to improve your endurance and low-key fun runs for socializing and, well, fun.

Running with a group not only helps you push the fast runs faster and run a longer distance than you would by yourself, it also provides conversation to while away the miles and ready-made companions to relax with afterwards.MONTGOMERY COUNTY ROAD RUNNERS CLUB

The Washington area's largest club (with more than 2,000 members) is the Montgomery County Road Runners Club (MCRRC). According to club president Kari Keaton, MCRRC plans activities for every sort of runner, from the novice fun-runner to the competitive elite racer. One of the 10 largest running clubs in the nation, the MCRRC offers a wide array of training runs, club races, social events, lectures and even events specific to women's running.

Almost every club holds regular weekly events, and the MCRRC is no exception. The event that seems to draw out the most people week after week is the Wednesday evening track workout. There's a good reason for this: Running coaches and sports medicine experts tell us that interval training (a k a speed work) is the best way to become a faster runner and improve our race times. By the look of the 50 to 100 people who gather every Wednesday at the Richard Montgomery High School track in Rockville, there are a lot of people hellbent on lowering their PRs.

If you're a beginning runner or one who has never done organized speed work before, showing up at the track to face and compete with imagined hordes of sub-five-minute milers dressed in flashy neon is a daunting prospect. Relax. Very few of the people who congregate at the track weekly are sub-five-minute milers (there are, however, a lot who show up in flashy neon running clothes -- I'm one of them). No matter what speed you run, you'll usually find a group of people running your pace.

In an effort to improve my fall racing times and to prepare for a couple of late-summer triathlons, I decided to attend these Wednesday night workouts this summer. The result: a PR in the mile and a PR in a triathlon 10K run by over a minute.

I'm not the only one who gets benefits out of those sessions. Lyman Jordan, an active MCRRC member, recommends consistency: "Coming to eight or 10 in a row really seems to improve people's race times. In fact, I can tell a guy's 10K PR just by watching which group he's running with on the track."

My favorite workout is the so-called "Indian File," in which people divide themselves into groups of about eight, and then run single file at a steady pace for 35 minutes. The runner in the rear of the group has to sprint to the front of the group and then slow back down to the normal pace. With a hundred or so runners doing this in little groups, the track starts to look as if a giant centipede has taken over.

The other two weekly events that the MCRRC puts on are Saturday and Sunday morning runs. The Saturday run is a low-key, shorter course (three to six miles) through Seneca Creek State Park, while the Sunday workout is a long-distance run (anywhere from eight to 20 miles) along the bike path in Rock Creek Park.

The Saturday group run begins at 10:30 a.m. most of the year, except for the summer, when it moves to 9 a.m. to avoid the heat. So far, the run hasn't attracted as many participants as the club would have hoped, says run organizer Bob Grupe, "but every week, I see three or four new faces. A lot of them are new members who thought 'What the heck -- I'll give it a try.' "

The Sunday run, which starts at 8 a.m. at the Ken-Gar Recreation Center in Rock Creek Regional Park, presents an opportunity for people who are, for example, training for a marathon to find some other people to accompany them on those long training runs. As with the interval workouts, there are people here running all sorts of different paces, so you shouldn't have any problem finding someone to run with. In August I showed up one Sunday to do 12 miles. I settled into about a seven-minute-mile pace and found myself running with two other guys. We started talking, and it was amazing how quickly the miles passed. The bananas and juice provided by the club afterwards are an added bonus.

Besides the weekly events, the MCRRC also holds club races (where there is no entry fee for club members) and sponsors major local road races such as the Fritzbe's 10K in Rockville and the hot and humid Rockville Rotary Twilight 8K. Ted Poulos, an MCRRC board member, participates in all of the club's racing events. In fact, you might say that Poulos is a racing fanatic: In 1989, he finished more than 100 races (an average of two per weekend), and he's well on his way to repeating that feat this year.

The club also fields teams in many area races, and all members are welcome to race for one of the teams. Racing as part of a team usually makes people run a little faster than they would if they were racing on their own, since there's an added motivation not to let the team down.

I raced as part of an MCRRC team in last August's 24-Hour Relay in Columbia. If there were any doubt in one's mind about the dedication of runners to their clubs and to their sport, seeing this race would erase it completely. What else besides club loyalty or running obsession would have 10 people each from 17 teams staying up from noon Saturday to noon Sunday while taking turns running miles? The MCRRC team was pitted against ones from other running clubs such as the Howard County Striders and the Annapolis Striders. It was a good feeling, after having been neck and neck with the Annapolis runners for much of the race, to finally pull ahead of them by a couple of miles and take fourth place overall.

The MCRRC, for its part, provided all the food and drink you could want, a tent to sit (or lie down) while you weren't running, and -- perhaps most important -- the beer after it was all over.

Besides the training runs and races, the MCRRC holds lectures on running-related topics such as injury prevention and women's safety. In fact, women's running gets a lot of focus by the MCRRC, according to Keaton. The club features a column on women's running in its newsletter the Rundown, it has started a running partner finder program for women and it has recently established a liaison program with Maryland park police. D.C. ROAD RUNNERS CLUB

What the Montgomery County Road Runners are to training, the D.C. Road Runners (DCRRC) are to racing. The DCRRC holds club races almost every weekend of the year, and members pay only a buck to participate (nonmembers pay $3, so it's worth the $12 membership dues if you plan to run more than six of their races). It's not surprising that most of the fast and fanatical racers in Washington are in the DCRRC.

Ted Poulos, in addition to his various roles in the Montgomery Country organization, is a D.C. Road Runner. His reason for being in both clubs? He likes to race.

"I do different races for different reasons," he says. "The big local road races are usually held on fast courses, and with all those people around you helping to pull you along, you can expect to run a good time, maybe a PR. But at the club races like the ones the DCRRC puts on, there's a small field and it's usually a tough course, so you can't really expect a fast time. What is nice, though, is to maybe finish in the top 10 or so and meet some new people."

Often, Poulos says, he's been greeted in a large local race by runners he had met the week before in a small club race.

The smaller, less intense club races don't benefit only the faster runners like Poulos. Martha Lynch, a self-professed "slower runner," finds the DCRRC events "a great way to get your races in. If you go to one of the big races, you pay $15 to enter. Here, for $1, you can get your 10K in."

Lynch feels that the club races are ideal for beginning or slower racers, because there's no pressure to beat people. "When the race starts, I just let those fast guys take off and I run my own pace," she says.

The DCRRC doesn't only concern itself with small club races -- it puts on one of the biggest races in Washington: the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler. Every December, thousands of hopeful runners enter a lottery to win one of only 5,000 slots in this prestigious race. By calling on its membership to help out with the race, the club gives its members valuable race organization experience and one added bonus: People who serve as race volunteers one year get an automatic entry into the next year's race. (They can also earn a place at the starting line by running in or volunteering at four out of eight D.C. club races, designated the Cherry Blossom series.)

A few weekends ago the club hosted a 20-mile race in Alexandria, which attracted several hundred runners. The length of the race and the date made it a perfect training session for the upcoming Marine Corps Marathon (in fact, Jim Hage, a multiple winner of the Marine Corps race, won the Alexandria event). Participants milled around afterwards by the Torpedo Factory, discussing their next step in preparing for the marathon. Free pizza gave them something to chew on in addition to the other runners' PRs and war stories.D.C. FRONT RUNNERS

The Front Runners is a national running organization for gay men and lesbians. The D.C. chapter holds three weekly running events -- about the same as clubs as large as the Montgomery County Road Runners. The Tuesday night fun run of five to seven miles usually draws up to 70 runners to the start in Northwest Washington; with an official membership of about 250, that represents a significant portion. Of course, the chance to enjoy an al fresco dinner and conversation afterwards is a big incentive.

According to runner Brad Smith, the club provides gay runners an easy-going atmosphere in which to train and compete. "A lot of our members also run with other clubs, but when you run with straight guys, you always have to watch what you say," he says. "With this club, everyone knows you're gay, so you can relax and be yourself."

The relaxed environment includes women members as well, says Smith. "We have a lot of female members, and we even have straight women who run with us. Gay men don't feel that they are competing with women; their egos aren't bruised if a woman passes them -- if one passes me in a race, I'll cheer for her. Our faster runners will even drop back in races to help a club member along who's having trouble," he says.

Protective of its members' privacy, the club lists members in its directory and newsletter only by first names and the first two letters of their last names.

"Our members are in various stages of coming out, so while some members wouldn't feel reluctance to be identified, others might suffer negative repercussions in their jobs," says Tony Anderson, the club president.

Besides the Tuesday night run, the Front Runners hold a Saturday morning walk and fun run (about three miles) and a Sunday morning long-distance run (usually followed by bagels and banter). In addition to these regularly scheduled runs, the club holds special fun runs on other nights from time to time. I attended a Friday night gathering at the Smithsonian Metro station. After sharing some pointers about running safely at night, the group proceeded over the 14th Street Bridge, then upriver along the bike path to the Memorial Bridge and back along the Mall to the Metro station. Even on a Friday night, the event drew about 15 dedicated members.

One of the faster runners that night was Anderson, who had recently competed in the Gay Games marathon in Vancouver, Canada. He mentioned that the club had 40 athletes participating in the Games, in events ranging from the 10K to the marathon to the triathlon. One D.C. Front Runner won the triathlon gold medal in his age group. But far from competing solely in gay-only events, the Front Runners also compete in local road races. Since many members are preparing for the Marine continued on next page from previous page Corps Marathon, a good-sized group of Front Runners joined in the Alexandria 20-miler two weeks ago for some intensive training.

The Front Runners also get involved in gay issues. Club members are currently soliciting sponsorship for their annual AIDS Pledge Run, to be held this year on Oct. 20. In 1989 the club raised $12,000 for charity; their beneficiaries this year are the Whitman-Walker Clinic and Food for Friends. WASHINGTON RUNHERS

The Washington RunHers may be a women-only running club, but they sure have a lot of men hanging around. Though the membership itself is restricted to women, there is an unofficial cadre of spouses/significant others ("mascots," as spouse Walt Chalmers put it) who participate actively in the club. The organization, which has been around some 13 years, has around 200 members, according to club president Carol Schermer, "ranging from racewalkers to beginning runners to veteran marathoners, even to an ultramarathoner."

The RunHers don't have as many regularly scheduled events as some of the other clubs; their big weekly event is a Thursday night track workout at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria. The runners who show up here get special attention and a custom workout given to them by RunHers coach Al Logie, the husband of one of the members. Logie has all of the runners warm up together by jogging 1 1/2 miles first, then by doing a series of drills (knee lifts, short sprints) to get their muscles loose. From what I've seen of local running club workouts, this series of drills is unique, as is the personalized workout tailored to the distances the runner will be racing.

This special attention is what attracted many of the RunHers to the club. Kimberly Tylicki had tried a different marathon training program, "but they just expect you to keep up with the guys. Here you get a lot more attention and can progress at your own pace."

And what a pace: Carey Hill, a former track star at the University of Southern California, says she came to the club specifically to train with Logie in order to prepare for the Olympic Trials. It's fitting that Hill should come to a club whose very existence is a testament to how far women's running has come in the last few years. She competed for USC from 1976 through 1980, where her times "ranked me something like 27th in the country collegiately. Today, that time wouldn't even qualify me for the Division II NCAAs."

Hill isn't the only superb runner in the RunHers; masters runner Ursula Wagman is a consistent top finisher in her age group in local races, and the club often enters women's teams in local events.

Besides the training program, the RunHers also promote women's issues. According to Schermer, the club will sponsor a woman's safety clinic this spring in conjunction with several other organizations, addressing not only running but also general safety issues. The RunHers have also distributed fliers to warn women about recent dangerous incidents on recreational trails in the area.

The club also organizes one of the country's biggest women-only road races, the Nike Women's Race 8K, held on Mother's Day. This year 2,296 women runners competed; the top local finisher was RunHer Carey Hill, of course. ON THE RIGHT TRACK

So no matter what your amount of running experience, your speed, your weekly mileage or your interest in racing, there's a running club in the area for you. Running with a club can breathe new life into a stale running program or get you started on the right foot. And it can introduce you to a lot of people who share your interest in fitness and competition. There's no need to experience the loneliness of the long -- or short -- distance runner unless you want to.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY ROAD RUNNERS CLUB --

$15 annual individual, $20 family dues. Call 301/353-0200 for a recorded message about upcoming activities and how to join, or send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Box 1703, Rockville, MD 20850.

D.C. ROAD RUNNERS CLUB --

$12 annual. Call 202/234-5595 for a recorded message, or send a SASE to DCRRC, P.O. Box 683, Great Falls, VA 22066.

D.C. FRONT RUNNERS --

$20 annual. Send a SASE to P.O. Box 65550, Washington, DC 20035.

WASHINGTON RUNHERS --

$20 annual. Call Carol Schermer, club president, at 703/660-6019, or send a SASE to P.O. Box 5622, Arlington, VA 22205.

The following clubs also hold regular training runs; some also sponsor races. In addition, many health clubs and athletic stores organize running activities. ACHILLES TRACK CLUB --

Free. For all levels of disabled runners. Aerobic and strength training Fridays 6 to 8 at Aspen Hill Racquet Club, 14501 Homecrest Rd., Silver Spring. Assists disabled runners in training and local and national competition, for example, by providing volunteers to run with blind athletes. Call 301/797-3554.

ANNAPOLIS STRIDERS --

$10 annual individual, $15 family, $5 full-time student dues. Many activities. Call 301/268-1165 for a recorded message or send a SASE to P.O. Box 187, Annapolis, MD 21404.

BOWIE ROAD RUNNERS --

$10 annual individual, $20 family dues. Monthly 5K or 10K fun runs. Call Bill Egan at 301/464-2782 or send a SASE to P.O. 971, Bowie, MD 20715.

D.C. HARRIERS --

$10 annual. Competitive club with membership by invitation. Weekly practice runs free and open to the public. Call 301/656-2526 to leave a message.

HOWARD COUNTY STRIDERS --

$10 annual individual, $15 family dues. Many activities. Call 301/461-5212 or 301/730-3566, or send a SASE to 4913 Canvasback Dr., Columbia, MD 21045.

NORTHERN VIRGINIA RUNNING CLUB --

$12 annual ($15 in 1991). Tuesday night training runs. Call Jeanne Grillo at 703/237-2158, or send a SASE to 6875 McLean Greens Ct., Falls Church, VA 22043.

POTOMAC VALLEY SENIORS --

$10 annual. Open to all ages, but one of the few that specializes in masters (senior age groups) running and race walking. Call 703/941-4317 or send a SASE to 5302 Easton Dr., Springfield, VA 22151.

PRINCE GEORGE'S RUNNING CLUB --

PRINCE WILLIAM RUNNING CLUB --

$6 annual. Sponsors annual Virginia Hotfoot Half-Marathon and Dale City Firecracker Four-Miler and occasional training runs. Call 703/752-1316 or send a SASE to P.O. Box 1671, Woodbridge, VA 22193.

RESTON RUNNERS --

$8 annual. Many activities. Call 703/242-FOOT for a recorded message, or send a SASE to P.O. Box 2924, Reston, VA 22090.

ROCK CREEK RUNNING CLUB --

$12 annual. Offers off-season (winter) training runs that leave from members' homes and take runners on the host's favorite course. SASE to George Banker, 1421 Potomac Heights Dr., Fort Washington, MD 20744.

WASHINGTON RUNNING CLUB --

$15 annual individual, $20 family dues. Pays race entry fees of its elite runners. Send a SASE to P.O. Box 32378, Calvert Station, Washington, DC 20007.

Ian Hersey last wrote for Weekend about running summer twilight races.