Matthew Goldberg dangled the squiggly, gray mass in front of his nose and peered suspiciously at its limp form.

"Mommy," the 5-year-old youngster from Reston declared perfunctorily. "I think this one's broke." With those words, the bottom half of a worm, which minutes before was whole, plopped into an open shoe box.

Not much of a eulogy for a worm that had been prodded and poked for the good part of an hour in 85-degree heat. But when the stakes are high and the time is short, a kid's got to do what he's got to do. Goldberg reached for another worm.

It's not everyday that the Fifth Annual Dolly Madison International Worm Race title is up for grabs.

"Well . . . it fills a need," said children's librarian John Lawson, stretching and pausing in the shade of the McLean Library as he searched for the definitive answer to explain why nearly 70 kids, and about a third as many parents, would spend an afternoon grubbing around suburban backyards looking for worms and centipedes and garden slugs, then wait for them to crawl slowly from the center of a 20-inch circle to a larger outside ring that marked the finish line. "Well . . . well, people just sort of like these sort of things."

In addition to his role as chief sage for the event, Lawson had been recruited to serve as judge and foot watcher. Although race officials disclaim the story as an exaggeration, local lore has it that one year a particularly anxious youngster, disappointed after a loss, stomped on every worm within reach.

"The casualties haven't been as bad as we expected," Lawson said, "but with this type of thing you never know what might happen. Rules are necessary."

Chief among the do's and don't's of worm racing are prohibitions against poking or prodding contestants across the finish line or impeding the progress of other contestants. Still, like Matthew Goldberg's ill-fated entry, there were casualties. Some worms, unaccustomed to the slabs of sun-warmed cement, wilted. Others, although only a couple, were unceremoniously stepped on. And some simply slithered away.

"I lost one of my good ones," said 12-year-old Casey Vogel, a visitor from New Hampshire, as she searched through an ice cooler of mud and water before plucking two worms for inspection. The key to a good worm, Vogel said, is the wiggle. "It's the squirmy ones that win," she whispered, stretching the newly chosen contestant across her nose. "Some people don't like worms, they think they're gross. I think they're great."

Not everyone at the event was quite as favorable inclined toward the vermicular creatures as Vogel. Even the winners.

"Worms are stupid," said Jonathan Chaplin, a subdued 5 1/2-year-old from McLean who had just been named top worm racer in Fairfax County after Speedy clocked in with a 20-second finish. Chaplin had found Speedy earlier that day under a brick in his backyard. "They move around too much. I don't like them."

What about Speedy? "I don't care about him, I'm going to put him back where I found him."

And Matthew Goldberg? Well, after waiting until the last round of races, Goldberg carefully placed his chosen worm in the middle of the circle. There were five competitors. The steward started the clock. Goldberg's worm never moved. Another one dead.

"I'm just going to have my own races," Goldberg said, picking up the motionless body and moving back toward the shoe box.

"Mommy," he said lifting yet another worm from the treasure box, "I think I've found a good person this time."