Breast cancer survivor Barbara Mitchell hesitated before asking people at the nightclub where she dances to participate in the National Race for the Cure.

When she was growing up, the word "cancer" carried such negative baggage that it was never mentioned as a cause of death in obituaries. The word "breast," she feared, couldn't help but add to people's discomfort.

But yesterday, at the race's starting line downtown, 82 regulars from the Solar Eclipse dance club in Northeast Washington were behind the group's banner, ready to join the crowd of more than 66,000 walkers and runners raising money and consciousness.

Valerie Youmans, a four-year survivor who helped Mitchell organize the nightclub walkers, said she felt gratified at the response.

"It means I am not alone," she said. "It gives you hope, especially when you see survivors who have survived longer than you."

The National Race for the Cure, sponsored by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and held across the nation, is the world's largest 5K race.

It is but one example of the ever-growing number of charities that have discovered the fund-raising potential of offering T-shirts and a course for people who will pay to walk, run or bike.

The National Park Service estimated it issued more than 80 permits last year for such events. And increasingly, charities, particularly smaller ones, seek out suburban venues.

In last year's competitive marathon races nationwide, one of every 10 marathon finishers was running for a charity, according to a track and field association. So many marathoners-with-a-cause joined last year's Marine Corps race that registration closed out months early -- infuriating serious runners who were blocked out.

Big money is involved. Last year's Race for the Cure series raised more than $30 million. The Leukemia Society of America's marathon races raised $38 million. The March of Dimes raised $79 million this year in the 1,450 communities where it conducts walks.

Controversy is rarely far from a big pile of money. Races tend to be expensive to orchestrate. Planning for the Race for the Cure 2000 will begin tomorrow morning, a full year in advance.

For-profit companies often organize races for charity, raising questions in some cases about who benefits most -- the charity or the companies.

The Race for the Cure nets about 60 percent of the money it raises by runners fees, pledges and corporate sponsorship. That falls within the standards of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which recommends that expenses for fund-raisers consume less than 35 percent of the profits.

But the figure doesn't include in-kind contributions, and the value of volunteer labor. More than 2,300 people volunteered for just Washington's Race for the Cure.

"It would be much easier and more productive if people, instead of running or riding, would write out a check to the charity," said Rob Wilson, a marketing executive who has overseen major races for corporate clients.

The "quasi volunteers" pressed into service by employers who agree to help, he said, represent a major hidden cost of such races.

That time, and training time, would be better spent in service to the charity or those who suffer from the diseases, Wilson said.

"Instead of riding a bike in an AIDS race, why not go to the hospital and visit an AIDS patient and become their friend while they cope with dying?" he asked.

But it was a rhetorical question. In fact, most racers are new to the charities, and wouldn't have gotten involved at all without the race. Moreover, an exhilarating race sometimes prompts a deeper commitment.

"At the end of the day," said Wilson, who looked at both sides of the issue, "a lot of good comes out of these activities." Wilson, vice president of Bustin and Co., a Dallas-based business development firm, said, "It's a feel-good exercise."

As he crossed the finish line, Larry Beasley, president and chief executive of the Solar Eclipse nightclub, summed up that sentiment, saying, "It's a real good feeling to get a group of people out for this cause."

His club specializes in oldies and "hand dancing," a largely African American dance form that involves a male lead signaling steps to his partner through subtle movements of wrist and fingers.

Youmans said her main goal in involving dancers was to "raise awareness." Breast cancer is the leading cause of death for women ages 35 to 54 and hits the African American community particularly hard.

The toll of the disease among Solar Eclipse dancers was clear when a photographer invited survivors to line up for a group shot. Eleven women formed two lines. And most of them wore buttons or placards announcing they were running in memory of a mother, aunt, sister or friend.

Indeed, raising awareness of a cause -- and of a charity and corporate sponsor -- is often a primary goal of races.

Organizers of the AIDS Rides have come under attack for their bike-a-thons, for which expenses have been as high as 93 percent of proceeds. (Last year, charities got about half of the money raised in the AIDS Ride that ended in Washington.)

But there is an incalculable benefit to the AIDS cause, organizers say, when thousands of people ride through the countryside, making their presence and attitude felt in small towns where AIDS is rarely discussed.

The first walks in the United States began in the 1960s as a response to President John F. Kennedy's appeal for the development of youth leadership.

"We would get a letter from some teenager saying she wanted to do a walk in her community, and we'd send out a packet about how to organize it," said Michael Seltzer, who in the 1960s was a field director for the American Freedom from Hunger Foundation.

Young people did everything. In one year, teenagers raised more than $250,000 -- then an awesome sum.

"People were dumbfounded by the success, and it soon brought competition," said Seltzer, acting chairman of the Nonprofit Management Program at New School University in New York. The March of Dimes, he said, was the first to copy the idea, in 1970.

"Races are getting continuously more sophisticated, attracting high-powered consulting and organizing firms, and bringing in high-level corporate sponsors," Seltzer said.

People increasingly feel they have less time for regular volunteer work, he added, and races "provide an outlet for their civic impulses."

The events also help create a good climate for government support of a cause. A powerful statement is made as tens of thousands, all dressed in identical T-shirts, stream past the Capitol. Vice President Gore ran yesterday, as did many teams from congressional offices.

Dozens of embassies also fielded teams that sometimes included ambassadors. The Canadian Embassy was host to the runners at an after-race party. "Dress: Racewear," the invitation read, in a gentle mocking of diplomatic decorum.

The events also offer a comforting step in the grieving process.

Ten-year-old Lauren Ellis walked carrying a sign honoring her mother, Ellen Ellis, who died when Lauren was 7. "Her daddy is running," said Martha Ellen Bodie, Lauren's grandmother and Ellen's mother.

At the race's end, the Solar Eclipse members gathered in Freedom Plaza at 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and a club disc jockey plopped CDs into boomboxes.

Under a blue sky, they danced, and celebrated life.

CAPTION: Joanne Beasley, left, and Betty Smith, from the Solar Eclipse dance club, hug before the Race for the Cure.

CAPTION: Maria Furr-Hutcheson participated in the Race for the Cure in memory of her mother, Barbara Wallace-Furr.