It started out as a marathon, but it turned into a celebration along the way.

As close to 6,000 people ran, trotted, jogged and walked their way through the course of the third annual Marine Corps marathon, another 38,000 or so clustered along the way to watch, cheer and cajole.

The youngest runner was 9, the oldest 72. And as they ran the cockscrew course for 26 miles and 385 yards, across the Potomac, along the Mall and in and out of the monuments, they managed to divert the city's attention if only for a morning. At spots, such as the entrance to East Potomac Park, the spectators crowded in so close to the course than the runners were forced to move almost single file.

On the sidelines near the Lincoln Memorial - Mile Nine - Gerry Drescher was waiting for her husband Mike, a Woodbridge insurance salesman running in his fourth marathon. "There's a feeling you get inside when you work together for something and it takes a lot of pain to accomplish it," she said.

"All these people are a part of this, even if they don't know anyone who ran," she added. "You watch, you empathize. You can't help it."

In her arms, she was carrying two squeeze bottles filled with Gatorade, and a few towels that she periodically soaked in the nearest fountain. When Mike passed by, she would hand him a towel and a bottle, run beside him until he finished sipping, then take the bottle back and move down the course to their next rendezvous.

For the runners and their friends and families, the day was a challenge - a challenge to finish, to beat a certain time, or perhaps just to survive.

To the motorists uninformed of the presence of the marathoners, the race meant long minutes of being trapped in traffic as police blocked off intersections along the route to let the runners go by.

While some motorists fumed as they waited to cross the Mall or other portions of the race route, others seemed content to sit back and watch.

Although the runners might have preferred it a little cooler the day was gorgeous, a bright Indian Summer sun lighting up the array of outfits that melded together at the Iwo Jima Memorial as the 9 a.m. starting time approached.

The start was almost perfect, with the runners spreading themselves across the Jefferson-Davis highway and waving and yelling at spectators who gathered on overpasses to cheer them on.

"They look like a bunch of different colored grasshoppers, just going up and down, up and down," said 10-year-old Katie Merchant as the runners passed at the one-mile mark. "I hope they all finish."

By the time the leaders crossed the Key Bridge into the District of Columbia, the eight mile mark - the runners were no longer bunched. And the smiles and waves they had given as they started had turned into looks of determination and pain.

While the runners were beginning to suffer, so was traffic, even though the runners generally stayed in two lanes across the bridge and through the city.

But some of the police directing traffic saw a certain justice in it all. "I guess this is one thing you can't knock or complain about," said one U.S. Park Police officer as he stopped traffic at 16th and Constitution - about 11 miles into race. "You have to admire the guts these people have."

The Marines who led the runners along the way in a jeep and set up eight first aid stations for them seemed to appreciate what the runners were doing as much as anyone.

They whistled and and cheered as the leaders went by and joined the spectators in yelling encouragement. When eventual winner Scott Eden went by the last few Marines on the last mile, each of them reached out to grasp his hand.But for other spectators, like Gerry Drescher, Maria Sala, who accompanied her friend Jo Anne Belinsky from Brooklyn, it also was a job.

"I have to make sure Jo Anne has everything she needs, water, Gatorade, changes of equipment, whatever," Sala said as she waited on Constitution Avenue. "I've also got to try and let her know where she is time wise.

"Most of all though I try to give her moral support. When you're doing something like this, that little bit of extra encouragement can make a big difference."

Sala, like many of the runners and their relatives, did not find the windy, often hilly course, ideal. The scenic route was not necessarily the ideal route.

"When you're running you never notice the scenery, anyway," said Arnold Mausser, whose twin brother Fletcher finished in less than three hours. "When you're running a marathon all you're thinking about is time and pain. You don't notice anything around you."

Another runner was more succinct. "Scenery?" he said, "Oh yeah, I saw 26 miles of black asphalt."