The drama of today's 81st Boston Marathon came not at the finish line, nor on the series of four slopes that comprise the legendary "Heartbreak Hill." It came at Newton Lower Falls, about 16 miles into the 26-mile, 385-yard course from the western suburb of Hopkinton to the Prudential Center in downtown Boston.

Newton Lower Falls is not celebrated in marathon lore, of which there is plenty. It is only about 60 feet above sea level, the lowest elevation on the course, and it proved to be rock bottom for prerace favorite Bill Rodgers, who had set the course record of 2:09:55 while winning in 1975.

It was here, a couple of miles before the hills that usually provide the ultimate test of mind and muscle that determines the champion, that Rodgers staggered and fell far behind Canadian Olympian Jerome Drayton, who didn't even have to kick to take a massive lead that held up for the victory.

After running practically within a hot breath of one another for nearly 10 miles, alone in front of the madding crowd that included 2,933 official starters, Drayton opened a lead of perhaps 10 yards on Rodgers at Wellesley Hills, another of the fashionable western Boston suburbs through which America's oldest and most prestigious road race wends.

Rodgers' wife, Ellen, ran out of the roadside masses at Wellesley Hills and handed a squeeze bottle of water to her 29-year-old husband, a Newington Conn., native who now teaches exceptional children at a school in Everett, Mass. He took a couple of gulps and squirted a little rivulet through his already tousled and matted blond hair.

At that stage Rodgers, who was once described as having a running style so smooth that he looks like maple syrup flowing, looked as if he would duel the more powerful, mechanical Drayton all the way. A finish worthy of the festive spirit of the race everyone knows simply as "Boston" seemed in prospect.

But shortly thereafter Rodgers, who had hoped to atone for his disappointing, 48th-place finish in the Olympics last summer at Montreal, stumbled to the side of the road and stopped, without warning, apparently hampered either by the recurrence of a recent knee injury or some other ailment.

Drayton, 32, a 5-foot-9, 129-pounder from Toronto who wears dark glasses when he runs to protect eyes extremely sensitive to sunlight, had been looking over his shoulder to see how many steps he had on Rodgers. Suddenly his only rival was gone, and Drayton seemed as surprised as anyone.

Rodgers - who laid a claim to being America's top marathoner by beating 1972 Olympic champ and 1976 runnerup Frank Shorter in last October's New York Marathon with a 2:10:10 clocking, second only to his 1975 time here for an American marathon - started up again ran a few more miles, but he was painful to watch.

The maple syrup had turned to vinegar. Every stride looked torturous. Rodgers eventually dropped out on the hills, leaving Drayton unchallenged. It became a one-man race.

Drayton, three-time winner of the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan, which he ressolutely claims is the best in the world, crossed the finish line in 2 hours 14 minutes 46 seconds. The time would have been better, he said, had he had some competition.

Miki Gorman, 41, a 5-foot, 90-pound China-born housewife from Los Angeles, finished first among the 12 women in the field in a relatively slow 2:48:44. She had worn the traditional champion's laurel wreath, presented by Boston Mayor Kevin White once before, in 1974.

The women's championship was determined in much the same way as the men's. Gorman was considered the No. 2 contender behind defending champ Kim Merritt of the University of Wisconsin. They ran together early, but Gorman pulled away when Meritt had physical problems that forced her out of this exhausting test of will and endurance.

Gorman did not feel well. Like Drayton, she was jostled at the start - "I was afraid I would be killed," she said of the opening stampede that has been likened to a cattle crossing - and she felt heavy in the 74-degree heat that fried her brian and left her stomach feeling icy and queasy.

"Usually I don't feel that bad. I had a hard time," she said. "Fifty times I never trailed and led second place Marilyn Bevans of Baltimore across the finish line by 2 1/2 minutes.

Bob Hall of Belmont, Mass., topped the seven wheelchair marathoners who left the starting line 15 minutes before noon, 15 minutes ahead of the runners. His time was an impressive 2:40:40.

The route was lined with hundreds of thousands of spectators, the biggest crowd ever for an event that regularly attracts more onlookers than any other sporting spectacle in the U.S. They lend a pinic and sometimes a carnival atmosphere to this fixture every Patriot's Day - a legal holiday in Massachusetts commemorating, so the story goes, the 26-mile retreat of 300 Redcoats to their Boston garrison after being routed by colonials at Lexington and Concord in 1775.

In the end, the race was more bizarre than dramatic. Consider the following:

Drayton, who was born Peter Buniak (he changed his name in 1968 because, he says, it was difficult for business associates to remember) of Ukrainian stock and migrated to Canada from West Germany, blasted the organization of the race after his victory and wowed that he would never come back.

Unheralded Veli Balli, from the Eastern Turkish town of Mush, came through the pack strongly on the hills and finished in 2:15:55, 58 seconds behind Drayton. Balli, who does not speak English, did not know Drayton was in front of him and thought he had won the race.

The No. 3, 4, and 5 finishers were all relative outsiders: Brian Maxwell of Berkeley (2:17:21), fellow California Ron Wayne of Alameda (2:18:18), and Vinnie Fleming of Boston (2:18:37).

Tom Fleming of Bloomfield Hills, N.J., the No. 2 finisher here twice and a good hot-weather runner who was considered a threat when the day dawned practically cloudless, was sixth in 2:18:46.

Jack Fultz, the 1976 Georgetown graduate who won here a year ago, was never among the front runners but conserved his strength wisely and made a late break to finish ninth in 2:20:24, only 25 seconds off the time he won with a year ago in record 100-degree heat.

Drayton, who describes himself as "a very private person," said he knew he had the race won when he pulled away from Rogers. "It wasn't like him. He just gave up," said Drayton, sixth in the marathon at Montreal last summer. "I was kind of disappointed."

As he sat in a barber's chair in a shop underneath Prudential Center, shoes off and wreath adorning his weary brow, Drayton engaged in an occasionally acrimonious post race debate with Jock Semple, the strong-willed 72-year-old Scotsman who is one of the driving forces of "Boston."

Drayon complained bitterly about the size and unruliness of the field; the claustrophobic start at Hayden Row, just off Hopkinton's Village Green; the lack of official water tables along the route; the loose crowd control.