The way Bill Rodgers finished today's New York City Marathon, smiling and waving to the crowd in Central Park as his blond hair fluttered in a pleasant autumn breeze, it was impossible to tell that he had slept only in brief fits the previous three nights and fretted the final five miles about recurring stiffness in his legs and a storm welling up in his stomach.

The true guttiness of his effort was revealed in his dwindling speed for the last quarter of the race, after he psychologically kayoed and pulled away from his only real challenger, dark horse Garry Bjorklund at about 20 miles. And in the unmistakeable relief that was mingled with Rodgers' postrace jubilation.

"I died the last four or five miles. My lungs were strong but my legs were tight and I felt really bad. Garry and I really had a knock-your-head duel down First Avenue (approximately 16-20 miles into the five-borough race). It was tough, and that's what killed me later," said Rodgers, 29, who consolidated his claim as the premier U.S. marathoner by winning this newly important event by a wide margin for the second consecutive year.

The 5-foot-8 1/2, 29-pound native of Newington, Conn, who now lives in Melrose, Mass., just north of Boston, covered the 26-mile, 385-yard course, which winds across five bridges and through diverse neighborhoods of a city that has embraced this race passionately the last two years, in 2 hours 11 minutes 28.2 seconds.

That was the fastest time for a marathon this year, bettering the 2:12:47 Rodgers ran in Amsterdam in May, five weeks after being humbled in the Boston Marathon. Rodgers dropped out after 20 miles in Boston, where he had won in record time in 1975, done in the heat that tortures him more than marathoners.

Last year he ran 2:10:09.6 here - in drizzly, high 40s weather that compared unfavorably with the glorious sunshine and temperatures in the 50s today - and beat Frank Shorter by 3:02.8.

That was the second best time ever for an American marathoner, the best being Rodgers' 2:09:55 under ideal conditions in Boston in 1975. With today's result, the former teacher of retarded and emotionally disturbed children owns the three fastest clockings by an American, in the three fastest marathons on U.S. soil.

Rodgers crossed the mobbed finish line at the Tavern On The Green nearly 2 1/2 minutes ahead of Jerome Drayton, 32, the Canadian Olympian who always runs in dark glasses and won the Boston Marathon in April. Drayton, who was born Peter Buniak in postwar Ukrainia and changed his name after emigrating from West Germany, surged from seventh to second in the last two miles and clocked 2:13:52.2.

"I was with Rodgers for 14 or 15 miles and then I gradually began to lose him," said Drayton, who was not really in contention when Rodgers and Bjorklund acted out the denouncement of this race along First Avenue from 61st Street in the fashionable East Side pub district to 125th Street in Harlem.

Englishman Chris Stewart, who challenged Rodgers for 15 miles last year beoore falling back at the Queensboro Bridge and finishing third behind the champion and Shorter, ended up in the same position this year in 2:13:56.8.

Esa Tikkanen of Finland was fourth (2:14:32.2), followed by Bjorklund (2:15:16.4), who was running only his second marathon, and Randy Thomas (2:15:51.1) a Greater Boston Track Club buddy of Rodgers, who was running his first.

Asked before the race how he felt, Thomas said cheerfully, "Naive . . . I don't know what to expect."

Shorter, 29, the Yale alumnus who won the Olympic marathon at Munich in 1972 and was second to East German Waldemar Cierpinski in Montreal in 1976, was never a factor and dropped out after 16 miles. He had not been able to train properly because of an inflamed and swollen left ankle for which he had a cortisone shot early in the week.

Don Kardong of Seattle, who finished fourth in last year's Olympics, was 11th today in 2:17:09.2. Lasse Viren, the enigmatic Finn who took Olympic gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in 1972, repeated in 1976, and then finished fifth in his first attempt at the marathon at Montreal, was 17th in 2:19:33.1.

Miki Gorman, 42, of Los Angeles, so tiny at 5-1 and 85 pounds that she looked in danger of being blown off each of the bridges, earned a laurel wreath as the first woman finisher for the second straight year. The two-time (1974-77) Boston Marathon women's champ was the 190th person across the line, in 2:43:10.

"I don't care about my time as long as I win," said Gorman, the cover subject of this month's women Sports Magazine. "I know I would't beat my best time (2:39:11) because it was much warmer today than last year and I haven't done any interval training in three months."

Gorman and Kim Merritt, the University of Wisconsin grad student who won here in 1975 and in Boston last year, traded the lead several times. But Gorman was the stronger finisher, looking back to see Merritt for the last time at 24 miles.

Merritt, who set the American women's record last month, was second in 2:46:03, with Gayle Barron third in 2:52:14.

A total of 4,823 athletes - including one who is blind, one with an artificial leg, and one in a wheelchair - started the race, more than in any previous U.S. marathon. The New York City race is just 8 years old, and gained world class status only last year when it shifted from a Central Park affair to a true "run through the city," but it is already a major event.

With a budget of more than $100,000 from five sponsors, the organizers attracted virtually every top marathoner except Cierpinski. The field both exhilarated and worried Rodgers, who was carsick en route from Boston to New York early in the week and slept "only a few hours, and not very restfully" the three nights before the race.

"I had been running well in 10 or 12-mile road races, but a marathon is a different thing," the sensitive but outgoing Wesleyan graduate said. "I trained fairly high mileage, but this year was different from last because I did a lot of racing. It was a gamble. I felt kind of tired, but I'm just glad the gamble worked.

"Shorter kept telling me, 'Calm down, calm down,' because I was really nervous," he added. "It was a big race, I was the defending champion, but I didn't feel that well. My legs were stiff. They stretched out at about 18 miles and felt best when I opened up 100 yards over Bjorklund there, but then got tight again."

A brass band was playing lively marches as the huge, colorful field lined up for the start at the toll plaza on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

This must be the most futuristic and breathtaking beginning of any event in sports, straight out across the massive stanchiens and cables of the two-mile bridge that spans "The Narrows" of the Upper Bay, linking Staten Island with Brooklyn.

It was a lovely scene today, with the sun glistening on the water and a few beige-tinged, distant clouds on a pale watercolor horizon. Trawlers, barges and sailboats seemed to be at attention as a cannon boomed sending the pack of runners swarming over the bridge, spreading out like an amoeba. Eight helicopters hovered overhead and some passed at bridge level or below, so the runners actually looked down on them.

By the exit ramp, a cluster of about 30 runners had gone to the head of the class and by the time they reached 4th Avenue in Brooklyn where a bagpipe band in full regalia was on hand, the front-running cluster was down to about 18.

At six miles, the leaders were Englishman Ian Thompson (whose career best of 2:09:12 is second only to the 1969 world record of Australian Derek Clayton - 2:08:33.6), 1973-75 champ Tom Fleming, and Frenchman Fernand Kolbeck.

By the 10-mile mark, they had given way to a new trio: Colombian Victor Mora, Irishman Neal Cusack (a former Boston champ) and Chris Stewart. They maintained a small lead past the halfway point, the Pulaski Bridge, but the other world-class wolves at their heels were closing in.