He even turned off the radio, hoping its small ration of electricity might be the added jolt that would spring the van into life. Nope. The two-ton hunk of useless metal just sat there, its battery drawing juice from a tow truck hired for a rescue. "I pay the dude $5 and the damned van still won't start," said Fred Sowerby. He twisted another dial to be sure the windshield wipers weren't on.

Fred Sowerby is the coach, middle-distance runner and van driver for the D.C. Striders' big-time track team. By airplane, Washington-to-New York takes 45 minutes, and the train needs may be three hours. It was 5 o'clock Friday afternoon when Sowerby's van refused to go. Eight hours later, in three cars, 10 of the Striders' world-class athletes unloaded on 8th Avenue to spend the night in $2 hotel rooms with no heat.

They came here for last night's United States Olympic Invitational Track and Field Meet at Madison Square Garden. It's an honor to be asked to the affair. By 8:11 p.m. Friday, though, the Striders were still in Washington, and one of their stars, quarter-miler Maurice Peoples, said, "ah, another episode in the adventures of the D.C. Striders. We ain't going in no plane, ain't going in no train, we are going in my 747 luxury Volkswagen Dasher! Man, I ain't tellin' nobody how I got to the track meet this week."

Sowerby, Peoples, sprinters Clarence Musgrove and Frieda Nichols and an overweight jogger waited in the lobby of a downtown bank for Dr. Delano Meriwether, the suspendered-swimsuit sprinter. Nichols pointed out the door and said, "Hey, there's a van. Let's take that dude's van."

Peoples shook his head, laughing, "Telephone van.We don't mess with the telephone man. Telephone puts you under the jail."

About then, a bizarre figure loomed in the darkness of the street. Long, skinny legs protruded from a knee-length, black coat. The feet seemed to move on rails three feet apart, as if the figure walked with a foot on either side of a chasm. Hunched over, the figure carried a grocery sack.

"It's Doc," Peoples said. "Tell by that walk."

Meriwehter had a sack of fruit and newspapers. Standing behind Peoples' Dasher, he asked a good question. "How many cars?"

"One," Peoples said, and Meriwether dissolved in glee. Six people in a car built for four dwarfs. So Frieda Nichols sat on Sowerby's lap in the back seat and stretched her legs across two other guys and the short ride to Sowerby's apartment was uneventful, save for the moment a man in a Jeep rolled down his window to tell Merriwether, "Your door is open." Merriwether said thanks and clutched his grocery sack tighter.

At Sowerby's apartment, the 10 athletes sat around for an hour and a half. There was no apparent reason for the delay. Every so often, Merriwether would look up from his newspaper and say, "Everybody ready?" No one ever answered him and Meriwether went back to reading.

Three cars left Washington at 8:36. Part of a 200-member track club financed by private and public donations of some $60,000 this year, these Striders are runners without a track, training wherever they are invited. Catholic and Georgetown universities allow them on their outdoor, wooden tracks. Sometimes the Striders train in winter by running up the stairs of an apartment building.

"Last year we didn't train outdoors under 40 degrees," said Nichols, 27, a native of Barbados who works for her country's embassy. "But this year we have run in the 20s." She wrinkled her nose in disgust. "I have a circulation problem in my toes and they get so cold I cannot feel my feet when I run."

"Catholic had ice on the track," Meriweather said, "and that is not conducive to running."

"Doc has been known to have trouble in the turns," said Peoples, a comedian. "On the ice, he goes whoosh." And Peoples swept his hand high, producing the image of this skinny figure sailing off the banked track and over the horizon.

Some place north of Baltimore, Peoples talked about himself. He is 27, grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., attended Arizona State and now works for the D.C. Special Olympics. "The reason I was successful in track was because I was so skinny."

At 6-foot and 133 pounds in the 11th grade, Peoples was the butt of jokes. So he outran and outjumped them. He did 59-feet-3 in the triple jump, 6-8 in the fastest quarter ever. He was on the high jump, 4:21 in the mile. Then, going on a weightlifting program, he grew to 168 pounds in a year and became a quarter-miler who would, in 1973, run a 43.1 leg on a sprint relay, the U.S. Olympic team in 1972, but didn't compete because the mile-relay team withdrew when two members were suspended. In '76, he pulled up lame in the Olympic Trials final, missing a spot by two-hundredths of a second.

"I'm going to be in Moscow in '80," Peoples said. His Dasher passed the exit to Dover, Del. The indoor season now under way is not important to Peoples other than as a break in the boredom of winter training. "Running indoors is hard, unless you're 'the chairman of the boards,' like Fred calls himself, and you know all the secrets."

Fred Swerby, "29 and I feel like 19," works in the credit collection department of American Security Bank. A native of Antigua who graduated from Murray (Ky.) State, he represented his country in the '76 Olympics, but couldn't run because of an injury. He has won the U.S. national championship at 600 yards indoors, enabling him to answer his office phone, "Fred Sowerby, national champion."

Swerby has an explanation for his success indoors and an inconsistency outdoors. "I Like to please the crowd," he said. "And indoors, the crowd is right there. You can hear them all the way round. I like that. Motivation."

That's at 600 yards, seemingly his best distance, but outdoors at 440 he has trouble. "Every year I get one quarter in 45-something," he said. "Then I go after 44 flat."

"He gets 45-something and then he don't think no more," Peoples said.

"It's not that I don't think no more. I run 45.6, say. Another 45.6 gets me nothing." Then Sowerby laughed at himself."They call me good coach, dumb runner."

The Dasher pranced past the Susquehanna River at 10:03.

"Where's Doc?" Peoples said. "I told you, the way DOc drives, he don't go slow," Sowerby said. "He's probably in New York by now. If he gets a ticket, the police they don't bother him. 'Oh, I'm Doc Meriwether and they have an outbreak of Russian flu in New Jersey. I'm in a hurry.'"

The 10 Striders, six of them Olympians, came out of the Lincoln Tunnel at 12:57 a.m. They stopped at the New Yorker Hotel four minutes later. "This is a weird place," Peoples said. Clarence Musgrove said, "In the rooms, it's so cold you can see your breath. For $2, you don't get no heat."

Across the street, there was Madison Square Garden. In 18 hours, the Striders would run.