Write about the first six miles, says the chief, which is a very good idea, because I never made it to the last six of Sunday's Marine Corps Marathon.

But that's another story, too depressing to even contemplate a day later. So let's begin at the start of all this marathon madness - a run with a friend Bruce Davis, one nippy winter night, when we first decided to set out goal for 26 miles, 385 yards.

Ever since, Davis and several other neighbours Gary McGaughey, Sven Thulene and his 12-year-old son Chris, began to get serious about our runs through the hills and woods of Bull Run Mountain near Haymarket, Va.

Naturally, we called ourselves the Bull Runners. For months, we put in our miles regularly, talked of little else but shin splints, New Balance shoes and the miracles of Vaseline. We ever gathered Friday night to load up on spahetti, garlic bread and beer, a carbohydrate binge for those last critical miles.

We convoyed toward the race in four cars with our families Sunday morning, only to abandon women and children a mile from the start when it became obvious our legs would beat the traffic backup faster than our cars.

We arrived 45 minutes before the start and, of course, headed straight to the port-a-johns. But then, so did everyone else and the Marines had supplied only 40 for 7,000 runners, and no latrines.

Twenty minutes before the race, it became obvious we'd never make it. The first (and only) sprint of the day followed, straight for the woods. We were not alone.

McGaughey had gone off to find another friend so the Thulenes, Davis and I headed for the start. Our game plan was simple: We wanted only to finish this our first marathon, and try to run at 10-minute miles.

We also were determined to run together, and as the National Anthem came over the loudspeaker, we solemnly shook hands and waited for the howitzer that would start the race.

At the blast, everyone around us let out a mighty cheer, but no one moved. Suddenly, we surged forward, walking slowly, stopping a moment, then trotting up to the starting line, two minutes after the gun had sounded.

Up ahead, I saw nothing but bobbing heads. The leaders were almost a half-mile in the distance as we began for real, and my heart was pounding so quickly, the first thought of injury filtered through my head. The injury? Heart attack.

We hit the first mile in 10 minutes, just as we had planned, and the fun began. I began looking all around me, at the lady who ran in pantyhose, the old fellow who started in a sweat suit and quickly stripped at the pretty blond with the perfectly coifed hair. It didn't last.

At three miles, we passed the first dropout. At four I heard the first retch of the day.

We were all still together, chatting on about Maryland's loss to Pennstate (Davis took it very badly), looking for wives and children (they never did beat traffic to see the start) and generally having a marvelous time.

The course was rather dull at this stage of the race, meandering through a town house development, several high rises and finally around the Pentagon parking lot. Spectators were sparse.

At the five-mile mark, the Marines were manning the first water stop. By the time those of us in the back of the pack arrived, they were out of cups. Fifty people clustered around fourspigots, cursing the military as we fought for a few precious drops that hardly seemed worth it.

At six miles, our wives and children lined the road, providing a wonderful life. My Washington Post T-shirt also attracted a few calls. "Nixon's behind you, go faster," one lady said to me later on down the road.)

At the six miles mark, we still were together, feeling good and rolling nicely.That didn't last.

Chris, the 12-year-old made it to 15 before his little legs wore out. McGaughey's shin splints forced him out at 16. Heat cramps and bleeding blisters got the best of me at 20. Thulene had nothing left and dropped so close and yet so far at 24 miles. My friend Bruce Davis made it to the finish in 4 hours 40 minutes.

I'm going to call him King of the Mountain, at least until next year, when I plan to join him at the end.

Just one other thing. When this weary body finally collapsed in a heap at Hains Point, a Marine sergeant tried to comfort us all. "Don't feel bad," he said, "you made 20, and all you people are winners."

Thanks, Sarge. I needed that. And a new pair of legs.