Over the years, the Beltsville marathon has become known for attracting only the most rugged of runners. Its three loop course over the rolling hills and steep upgrades of the Agricultural Research Center is one challenge. The weather is the other.

Let the sunshine and balmy-day crowd in the thousands attend the Marine Corps marathon. Beltsville gets only the true runners, it is said. It is so tough that only 372 showed up to run last Sunday.

But I am wondering about this "true-runner" talk. From what I saw last Sunday, as well as heard from others, the running community is lucky not to have had a disaster at Beltsville. Someone could have died from hypothermia -- the lethal and often sudden ailment brought on by the body's inability to cope with the cold.

Officials of the race -- membrs of D.C. Road Runners Club -- said they counted at least 15 cases of hypothermia or frostbite. But seeing one person in the actual throes is a frightening moment.

"He was shivering uncontrollably, he was crying like a baby, he couldn't talk beyond mumbles and grunts and I don't think he knew what planet he was on," said a woman who did what she could for a runner who stumbled into the lodge at the finish line. "He had no warm clothing. His friends were holding it for him, but he didn't know where they were. I was about to go find some clothing, but that meant unpinning his number from his wet shirt. But he wouldn't allow that. He needed his number to get his T-shirt. It was really pathetic. This character might have died and there he was worrying about a T-shirt."

All this, it must be added, happened to a runner who stopped after two loops.

Alarmed about those on their third loop, this merciful woman and her husband went to their cars to drive out on the course to offer aid to the remaining runners. This was about 3 1/2 to four hours into the marathon.

At the 20-mile mark, they saw a numbed runner who was covered with frozen sweat, who could hardly speak and looked at the world through glazed-over eyes.

He was asked if he wanted to get in the car and ride in. Not him. He was determined to finish, even, apparently, if it was his last step before eternity that carried him over the finish line. But this fellow did accept an apple -- his lone concession to mortality.

Other runners were in equally dangerous states. The weather itself was 10 degrees, which was enough to bring on a brain-chill factor that disposed of all dispassionate thought.

Many runners went to Beltsville planning on just one loop. These were the sane ones, though unfortunately sanity isn't contagious, least of all among runners.

I don't mean to be judgmental -- I might have been in the pack myself except for an ankle injury the day before the race. But this year's Beltsville experience is another example of the dangers of the die-hard mentality that intones I'm going to finish no matter what.

The marathon mystique has been celebrated to the point that pulling out of a race is somehow seen as unmanly, disgraceful and something so shameful that one will be forever marked with that most loathesome word in all of America's sports, "quitter."

Such thinking is nonsense, obviously.Every intelligent runner has had days when gutting it out is not only absurd but also self-destructive. A tired body creates a fresh injury. This is true not only in the cold weather of a Beltsville but in the warm weather that marked last November's Marine Corps marathon. Dehydrated die-hards finished that race who should have had the self-control to drop out at 15 miles.

Until now, race directors have been able to stay clear of the question of whether they should retain the power to disqualify a runner who obviously is doing harm to himself by continuing. But it is not a simple matter of the individual's rights. "Look at those nuts out there killing themselves" is already a standard assessment of marathoners. Why verify it?

Until now, race directors have been lucky. It is known that runners are entering marathons who are doing it on a lark or dare, who haven't trained and are just putting themselves through the torture to be able to forever boast "I did it." Twenty-six miles gives them lifetime mileage to be bores.

Personally, I have more respect for men or women who run one or two miles a day but keep their sanity intact than for do-or-die characters who can do a marathon but loosen their headscrews in the process. The former people respect their bodies. They are likely to have a reverence for other parts of life as well.

At Beltsville, 559 entered, 372 showed up and 242 finished. We have no way of knowing the thoughts of those who did or didn't run, but I hold in high regard the race official who began telling the frozen-brained that they would get the hallowed T-shirt whether they finished or not. Some loves may have been saved by revising the policy.

One of these days we will go to a runner's funeral and see the embalmed corpse decked out in a marathon T-shirt. And how neatly the mourners can say to each other: Good old Harry, he finished the marathon and the marathon finished him.