One of the delights of distance running is the association with citizens of uncommon courage. When you are lined up for a run of 26.2 miles and you look over and see someone with no legs about to make the trip, you say to yourself that there is someone special.

I am talking about wheelchair competitors. Not many of them are drawn to the sport: less than 100 throughout the country and less than 20 in the national wheelchair marathon that is integrated with the Boston marathon.

As much as they deserve to be in the news any time they show up for a race, wheelchair marathoners are now caught up in a debate over whether they are suitable competitors for distance running. The New York Human Rights Commission recently concluded four days of hearings, taking testimony from the handicapped themselves - who want in - and James Fixx and Fred Lebow, the director of the New York marathon, who want them out. A final decision is pending.

I side with the handicapped. If the wheelchair is what they have been forced to use for transportation, then the wheels of their vehicle are actually their feet and legs. Why should either an accident of birth, or an accident on the highway or a war zone, disbar someone from sharing the roadway with the able during a marathon?

Lebow and Fixx talk about the safety hazards of a wheelchair runner slamming into a two-legged runner. In his testimony before the commission, Lebow said that a wheelchair car, go as fast as 35 or 40 mph on a downhill slope Fixx told of running in the 1977 Boston marathon. He started down a hill "and a wheelchair went by me at such a velocity and so close that I was more frightened than I have ever been by the crush of running bodies around me."

Whatever images of wild Hot Rod Harrys conjured up by Lebow and Fixx, neither could cite any crashes. Their argument would be less watery if they could cite just one instance of a wheelchair decking someone.

Bill Rodgers, who employs a wheelchair runner in one of his shops in Boston, came before the commission. He told of running in mixed races and having no fear at all of being hit. He said that he knew of no other runners who were afraid. Nor did he know of any accidents in which anyone had ever been hurt.

The trouble with the safety argument used against the handicapped - aside from the absence of crash statistics - is that this is the one group of citizens who assuredly do have an appreciation for the rules of the road. A spill from a wheelchair is considerably more of a calamity than the fall of an able person. I can't imagine a wheelchair competitor so compulsive to shave a few seconds off his time as to careen recklessly downhill out of control and risk his own safety or anyone else's.

The philosophical argument against integrated events is that if a foot race is going to be a foot race then you have to use your feet. What's to keep out buffoons on skateboards, roller skates, unicycles or warehouse dollies? The answer isn't hard.You keep them out with a no-buffoon clause in the entry form. Skateboards and the like are recreational vehicles used by the healthy. Their legs are able but they want to use wheels, anyway. The handicapped lack this option.

Lebow's opposition to integrating his marathon is puzzling. Two years ago, only the intervention of a judge (who happened to be a runner) cleared the way for wheelchair competitors in New York. But Lebow is kindly toward entrants with many other disabilities. He tells of "runners with one leg, runners with multiple sclerosis, runners with limbs missing, diabetics, all kinds of disabilities." If his race can be democratized to this noble degree, what is the hangup with wheelchairs.

Bob Hall, who was disabled from polio in his right leg and who finished third in the 1978 Boston Marathon in 2:35, has little respect for race organizers who want to keep out. "A wheelchair," he says, "is necessary to our way of our living. We do everything else with it, why not the marathon?"

The discrimination against Hall and his handicapped brothers and sisters comes at a moment when the disabled are struggling to get their rights accepted by the Department of Transportation. The specter of waste and extravagancy is being raised by those who opposed giving the handicapped full access to public vehicles like buses and trains. The meassage to the wheelchair community is one of arrogance: tough luck on you. We're fighting inflation and we can't go overboard on the disabled.

In marathons, the issue is not money. The opposition to integrated races comes from a confused mix of fears about safety and worries about diluting the sport's purity.