The Marines are looking for a few good runners.
Say about 8,500. That is the number expected to start the fourth annual Marine Corps Marathon scheduled to begin Sunday at 0900 (9 a.m. civilian time).
The Marines, who seem to like to do things in a big way, are prepared for as many as 10,000 striders to muster at the starting line at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, nearly twice the number (5,800) that started last year.
Scott Eden, a medical student at Duke and the defending champion, has entered the race. Eden, Max White of Alexandria, Phil Camp of San Diego and Michael Hurd of Great Britain are among the top contenders.
Most of the country's marathoners, including Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter, competed two weeks ago in New York City and are passing on the Marine Corps race, which does not pay expense money to the sport's big names. Half the pack Sunday will be first-time marathoners, swelling the field into one of America's largest.
That suits the Marines fine.
"They seem to be fixated on the bigger-is-better syndrome," said Jeff Darman, of Running Times Magazine, a former president of the Road Runners Club of America. "Perhaps they should work on quality, not quantity."
Some runners, who said there was not enough water, or medical or sanitary facilities last year, wonder if the Marines are equipped to handle a field the size of eight infantry battalions.
"They couldn't handle what they had last year," said Bob Armstrong, who handles the logistics for the 10-mile Perrier Cherry Blossom race. "I don't see how they can handle any more."
Marine Capt. Bob Dobson, the race coordinator, admitted, "A lot of runners had a couple of major complaints, and I agree with them.
"We accepted all the critical remarks we got as being legitimate. But we feel we have taken the necessary steps to ensure those same problems don't recur."
Dobson says the Marines have corrected the problems with the water supply that left runners high and dry at the critical 18-mile mark -- so called "wall" territory -- at Hains Point.
"There is an underground water system that runs under the Mall and Hains Point," said Dobson. "We didn't know about it. This year, we'll be able to tap into it." There will be running water available at 8 or 9 stations, he said.
By the time Bruce Davis, a first-timer from Haymarket, Va., reached the first water station at the five-mile mark last year, there were no cups."We had to take cups from the ground, which were crushed," he said. "It was irritating. We lost a lot of time."
"Crushed or not, the cups were a problem. They used two- or three-ounce dentist cups," said Max White, who finished seventh last year. "If you tried to grab it, it would just squish in your hand."
Dobson admitted, "They were horrible. This year, two eight-ounce wax cups for each runner at each station. That's 235,000 cups at $2,600."
Last year, according to Armstrong, "they didn't know what to do with people who had heat exhaustion. At Hains Point, there were no medics."
Dobson says the race organizers have made "their biggest advance in the field of medical facilities." They have assembled a staff that includes 31 physicians, 21 podiatrists, 14 registered nurses and five physiotherapists.
Some of the worst medical problems last year occurred at the finish line, where wobbly and exhausted runners were backed up trying to get processed. The finish line, Dobson said, was too narrow (it is more than twice as wide this year) and the chutes were not straight. "Once we got them to the chutes (there were eitht last year; now there will be 12), we tried to count the individuals," he said. "We were very military, 50 in each chute. We wanted to be able to have them go pick up their certificates with their place on it."
According to Armstrong, people "who had just run 26 miles had to stand around for an hour waiting for someone to finish typing their certificates."
This year, they will be mailed.
An equally personal, and perhaps more pressing problem, was the lack of toilet facilities. Last year, there were 20 port-o-johns at the start. "Fortunately," said Bruce Davis, "there were woods near the start."
The Marines have rented 60 port-o-johns this year. But, as Dobson said, there are never enough.
Davis said he also had trouble getting to the starting line because of traffic jams. "We had to abandon our cars and foof it a mile and a half to the start," he said.
Dobson conceded that parking is a problem around the Iwo Jima Memorial, where the 26-mile, 385-yard race begins and ends (there will be 10,000 parking spaces at the Pentagon and shuttle buses for runners and spectators). But the Marines are not about to make any changes there.
The Iwo Jima Memorial is extremely important to the Marines. Col. James Fowler of the Marine Reserve Division, who designed the course, said, "The point, of course, was to have it start and end with the monument. In any pictures, the Marine Corps presence would be there, and not too subtly."
The impetus for the race was in part to promote physical fitness, for which the Corps is known, and in part to promote the Marines.
After two years under the direction of the Reserves, the regular Marine Corps took over the running of the race. Now D.C. Mayor Marion Barry is making eyes at it, evidence of the success and popularity of the race.
"The race was becoming too large," said Dobson when asked to explain why the regular Corps took over. "The Reserve Division did not have the personnel that they have at the Marine Barracks."
Eight Marines stationed at the barracks work on the race full time; 100 more will be working as guides along the course during the race.
Dobson estimates the cost of the race at $60,000, all of which he says is generated by entry fees ($7.50).
Last year's winner, Eden, said, "It is well-organized from a front-runner's point of view. There are few potholes, no wrong turns and a lot of sightseeing."
Max White calls it "a classic course; a gentle course conducive to record-setting."
Some less-ambitious civilians simply get a kick out of passing a Marine.
Col. Fowler thinks that's fine.
"Just think of those former peace marchers wearing a Marine T-shirt and wearing it with a degree of fervor," he said, smiling. "They wear it at the supermarket and they wear it at Southampton and no one is going to call them militaristic. It's almost a scam, it's so good."