Road running for prize money -- as much as $100,000 a race -- is a giant step closer to the starting line.

Representatives of newly organized race directors and runners will present a proposal to the Athletics Congress within the next week for an open racing circuit in which prize money would be paid to the top finishers.

Fred Lebow, director of the New York City Marathon and head of the new Race Directors Association, and Jim Lillstrom, special adviser to a new runners' organization, are putting the final touches on a proposal for a six- to 12-year circuit that would kick off this fall, offering as much as $100,000 per race.

Lebow and Lillstrom met may 7 with Ollan Cassell, executive director of the Athletics Congress, to discuss the possibilies of open running.

"I expected him to say, 'We can't do it but maybe we can find some loopholes (in the amateur rules),'" Lebow said. "We were both shocked at his reaction. I didn't want to beat around the bush, but I thought he might. But instead, he said, 'No let's go directly for prize money for athletes and take it to the Athletics Congress and the the International Amateur Athletic Federation and see how it can be done legally.'"

Cassell said, "I asked them to put together a proposal regarding a better way to run road racing and to present it to me, as the executive director, and that I would review it with the officers of the Athletics Congress and see if we could support it and take it to the IAAF."

Lillstrom, who emphasized that the runners are not prepared to work outside the system, said, "It's a big step for him (Cassell) to take."

And it is a big step that Lillstrom and Lebow are taking. According to Lebow, in his discusions with potential sponsors of the circuit, Joe Nakash, president of Jordache Enterprises, had agreed to sponsor three races, each offering between $75,000 and $100,000.

"Jordache wanted to put a quarter of a million up for one race," Lebow said, "and I said no. I had been thinking $50,000 to $75,000 per race and they upped it to $100,000."

Lebow also said that he had spoken to Joe Block, vice president of public relations and promotions for Pepsi-Cola and that he too, "expressed strong interest in being part of the circuit."

According to Lebow, interest among race directors also has been high. "Right now, five are solid, eight are very strong, and three or four others are interested in being part of the circuit," Lebow said.

While declining to name the entire cicuit, Lebow said those races included are the Midlands 15-kilometer in Far Hills, N.J., the Diet Pepsi Purchase (N.Y.) 10-kilometer and three Jordache races in Miami, New York and Los Angeles.

Bob Bright, director of the Midland runs, said that Lillstrom had called him Monday night to ask if he was interested "in being part of a circuit and I said I would be, provided it was within the structure of the rules."

"Lillstrom said it would include the Diet Pepsi Purchase 10-kilometer, a couple of ladies' midwinter events, Midlands and the New York Marathon."

Lebow, director of the New York race, said, "I'm not aruling it out. But I doubt it as a matter of practicality.

"I'll have to make a decision," he said. "The proposal doesn't have to name New York. But without New York, it isn't as viable. Right now, New York is not part of the circuit."

Lebow consistently has denied reports that under-the-table prize money totaling about $50,000 was paid to some top finishers in New York last year.

He said he has presented the proposal to the sponsors of the New York Marathon, which include the Great Waters of France Co. (Perrier) and Manufacturers Hanover Trust. They are studying it," he said.

Lebow met Monday with Gordon Davis, New York City's parks commissioner, to discuss the prize-money issue.

"New York is not a one-man operation," Lebow said.

Lebow said he expected a New York race to be included in what he called "the one-year experiment" even if the marathon is not. "I would say 10 kilometers would be the shortest event, and perhaps a half-marathon the longest. I feel every strongly that we'll have at least eight events; most will be established, two or three may be new."

While Lebow and Lillstrom are organizing in the United States, Serge Arsenault, director of the Montreal Iinternational Marathon, is in England to present his plan for an international running circuit to John Holt, the head of the IAAF. Arsenault's plan calls for awarding consulting jobs with sponsors to top finishers in lieu of actual prize money.

A meeting of 10 to 20 of America's top race directors has been scheduled May 23 in Buffalo, site of the Olympic marathon trial, to discuss the options.

Lebow attributed the favorable climate for open running to the Olympic boycott movement. "The federations around the world are financially strapped because they all planned on receiving money for the television rights for the Olympics," he said.

"These people want to protect the sport and they can't do it if they can't afford it. They see sanctioning fees as one way to offset their losses. They know there's a void. If they don't step in, someone else will."