A voice in the office of Mayor Marion Barry answered the phone. The caller wanted to know how many city employes would be working on the fifth annual Marine Corps Marathon, which begins Sunday at 9 a.m.

"What marathon did you say that was?" the voice replied.

It could only happen here.

More than 9,100 runners nobody knows are expected at the starting line at the Iwo Jima monument for the marathon nobody knows. Amby Burfoot, the winner of the 1968 Boston marathon, who is running for fun, said, "I like the concept of the race. It's not a star's race. It's a people's race."

Of the 9,100 entered, 36 percent will be running in their first marathon, 35 percent have run in the Marine marathon previously and 68 percent live within a 200-mile radius of Washington.

There are 2,400 military men and women in the field (including two members of Britain's Royal Air Force (Mike Hurd, a 2:15 marathoner, and Barry Heath, a 2:18 marathoner) as well as 483 lawyers and 166 government workers, which just goes to show that justice can be swift and the bureaucracy isn't always caught up in red tape.

Among the top runners in the field, 12 men have run 2:20 or better (although two of those say they are not running to win) and 12 women have run 3:00 or better. Burfoot says he thinks it is a stronger field than in past years, with a group of runners from the Washington Running Club, including last year's second-place finisher, Will Albers of Fairfax, Mike Greehan of Hanover, Pa., Dan Rincon of College Park and Jeff Petersen of Fairfax all aiming for 2:16:30.

The race is the "rubber match" -- or perhaps the grudge match -- between last year's first- and second-place finishers, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Phil Camp, whose winning time was 2:19:35, and Albers, who finished 39 seconds later.

Albers says that if it takes a 2:15 to win, that's what he'll run. But, he said, "I'd as soon run a 2:25 and win."

Camp has the best time in the field, a 2:13:46, but that was run last year in New Orleans over a course that resembles a 23-mile wind tunnel with the wind at the runners' back most of the way.

Both men qualified for the Olympic trials last spring in Buffalo on the strength of their performances in Washington. Albers finished five seconds ahead of Camp, in 2:17:50, his best ever. Camp felt that Albers was less than neighborly.

"I think I'm a friendly guy," said Albers, a student at George Mason. "I was not unaware that I was going to meet him again in November. I don't want him to think I'm scared of him."

Albers has other fears. Last week, he had a dream that he "couldn't get his shoes on and couldn't get to the start of the race."

No one knows if Camp also is having anxiety dreams. "I think this race is more important to me than to him," Albers said. "It's my hometown race and my girlfriend, Laura DeWald, is running, too. For the last six months, we've been talking about the two of us winning. It's kind of a mushy thing."

DeWald, 23, of Arlington, who finished third last year, in her first and only marathon (2:59:22), is the top local woman in the field. Her main competition is Sue Petersen, 36, of Laguna Beach, Calif., whose personal best is 2:42, the best time in the field (17 minutes slower than Grete Waitz's world record), and Carol Meyers, 23, of East Berlin, Pa. (2:57 ). w

Albers said, "Sue always runs with her husband. I hope he has a bad day."

Some people have questioned Petersen's tactics; runners are not allowed to be paced during a race. "It definitely gives you an edge," said DeWald, who believes she can run a 2:45 and that it won't take much more than that to win. "But it's okay if she needs a crutch and I don't."