For thousands of runners who entered the Marine Corps Marathon last week, that event was not a casual outing, not just another race. It was a very large challenge.

These runners -- especially the ones attempting their first marathon -- had to train and plan for months, worrying about doing everything right. In the end, of course, they learned that the marines had failed to do things right. Because of errors by race organizers and sentries on the course, the event became the Marine Corps Almost-a-Marathon, one-third of a mile short of the requite 26 miles 385 yards.

That was the mess up that made headlines the next day. Some runners had other complaints about the way the race was organized. All had to regret they were running in a race that has failed so noticeably to become a community event. The course was devoid of the supportive crowds that have become the hallmark of other cities' marathons. Many runners felt the marines had spoiled for them what should have been a uniquely memorable experience.

Few people familiar with the marines of their race are charitable enough to dismiss the mismeasurement of the course as a just-one-of-those-things error. Two years earlier, the marines had committed another major gaffe, failing to have enough drinking cups along the course. That turned the water stops into desperate mad scrambles.

Washington's large and enthusiastic community of runners deserves a well-organized, competently managed marathon. How can it get one?

Surprisingly, very few leaders in local running circles would advocate junking the Marine Corps Marathon. An event of such magnitude needs some official backing, because of the necessity of closing roads, getting police cooperation and dozens of other details. In Washington, the alternative to a marine-sponsored marathon would be one run by the city government.

In this light the marines look a lot better and, in fact, they do have some undeniable virtues. They do have political clout, and they have a pool of manpower that any race organizer would envy. What they don't have is the necessary experience.

"There are a lot of things about organizing races that you can learn only by doing them a lot, not just by doing them once a year," said Jeff Darman, past president of the Road Runners Clubs of America. "You have to learn to anticipate the trouble spots."

The marines surely are competent enough that they never again will run a mismeasured marathon or lack drinking cups, but they don't have the expertise to avoid unanticipated foulups. Their ability to gain this experience is hindered by the very nature of military service: officers involved with the race one year may find themselves with a different assignment the next.

Clearly, what the marines ought to do is reach out into the local running community and tap some of its race-organizing experience. Local runners probably would be receptive."It's a huge operation," said Phil Stewart, president of the D.C. Road Runners Club, "but I'd be interested."

The marines and the Road Runners might not be such strange bedfellows, because their approach to running is in some ways very similar. The marines conceived their marathon as a runners' race, one designed to promote sport and physical fitness, not as a show-biz production with big-name athletes taking appearance money. The D.C. Road Runners, similarly, have resisted the blandishments of corporate sponsors and instead have put on a running program with its members in mind. The basic character of the Marine Corps Marathon would not have to change.

Besides soliciting civilian advice, the marines must change the course of their marathon to make it a real good race. Miton Coleman made this case on the editorial pages of The Washington Post recently, and most everyone who has run in the event agrees.

The notion of a race winding amongst the area's monuments may sound good in theory, and it may appeal to a visitor from Toledo, but the marine course is in fact excruciatingly boring, and most of the participants are locals who have seen plenty of the Lincoln Memorial.

Runners love the New York City and Boston marathons not because of the sightseeing, but because they are traveling through residential neighborhoods where thousands are cheering them. Citizens can watch the race from their doorsteps. The existence of crowds begrets more crowds, which fosters a sense of community participation in the event. This is a far cry from the marines' marathon, in which runners spend the first few miles on suburban highways and hit the 'wall' in the seclusion of East Potomac Park, with scarcely a supportive spectator in sight.

The marines should be flexible enough to contemplate making the necessary changes to make their marathon a first-class event. Not first class as a media spectacular like the New York City Marathon, but first class for its participants. People running 26 miles 385 yards ought to be able to enjoy their suffering.