Robert D. Hirst of Washington, a 34-year-old investment officer with the International Finance Corp., battled defending champion Will Albers for almost 26 miles yesterday, then passed Albers with less than a quarter-mile remaining to win the second annual District of Columbia Marathon in 2:29.32.

Albers, 26, a track coach at Fairfax County's Robinson High School, had taken a five-yard lead as the two runners turned the corner from 3rd Street NW onto James Madison Drive on the Mall. But he was unable to match Hirst's end-of-the-race pace and finished about 150 yards behind in 2:29.57.

James Berka, 30, of Arlington was third in 2:31.35; J.J. Wind, 32, of Arlington was fourth at 2:32.22 and Chris Winters of Washington finished fifth in 2:35.25.

Patricia Howard, 29, of Burke, Va., a personnel officer with the State Department, finished first among the women runners in 3:02.15. Jennifer Rood, 21, of Gaithersburg, a December graduate of the University of Maryland, was second in 3:05.44 with Catherine Ventura of Arlington third in 3:20.37.

More than 900 runners had registered for the race, which traversed neighborhoods in all eight wards of the city. But only 725 showed up on a cold and drizzly morning, and spectators were sparse along the route, which began on the Mall and followed a hilly and circuitous route through Georgetown, Cleveland Park, Adams-Morgan, near and far Northeast, Anacostia and Capitol Hill before returning to the finish point on the Mall in front of the Museum of Natural History.

At approximately the seven-mile mark, in Cleveland Park, Berka, Albers and Hirst began to pull away from the pack. They remained in front, running virtually abreast, until Berka began to fall behind after the 21-mile marker as the runners entered Anacostia Park.

From then on it was a duel between Hirst and Albers, with Hirst no more than two steps ahead until the last quarter-mile of the race.

"I was ahead of him until the Capitol. We came down the hill, and he did get just ahead," said Hirst, an Englishman who has competed in several marathons. "When we turned onto the straightaway (on James Madison Drive) I overtook him just to see what would happen. There didn't seem to be any response, so I just kept on going."

Albers, who won last year's D.C. Marathon in 2:27.58, said, "I just ran out of gas. He had me at 24 miles, but I caught him coming down the hill. Then he beat me fair and square at the end."

Bothered by a pinched sciatic nerve, Albers said he has not raced competitively since August and has been training seriously for only three weeks. "I'll be back again next year in better shape," he said.

Berka said the pace was relatively slow for the first 21 miles. "I knew somebody had to pick it up and pull away," he said. "It was just a matter of time."

Howard, winning the women's prize after six previous marathon starts, said she passed Rood between the second and third mile and never saw another woman runner until the race was over. "It was a rough course, hilly, but it was a good race," said Howard, whose time was 23 minutes better than last year's woman winner.

Ken Archer, 33, of Bowie, who had both legs crushed between two autos in an accident 10 years ago, finished first among the wheelchair entrants with a time of 2:38.54.

With a five-minute head start, Archer, who finished first among the handicapped competitors in the Marine Marathon last fall, led the field until he was overtaken by the three front-runners near the 19-mile mark on Minnesota Avenue NE.

Archer had to struggle to get up the hills but was able to pick up considerable speed rolling downhill. Several times he passed official cars leading the race.