They were running side by side, stride for stride when they entered the Central Park dust storm. When the air cleared a few seconds later, Rodolfo Gomez was rubbing his eyes at the sight of Alberto Salazar, who was racing toward his third consecutive New York City Marathon victory today.

"I was just trying to make sure this race didn't come down to a hundred-yard sprint," said Salazar, 24, who has never lost a marathon -- and who, in trying to keep it that way, has twice driven himself into a state in which he was given last rites.

Salazar's winning time was 2 hours 9 minutes 29 seconds, almost one minute slower than the world record time of 2:08.13 he set in winning this marathon in 1981. "I was scared to death because I knew in the last 100 yards Gomez was faster than me," he said.

The two ran side by side starting from about the 21-mile mark of this 26-mile, 385-yard course, and were never more than a step or two apart until Salazar increased the pace with a 4:31 mile between the 25th and 26th mile.

"The last three miles I had pains in my stomach," Gomez said. "When Salazar changed the pace, I couldn't follow him. At that point (about a quarter of a mile from the finish), we entered a dust storm. I couldn't keep up with him, and that was the margin of victory."

George Malley of Glenn Dale, Md., running in his first marathon, finished a surprise seventh at 2:13.29.

Grete Waitz needed no help from urban sandstorms to win the women's division in 2:27.14. The 29-year-old Norwegian led from the halfway mark. She was challenged only until that time by Julie Brown, a 27-year-old cross country champion from San Diego who finished 79 seconds behind Waitz.

Waitz has beaten all other women finishers in this race four times in the last five years. Last year, she dropped out with shin splints after 15 miles.

"I felt very comfortable today," said Waitz, who provoked a roar of applause throughout the race from crowds waiting for the first woman to appear. Waitz, in a red jersey, white gloves and blond ponytail, never looked strained throughout the day.

This year's marathon was run under a bright blue sky and into a strong wind that runners blamed for keeping times below world-record levels.

What may have broken records was the size of the crowd that lined almost the entire route through all five of New York's boroughs to watch the 16,000 runners. Officials said there appeared to be many more than the estimated 2 million who watched last year's marathon.

This year the crowd was riotously enthusiastic and mostly well behaved. This is the marathon during which, in previous years, spectators have tried to trip competitors and course directions have been altered to take runners on dead-end detours. But none of the runners had anything but gratitude for this race's watchers.

"When my legs began to fail me, I was carried to the finish on a wave of sound," said Daniel Schlesinger, a 27-year-old North Carolina runner who surprised everyone with a third-place finish in a time of 2:11.54.

The marathon was supposed to end in a duel between two runners. But they were expected to be Salazar and Dick Beardsley, the 26-year-old Minnesota runner who lost a 100-yard sprint to Salazar in the Boston Marathon last April.

Beardsley suffered calf cramps and dropped out of contention at the 12-mile mark. Gomez, however, more than compensated for that loss by pushing Salazar until the last mile. Gomez had promised before the race that he would stay with Salazar all the way. This year Gomez, who is from Mexico, had won all three marathons he had entered.

It was suggested after the race that Beardsley had once again succumbed to the New York jinx. Two years ago Beardsley gained a type of infamy when he slipped in a New York city pothole and the race favorite, Bill Rodgers, tripped over him.

Last year while training, Beardsley was attacked by three large dogs and had to drop out.

"I never felt good from the beginning," said Beardsley, who has the fair-haired look of a very thin Anglican choirboy and a good sense of humor even after a body-breaking run. "I could hear those dogs growling."

Waitz, who won the women's division of the race from 1978 to 1980, was supposed to be challenged by Lorraine Moller, a New Zealander who has won nine of the 10 marathons she entered. Moller dropped out of today's race about halfway through the course.

At a press conference afterwards Waitz said that when the race started, she and one or two other women were alone in a pack of men who were content to sit back and take advantage of the female front-runners' pace.

"Nobody else wanted to take it," said Waitz.