Runners like the Marine Corps Marathon coming up Sunday morning. But except for the next of kin of the 11,000 runners, why should anyone care about the race? With no world-class runners, it is a yawn as a sports event. As a spectacle, it is superfluous: to see grown-ups traipsing about in their underwear, we need only go downtown at lunch hour.

The Marines should turn pro.

Get Bill Rodgers in here.

Send a platoon to capture Alberto Salazar.

Then and only then will the Marine Corps Marathon be more than the uncut diamond it is. The Marines have proven they can organize a nice little run through the majestic monuments of America's prettiest city. With 11,000 runners from every state and 27 countries, they are second in the United States to New York's 16,000.

But if the Marines believe their professed idea that they are doing a community service worth the volunteer efforts of 1,200 Marines, they should reconsider the evidence. In a metropolitan area of over three million, even the Marines guess only 50,000 spectators come to watch the race. Media coverage, especially on television, is nil.

This is the marathon run in a vacuum. Except to hard-core devotees of shin splints and sciatica, the Marine Corps Marathon means nothing. The city of Washington feels so little bond with it that the city started its own marathon, run in the spring through residential neighborhoods.

These are old carpings, heard so often the Marines have their answers down pat. They are in this to remind people that Marines stand for physical fitness, and to remind the city that Marines are nice neighbors. They are not in this, the Marines say, to help anybody turn a buck.

"Once the Marine Corps can't take in enough money from entry fees to pay the bills for the race, we will not look to commercialize it," said Maj. Kip Napier, the marathon coordinator. "The Marine Corps would look to do away with it."

The major's idea of better dead than in the red is short-sighted, for the Marines have created a good thing here. With a few changes, their marathon course could draw not only hundreds of thousands of spectators but the top athletes that would make thrilling a last quarter-mile sprint to the Iwo Jima Memorial. The Pentagon's rules against commercial sponsors are self-defeating, in that the Marines stand to gain a lot from a race that draws widespread attention.

Right now, by design, the Marine Corps Marathon is an amateur production; it operates on a shoestring budget with no money used to attract the best marathoners. "Not having those runners is a concern to me," Napier said, "because if we had a better quality field, the national media would be more likely to cover the race."

The New York marathon spends $1 million; the race, from start to end, was on national television. The Marines spend $100,000; Napier is hoping for a mention on a national morning talk show.

The primary sponsor in New York is a bank, Manufacturers Hanover, which kicks in $150,000 and as much in tied-in advertising. Among the seven other sponsors are a watchmaker, a car rental outfit, a magazine and some bubbly water.

The money is well spent, according to Charles McCabe, senior vice president for marketing for Manufacturers Hanover. "The demographics are perfect for us," he said, reeling off figures that show 11,400 of New York's 16,000 runners were college graduates. "And who sends customers to banks? We had 963 attorneys and lawyers running. There were 530 accountants. When it comes time to pick a bank, by God, they might have a little twinge in their hearts for us."

Fred Lebow, director of New York's marathon, doesn't knock the Marines' race. Fact is, he is running here Sunday to learn how the Marines handle so many runners so well.

"Each race has its unique attractions," he said. "New York is mass participation with great crowds and great runners. Washington has mass participation, but the emphasis is on that rather than on the quality of top athletes. And Washington doesn't get the big crowds we do, but that's because of the way the course is laid out. People can't get there from the suburbs. If you put the Washington race in New York, you'd get big crowds."

Without the big money, however, you would not get Alberto Salazar (whose latest victory in New York earned him a reported $18,000 under the table). And without his kind you would not get your race on national television. "And if it's not on the tube, it doesn't exist," Lebow said.

Here's one last item, illustrative of--what?--the difference between amateurs and pros? a conflict of ideologies? the tangled threads of real life that the Marines, of all people, want nothing to do with?

Once the monks of sport, marathoners ran for the joy of it, ran because they couldn't not run. A few made a dollar here and there by selling shoes. Now, with banks and bubbly waters throwing in money, runners can make a living. Lebow wanted to make open payments to runners this year, but changed his mind.

"I said last month it was almost definite we'd have prize money in 1983," Lebow said. "I'm reconsidering that. Last weekend, at the annual meeting of the world's track and field groups in Austria, the Eastern bloc of countries said they wouldn't compete in meets if there is prize money."

The implication, Lebow said, is that the Soviet Union might make an issue of prize money when it comes time for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

"The Russians may be looking for a way not to compete," Lebow said. "And we don't want to give them a reason."