The running drama has been raging for weeks. First, the race director of the world's largest marathon admitted in his new book that he has given big-time runners money under the table.

He said the mayor, who has taken an avid interest in the race, knew that. The mayor said he didn't.

The mayor said more than that. He decided that if the runners were getting money, his city should, too. After all, who was setting up the roadblocks for more than 26 miles of city streets and cleaning up after 2 million fans?

While this was going on, most of the best runners in the world decided they were not going to show up, anyway. Why? Someone else was paying even more money. They chose to either take the autumn off after the Olympics or run a week earlier in Chicago. Thus, the race director simply lost at his own game. He didn't pay enough to the people who have learned to take the money and run.

Mercifully, the 15th annual running of the New York City Marathon will begin at 10:35 a.m. Sunday (WJLA-TV-7, 10:30 a.m.) at the Verrazano Narrows Bridge toll plaza on Staten Island. When 18,365 runners, almost all of them unknown, start moving, the bickering will have to stop. Or be drowned out.

Yet the race through the city's five boroughs is different this year. It is expected to be hotter than ever before, possibly 75 to 80 degrees. Race officials are concerned about the potential hazards to the health of the runners, many of them first-time marathoners.

There are other worries. The biggest name among the men is defending champion Rod Dixon of New Zealand, who finished 10th in the Olympic marathon. Race director Fred Lebow, whose predictions have become legend, figures Dixon will win with a time in the "high 2:10s." The world record, set -- guess where? -- in the America's Marathon-Chicago race, is 2 hours 8 minutes 5 seconds, by Britain's Steve Jones.

The biggest name among the women is defending champion Grete Waitz of Norway, the silver medalist in Los Angeles. Lebow figures her at "2:25, 2:26."

The rest of the field? Last weekend, Lebow met the enemy in Chicago, which featured Olympic champion Carlos Lopes and '83 world champion Rob de Castella. After finishing his race in just under four hours, Lebow wandered into the press tent. He was asked who would be in New York next week.

"Rod Dixon, Grete Waitz . . . and Charlie Rosenthal from Brooklyn," he said.

There will be a lot of Charlie Rosenthals.

Could it be that New York, whose race the media created, has become the Second City (or, possibly third) of marathons?

"The most important marathon in the world is Boston," Lebow said this week at a news conference, where he curiously wore his Chicago marathon T-shirt. "However, I think the greatest marathon in the world is still New York City. We have something that nobody else has, and that is the city of New York. No money can buy that."

Yet, what took this marathon from a friendly gathering of 126 dizzy men running four loops around Central Park in 1970 to a mass-media event is big names.

Alberto Salazar, who set his world record here, is not running. Bill Rodgers, one of the old-timers who won four New York marathons in a row, is not running. Along with the others, those missing form a Who's Who of marathon men. And, were it not for the presence of Waitz and Gabriele Andersen-Schiess, who staggered across the finish line in L.A. in one of the most memorable moments of the Olympics, you could say the same for the women.

Sitting in the audience at one of Lebow's news conferences last week was Bob Bright, the executive director of the Chicago marathon, which paid Lopes $70,000 to run -- and finish second. (Lebow offered Lopes $50,000, then withdrew his bid. He gave Dixon $10,000, Waitz $30,000.)

Bright and Lebow are coolly cordial. "One of the reasons the Lopeses and the de Castellas are not here is because there is a certain amount of deception involved," Bright said. "I think (Lebow) was deceiving the city. Mayor (Ed) Koch got mad at him. Now he's got to pay a price for it. The irresponsibility for handling the money goes right on Fred's shoulders. It's his problem."

The problems started when Lebow disclosed, in his book, "Inside the World of Big-Time Marathoning," that "the total amount of prize money we had paid over the years to the highest finishers" was $1 million.

Lebow said Koch had known about it since 1978. Koch, who fancied his city's marathon as another Boston, i.e., above question, said no, he didn't know that. Now that he does, he figures the city should be in on the dough, and he has won his town about $300,000. Lebow's New York Road Runners Club, which puts on the marathon, must match its total of $250,000 in prize money ($25,000 each to the men's and women's winner), plus toss in half of the $100,000 it receives from its contract with ABC.

Neither Chicago nor Boston does that, and Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, himself an entrant in this marathon, said he believes "it's a bit shortsighted" for a city to cut itself in.

Nonetheless, that's what New York did. And it raises questions about how this marathon will survive in a possible "bidding war" for participants if it must earn $2 for every $1 it offers so it can pay the city.

Bright, who says he is a fan of the New York Marathon, said this is a crucial year for Lebow.

The purses of the two races are about the same: somewhere in the $250,000 range. But Chicago has a budget of $3 million; New York, $1.5 million.

"There are better football games than the Super Bowl," Lebow steadfastly offered, "but the Super Bowl is the Super Bowl. Chicago cannot equal New York for excitement."

Lebow believes his marathon is weathering the storm. "The marathon is not hurt by this backbiting at all. Whatever happened in the last couple weeks, money or Chicago or whatever it is, has helped the marathon. We never had as many people here or as much media attention we've had this week.

"We can survive every challenge," he added, "but the weather."

When Lebow arrived at ABC's "Good Morning America" studio Friday for an interview, he asked the weatherman for a forecast. When he heard the temperature would be 75-80 degrees, he shuddered. "I'm very concerned," he said. Extra water stations have been added to the course and residents and businesses along the route may be asked to turn on hoses.

But, as always for Lebow, the topic comes back to money. He leans on the reputation of the Big Apple when he says, "Runners with a business sense are here in New York. Runners who are looking for immediate up-front money chose Chicago. In retrospect, people like Geoff Smith and Rob de Castella made tremendous mistakes by not coming to New York. A victory in New York is tantamount to winning Wimbledon. I predict that the winner in New York will command far more marketing benefits than the Olympic champion."

When pressed to produce some numbers, he asked reporters to check with Dixon, Rodgers and Salazar.

Lebow often answers questions with more questions these days.

"What is a great marathon?" he said. "Is it just a fast time it produces, or how much money they spend on it? A great marathon is judged by everything, the spectators, organization, past performances, ambiance.

"You go into a restaurant," he said. "Just because the service is fast doesn't make it a great restaurant."