The Marine Corps Marathon makes participation as comfortable as possible and watching an inconvenience; good for the Marines. In South Africa, Zola Budd has decided to run for -- and at -- her pleasure; hooray!

Let's rejoice today that in a couple of places on the planet athletes still compete for little more than competition, for what Dan Jenkins might call sport its ownself.

The Marine marathon that begins precisely at 0900 this morning offers almost nothing beyond the chance to irritate blisters for 26.2 miles. Why anyone chooses this over other forms of athletic lunacy (a six-hour round of golf, for instance) would be a livelier topic than many being debated lately.

Some 12,000 runners will take part, and the sponsors promise only that they will be looked after at all times, cared for whenever necessary, applauded as often as possible and swept off the track six hours after the start.

No money has been offered to the world's marathon men and women, those able to run 26-plus miles slightly faster than an Indy car goes 500. Hell, the gung-ho Marines are even ordering each runner to think.

"As you pass by many of our nation's monuments . . . ," the program says, "we ask you to reflect on the benefits of physical and mental fitness and the challenge and reward found in testing them."

Reflect? The Jefferson Memorial is about the 23-mile mark. Thousands will be fighting simply to keep from passing out. Sweat droplets will feel like anvils about then.

Challenge? More like survival. Whoever wrote that bit of whimsy clearly never ran much farther than the fridge. You don't reflect on the whys of running a marathon until later. Centuries later. At 23 miles, all that matters is the next step.

President Reagan and I send our best wishes, for a marathon requires more will and dedication than just about anything else in sport. In his program message, the Gipper said he and Nancy were rooting for "the most exciting race ever in the history of this fine competition."

So am I. But the three of us have the good sense not to be on hand, for watching a marathon is like listening to a stump speech in a one-pump town near midnight.

The thrill of a people parade passes quickly. Each of the 12,000 runners has an interesting, if not compelling, story. But the human mind can tolerate just so many soggy stick figures per lifetime.

No one has a deeper appreciation for distance runners than I. But only kinship, friendship or a paycheck should draw a person to a race.

The only reason 2-plus million watched the New York marathon is because it came to them. New Yorkers had only to walk a few feet to watch a race through the five boroughs.

The Marines don't do that. Their route mostly snakes through history rather than neighborhoods, which is perfectly proper. You can dash past the corner deli any day.

This means the crowds are relatively sparse -- and that Washingtonians are brighter than everybody outside the beltway believes.

Frankly, time used watching a marathon would be better spent running. The celebration is exercise, after all, so anyone with no vested interest in the marathon needn't feel guilty for being elsewhere.

Watching, even cheering wildly as every last number comes by, isn't what the Marine marathon is about. The idea isn't to provide inspiration, for each runner already has that in abundance; it's to get inspired yourself.

During that extra mile today, consider Zola Budd. How she either has been abused or used by so many in government and sport; why she has turned away in fright at what ought to be ecstasy.

Budd seems frail as a twig, and as easily broken. She ran 5,000 meters faster than any other woman in history, although it was not recognized as a world record for the same reason she had so much trouble competing in the Olympics: South Africa's apartheid policy.

To run 3,000 meters in Los Angeles, Budd had to sneak in though a back door in England. Her being granted citizenship in 10 days created a small storm that swelled to hurricane size during the Games.

Mostly, the only peace Budd knew in the month or so prior to the Olympics was on the track. There, nobody could tug at her to endorse a pet cause or join a well-intentioned protest. Or curse her for doing whatever it took to compete against her global peers.

Just when Budd surely thought life could be no more depressing, it suddenly was. She and Mary Decker got their feet tangled in the 3,000 final; the American fell, dramatically and helplessly.

It was a no-fault accident, though prejudiced and unthinking witnesses -- Decker included -- blamed Budd. The older Decker, whose picture hung near Budd's bed at home, was the one who acted immaturely.

Many among us assumed that, once their bodies and minds were repaired, Budd and Decker would go at one another again. And again, until one clearly was superior or the rivalry would no longer sell.

Budd sold a great deal more than exclusive interviews to a British newspaper for the Olympic experience. All she gained from it was grief.

Any more international competition would be no less controversial, Budd knew, so she ducked it this week. Ran full circle, in fact, back to being ignored but also to peace.