At a time when applications to marathons have been decreasing nationally, the numbers keep increasing for the District of Columbia Marathon. The number of starters for the fifth running of the race might surpass the 1,800 recorded last year.

The race has grown larger each year since 716 started the 26-mile 385-yard trek around the District's eight wards in the 1981 inaugural. While other major marathons can boast of their crowds and reputations, none has the growth rate of the D.C. Marathon.

This year's race will start at 8 a.m. Sunday at Madison Drive and 4th Street NW. More than 900 runners already have registered for the race, and if history repeats itself, nearly as many will register on the day of the race.

While the D.C. Marathon does not have the world-class competition, the history of the Boston Marathon or the crowds of the New York City Marathon, it has been credited with something with which most runners should be more concerned -- good organization.

Last year, Runner's World magazine rated the D.C. Marathon as "one of the best-operated marathons in the country." Yet just five years ago, critics claimed that race officials were too disorganized for the inaugural run and suggested they wait until 1982 to hold the first race.

"Everyone who has run in this race says it's the best-organized race in the country," said Samuel LaBeach, one of the original organizers and race director since 1983. "Before the first race, I went up to Boston and New York and I saw how they run the marathon. It was terrible how they ran it in Boston and the same for New York."

With its organization, race officials wonder why the D.C. Marathon hasn't become even more popular. Possible reasons range from the timing of the event -- usually a week after the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler and just before the Boston Marathon -- to the lack of interest among the nonparticipants in the Washington metropolitan area.

"I can't put my hand on the primary reason," said LaBeach, the associate director of the D.C. Department of Recreation. "If a person chooses to participate in a (10-kilometer run) over a marathon, I can't do anything about that. If a person runs one marathon a year, like the Marine Corps Marathon, he might feel that one marathon is enough.

"There are 10,000-12,000 runners in the metropolitan area. We should be able to draw 5,000 runners. It's not happening and I don't know why. I wish that more people would run in our race."

As always, wheelchair and racewalking races and a five-kilometer fun run will precede the main race by 15 minutes.