You had to be out near the Pentagon parking lots, where very few people were yesterday morning just after 9 o'clock in the drizzle and half-light, to experience thousands of runners thundering directly toward you. You could feel the power of so many, see the glory in their oneness.

Runners, bobbing like buoys, stretched out of sight. All fresh and strong, they had begun near the Iwo Jima memorial and looked as if they owned limitless energy and a certainty of achieving every possibility that lay ahead over the next 25 miles of the 10th annual Marine Corps Marathon.

The early going was flat and easy. Runners poured through Crystal City as if they could go on forever. As much of the area slept, life passed by: "Hot Harry's North Park Runners," "University of Paris," "Living Well," "Pete Flaherty For Governor," "United Way," "Navy Crew," "St. Louis Track Club," "Chicago Police," "Stamford," "USMC," "A Breed Apart."

Control of traffic and pedestrians was impeccable, and roadways were cleared by police, the red lamps of their cars whirling in the gloom. Still, some runners found unexpected stops necessary; in the high grass along 15th Street in Arlington, just across Hayes, men detoured from the race to relieve themselves. One emerged, raising his fist to the sky.

On they went until, toward the end, they began stringing out in clusters of threes and twos, and others alone. A woman on the curb said, "This is the part I'm going to be in next year."

A woman ran by, and on her back was the inscription, "Feet Don't Fail Me Now."

The Wheaton Rescue Squad passed.

No. 10,174 went by.

"Twenty-four miles to go," called an onlooker. This was encouragement?

A man stopped running.

On to Georgetown. People lined M Street, cheering the runners coming off Key Bridge in what seemed an endless procession. Clad in kilts, the Rockville High School Pipe Band played in front of Georgetown Park. The runners signaled their appreciation, with applause, waves, yells, thumbs up. One cried out, "Let's have a cheer for the fans." Said Robert Clarke, a history teacher accompanying the musicians, "It's our kind of parade, where we stand still and they go by."

A man ran in an American-flag suit.

They kept coming and coming: a brown-bearded man with a white visor, a woman in a wheelchair, a hundred painter's caps, peaks turned up, peaks turned backward. Woolen caps. Men and women with headsets, running to beats known to themselves. Long-striding men. Men with heads shaved, heads bent. A man carrying a small American flag. A woman in black tights., They'd come into view for only seconds and they'd be gone, like that.

Down Constitution Avenue, past the Washington Monument. Traffic was cut from three to two lanes, the runners taking the curb lane. The runners made better time than the cars. But they sucked car exhaust. Two runners wore masks. They were in the 11th mile, and Capitol Hill was ahead. They had to go up it. Like life, marathon courses are fraught with midway crises.

At First and D streets NE, a man held a large homemade sign: "Lori and Resa: The Champagne and Jacuzzi Are Waiting." Jim Loots of Capitol Hill, the man looking for the two women, wore a cap with a large cloth cigar sticking out of it. "That's so they can see me," he said.

"Halfway up the hill, halfway up the hill," called a man.

The crowd clapped rhythmically. The lead runners already were nearing the finish but these -- many slowing, a few walking -- gladly accepted the encouragement. It was raining and it was cold, and most of all, it was uphill.

Carolyn Serfass, with her three little children bundled, and Kathy Morrissey, with her two little children wrapped, already had cheered two friends from Canada and others from Virginia and Morrissey's husband, too. "This," said Serfass of the infants they held, "is Andrew Serfass' and Leigh Morrissey's first marathon.

"Everybody's looking good," she added.

Almost everybody. A man, his knees wrapped, limped up the hill. "Okay, pick it up," a younger man at the curb said gently.

Two men came up drinking from paper cups. Two women ran and talked. A man ran with his hands on his hips. One barely moved forward as others passed him. Some walked. A woman bystander touched the shoulder of a walking runner with a red pompon, but he did not start up.

"You can do it."

"Thank you."

"Halfway home, now."

Around the Capitol and off toward Hains Point. The wind and rain blew across Hains Point, where dark clouds hung low, and there, 19 miles into the race, some hit an invisible wall. The great majority found inner reserves and thought their way across the flat, but no longer easy, course. Mike Collier, of New York City, would say later, "I tried to get behind the biggest guy I saw."

Over the 14th Street Bridge to Virginia. The painful last stages -- some could still smile, though -- stretched across five miles, the last one uphill to the Iwo Jima memorial. The last five miles, said Karen Flanagan, of Oak Ridge, N.J., were "awful."

But the long line wound up the last rainy hill. Flanagan said, "Everybody was yelling." The end was near, and when they finally had climbed to level ground, they were rewarded. The end came with a splendid, flat, grassy stretch of 200 yards between snow fences that held back cheering fans and loved ones. Some runners grimaced in those last strides, while others fled over the trampled grass, maybe more swiftly than they had started, as if hurrying to complete some unfinished business, trimming a second or so off their times.

They finished between large, ticking clocks. "Right on in, right on it."

Tents were labeled: "Foot-leg injuries," "Emergency medical problems," "Baggage claim."

It was like another world up there. The Netherlands Carillon sounded, and runners were wrapped in garments of protective foil.

"How are you?

"Cold."

Runners shivered. They embraced. They laughed. They stretched on the grass. They walked in circles. They accepted congratulations -- and help: Violet Heil of Allentown, Pa., untied her husband Rodger's running shoes and held his sweat pants. He had a blanket around him, and a white wool cap on, and his daughters, Tara, 10, and Erica, 8, at his side, and he was ecstatic even if his legs weren't steady.

The Marine Corps Marathon, he said, "energizes me. It's a people's-type marathon."

Green-shirted "Sully" crossed the finish line. Behind him, thousands more came. They came up the hill, gloriously, from out of the mist long after morning had turned into afternoon, and the afternoon had grown darker and darker.