Are marathons losing their appeal in America?

Not according to Jay Rapkin of Rockville, who trekked up to New York to do the Big Apple race last weekend and was astonished to find people still out cheering as he trudged in at the back of the pack six hours after the start.

Even the traffic barricades were down by then, he told friends, and he had to dodge cars and wait at intersections just to get to the finish line. But the fans, like Rapkin, didn't quit.

On the eve of Washington's big entry in the long-distance field, Sunday's Marine Corps Marathon, veterans of the big-time running wars around the nation concede their sport is in transition and some bloom is off the rose, but they say the bigger races remain strong and the sport as a whole is fit.

"We're looking at comparisons of the biggest marathons over the last three years and the trend is up," said Fred Lebow, director of the New York marathon. Runners finishing his race were up by more than 5,000 during the period, he said; Los Angeles jumped from 7,800 finishers in 1985 to more than 10,500 last year. The Marine Corps Marathon here is expected to draw about 12,000 entries, just short of a record.

Lebow called reports of a decline in interest in marathons since the halcyon days in the early 1970s, when running took the country by storm, "a lot of bull. The figures speak for themselves."

Nonetheless, change is in the wind for the sport once deemed the ultimate test of an athlete.

"Ten years ago, there really was only one goal for a distance runner, and that was to make the Olympic {marathon} team," said Benjie Durden, who was on the 1980 Olympic squad. "Now, money and recognition are available in lots of other events.

"You have 5Ks, 10Ks, 15Ks, 10-milers, and they all have prize money and glory. The advantage is, you can do a race like that and go out again the next weekend and do another."

Veteran distance runner Bill Rodgers agreed marathons can exact a terrible toll, and said runners have grown wiser to the perils. Athletes who went overboard on marathons, doing half a dozen a year in the boom days, learned the hard way that more than three a year could be dangerous. "We know now you need three months to recover. We're not crazy like we were," said Rodgers.

He said the 26-mile sport, like some of its early practitioners, has taken a beating over the last few years but is getting a second wind now.

During recent troubled times, Rodgers said, fitness figure Jim Fixx died while running; Nike, the big running shoe manufacturer, hit financial difficulties and the Boston Marathon underwent a troubled public transformation from amateurism to a big-time prize-money event.

Then, with a rise of interest in aerobics, triathlons, cycling, walking and other fitness sports, "the sport of running got diluted," Rodgers said, and some smaller marathons suffered in the transition. Others in the field agreed.

"The homey, old-time marathons are declining," said Jeff Darman, who represents Road Race Management, an organization of race promoters. He said as many as 200 small marathons may die off before it's over, leaving 200 healthy ones intact. With some, he said, the demise "is probably deserved. The races weren't that good and they just didn't make the cut."

Darman said he believes that's a healthy adjustment "from boom to perceived decline to maturity, with a continuing, healthy growth" in the bigger events.

One sturdy survivor is the Marine Corps Marathon, which suffered a dip in interest a couple of years ago but rebounded.

"The marathon experienced its first decline in entries in 1985," said coordinator Capt. Joseph Rovira, "and at that point we thought maybe it was the first indication of failing interest. Most of the major marathons experienced declines. But since then, the trend has gone back up.

"I don't know how to explain it," said Rovira, "but the interest is still there. There is a finite number of runners and they're getting more selective in the races they run, but the good marathons continue to draw people."

The Marine Corps Marathon advertises itself as the "people's race," with no prize money or appearance fees offered, and Rovira said as a result the event continues to attract neophytes. Sixty percent of this year's entries, he said, will be attempting their first marathons. "So obviously there's continuing growth."

Runners choose the Marine Corps Marathon, experts in the field say, because it is well-run, scenic and they can combine a race with a mini-vacation.

"The community of runners feels it's not an elite event, but the organizers still do a superb job," said Durden. "They're very conscientious. So for a first marathon it's great, because you know everything you need will be there; and for a fifth or even 20th it's the same, because the opportunity is there for you to improve your performance and still have a pleasant trip.

"It's simple," Durden said. "It's coming down to who has the best product. The consumer is getting more selective. At first, they {runners} were in a feeding frenzy and would go anywhere. Now, they pick and choose."

One place that marathons will not be disappearing from anytime soon is national television.

David Downs, director of programming for ABC, said the New York event his network televised last weekend continues to be a success.

"In terms of ratings, it's decreased slightly over the last eight years," Downs said, "but so have the ratings for virtually every sport on TV.

"Certainly," he said, "it's as successful for us as ever from an advertising standpoint. We have a commitment to New York for the next few years and we intend to honor it.

"We don't have a super hit on our hands," said Downs, "but we're very proud of our involvement."