Walking with a visitor down the narrow corridor of the Marine Corps Marathon offices in a base administration building at Quantico recently, Staff Sgt. Eric Stratford said half-seriously there was absolutely no way anything would go wrong on race day.

Inside his office, Capt. Joe Rovira, the marathon coordinator, added, "Nothing will go wrong. We've got direct lines to the weather coordinator." Then he looked up toward the heavens.

Clearly, though, the success of Sunday's Marine Corps Marathon is due to a little measure of luck and a lot of planning. The race, which started in 1976 with 1,200 runners, is now considered one of the top 10 marathons in the nation in terms of participation, which this year is expected to exceed 11,000. It also is one of the few races to cater specifically to the average recreational runner. There is no prize money, no appearance fee; every entrant gets a T-shirt, every finisher earns a medal.

"We've got an operational plan that is 1 1/2 inches thick," said Rovira, holding aloft a thick tome. "It's very detailed. Every operation in here is designed to be very detailed. It's the detail that saves your bacon.

"We have one chance of success for the Marine Corps to look good and for the runners not to be disappointed."

Although it is in no way a standard assignment in the Marine Corps and not something anyone requests to be assigned to, the Marine Corps Marathon is a high-priority activity for the general staff. It is one of the corps' top community-related events each year, involving nearly 15,000 civilians, including racers, media, medical service workers and volunteers.

"It shows to the general public that the Marines are mission-oriented and that anything we do, we do well," said Rovira.

Said assistant coordinator Lt. Andy Caldwell, "It's a benefit to the corps and to the country because a lot of people don't ever see the military. This shows them our good side."

The marines call the marathon a marine task force. Some liken it to landing a 2,000-man amphibious unit, others compare it to running a small business. And Rovira's predecessor as race coordinator said organizing the marathon was much like managing Disney World.

Said Chris Moody, a former Marines captain, "I suppose there are some elements like Disney World, the people, the crowds. But it's an athletic event, too. So I guess, it's also a lot like {Redskins General Manager} Bobby Beathard's job."

Moody is a law student in Florida now. He decided to change careers in his final three years as a marine, during which time he was involved with the marathon. He is entered as a participant this year, hoping to better his personal best of 4:42 by more than a minute.

"After all those years of running 26 miles back and forth on race day, now I get to run it all at once," said Moody, 31.

An officer is assigned the post of marathon coordinator for three years, one as an apprentice and two as the coordinator.

Both Rovira and Moody received orders to Quantico from assignments as artillery and tank officers in Japan. Upon arrival, they were assigned to the marathon. Most of the marines working on race day are assigned by their superiors.

From the minute the marathon ends, planning for the next race begins. With a skeleton staff of five (it grows to 100 within six months of the race and to 4,000 by race day), Rovira and Caldwell begin poring over race reports, processing permits for use of the 26.2-mile course and organizing hotel accommodations, among other details.

"It's the same as preparing a regiment landing team to deploy because of the assets we use," Caldwell said. "And it involves a lot of different things, probably more than any other marathon."

Last year's temperatures rose into the 70s with high humidity. So, this year the marines have added five water stations along the course, making a total of 14, and have improved medical treatment at the finish line.

In addition, communication from points along the course to the finish line is more extensive this year.

For the last three weeks, Rovira and his staff have been putting in 15-hour days.

In addition to getting postrace reports, correspondence from runners is highly regarded in determining future alterations to the race. One letter in particular serves as inspiration for Rovira.

It was from a dyslexic runner and read, "At an early age I was diagnosed as being dyslexic. The years that followed were hard because I was a poor student and did not think I was worth anything. My success at finishing this marathon at age 13 was vital in making me into the person I am today. I finally felt that I had achieved something . . . This truly is a race for the individual who seeks personal success."

"When anybody asks me if what I'm doing is worthwhile, I just pull out that letter," said Rovira. "It's been extremely rewarding {working with the marathon} because of the runners. Something you're doing is benefiting a lot of people."

Most of the marines share Rovira's enthusiasm. On race day, the marines will have been up since 4 a.m. Hours after the winners have crossed the finish line, runners are still coming in. There are always more than a few marines standing there, cheering them as they cross.

"It's a very emotional day, you can't keep totally dispassionate," Rovira said. "When you see the effort these people put forth and the individuals finishing, you can't help but cheer."

Said Moody: "The most impressive thing of all relates to the feeling you get when you watch the race. You see average people coming across the line as tired as they could be just smiling from ear to ear. Those kind of emotions say it all."

Course map detailing traffic restrictions, Page G8