After 15 years of steady growth, the Marine Corps Marathon finally hit its peak. The National Park Service and Marines cut off entries for the first time in the race's history, setting the limit at 13,000, its most ever. The race begins at 9 a.m. Sunday at the foot of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington.

The decision was "for safety reasons," said Public Affairs Officer Lt. Col. Lorraine Goodrich. "For the number of people accommodated at the War Memorial site {start and finish line} -- and we're taking into account runners, spectators, volunteers and Marines -- safety is a factor. The park service wants to accommodate as many people as it can safely put up there."

At start time, runners flood Route 110, and it takes more than three minutes before the last runner actually crosses the starting line. The entire monument area, including the Iwo Jima statue and the Netherlands Carillon, plus the hillside overlooking the starting area, is carpeted with onlookers. More spectators cover nearby bridges. The roadway is lined with Marines, friends of runners and family members. People even stand on the stone walls surrounding Arlington Cemetery.

The Marine Corps race is the third-largest marathon in the country this year and is very popular among first-time competitors. Marines estimate this will be the first marathon for approximately 60 percent of the participants.

"There have been a lot of unhappy people," said Goodrich. "They really wanted to run this race. Generally, practically all of them are running their very first marathon."

There is no qualifying standard for this event. Anyone can enter by sending in the application and a $17 entry fee, which makes up the operating budget of $200,000.

People enter this race hoping to qualify for famous races such as the New York and Boston marathons and, when they do, many don't return for a while. The New York race also is Sunday and 25,000 runners are expected.

Of the top 25 male finishers in the Marine Corps race last year, four return: Uri Romaniuk of New Haven, Conn. (23rd), Brian Crane of Cambridge, Mass. (9th), Gregory Mislick of Falmouth, Va. (11th), captain of the U.S. military team that races a Great Britain team each year, and 1983 champion and 1989 runner-up Farley Simon.

On the women's side, Rose Malloy of Annapolis (18th) is the only returner from last year's top 25. Ann Wehner of Hockessin, Del., who was edged by Lori Lawson of Philadelphia to finish second by 18 one-hundredths of a second in 1988, will compete.