Organizers say the primary purpose of today's Columbus Marathon is to give U.S. men the opportunity to qualify for the Olympic trials, to be held in the Ohio city in 1992. The qualifying period begins today and ends next March.

Also of importance to the men is that it's their marathon championship as well as the selection vehicle for U.S. teams to the world championships, Pan American Games and World Cup.

And, as the first stage of a new developmental program for U.S. distance running, competitors get paid for qualifying for the trials or for making a team.

The U.S. championships never had been the drawing card organizers had hoped they would be. Most of America's best traditionally stayed away to run in New York or Boston.

Yet a surprising number of top U.S. distance runners are entered. What has drawn a deep field to a course considered close to ideal for marathons is a longing among America's best to be counted among the world's best.

Only Americans are there, so only Americans can win. Bragging rights are at stake, and in an event in which most Americans wallow deep in the shadows of foreign runners, winning the U.S. championships, topping a quality field and getting paid is a sweet deal indeed.

They'll need only 2 hours 20 minutes to qualify for the trials, but 2:20 will be no problem for many. The winner will break the tape a little over two hours after the 9 a.m. start.

Top entrants: Don Janicki (2:11:16 this year), Paul Cummings (2:11:31), Mark Curp (2:11:45) and Bill Reifsnyder (2:12:09).

Washington's Darrell General is 12th on the list based on time, with the 2:14:42 he ran last April as the top American in Boston. Jim Hage of Lanham, two-time winner of the Marine Corps Marathon, is in the 24th spot with a 2:16:27.

John Glidewell of Woodbridge is No. 31 with a 2:17:00. In 1983, fresh out of Ohio State, he ran 2:16:12, still the Ohio open men's record.