At the U.S. outdoor track and field championships in June, Arlington's Matt Holthaus finished the 1,500-meter final in 3 minutes 39.57 seconds. That was good enough for third place, which would have been good enough to make him a member of the U.S. team at the world outdoor championships later this month in Seville, Spain. However, it wasn't good enough to meet the world championships qualifying standard, 3:36.8.

Since then, Holthaus, 28, has been competing overseas in an increasingly desperate quest for a qualifying time. With the deadline now just days away, a meet Tuesday in Sweden will be his final chance to become more than a spectator for the world championships--his final chance to save what he will otherwise consider a year lost.

"It's kind of a bummer," Holthaus said by telephone from Sweden. "I know it's the best year I've ever had, but when all is said and done, if I don't race at worlds, I'm going to look at all my performances as coming up short."

Holthaus, who graduated from James Madison University in 1993, was a sprinter and hurdler in high school. He performed well, but unspectacularly, in college. And in 1996, he finished 12th in the 1,500 at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

His profile changed in February at the U.S. indoor championships at Atlanta's Georgia Dome. In the mile, Holthaus deployed a blistering kick and won his first national championship in 4:04. Although he had run the event in 3:59.43 earlier in the season, he did not meet the qualifying standard for the world indoor championships in Maebashi, Japan.

"It's stuck in my craw," he said of being ineligible to participate in that competition. "I was hoping this summer would be different."

Things seemed to be shaping up that way when he raced outdoors in May at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. There, a fast pace and a deep field helped Holthaus slice nearly four seconds off his personal best time in the mile; he finished in 3:54.96, good for seventh in that race.

In the 1,500 meters at the U.S. outdoor championships, also in Eugene, he finished behind his Reebok Enclave teammate, Steve Holman, and Seneca Lassiter of Arkansas in a tactical race. Although he never had run that fast, Holthaus was confident he could achieve the world championships qualifying standard on the European track circuit, where pacesetters and deep fields regularly produce quick times.

However, after nearly a month of racing in North Africa, Scandinavia and elsewhere, Holthaus has only run close to the standard.

"He's come a long way in the last three years," said Frank Gagliano, Holthaus's coach. "But to run fast, you've got to get in the good meets."

There's the rub. Because he has been short of the world championships standard, Holthaus has been relegated to the European "B" track circuit, where the winning 1,500-meter times typically are slower than 3:36.8. While Holman has run 3:32.97 and 3:33.22 at Grand Prix meets in Paris and Monaco, respectively, this summer, Holthaus has run 3:38.65 in Linz, Austria, and 3:39.80 in Hamburg.

Compounding Holthaus's tribulations was a case of food poisoning suffered when he unwittingly ordered pigeon pie after competing in Casablanca. For two weeks, when he had hoped to be racing at his physical peak, Holthaus instead lost weight and strength.

"That certainly set him back a bit," Gagliano said.

But Holthaus remains optimistic, even after he dropped out of a race in Cuxhaven, Germany, when he was sick, and was excluded from an "A" circuit race in Hechtel, Belgium, last night. His last opportunity to qualify will be in Vattern, Sweden, on Tuesday.

"I'm really feeling good again," he said. "I'm ready to run fast. It's tough to be this close, but at some point, you've got to take responsibility and just do it."

CAPTION: Holthaus was third in 1,500 at U.S. championships, but must run 3:36.8.