It disappointed, but did not surprise, Marine Corps Marathon race director Rick Nealis that last year's top male finisher declined an invitation to compete as the defending champion in this year's race.

For 1998 winner Weldon Johnson of Washington, as for many runners in the 24-year-old event dubbed "The People's Marathon," the Marine Corps was his first 26.2-mile race.

And a different marathon would be his second.

The Marine Corps Marathon, which begins Sunday at 8:30 a.m. at the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, does not offer prize money, cars, trips to Japan, or any other enticements for excellent runners. In that way, it is drastically different from the other six marathons in the United States that have more than 10,000 finishers. Every one of them offers cash incentives. Only two other U.S. marathons in the top 15 in size--the Portland (Ore.) and Walt Disney World marathons--offer no substantial incentives to the top finishers.

That fact seems directly related to the general downward trend in the times of the first-place finishers at the Marine Corps Marathon since the race's inception in 1976. Johnson's finish last year (2 hours 25 minutes 31 seconds) not only was the slowest in the race's history for men, but it also was the slowest first-place time of the top 15 largest marathons in the United States. Seven of the top 10 times in Marine Corps Marathon history--for both men and women--were achieved in the 1970s or 1980s.

Yet Nealis, who has been at the helm of the Marine Corps Marathon since 1993, said organizers will continue to resist the temptation to offer prize money despite having considered the issue in recent years.

"Would a little bit of cash prize really hurt? Could we do it? Probably," Nealis said this week. "But what does it bring us? We're not really sure. . . . We're there for the ordinary, beginning runner."

What prize money would bring the Marine Corps Marathon, statistics clearly indicate, would be faster finishers and a more glamorous field. The Chicago Marathon, previously a second-tier marathon with a lesser stature than the highly regarded New York City Marathon, now exceeds New York in prize money--offering a total of $400,000 compared with $251,000--and consequently has been drawing a better field.

This year's Chicago race, which also takes place on Sunday, features a stellar field including three runners who have finished under 2:08.

The Marine Corps drew Oprah Winfrey in 1994 and Vice President Gore in 1997, but it hasn't drawn a truly big-name runner since its first year, when U.S. Olympian Kenny Moore won the inaugural race in 2:21:14.

Even some popular marathons among non-elite runners have begun offering prize money. The Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in San Diego, which was created to provide a racing forum for runners competing with charity groups, offered a $150,000 purse last year. The top male finisher completed the race in 2:10:42--about 15 minutes faster than Marine Corps winner Johnson.

Fast times, however, are not of great concern to Nealis or the Marines. Race officials appreciate their race's status as the ultimate people's marathon. There are no special shuttles that take elite runners to the start line. There are no special tables for elite runners' water bottles. Free hotel rooms and flights for elite runners do not cut into the Marine Corps Marathon's race budget of $1.4 million.

The 2,500 Marine volunteers concentrate on making the race a special experience for the entire field--about 48 percent of which will be running a marathon for the first time, according to race statistics. This year, Nealis brought in an added amenity for slower runners: food. Orange quarters, bagels and jelly beans will be available along the course.

"The word of mouth spreads through running clubs and organizations," Nealis said. "You get wet at the Marine Corps. Once you get the bug, you maybe pick another one, and then you move on."

Among marathons striving to cater to non-elite runners, the Marine Corps Marathon remains an enviable example. Les Smith, the Portland Marathon's event director--Smith refuses to call himself a race director because he wants no emphasis on competition--said he enjoyed the frequent "Good day, sir!" addresses he received from the Marines lining the course when he ran it a few years ago. Smith said he has not been tempted to turn the Portland Marathon, in its 29th year, into a prize-money race.

"We're very much of a true people's marathon. . . . very close to the model of the Marine Corps Marathon," Smith said. "We don't do prize money. We don't promote the elite side. Ours is a people's event. I think too much money and time get caught up in the race within the event."

The other top-20 race in the United States that does not offer prize money is the Walt Disney World Marathon in Orlando.

Providing a compelling aspect to the Marine Corps Marathon is the high-level competition among the members of the armed forces. Besides the Challenge Cup, a competition between the U.S. Marine Corps and the British Royal Marines, there also is a male-female military competition and an individual competition.

"That excites us," Nealis said. "That's going to give us a 2:30 male marathon runner and a 2:55 female marathon runner. That gets people's blood flowing.

"We're not excited that this would be a place for somebody to do a 2:08 marathon. Our bond is with, say, the Road Runners Clubs of America. We realize running clubs are sending us their new marathon runners. We don't want them to come across the finish line and say, 'I'm not going to do that again.' "

Money for Something

Winning times at the seven largest U.S. marathons last year -- and the prize purse:

Winning No. of Prize

time Race finishers purse

2:06.54 Chicago 17,193 $400,000

2:07.34 Boston 10,289 $525,000

2:08.45 New York City 31,539 $251,000

(plus cars)

2:10.42 Rock `n' Roll 15,773 $150,000

2:11.21 Los Angeles 15,603 $150,000

(plus cars)

2:14.53 Honolulu 22,081 $65,000

2:25.31 Marine Corps 13,261 0