When the famed messenger Phidippides finished his 26-mile run from Marathon to Athens in ancient Greece, delivering his news and then dying from exhaustion, he essentially set the first marathon world record. No one, however, bothered to record his time.

In that sense, Phidippides' valiant effort had more than one uncommon outcome. It contrasts starkly with marathoning today, which has become obsessed with records, time progressions and flat-out speed.

Both the men's and women's world records, set in the mid-1980s, stood for more than 10 years. Both have been broken twice since 1998. Both figure to fall again as more and more runners post what were previously considered unachievable times.

Though Sunday's 30th New York City Marathon isn't likely to produce a world record because of its hilly and demanding course, Kenyan Elijah Lagat predicted the quality elite field would better the course record of 2 hours 8 minutes 1 second set by Tanzania's Juma Ikangaa in 1989.

Runners and marathon experts say recent dramatic decreases in times have favorably impacted races even on slower courses such as New York's. Just over a year ago, only one man had run faster than 2:07 in the marathon. Now, 11 runners have accomplished that feat. As more runners achieve landmark times, the quality of the races seems to have improved.

In New York, four of the last five men's races have been decided by margins of 15 seconds or less. Last year, Kenya's John Kagwe won by a mere three seconds over countryman Joseph Chebet. Third-place finisher Zebedayo Bayo of Tanzania finished just three seconds behind Chebet.

"Right now, there are a lot of fast runners, which means until the last kilometer, it's a very hard competition," Lagat said.

In the 1980s, Kenyan runners and other Africans were just beginning to trickle into marathoning. Today, with long-distance running established as the dominion of Africans born at high altitudes, more and more talented and determined Africans debut in the sport every year.

"Ten or 15 years ago, there were not so many Kenyans or Africans running the marathon," said Gianni De Madonna, a manager who represents a number of the top runners in Sunday's race. "They, of course, know now what to do, and they are motivated because running fast means getting money."

A men's course record Sunday will mean a $50,000 bonus on top of the $50,000 first prize. For the women, there is a $35,000 bonus to go along with the $50,000 purse. When Morocco's Khalid Khannouchi set the world record in Chicago last month (2:05:42), he earned a $100,000 bonus on top of the winner's check of $65,000 and a new car.

Financial considerations aren't the only factors that have turned marathoning into an attractive profession. Cosmas Ndeti of Kenya, a three-time winner of the Boston Marathon, said that when he was younger he listened to talk that the sport was the domain of veteran runners on the decline.

"I heard the marathon was good when you are old," said Ndeti, 27. "Right now, it's different. The young guys are moving to the marathon."

The young guys frequently are bringing expertise--and speed--from shorter distances.

"The training program has changed so much," Lagat said. "We first thought that you should train at a medium speed. Right now, people realize that if you train fast, you will also be fast in the race."

Bill Rodgers, who won four straight New York City marathons in the 1970s, said he never raced for time and rarely paid attention to his pace. Grete Waitz of Norway, who won nine New York City marathons in the late '70s and early '80s, said she not only was oblivious of breaking records, she didn't even wear a watch while racing.

"I took off my watch because I felt it was stressful," Waitz said. "I always ran to win the race. If it was a fast time or a world record, that was a bonus."

Now, runners know what pace they are on every step of the way. As Khannouchi chased a world record in Chicago, the lead truck--which stays just ahead of the runners throughout the race--flashed not only his current time, but also the time in which he would finish if he maintained his current pace.

Big races also employ "rabbits," runners paid only to run a portion of the race at a certain speed, thereby pacing the field's top runners. Several rabbits were ordered to take the Chicago Marathon field out to the halfway point in 1:03. The pacemakers for the New York City Marathon will go out in the 1:03 to 1:04 range, according to race director Allan Steinfeld.

The paid speedsters are a foreign concept to runners like Rodgers, who said there was so little emphasis on times in his day that he found out only at the 25th mile in the 1975 Boston Marathon that he was on pace to break the American record.

"Now, you're getting these packs that push each other," Rodgers said. "There's more emphasis on the world record than ever before."

ONE FAST YEAR

Ethiopia's Belayneh Densamo ran 2:06:50 in Amsterdam in 1988, a record that stood for a decade until Ronaldo da Costa of Brazil broke it last year with a 2:06:05. This year, seven runners have equaled or beaten Densamo's mark, led by new world record holder Khalid Khannouchi:

Runner Time

Nationality Date Marathon

Khalid Khannouchi 2:05:42

Morocco Oct. 24 Chicago

Moses Tanui 2:06:16

Kenya Oct. 24 Chicago

Gert Thys 2:06:33

South Africa Feb. 14 Tokyo

Josephat Kiprono 2:06:44

Kenya Sept. 26 Berlin

Fred Kiprop 2:06:47

Kenya Oct. 17 Amsterdam

Tesfaye Jifar 2:06:49

Ethiopia Oct. 17 Amsterdam

William Kiplagat 2:06:50

Kenya Oct. 17 Amsterdam