After a rocky inaugural event last year on Palm Sunday, organizers of the second Washington D.C. Marathon hope for a more competitive and less contentious race on March 23, with the enthusiastic backing of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and the City Council.

"The District of Columbia needs to have a marathon like New York and Boston," Williams said at a news conference yesterday. "Last year proved that our city can host a race of this magnitude. The council and I are proud to be partners in this event."

The marathon also has gained the acquiescence, if not the blessing, of area churches, many of whom complained vociferously last year that road closings hindered many congregants on their way to Palm Sunday services and prevented some from getting there at all. Marathon organizers, the mayor and city council members all agreed that the apparent scheduling oversight would not happen again.

Angela Casey, from the H2O Entertainment Group, owners and operators of the marathon, said revisions to the course should reduce traffic congestion for church-goers. The course starts at Memorial Bridge and roughly traces two ellipses, the first around the mall and the second across the bridges into Anacostia. The loops are aligned east to west, thereby eliminating last year's north-south alignment on 13th and 16th streets in Northwest that frustrated churches along those corridors.

"The new course still visits and highlights many of the city's neighborhoods while minimizing some of the traffic issues we faced last year," Casey said.

Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who ran last year's race in 4 hours 52 minutes, was effusive in his praise: "The new course is absolutely fabulous. This marathon is entirely within the city limits -- there is nothing comparable to our venues and vistas."

The revised route eliminates the long and difficult climb from Union Station toward Mount Pleasant, which should make the course much faster.

"The winning time should be in the 2:12 to 2:15 range," said athlete coordinator Rich Kenah, who has recruited marathoners from around the world. "The top women's time should around 2:40, but the women's field is deep and well-balanced."

Andrey Kuznetsov, 44 at the time, won last year's race in 2:23:40 and Victoria Mills, 40, took the women's title in 2:54:29. An enhanced prize purse of $25,000 -- $5,000 to both the top man and woman -- will provide incentive for fast times.

Kenah has received a commitment to run from Joseph Kamau, who ran 2:10:41 to finish second in the 1997 Boston Marathon. Although he is no longer one of the world's best marathoners, Kamau, 30, won the Long Beach Marathon last October in 2:16:46.

Volha Yudziankova from Belarus is among the women's favorites. She ran 2:40:23 to win the inaugural Miami Tropical Marathon on Feb. 2 and has a personal best of 2:32:51.

About 6,500 runners have registered for the marathon, team relay and team challenge, and applications are still being accepted. An accompanying 5K had been planned but was canceled.