Perhaps the years are finally catching up with the old man. There are, after all, the regular bouts of pneumonia, and he is, ahem, a bit accident prone.

Why just last week he got the chicken-soup-and-bed-rest treatment from the wife, paid another visit to the doctor's office, crashed his rental car in the parking lot, then crashed himself while out for a little run. What's more, he is in the worst shape of his career, the weight fluctuates and he's facing regular challenges from the young bucks at the office.In short, he is ready for retirement. But not quite.

Henry Dinwoody Marsh, the grand old man of track and field, first must return to the Olympic Games one last time. Calling on all the saavy of his 13 years in the sport, Marsh rallied to a stirring second-place finish in the 3,000-meter steeplechase Friday night at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials to earn a spot on the Olympic team for the fourth time.

Marsh, 34 and desperately trying to postpone retirement for two more months, ran down Brian Diemer at the top of the final homestretch and then held his ground behind Brian Abshire the rest of the way to the finish.

Abshire, who is 10 years younger than Marsh, won with a time of 8:23.64, while Marsh, the two-time defending Olympic trials champion, clocked 8:24.21 - some seven seconds faster than his previous best time this season. Diemer was third in 8:24.40, barely holding off the resurging Mark Smith, who was fourth in 8:24.88.

"I gave it all I had," said Marsh. "My legs were wobbly at the end. During the race I kept telling myself that this would be my last race if I didn't finish in the top three."

When all was finished, and the joy and relief set in, Marsh took the customary victory lap, along with Diemer and Abshire. En route, he took an uncustomary dip in the water jump, and then ran along the homestretch slapping hands with the fans leaning over the rail of the stands.

"This is a thrill," said Marsh. It also was one for the record books. Marsh, the oldest runner on the U.S. Olympic track and field team, is only the second American distance runner ever to make four Olympic teams. He is one of only four four-time Olympians so far on the current U.S. team, along with Edwin Moses, Larry Myricks and Karin Smith (John Powell and Mac Wilkins also could make their fifth and fourth Olympic teams, respectively, in Saturday's discus final).

"I don't know how I pulled it off," said Marsh. "This is the least prepared I've been for any of the Olympic trials. I just hoped my experience would pull me through."

Indeed, Marsh entered Friday's race full of self-doubt. In his three major races this summer, he had run no faster than 8:34.74, and in one of them he fell and failed to finish. His fitness - and his notorious bad luck - seemed no better at trials. He crashed his rental car an hour before round one and finished sixth in his heat. Worse, in the semifinals he fell over the final barrier with 200 meters to go and placed sixth again, barely making the final.

All of which sounded like the old Marsh. This is the same man who had mono for the '79 World Cup, was disqualified from the '81 World Cup, fell in the '83 World Championships and came up ill for the '84 Olympic final, in which he finished, where else, fourth, the worst of all places.

"The only reason I've been competing the last four years is to give the Olympics another shot," says Marsh. "If I had medaled in '84, I probably would have retired. The only thing I didn't know was what it would be like to run at 34."

Now he knows. Three times this year Marsh has taken sick with viral pneumonia, which has hampered his training. Only last week, Marsh was so sick that he spent every other day in bed, resting and eating his wife's chicken soup - "I didn't know what else to do," said Suzi Marsh. On alternate days Marsh forced himself to train, because "I knew I couldn't make the team if I didn't," he said. But it was evident he still wasn't healthy.

"On the plane trip out here all he did was a series of coughs," said Suzi. "It sounded awful. I kept thinking, I can't believe we're on our way to the Olympic trials."

With all that weighing on his mind, Marsh was nothing if not realistic as entered Friday's climactic race. "I was really worried, quite frankly," said Marsh. "I was still six weeks from where I should be."

"We were sensible enough to know it might not happen," says Suzi. "But he was hungry."

As is his custom, Marsh dropped to the back of the pack for the first mile of the race, but, uncharacteristically, for a time he began to lose contact with the pack, falling behind by as much as seven meters. "I just wasn't alert and sharp for some reason," said Marsh. "Fortunately, the pace dragged and that put me back in it."

With 31/2 laps to go, Marsh went to work, gradually working his way into the thick of things. He moved up two places, into 12th place, while Abshire continued to lead. One lap later, Marsh found himself boxed against the rail, but with 800 meters to go he bounced outside and made a big move.

He slipped into sixth place with 600 meters to go, and then to fourth on the water jump. Marsh held that position as the pack moved down the final backstretch, holding off a challenge by Smith.

At the top of the homestretch he overtook Diemer, who, ironically, four years ago did the same thing to Marsh to claim the bronze medal in the Olympic Games. Marsh was gaining on Abshire briefly but lost momentum coming off the final barrier and had to settle for second place.

"I wanted to be careful over the barrier," said Marsh. "I didn't want to fall and by then I knew I had made the team."

After the race, Doug Padilla, Marsh's training partner, jumped out of the stands and ran to hug Marsh near the finish while his Marsh's parents and wife jumped up and down and applauded from the stands.

"He looked like the old Henry," said Suzi, correctly.

And for that at least one rival could not help admiring Marsh on this night. "Henry's my hero," said Diemer. "He's been so good for so long."

With new medication, Marsh hopes to remain healthy and make one more run for an Olympic medal in Seoul, Korea come September. "I expect to be at least 10 seconds faster for the Olympics," he said. "If I can stay healthy, I can be competitive."