This year's Deseret News/Granite Furniture men's and women's 10K races may be the most competitive ever, and certainly could be the fastest in history.

A field of 15-20 "elite" men and a strong women's field could see course records fall when finishers arrive at Liberty Park in the early morning hours of July 24, when the annual races coordinated by the Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation Department are conducted once again.Gene Whitmore is the elite athlete coordinator for the marathons and 10K races. He's responsible for helping assemble the fields of national- and world-class runners coming to Salt Lake City. And this year, he's clearly excited.

"I can tell you one thing, this is going to be a fast, fast field in both 10K races," he said. "There's a $1,000 bonus for racers who set new course records in the 10K, and I think either record could fall."

As of Thursday evening, Whitmore was still uncertain if defending men's champ Ed Eyestone, winner the last three years, would return. Eyestone is participating in this weekend's Goodwill Games, and may come home to Salt Lake for the DesNews 10K if he feels up to it. Even without Eyestone, the field is impressive. Among those entered in the men's division are the following:

- Eric Morrison, the "unknown" runner last year who entered at the last minute and placed seventh. The Lakewood, Colo., runner is having a great season and feels he might be ready to contend for the title.

- Jerry Lawson, nicknamed "The Flash" partly because of his love of comic books, is currently ranked sixth in the United States among road racers and is the American record holder in the marathon. He ran a 2:09.35 in Chicago last year, and he might be the man to beat.

- Craig Young from Colorado is the number one "Masters" (men over 40) runner in the world. The 41-year-old Young is also having a fine year on the road racing circuit.

- Eddy Hellebuyk, a member of the Belgium team in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, will enter for the first time.

- Larry Smithee of Salt Lake City, always a favorite in this race and the unofficial world record holder in the 8K, is among this year's top entries.

- Teddy Mitchell, a nationally ranked road racer from Arkansas, is making his first appearance at the DesNews races.

- Three runners from Kenya, including Joseph Kahugu, winner of the Cleveland marathon in a course record time of 2:11; John Kariuki, ranked 17th in the world and runner of one of the ten fastest 10K times in history; and James Bungei, currently ranked 10th in the world, are coming.

The women's field should be equally tough, with defending champ Kris Ihle-Helledy from Wisconsin coming back. Fellow Wisconsinite Jenny Crain will also return, along with Kenyan Jane Omoro (currently ranked third in the world), Texan Natalie Nalepa and emerging Florida road race star Kim Pawelek.

Of course most of the racers who will take off from University Park at 6:15 a.m. will be more like the rest of us, and there's still time to register. You can sign up at any of the four Granite Furniture locations in Layton, Sugarhouse, Salt Lake City or Orem; at Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation, or at the Deseret News, 30 East 100 South in Salt Lake City. You can also register online at (www.desnews.com.)