Greg Winter. New York Times. 5/8/2003.

Certain thoughts are bound to grip you as you slog along highways, inches from the blurring traffic, gripping a sign saying ''150 miles or bust'' so tightly that your shoulder muscles seem permanently seized, the antibiotics from last week's flu still jingling in your pocket while rain clouds billow ominously above. They go something like this.

''I must really be crazy, just like people say,'' Robert Jackson, the wiry councilman from Manhattan's northwest corner, said last Friday, hurrying along.

At 52, Mr. Jackson is leading a 150-mile march from Manhattan to Albany to dramatize the lawsuit in which he is both plaintiff and progenitor. Contending that the state has shirked its own constitutional obligation to provide all children with a sound basic education, the suit challenges whether its $13 billion education budget for 3 million schoolchildren is nearly enough.

After a decade in the making, the case goes before the state's highest court today, and Mr. Jackson is on pace to stroll into Albany right on time, waving his arms at the front of a high-school marching band. Literally.

''The only way I'm not going to make it is if they take me away to heaven,'' he said, shoes off, airing his aching feet.

Even Mr. Jackson, whose affinity for diving off stages into the outstretched arms of demonstrators and yanking elderly people onto the dance floor in nursing homes has earned him a quirky reputation, considers this the performance of a lifetime in political theater.

And his bravado appears to be infectious, since he's managed to inspire politicians of just about every ilk, a professional football player and countless cheering schoolchildren to come along for at least part of the journey.

Those who haven't marched have lined up behind him legally. Not only has the city submitted briefs in support of the case, which is being brought by a group called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, but scores of business leaders, elected officials and virtually every school district in the state have also put their names behind it.

''This is about a simple thing: the right to a sound education,'' Joel I. Klein, chancellor of New York City's schools, said at a noisy sendoff for Mr. Jackson last Thursday. ''We want that right to come off the paper and into the schoolhouse.''

It may not be so simple, since the state contends that it does more than enough already. Educational spending on the city's children is not merely constitutionally sufficient, the state argues in its briefs, but considerably higher than in most other large urban districts, a fact that is ''hardly indicative of a school system starved for resources.''

A New York appeals court essentially agreed last year, ruling that the state's responsibility ends after providing students with the skills needed to ''get a job, and support oneself, and thereby not be a charge'' on the public dole.

An eighth- or ninth-grade education is enough for that, the court decided, meaning Mr. Jackson and his lawyers are faced with proving that the state's guarantee of a free education extends all the way through high school.

''Can you believe that?'' said Mr. Jackson, retelling how he walked 12 miles from his West 183rd Street apartment to the courthouse in Lower Manhattan on the morning the case first went before the State Supreme Court in 1999, the prelude to his walk now. ''Do you think those judges would say an eighth grade education is enough for their children? I doubt it.''

Irrepressibly optimistic as he is, he has anger in his voice, too, the kind of frustration that made him shrug off the uncertainty of lawyers and bring the case a decade ago while he was president of a community school board in Manhattan. At the time, his youngest daughter, Sumaya, was in first grade. She is now a high school junior.

It is the same determination that led this middle-aged man who was racked by flu to believe, without hesitation, that he could march more than 20 miles a day at a rapid pace without training at all.

''Oh, well, I did go jogging once. Maybe twice,'' he said.

To his relief, he is marching with two support vans and a smattering of die-hards. Maria Behncke, a Rochester mother, decided that walking 150 miles would be less of a ''Herculean effort'' than the ''begging, borrowing and stealing'' she and other parents go through every year to keep the schools solvent.

Mariam Bott decided to come along at the last minute because she had long been ''infected by the school finance bug.'' And there are even Mr. Jackson devotees like Debra Klaber, who thinks so poorly of the city's schools that she home-schooled her daughter for almost 17 years.

''My wife kept asking me: 'Why do you have do this? Why can't you just take a bus to Albany?' '' said Mr. Jackson, acknowledging that she calls him crazy, too. ''I told her, 'it's not the same. Every day people take buses up there to protest something.' It's boring. I can't be boring.''

Blisters and shinsplints are as common as the groans when it's time to move again. On those rare occasions that Mr. Jackson is not shouting ''that's great, beautiful'' into his cellphone or calling out to dumbstruck passers-by, he dreams of the pool at the next hotel and a long hot shower.

Then, as he turns one of a thousand desolate bends, the sight of hundreds of children cheering his name appears like a mirage. Standing outside their school, they wait for him with banners, sweatshirts and high-fives, his name lettered on the marquee like a rock star just rolled into town.

''Man, it felt good,'' he said. ''It's a clearly a reminder of what we're doing this for.''