By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
BOSTON (Reuters) - When Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa returns to the starting line of the Boston Marathon on Monday after winning the fabled footrace last year one of his fiercest challengers may be Kenyan Dennis Kimetto.
Both men arrive in Boston with short but enviable records, with this marking only the fourth marathon for each and the first time they will meet in a race. Each won two of their last three outings and came in second in the third one.
This year's 118th running of the race is sure to be an emotional one with the largest ever field of 36,000 including many racers who were not able to cross the finish line last year when police stopped the race after two bombs exploded, killing three and injuring more than 260.
With his win all but forgotten in the face of the attack, Desisa returned to Boston last summer to donate his first place medal to the city. He gave his racing bib to a victim, a ballroom dancer who lost her leg in the attack.
Known as a tactical racer with an ability to sprint at the end, he outraced two rivals on Boylston Street to win the 2013 race in two hours 10 minutes and 22 seconds. Hours later two homemade pressure cooker bombs, packed with nails and ball bearings, tore through the crowd at the finish line.
The world championship silver medalist, Desisa holds a personal best of 2:04:45 set in Dubai in 2013.
Saying he is happy to be back one year after the gruesome destruction eclipsed his victory celebration, the Ethiopian runner said "We have to look to the future. There has to be a resilience." For himself, he hopes that will mean a repeat of last year's success. "I am ready to win again. I did much training."
Only Kimetto, who started running professionally just four years ago after farming near Eldoret, boasts a faster personal best among the Boston runners, having won Chicago in 2:03:45 last year. Kimetto is known to excel at flat, fast courses, the very opposite of Boston's grueling hills.
Still he too says he is ready for his debut here, having trained with compatriot Geoffrey Mutai who set Boston's 2:03:02 course record in 2011. "I am accustomed to running hills in Kenya, I have trained for them," Kimetto said on Friday.
Kimetto and Desisa will compete in a tough field, where seven of the 22 elite men runners have finished a 26.2 mile marathon course in under 2:05:30, making it the fastest group ever to race in Boston, organizers said.
The men and women's winners will each receive $150,000 in prize money out of the Boston Marathon's total $806,000 purse.
American Ryan Hall, who ran a personal best of 2:04.58 here in 2011, is returning for a fourth time and has a taste for going out fast. 2004 Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi and Jason Hartmann, who has finished fourth twice in Boston, round out the field of seven elite American men.
On the women's side, two time Boston champion Kenyan Rita Jeptoo will face her training partner and compatriot Jemima Jelagat Sumgong, who has steadily cut her times.
Jeptoo won Boston last year in 2:26:25 and was also the only woman to break two hours 20 minutes last year when she set her personal best of 2:19:57 in Chicago. Sumgong also set her personal best of 2:20:48 in Chicago in 2013.
Ethiopian Mare Dibaba arrives with the fastest personal time of 2:19:52, which she posted in Dubai in 2012. Kenyans Sharon Cherop and Caroline Kilel who have each won here are also back.
Hometown favorite, Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won twice and set a world record for her 55-59 age group last year, will be running again, this time with her two children. Acknowledging this year's more somber pre-race mood, Samuelson said "Tuesday's memorial signaled the altered state that life has become, but it also showed us the need to move forward."
(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Gene Cherry)