By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
BOSTON (Reuters) - Meb Keflezighi, who became the first American man to win the Boston Marathon in three decades last year, will defend his title against a field of former champions and fast newcomers in Monday's 119th running of the fabled footrace.
Last year, Keflezighi, set a personal record by covering the race's hilly 26.2 miles in two hours, eight minutes and 37 seconds, giving Boston's crowds an emotional boost on the first anniversary of a fatal bomb attack that killed three and injured more than 260 spectators at the finish line in 2013.
Known as a tactical racer who seized his opportunity when the lead pack slowed last year, Keflezighi said he has imagined all scenarios for this year. "Obviously I want to win again but if I can run a personal best and finish fifth, I will still be happy," the 39-year old added.
Wilson Chebet, who finished second in 2014 11 seconds behind Keflezighi, and Lelisa Desisa, whose 2013 victory was all but eclipsed by the carnage, are both back.
Kenyans Patrick Makau, whose 2011 Berlin win in two hours, three minutes and 38 seconds leaves him with the fastest time in the field, and Abel Kirui who ran Rotterdam in 2009 in two hours, five minutes and four seconds, round out the top men.
The men and women's winners will receive $150,000 from a total $830,500 purse. Some 30,305 people plan to run this year, after last year's record 35,671 entrants that included many returning to finish the race that was stopped in 2013.
"Last year's race was amazingly perfect, but everyone was so on edge because it was the first anniversary of the bombing. This year the race is back to what it has long been; celebrating the sport and being the Olympics for everyday runners," said Scott Douglas, senior content editor for Runner's World.
On the women's side, 2014 champion Kenyan Rita Jeptoo has been banned for using performance enhancing drugs. This leaves no clear favorite and may open the door for American Shalane Flanagan, on her third outing here.
No American woman has won since 1985, but Flanagan, who placed seventh last year in two hours, 22 minutes and 2 seconds, said it can be done. "Meb did it on the men's side, and now it is our turn."Ethiopians Buzunesh Deba, who finished second last year, and Mare Dibaba, who finished third, are also back.
(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Jonathan Oatis)