Lelisa Desisa has felt compelled to return to the city again and again and again since last Patriots Day. Rita Jeptoo, shaken by the horrific bombings near the finish line, wasn’t sure whether she would come back at all.
But the defending champions were at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Friday morning to accept their No. 1 bibs for Monday’s 118th Boston Marathon and to reaffirm their commitment to a race that has endured for nearly a dozen decades.
“First of all, I am defending champion,” said Desisa, who is bidding to become the first men’s titlist to repeat since Kenya’s Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot won his third straight in 2008. “And besides that, the situation that happened at the finish line, I hope to show that I am not scared about what happened and come back to Boston to run.”
The 24-year-old Ethiopian, who was making his debut here last time, returned in June for the BAA 10K and presented his marathon victor’s medal to Mayor Thomas Menino.
“I gave my medal for the people who lose their life and their bodies as a reminder for the people of Boston of what happened at the finish,” said Desisa, who came back again in October and set a course record in the BAA Half-Marathon.
Jeptoo, who easily won her second title in her fifth Boston appearance, told the Globe after she’d returned to Kenya that she wasn’t planning on competing here this year, saying that the fatal bombings allegedly carried out by local terrorists were “very scary.”
But upon reflection, she turned the calendar page and will be back on the starting line in Hopkinton Monday morning, hoping to be the first women’s champion to repeat since countrywoman Catherine Ndereba in 2005.
“Last year was not good, but I was thinking that this year is not the same like last year,” Jeptoo said at the traditional press conference. “I hope that we are going to run and no problem again.”
Not since 1995 (Kenya’s Cosmas Ndeti and Germany’s Uta Pippig) have both the men’s and women’s champions retained their titles, but both Desisa and Jeptoo are favored to do it.
After his Boston triumph, only the fourth here by an Ethiopian male, Desisa went on to earn the silver medal at the Moscow world championships, his country’s best finish since Gezahegne Abera won gold in 2001.
Jeptoo doubled down at Chicago with a clocking of 2 hours, 19 minutes, 57 seconds that was the world’s fastest time of the year.
“Rita was on another level last year,” said Shalane Flanagan, the Marblehead native who placed fourth in her Boston debut. “She dominated in the most absurd fashion. But if she’s resting on her laurels, a lot of people are chomping at the bit to wear that wreath.”
Had Jeptoo opted to stay home or to make a debut appearance in London last weekend, the previous two champions, countrywomen Sharon Cherop and Caroline Kilel, would have been delighted to reclaim their crowns.
But for Jeptoo, the lure and challenge of a reprise overcame her original misgivings.
“The message is, I was happy to come to visit Boston and to run again and defend my title,” she said.
If Desisa were to win again, he’d be the first Ethiopian to collect back-to-back men’s titles here and the first non-Kenyan since England’s Geoff Smith in 1985.
“I knew that there are good competitors this year,” said Desisa, who was the second-youngest men’s titlist in two decades. “That’s why I took my time and did very good training.”
For company, he’ll have the two men who chased him to the finish last year — countryman Gebre Gebremariam and Kenya’s Micah Kogo — as well as Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto, who won in Tokyo last year and set a course record in Chicago, plus the full US varsity. In addition to the Olympic trio of Meb Keflezighi, Ryan Hall, and Abdi Abdirahman, there’s also Jason Hartmann, the top domestic finisher (fourth place) the last two years.
What has brought back the Americans in force is the imperative to show that the city, the race, the runners, and the spectators can rebound and resume after a day of death and dread.
“A tragedy happened in our lives,” said Keflezighi, who’s competing here for the first time since 2010. “Somehow, some way, we have to overcome.”