Shalane Flanagan might have come back for this year’s race anyway.
“It’s been a goal of mine to win the Boston Marathon since I was a little girl, but this gave me and everybody else even more incentive,” the Marblehead native says. “This probably will be the most powerful and poignant Boston Marathon that we could be a part of.”
The bombings that truncated and traumatized last year’s race have brought together the international running community in unprecedented fashion and provided an inducement to take the line in Hopkinton with reinforced resolve.
“This year is not like before,” says Ethiopia’s Gebre Gebremariam, who finished third in the men’s race last April. “We have to participate to show the people of the world, to change the bad time and to run and compete with each other.”
John Hancock, the race’s longtime sponsor, has assembled the fastest field ever for Monday morning’s 118th running of the planet’s most iconic foot race with five men who’ve run faster than 2 hours 5 minutes and two women who’ve broken 2:20.
“Boston has gathered probably one of the best fields I’ve ever seen,” says Flanagan, who finished fourth last year in her first appearance here.
The women’s race features the last three champions — Rita Jeptoo and Kenyan countrywomen Sharon Cherop and Caroline Kilel — as well as the last three runners-up — Meseret Hailu, Jemima Jelagat Sumgong, and Desiree (Davila) Linden — plus Ethiopia’s Mare Dibaba, who has the field’s best time (2:19:52) and Buzunesh Deba, who twice was second at New York.
On the men’s side last year’s top four return — Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa, Kenya’s Micah Kogo, Gebremariam, and Jason Hartmann, the top domestic finisher at the last two Patriots Day outings — as well as Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto, the Chicago course record-holder, and the US Olympic trio from London (Meb Keflezighi, Ryan Hall, and Abdi Abdirahman).
Hall, who set the US record (2:04:58) here when he came fourth in 2011, will be happy for the star-spangled company.
“It’s always nice to have other Americans in the pack,” says Hall, who usually has been the sole Yank among the leaders. “Sometimes the Kenyan guys will talk to each other and the Ethiopian guys will talk to each other and I’m just like that fringe-y ‘mzungu’ [Swahili for white person] who’s running out there with no one. So when I have Meb to talk to, that always brings a little bit of comfort to me.”
If ever there was a year when an American victor would be borne aloft through Copley Square, it is this one. Greg Meyer (1983) was the last US male and Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach (1985) the last US female to be crowned. Their fellow citizens, though, have been getting closer to their African rivals. Kara Goucher was third in 2009, Linden chased Kilel to the wire in 2011, and Flanagan was only seven seconds out of third last time.
The men have had a top-four finisher seven times in the last nine years, their best run since the Africans turned up en masse in 1998. Three times in a row it was Hall, who’s making his first appearance here since 2011 after training for a month in the Ethiopian clouds.
“Every time I’ve raced on this course I’ve done well,” says Hall, who hasn’t run a 26-miler since the London Olympics because of a variety of injuries. “I’m going to let that pull me along.”
Having a cohort of countrymen alongside won’t hurt. The Kenyans, who’ve claimed all but four of the last 23 men’s races, have prospered by performing in concert, sharing the workload to help set up one of them for victory. Last year the Ethiopians turned the tables as Desisa and Gebremariam assisted each other while Kogo was going it alone.
“I heard them talking in Amharic,” says Kogo, who didn’t know that his northern neighbors were getting restless at the leisurely pace and were getting ready to bust a move. “I didn’t know what they were saying.”
Desisa, who’s vying to become the first men’s titlist to repeat since Kenya’s Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot won his third straight in 2008, will have a bunch of companions who can find their way around Addis Ababa without a GPS — fellow sub-2:05ers Gebremariam and Markos Geneti (sixth last year) plus Tilahun Regassa (2:05:27) and Shami Dawud (2:05:42).
Their countrywomen have come in force as well. “We are not alone,” observes Deba, who plans to go immediately to the front.
Not that the Kenyans will be lonely. Jeptoo, Sumgong, Cherop, and Kilel are a formidable quartet. And Kimetto, Kogo, and Wilson Chebet, the three-time Amsterdam victor, will be eager to mix it up.
This year, as Gebremariam says, is not like before. This year the race’s theme is: We run together, and those who’ll be contending for the laurel wreaths will cover the distance in the same spirit as will the fourth-waver who’ll be delighted to break five hours.
“We got hit with a big, big punch last year, unexpected,” says Keflezighi. “But that’s what America is. Never giving up.”
More from the 2014 Boston Marathon — Cullen: Just like the days we used to know | Gasper: Boston reclaims its Marathon | Photos: Marathon scenes | The ‘Scream Tunnel’ and Heartbreak Hill | The elite runners | Boylston Street | Videos from the Marathon | Full coverageJohn Powers can be reached at email@example.com.