As Lelisa Desisa, the Boston Marathon champion in 2013 and again last year, chatted with two fellow Ethiopians in a Fairmont Copley hotel conference room Friday morning, in the opposite corner was Wesley Korir, the 2012 Boston winner.
One chair over from Korir sat Wilson Chebet, owner of three top-five finishes in three Boston tries. Two tables next to them was Yemane Tsegay, the 2015 runner-up who has eight career marathon wins. Across the way from Tsegay was Lemi Berhanu Hayle, a 21-year-old with a personal best of 2 hours, 4 minutes, 33 seconds — 12 seconds better than Desisa’s best.
The lesson, then, 72 hours before the 120th Boston Marathon on Monday, was that the men’s elite field is, well, especially elite, full of world-class athletes with world-class résumés.
Nine of the 19-member elite men’s field have sub-2:06 personal bests. Although it’s worth noting that not all marathons are made equal — hilly Boston tends to grade as difficult — Kenya’s Sammy Kitwara has the quickest time of the group, 2:04:28 (Chicago, 2014).
“It’s stronger than before. I’ve run here four times, and I think this is a very strong [group],” Korir said. “It’s more packed. In the past, it’s more spread out times. But now here we’ll find it’s packed, all close together and very competitive.
“There’s not really a clear favorite as there used to be, so you’ll find people running as a group to the end.”
That was, according to Boston Athletic Association executive director Thomas Grilk, the intention of the folks at the BAA and John Hancock who assembled this group.
The field includes some runners with very fast times and others with very competitive (but not necessarily quite as fast) race results.
“That’s a pretty good balance,” Grilk said. “If you have nothing but people who are fast, you have a time trial. If you have people who have won races, they know something about competition. If you bring those two elements together, you get a pretty interesting race.”
If the runners are as bunched together come Monday morning as they are on paper, Korir thinks the race will turn into a mental challenge more than a physical one.
Ian Burrell is inclined to agree. One of just two Americans in the elite field, Burrell, 31, is seeded toward the bottom with a personal best of 2:13:26 — an average 1-mile pace of just over five minutes. He came out of retirement for this one, and as a practicing attorney in Colorado Springs, Burrell had a take a few days off from work to travel.
He’s thinking the course’s difficulty can work in his favor.
“It’s not a run where it’s flat and you can carry an aggressive tone the whole race. You really have to race intelligently out there,” said Burrell, who noted that he’s shooting to finish in the top 10. “That’s my race strategy: Try to run as smart and as tough as I can, and see how many of these guys I can pick off at the end.
“Typically, the folks who can run the grittiest and the most intelligently at Boston are the guys who have successful days.”
The other elite US runner is 26-year-old Girma Mecheso, who was born in Ethiopia and was an All-American at Oklahoma State University. This will be his marathon debut; in Houston last year he ran a half-marathon in 1:02:16.
Mecheso can’t be entirely sure what to expect, but he credited his coaches for getting him through the past four months of training.
“It’s all going to come down to one day,” he said. “Boston is a great place with great athletes to [run with], and it’s a great fit for me.”
Last year’s top two — Desisa and Tsegay — pointed out that even as the runners line up, take off, and make their way from Hopkinton to Boston, it’s impossible to tell what might happen.
As Grilk put it: “Shoot the gun, let them run.”
“You never know,” Burrell said, “what Boston is going to turn out like.”