BOSTON (Reuters) - When Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa returns to the Boston Marathon starting line on Monday he will race for his third title but a clutch of fast competitors, including two other previous winners, make for an evenly matched field with no clear favorite.
Desisa has raced in only nine marathons and won three, including victories in Boston last year and in 2013 when a pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs ripped through the crowd at the finish line, killing three people and injuring about 260.
Known as a tactical racer with an ability to sprint at the end, Desisa posted a personal best of 2:04:45 in Dubai in 2013 and won Boston in 2:09:17 last year.
"Everyone comes here to win but with God's help I will win again. My training has been better than it was last year," Desisa said on Friday.
Fellow Ethiopian Lemi Berhanu Hayle, who notched a personal best of 2:04:33 in Dubai in January, has a similarly strong record, having run just five marathons and won three.
Kenya's Geoffrey Mutai enters the race with the fastest personal time of 2:03:02, a course record he set with his 2011 Boston win. Kenyan Wesley Korir whose personal best is 2:06:13 is returning for a fourth time after having won in 2012.
Kenyan Stephen Chebogut, who won Eindhoven in 2:05:52 last year when he took two minutes off his personal best, is also considered a strong contender.
"On the men's and women's sides there are no clear favorites with evenly matched fields, which increases the chances that it will come down to the last mile or two," said Scott Douglas, senior content editor for Runner's World.
While most top U.S. marathoners are sitting Boston out after February's Olympic trials, Kenyan and Ethiopian officials have yet to pick their teams and will consider results from Boston and London, coming up on April 24, in making their rosters.
Meb Keflezighi, who became the first American to win Boston in more than three decades when he scored an emotional victory in 2014 on the first anniversary of the bombings, said he could not let Boston interfere with his preparation for the Olympic marathon in August.
"I'd like to be running here but I have to hold back for Rio," he said.
The men and women's winners will receive $150,000 from a total $830,500 purse and some 30,000 people plan to participate in the race's 120th running.
On the women's side Kenyan Caroline Rotich will try to defend last year's crown but is likely to face pressure from Ethiopia's Tiki Gelana, who won gold at the 2012 Olympics and boasts the fastest time with a personal best of 2:18:58.
American Neely Spence Gracey marks her marathon debut in Boston with personal connections. Twenty-six years ago she was born on race day as her father, Olympian Steve Spence, was running the course.
Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Scott Malone/Andrew Both