BOSTON -- Everything about the 2014 Boston Marathon is so huge -- more runners, more security, more attention, more emotion -- that it might be easy to overlook the small and very fast professionals who will kick it off.
That would be a mistake. The elite field is one of the best in history overall, and especially noteworthy for the sport in the United States.
Nearly every top American marathoner who is healthy will lace up, including 2004 Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi and past U.S. team members Ryan Hall, Abdi Abdirahman, Desiree Davila Linden and Shalane Flanagan. That kind of confluence usually is reserved for the Olympic trials, when U.S. runners are competing with each other for a few precious slots, rather than competing with a world that has grown increasingly difficult to conquer.
It remains to be seen whether the extraordinary circumstances of this race will fuel extraordinary performances on the elite side, and how U.S. runners will try to integrate the two.
In 2011, on a day of strong tailwinds and stirring racing, Linden came close to breaking what is now a 29-year U.S. drought in one of the world's most prestigious marathons. She set an American course record of 2 hours, 22 minutes, 38 seconds in a second-place finish that was capped by a stretch duel with Kenya's Caroline Kilel.
Injury has limited Linden for the past two seasons. She dropped out of the Olympic race at the 2012 London Games and has completed one marathon since, in Berlin last fall. She is a long-term planner, and she had circled Boston 2014 on her calendar well before two bombs sowed devastation on Boylston Street last year.
The tragedy has altered the meaning of the race for many. But Linden, 30, said the best way for her to show respect for her profession, the event and the city is for her to do what she customarily does -- focus single-mindedly on the pursuit of excellence, rather than the symbolism others may confer on this marathon.
"It was impressive to see the first responders and the running community just step up so naturally [after the bombings],'' Linden, based in southeastern Michigan, said in an interview earlier this month. "The people in the heart of it, they did what you hoped people would do, and that was take care of each other. But when you look at the heart of what you're talking about, the events that happened, it's a really negative thing. To say I'm motivated by this negative event to me sounds really backwards.
"The race has always been important to me. I've always wanted to win there. I've known that runners are a strong community and Bostonians are tough, tough people, so nothing's really changed on that level for me. That it was revealed in such a bad way is unfortunate. But I think I already knew all those things. I'm ready to move forward.''
Hall, 31, turned in the best marathon time by an American man in Boston in 2011 (2:04:58), finishing fourth on the same day Linden was runner-up. Like Linden, he has struggled with injury the past two seasons and has not completed a marathon since the U.S. trials in early 2012.
But he'll take a somewhat different approach Monday, feeding off the exhilarating potential of a strong American finish and embracing what he expects to be high and vocal expectations from an anticipated 1 million spectators on the route.