Marathon spotlight on U.S. elites

— -- 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.

"I would be here no matter what,'' said Hall. "I love the Boston Marathon and I always want to run it, every single spring. With that said, what happened last year does add a ton of fire. It added a ton of fire to my training and preparation. I thrive off emotion.

"Crossing the finish line is going to be a different experience. Everyone will be thinking about what happened last year, showing the world what happened last year didn't work. It didn't strike fear in us, it didn't keep us down, we got back up and we're stronger for it, we're more united for it.''

Both Hall and Linden spent significant training blocks at altitude in East Africa leading up to the race -- Linden in Kenya and Hall in Ethiopia.

Will the number of U.S. runners make a difference in tactics on the course? Cooperating with countrymen, especially in the early stages, is generally a race-day decision, but several in the group of veteran Americans said there will be straightforward comfort in numbers. They know each other's pacing and patterns intimately, and will use one another as gauges at critical junctures.

And, of course, "it significantly increases our odds,'' Linden said.

Hall added: "I'm hoping that all of us go out together and get a chance to run together for a long time. I think that's what it's going to take for us to have a chance at winning the race.''

Greg Meyer's 1983 victory was the last for a U.S. man in Boston. Jason Hartmann, 33, who has finished fourth in Boston the past two years, said he'll be conscious of trying to control his emotions when he lines up for the start in Hopkinton. Business as usual is "the best way to honor the victims and Boston,'' he said.

Cancer survivor Serena Burla, winner of the U.S. Half-Marathon Championships in Houston in January, is on a personal mission to cross the finish line after a couple of detours, but said it would be hard for her to ignore the bigger context of the race.

Her diagnosis of malignant synovial sarcoma in one leg -- removed by surgery that took half of her right hamstring -- delayed her planned marathon debut here in 2010. She was unable to finish in Boston last year when a stomach bug felled her, and watched the ghastly first reports of the bombings from a suburban hospital room. When her 4-year-old son expressed anxiety, Burla found herself searching for ways to assure him that running was "a safe environment.''

"It took me a couple of months just to work through,'' said Burla, a 31-year-old Virginian whose father, Chris Ramsey, a longtime high school track coach, ran in Boston in 1974 and will be waiting for her at the finish line this year.

"I grew up in a running family and this felt like an attack on my home. I know personally, my heart was driving me to come back.''