BOSTON (Reuters) - Ethiopian runner Lemi Berhanu Hayle will defend his Boston Marathon title in a wide open race on Monday against a men's field that includes the first American champion in three decades and no clear favorite.
Berhanu Hayle won last year's race in two hours 12 minutes 44 seconds after pulling away from twice champion and countryman Lelisa Desisa, who is not competing this year.
The last men's repeat winner was five-time champion Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot of Kenya, who completed a triple in 2008.
An Ethiopian woman, Atsede Baysa, will also be defending her title after winning in 2:29:19.
Berhanu Hayle's main challengers will include countryman Sisay Lemma, who ran 2:05:16 in Dubai last year, and Kenyans Geoffrey Kirui who ran 2:06:27 in Amsterdam last year and Emmanuel Mutai, who was second in New York and Chicago, and has the field's fastest personal best of 2:03:13.
The hilly Boston course usually leads to slower times than other major marathons.
"Any move (Berhanu Hayle) makes will be taken seriously by the others," said Scott Douglas, a contributing editor at Runner's World. "With no clear standouts this year, Boston will be a very interesting race to watch."
Making a farewell appearance will be Meb Keflezighi, who gave Boston an emotional boost when he became the first American man to win in three decades in 2014, one year after a pair of brothers of Chechen origin killed three people and injured more than 200 at the finish line with a pair of homemade bombs.
Keflezighi, 41, plans to retire from competition after November's New York City marathon.
"It will be very emotional to get to Hopkinton (where the race starts), but I'm excited. I know the course and I'm 100 percent healthy," he said.
Galen Rupp, who won marathon bronze at the Rio Olympics but has had foot problems this year, and Jared Ward, who wrote his masters thesis on marathon pacing, join a large U.S. contingent.
Strong women contenders include Kenyans Gladys Cherono, Edna Kiplagat and Brigid Kosgei.
These women will be racing in part because of Kathrine Switzer, who became the first woman to finish the then all-male Boston race with a bib 50 years ago.
Switzer, 70, will wear the same number - 261 - when she steps to the line to race again on Monday. "I will put on the full regalia: the bib plus the eye liner, mascara and lipstick," she said.
(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Scott Malone and Larry Fine)