BOSTON — For the last two years, ever since the Boston Marathon joined the ranks of the big-money races, the field here has been getting bigger and better than virtually any other in marathon history.
It has never been more true this year, even with the Olympic Games looming, when America's best distance runners traditionally forgo Boston for the Olympic trial.
"I can usually handicap a race, but I don't know how you handicap this one," said Bob Sevene, who coached American Joan Benoit Samuelson to an Olympic marathon gold medal in 1984. "It's loaded."
While the Americans are resting for the trials--the men's race takes place April 24 in Jersey City, N.J. and the women's May 1 in Pittsburgh--at least seven foreign countries are using the Boston race Monday to select their Olympic marathon teams. These include the African nations of Tanzania and Kenya, who have some of the fastest marathoners in the world.
Among those expected to race the 26.2 miles here are more than a dozen men whose best marathon performances have been 2 hours 10 minutes or faster. By comparison, the fastest American time run by a man this year has been about 2:15, and last year, 2:10:59.
Having fast runners, though, doesn't always mean a fast race. Athletes often approach a race tactically, only to win, sacrificing fast times. This year, however, there is more pressure than usual for the runners to be competitive.
"You've got guys running to impress their (Olympic) selectors, so there's a lot on the line," Sevene said. "That may take away from the tactics. I think if it's a great day with a tail wind, you're definitely going to break the course record."
The course record of 2:07:51 was set in 1986 by Australian Rob de Castella on a revised course. The world record is 2:07:12, set in 1985 in the London Marathon by 1984 Olympic marathon gold medalist Carlos Lopes of Portugal.
Those expected to compete in Boston include Welshman Steve Jones, who came within one second of breaking Lopes' record in the fall of 1985, finishing in 2:07:13 at Chicago, and two-time Boston winner Geoff Smith, of Great Britain, who recorded his best, 2:09:08, in his first marathon in 1983. Smith said in order to make his country's Olympic team, "I have to win. If I don't win the race, I don't stand a chance of making the team. I am ready. I feel a lot of confidence."
Others include Juma Ikangaa of Tanzania, whose best is a 2:08.10, and about half dozen athletes who have run races in the 2:09s.
The field includes three past winners of the New York City Marathon: Ibrahim Hussein, of Kenya, and Gianni Poli and Orlando Pizzolato of Italy; Gelindo Bordin, of Italy, fourth in the World Championships marathon last summer; Sulieman Nyambui, of Tanzania, winner of the 1987 Berlin Marathon in 2:11:11; and Gidamis Shahanga, of Tanzania, whose best is 2:09:35, and his younger brother, Alfredo, who has run 2:12:27. Last year's Boston winner, Toshihiko Seko of Japan, has already been selected for Japan's Olympic marathon team, but two of his countrymen, Hidki Kita (2:10:30) and Tomoyuki Tamiguchi (2:13:34), are expected to run.
Also competing will be John Treacy of Ireland, the silver medalist in the '84 Games.
Pizzolato said there have been four Italians running marathons this spring, competing for three spots on his country's Olympic team. "I have to run well," he said. "I have to run under 2:10."
The women's field is expected to be dominated again by Portugal's Rosa Mota, who won Boston last year and followed it with a win at the World Championships marathon last summer. Her best time of 2:23:29 makes her the third-fastest woman marathoner ever.
Mota's coach, Jose Pedrosa, predicted Mota would run a personal best or even a world record if the conditions were good. "If we have great weather and Rosa feels comfortable, she will run herself to the limit," he said. "Why not? She has already won Boston. In Boston, you can kill yourself and the only thing you lose is the race--It is not like the Olympics."
Mota is expected to be tested by Priscilla Welch, 43, who is the holder of the women's masters world record (2:26:51) in the marathon and winner of the New York City Marathon last fall.
Although most of the Americans are waiting for the trials, the Boston race will not be without some notable U.S. representation.
For four-time Boston winner Bill Rodgers, the race will be another attempt to win--but in the masters division this year. He turned 40 last December.
"I'm a realist when it comes to my life as an athlete now," Rodgers said. "But I'm very excited about the masters thing . . . If I could win the masters I'd be happy--I wouldn't care about anything else."