Monday marks the 115th running of the Boston Marathon, and any description of the race, with its dream-like allure and course that winds from Hopkinton to Boston, seems to have the feel of a James Taylor lyric. And Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" seems a fitting soundtrack for Monday's run, given the tweaks instituted this year by the Boston Athletic Association in hopes of hosting an event as smooth as the Boston-born singer himself.
The biggest change to the 2011 race is the introduction of a third wave of runners at the starting line, a modification of the two-wave system used in years past. Race director Dave McGillivray said the third wave, which breaks the field into three roughly equal-sized segments, will help increase overall efficiency.
"We didn't feel that the two-wave start was meeting our own personal expectations," McGillivray said, "so we just decided, well, let's split it up even more, become more efficient and see how that goes. The whole idea of the change is to make the race run even smoother."
Each wave will include approximately 9,000 runners, with the first wave of runners, including the elite men, going off at 10:00 a.m., followed by the second wave at 10:20 and the third wave at 10:40.
"As far as the wave program is concerned," McGillivray said, "we're all about quality, not about quantity. People expect a certain standard from us and hopefully every year they get just that.
"You don't go into this and make these changes recklessly. That's one thing about Boston -- it takes some time before you can make any change, because there are a lot of people involved in all the decision-making. So you have to run it up all those various flag poles before you can get consensus. If everyone buys into it, there's a good chance that what you're changing to has a good chance of working out well."
It remains to be seen how the third wave will affect this year's runners -- "The proof is in the pudding," McGillivray said -- but the course conditions shouldn't be a problem. Forecasters are calling for highs in the upper 50s and plenty of cloud cover Monday.
The favorite on the men's side is defending champion Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, of Kenya, who set a course record in 2010 after finishing in 2 hours, 5 minutes, 52 seconds. Cheruiyot will have his hands full with a field that includes fellow Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai -- the world's second fastest marathoner in 2010 (2:04:55, Rotterdam) -- and American hopeful Ryan Hall.
Hall's personal best (2:06:17, London, 2008) puts him just 25 seconds short of Cherulyot's 2010 course record. Hall also brings plenty of experience to this year's race, having placed third here in 2009 and fourth last year, leaving him with a good chance of becoming the first American champion since Greg Meyer in 1983.
The competition should be fierce on the women's side as well. Ethiopian defending champ Teyba Erkesso (2:26:11) is back, as is 2010 runner-up Tatyana Pushkareva, of Russia, who finished last year just threeseconds behind Erkesso. They'll have to contend with a four-time winner -- Kenya's Catherine Ndereba, 38, who last won in 2005 with a time of 2:25:13 -- and a strong rookie, Florence Kiplagat, 24, who is making her marathon debut but has a resume that includes a 2009 World Cross-Country title and the 2010 World Half Marathon championship (1:08:24).
And don't forget about Americans Kara Goucher and Desiree Davila. In 2009, Goucher, 32, led the Boston Marathon with one mile to go but struggled to the finish and wound up third. Last year at the Chicago Marathon, Davila, 27, finished in 2:26:10, making her the fastest female marathoner of 2010. Both Goucher and Davilla will be up against sentimental favorite Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won in 1979 as a 21-year-old Bowdoin College student and finished first again in 1983. Samuelson, 53, is running in Boston for the first time since 1993.
There's drama, too, in the wheelchair division, where world record-holder Ernst Van Dyk of South Africa (1:18:27) is looking for a staggering 10th Boston win, and Japan's Wakako Tsuchida will try for her fifth straight win.
But the most impressive competitor may be Clarence Hartley, who at 81 is the oldest runner in this year's field of nearly 27,000. A U.S. Air Force veteran, Hartley saw combat in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and five air medals. He also has beaten cancer twice, most recently in 2007. On Monday, Hartley hopes to add to his trophy case by establishing the American marathon record for 81-to 84-year-olds. His qualifying time -- 4:26:09 -- is just 13 minutes shy of the mark.