Is this the year an American wins the Boston Marathon?
Since the mid-1980s, the answer to that question has been an emphatic "no," but with an abundance of emotion on Patriots Day, there's a good chance that question may finally be answered in the affirmative on Monday.
After the bombings near the finish line overshadowed last year's elite race, many top Americans have made breaking the tape in front of an inspired crowd on Boylston Street their top priority in 2014.
On the men's side, 38-year-old Meb Keflezighi, who has shown no signs of slowing down in recent years, leads the U.S. charge and hopes to become the first American male to win in Boston since Greg Meyer in 1983.
Keflezighi, who is racing here for the first time since finishing fifth in 2010, watched last year's race as a spectator at the finish line, leaving the scene just minutes before the first bomb exploded in front of Marathon Sports running shop. He is coming off a solid winter of training and racing that saw him capture the U.S. half-marathon title in 1:01:23 in January in Houston.
"I feel honored to be here healthy, and I wasn't healthy last year but I was there at the finish line as a spectator and those [three] people that died and those that were injured also were spectators like myself," says Keflezighi, who reached the Boston podium 2006, finishing third. "I've thought about Boston every day since then and I hope to give it my best come Monday and hopefully turn it into a positive this year."
"The biggest lesson I learned in Ethiopia was to be accustomed to suffering," Hall said. "There's no easy day. Every single run at 9,000 feet is hard and you're breathing hard. It was exactly what I wanted. I felt like I just needed to get away from things, kind of like 'Rocky' when he's training in Siberia and just disappears, it's just him, working hard and resting and recovering. I needed that.
"I needed to just get away from my cellphone, get away from the Internet and be able to put my head down and just train. That's exactly what I did for a month and I've never seen so much growth in my training in that amount of time."
A poised Jason Hartmann of Boulder, Colo., fourth overall and the top U.S. finisher each of the past two years at Boston, rounds out a strong American men's contingent, which also includes four-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman, 2:10 marathoner Brett Gotcher, reigning U.S. marathon champion Nick Arciniaga and Jeffrey Eggleston, who finished 13th in the marathon at last summer's world championships in Moscow.
Abdirahman, Gotcher and Eggleston are all making their Boston debuts, while Arciniaga has experience. He was the top American finisher in 2008, placing 10th overall, but dropped out of the 2012 race due to stomach issues.
As always, the Americans will face a strong collection of international runners. This year's field is headlined by Lelisa Desisa (Ethiopia), who won last year's Boston Marathon in a relatively slow 2:10:22, but has the experience -- and speed, with a personal best of 2:04:45 -- to run with anyone in the field.
Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, who set course records en route to winning the Chicago Marathon (2:03:45) and Tokyo Marathon (2:06:50) last year, trains with 2011 Boston champion and course-record holder Geoffrey Mutai and is widely regarded by many as marathoning's next superstar. A win in Boston will only help to solidify that status. Ethiopia's Gebre Gebremariam should not be overlooked. The 29-year-old ran 2:04:53 to finish third here in 2011, has a major marathon victory to his credit (New York City in 2010) and the short-distance speed (12:52 personal record at 5,000 meters, 26:52 PR at 10,000m) to kick down Boylston with anyone should it come down to a final sprint.
The women's field is highlighted by the top four finishers from last year's race: Rita Jeptoo (Kenya), Meseret Hailu (Ethiopia), Sharon Cherop (Kenya) and American Shalane Flanagan, along with sub-2:20 marathoner Mare Dibaba of Ethiopia, who will be making her Boston debut.
In all, a dozen women in the field have run under 2:24 in their careers. That list does not include Flanagan, who has a personal best of 2:25:38, the 16th-fastest in the field. But none of that will be at the front of her mind on Monday, as the Marblehead, Mass., native returns to her "hometown" race with an enormous sense of personal pride and a lone objective.
"Win Boston," she responded earlier this year when asked of her 2014 goals. "I'm all in, with all my heart. In my career, I've never felt my running take on a more personal meaning than it will to prepare for this year's race. The 2014 Boston Marathon will be run with overwhelming honor, passion and joy. Each step we take closer to the finish line is a victory in and of itself.
"It's hard to express what it means to return this particular year to the place where I grew up and compete. In one word, I guess it would be 'pride.' I, and many in the field, will be fueled by those who were affected by the tragedy and will be running for those who cannot."
Flanagan, who owns an Olympic bronze medal in the 10,000 meters and has shown that she has what it takes to compete for the win on an international stage, will be joined up front by 2011 Boston runner-up Desiree Davila Linden. If either woman should cross the finish line first Monday, they'd be the first U.S. woman to do so since Lisa Larsen Rainsberger in 1985.
The diminutive Linden, who spent six weeks training in Kenya earlier this year, was 2 seconds short of winning the 2011 race, running 2:22:38 -- the fastest time ever run by an American woman at Boston. After sitting out most of 2012 with injuries, she returned to action in September and placed fifth in 2:29:15 at the Berlin Marathon.
"I think I can compete," Linden says. "It's a super-strong field, so you never know what's going to happen, but I'll try to do the same thing as 2011. If I can put myself in it at 20 miles, I think I can really race it in from there. I think I can be a contender and I think I can run well, so there is pressure but it comes from within."
Also in the field is Serena Burla, the reigning U.S. women's half-marathon champion, who is coming off a career-best 2:28:01 effort at last October's Amsterdam Marathon, and Adriana Nelson, the 2013 U.S. half-marathon champion and top American finisher at last fall's New York City Marathon who will be making her Boston debut.
So back to the million-dollar question: Will an American pull off the victory in the 118th Boston Marathon?
The answer, of course, won't be known about noon ET Monday, and while two strong international fields will make it as difficult as ever for Keflezighi, Hall, Flanagan, Linden and others, one thing is certain: The desire for one to do so has never been stronger or carried more meaning.
"It's my hope and dream for me to pull it off for the USA," says Keflezighi, who in 2009 became the first American since 1982 to win the New York City Marathon. "If I can't do it, I hope the other Americans can. I hope one of the females can pull it off. It would be beyond words if an American could pull it off, male or female."