By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
BOSTON (Reuters) - Defending champion Wesley Korir, who recently won a seat in Kenya's parliament, said his goal in Monday's Boston Marathon will be to make his countrymen proud with another victory, but he will face a fast field of fellow Kenyans and Ethiopians on the way.
"My first priority now is to represent the people of Kenya well and they would be very happy to see me first," Korir said on Friday about his race strategy. "For that I will have to run very hard. The best in shape will win the race."
As Korir and a handful of fellow east Africans -- Kenyans and Ethiopians have dominated Boston's notoriously grueling marathon course for a quarter century -- make final preparations for Boston's 117th running, talk swirled about Korir's fitness.
Since sweating through high temperatures to win here in two hours 12 minutes and 40 seconds last year, Korir, who earned his college degree in Kentucky, said the campaign and now his work as a lawmaker have taken time away from racing.
He insists he has had plenty of time to train, however and said: "I'm about to see how much time being in parliament took away from running."
Nipping at his heels for a chunk of the $806,000 prize purse will be Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa Benti, 23, who boasts the field's fastest time, having won his first-ever marathon in Dubai in January in two hours four minutes and 45 seconds.
"On paper this is a great field," said Amby Burfoot, editor-at-large at Runner's World.
But experience also counts and Ethiopian Gebregziabher Gebremariam, who finished third here in 2011 with a time of two hours four minutes and 53 seconds, will return for a third time while Kenyan Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, who won in 2010 in two hours five minutes and 52 seconds, is back for a fourth race.
After last year's sweltering conditions when temperatures reached 89 degrees Fahrenheit (32 C) by midday, forecasters are calling for cloudy skies and temperatures near 57 degrees Fahrenheit (14 C).
On the women's side, the estimated 500,000 spectators lining the course from Hopkinton to Copley Square will cheer extra loudly for Shalane Flanagan, who grew up in Massachusetts, won a bronze in the 10,000 meters in Beijing, and boasts a personal best of two hours, 25 minutes and 38 seconds.
Having long thought of herself more as of a middle-distance runner instead of a marathoner, Flanagan said her debut in Boston will fulfill a childhood dream.
"I went from being a cheerleader on the sidelines on Boylston Street to competing here as an elite athlete and I'm giddy with excitement," she said. Her plan for Monday is simple. "Goal A is to win. Goal B is to be on the podium."
American Kara Goucher who set her personal best with two hours twenty four minutes and 52 seconds in Boston in two years ago will round out the American women's field and praises Boston's crowds as the 27,000 entrants thunder past. "The crowds here appreciate it. They get all the hard work that goes into getting here," she said.
They will face two former winners -- Kenya's Sharon Cherop who surged around the last corner to win the 2012 race by two seconds in two hours 31 minutes and 50 seconds and Kenya's Rita Jeptoo, who won in 2006.
Monday's race will also see a handful of older champions with Greg Meyer and Joan Benoit Samuelson returning to celebrate the 30th anniversaries of their victories. Runner's World editor Burfoot, who won 45 years ago and has run some 150,000 miles in his 66 years, will wear bib number 1968 -- the year he won.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)