By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - Runners from the world's elite racers to first-timers will step to the Boston Marathon starting line on Monday for the first time the race has been held since last year's deadly bombing attack.
Some 36,000 people, the second-largest field in the race's 118-year history, will set out from Hopkinton, a town west of Boston, for the 26.2-mile race that finishes on Boston's Boylston Street, where two homemade pressure-cooker bombs last year killed three people and injured 264.
For the top men and women runners, including 2013 winners Ethiopia's Lelisa Desisa and Kenya's Rita Jeptoo, the focus will be entirely on the competition.
The fans, hundreds of thousands of whom are expected to line the course, will also be rooting for top U.S. entrants including Ryan Hall of California and Desiree Linden of Michigan. Either could be the first American to stand atop the podium in three decades, breaking a long domination of the event by African athletes.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on Sunday told CBS's "Face the Nation" that added security measures, including a higher than usual police presence, would assure a "very safe" atmosphere at the race.
"Somebody said it may be the safest place in America tomorrow," Patrick said.
STRIKE A BALANCE
While more police tactical units and undercover operatives will be stationed along the route, Patrick said there was an effort to provide adequate security while retaining the race's traditional atmosphere so that it does not become "a race through a militarized zone."
Racers and supporters will face new restrictions including a ban on backpacks, which the ethnic Chechen brothers accused in the April 15, 2013, attack were believed to have used to carry the bombs.
While the memory of the attacks has hung heavy over Boston through a week of events leading up to the race, Linden said it wouldn't affect her thinking come race day.
"That's a backward thought process," said Linden, who in 2011 finished in second place, missing victory by two seconds. "I don't need a terrorist event to be motivated. I'm inspired by the city and the people and I'll honor that ... Boston is such a big event in itself that you don't need extra motivation, especially not that kind."
The Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the race, allowed an additional 9,000 runners this year, in part to ensure that the roughly 5,000 people who were on the course when the blasts occurred get a chance to cross this finish line.
Many runners train for years to post the fast, age-graded qualifying times needed to earn a spot, while others commit to raising thousands of dollars for charity.
Runners and marathon workers who attended Easter Mass at the cathedral on Sunday were invited to the front to be blessed by Boston cardinal Sean O'Malley.
Memories of last year's attack were stirred after a memorial service on Tuesday, when a shoeless man in a black veil, shouting "Boston Strong" dropped a backpack on the street near the finish line.
Police said the backpack contained a rice cooker. The man was arrested and charged with possession of a hoax device.
Joseph Tecce, an associate professor of psychology at Boston College, said seeing the race go off smoothly could help people overcome their memories of the attack.
"There will be fears, nagging doubts and insecurities, but there will also be an anticipation that it's all going to go away if we just wait until April 21, when people start hitting the street again."
One runner on Monday will be Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, who will take part to show solidarity with the people of Boston and the United States. It will not be his first marathon, as he also ran after the 2011 Fukushima tsunami while stationed in Japan.
"We will stand with each other in defying terrorism and making a pure sporting event, a sporting statement that terrorism will never prevail," Faily said. "If the marathon was stopped because of last year's event, then they would have won."
(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston, Additional reporting by Brian Snyder in Boston and Bill Trott in Washington; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Gunna Dickson and Frances Kerry)