BOSTON #&151; It doesn't bother Bill Rodgers that no American runner has won the Boston Marathon in 20 years. What bothers him is that so few of the best ones try.
So the four-time Boston champion is excited to see Olympian Alan Culpepper and 2003 U.S. marathon champion Ryan Shay heading to Hopkinton with a chance for the first American top-five finish since 1987.
''They've made the race so much more dramatic by stepping forward,'' Rodgers said. ''I would like to see more.''
It's been a long time since Americans have been mentioned among the great marathoners, but that's changing. Meb Keflezighi won the silver medal at the Athens Olympics, and Deena Kastor won bronze in the women's race. Khalid Khannouchi, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is a former world record holder.
None of them has run Boston, which is more difficult and less lucrative than some of the newer races. But ''Boston Billy'' thinks they're undervaluing the prestige of the world's oldest annual marathon, which lines up for the 109th time on Monday.
''You can't buy history,'' Rodgers said. ''If you don't do a course with hills #&151; and this is the ultimate course with hills #&151; you aren't a true marathoner. You might be a track star.
''You can't just run the flat courses and run for times only. You can't hide from the hills; that's crazy. None of the great marathoners do that,'' he said. ''I'd rather have my victories than a fast time.''
Rodgers' four Boston victories from 1975-80 represented the end of an era in which Americans won regularly, a door that slammed shut with Greg Meyer's victory in 1983. Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach won the women's race 20 years ago.
Just once in the past decade has an American man finished better than 10th. Marla Runyan's fifth-place finish two years ago was the best for a U.S. woman since 1993.
Meanwhile, a Kenyan man has won 13 of the last 14 Boston Marathons, and the country is so deep at the distance that defending champion Timothy Cherigat did not make the Olympic team. Catherine Ndereba gave Kenya a sweep last year with her third victory #&151; a fourth would be a record in the women's division.
''The U.S. has just had a long lag time,'' Culpepper said. ''I think we're coming back.''
The two Olympic marathon medals #&151; not even the Kenyans did that #&151; could be a sign that Americans are ready to challenge in Boston.
''For Americans to be in contention here, it continues a very positive story,'' USA Track & Field chief executive officer Craig Masback said.
Culpepper didn't debut at the distance until 2002, when he finished sixth in Chicago at the age of 30. He won the Olympic trials last year before finishing 12th in Athens.
''I wasn't going to come (to Boston) until I felt I had the ability to be competitive,'' he said. ''I've done all I feel I can do on my end.''
Shay was drawn to the marathon because the training fit his personality and because of the talent vacuum there. But most American kids aren't willing to put in the hard work, he said.
When he speaks to high school students, the first question is how many miles he has to run a week in training. As soon as he tells them it's 140, they're turned off, he said.
''It's like they don't want to put in the work,'' Shay said. ''It takes years and years to learn how to train for it. In a marathon, you aren't going to get instant results. It's going to take hard work and dedication.''
Everyone agrees that an American crossing the finish line first in the Back Bay would boost interest in the distance here.
But Amby Burfoot, who won the 1968 race and is now the executive director of Runner's World magazine, is happy just to see more of them in Hopkinton, at the start.
''None of us wants to be overly parochial,'' he said, ''but it is the Boston Marathon, and it has a very long tradition of the top Americans running here.
''Whether they win or not #&151; that's what the race is to decide. But to have them at the starting line even is the ideal situation for me.''
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