Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya crosses the finish line to win the men’s division of the 2011 New York City Marathon in New York November 6, 2011. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

By Svea Herbst-Bayliss

BOSTON, April 13 (Reuters) – When Geoffrey Mutai, who clocked the fastest ever marathon in Boston last year, returns to the starting line on Monday he will be racing to defend not only his title but also to clinch a spot on Kenya’s Olympic team.

“This will be my bridge to the Olympics,” Mutai said less than a year after winning in Boston and New York fanning speculation he could run away with Olympic gold in August.

In 2011, ideal weather conditions helped the 30-year old from Eldoret tear across Boston’s grueling course in two hours three minutes and two seconds to claim the crown.

His time, while the fastest ever recorded, failed to stand as an official world record because of the brisk tailwind and because Boston is considered too much of a downhill course.

The 26.2-mile layout loses 459 feet in elevation from the start in Hopkington to the finish in downtown Boston but has a series of challenging hills in the second half.

At this year’s 116th running of the race Mutai is sure to have a pack of fellow Africans on his heels, all eager for their own chance to run in the Olympics.

“This is a young, fierce, fast, and fearless crowd,” said Amby Burfoot, an editor with Runner’s World magazine who won Boston in 1968. “This is the best Boston field I have ever seen and the speed of the Kenyans and Ethiopians is phenomenal.”

Kenyans Wilson Chebet, who won Rotterdam in 2:05:27 and Ethiopian Gebregziabher Gebremariam, who came in third in Boston last year in 2:04:53 are considered among Mutai’s chief rivals in the $806,000 event.

“My training has not changed much from last year but this year I feel faster,” Gebremariam said.

With the Olympics only three months away, the U.S. men’s marathon team – Meb Keflezighi, Ryan Hall, and Abdi Abdirahman – are skipping Boston.

“I will fire the starting gun and ride the route in a car, waving to the crowds and maybe stopping for coffee,” Keflezighi, who won silver in Athens in 2004 and will serve as Boston’s grand marshal this year, told reporters.

Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s Olympic teams will be chosen only after Boston and the April 22 London Marathon, increasing pressure on athletes to perform well on Monday.

Still, the pace is expected to be slower considering Monday’s forecast for warm temperatures which are expected to hit 84 Fahrenheit (29 Celsius).

KILEL RETURNS

On the women’s side, Kenyan Caroline Kilel, who collapsed at the finish line last year after edging out American Desiree Davila by two seconds, for a win in 2:22:36 is back and claims to be ready for a repeat.

“On Monday, I will not be ‘kaput’,” she said with a laugh.

She too faces tough competition from a group of Ethiopians. Mamitu Daska owns a personal best of 2:21:59 while Firehiwot Dado Tufa won New York in 2:23:15 last year. Buzunesh Deba, who trains year round on New York’s streets, put up her personal best of 2:23:19 in that race.

The crowd is also expected to cheer Joan Benoit Samuelson, an emotional favorite among the race’s estimated 27,000 entrants. After winning Boston twice and capturing the first Olympic women’s marathon gold in 1984, the 54-year old mother of two will be running with her daughter.

On paper, mother is faster than daughter, but “this is going to be Abby’s race, and she will set the pace,” Samuelson said. (Reporting By Svea Herbst-Bayliss; editing by Ros Krasny and Steve Keating)