"I guess I'm just the ancient marathoner now," said Bill Rodgers with a twinkle and a sigh.

Ancient at 33, Rodgers has "winneth" three of three in Boston. He knows better than most that a marathon, any marathon, is a little bit like death in life. On Monday, Rodgers could become the first man in the history of America's most ancient road race to say, "I've won, I've won" four consecutive times.

But for the first time in a long time, Rodgers is not favored to win; then again, neither is Rosie Ruiz. The policemen's union, which had threatened to hold a protest rally at the 20-mile mark, decided not to embarrass the city. The union als decided not to work overtime during the 26-mile 385-yeard race.

Nonetheless, there will be 6,845 runners at the starting line in Hopkinton at noon. But the consensus is that the 85th BAA Marathon will be a two-man race between Rodgers of Boston and Toshiheko Seko of Japan. Rodgers has won four of the last six marathons he has run in his home area.

In 1979, Rodgers ran the best American time ever (2:09:27) finishing 45 seconds ahead of Seko. Seko, 24, has not lost a marathon since. He has won each of the last three marathons in his home town, Fukuoka.

Rodgers admits that time is on Seko's side. "He's the favorite, he's got the best chance to win." But the weather is expected to be on Rodger's side. The forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the mid-50s: Billy weather.

But Billy has also been under the weather. He had the flu for two weeks earlier this month, the kind that "makes your stomach gurgle," he said, and the mileage go down (he did 98 miles last week and 110 this). "I'm real nervous coming off the flu," he said.

That said, it should be noted that Rodgers always says he's nervous.

In 1979, Rodgers broke Seko and his heart on "heartbreak hill." At the bottom of the fourth of Boston's treacherous inclines, Rodgers had a 15-yard lead. At the top, he had a 40-yard lead. "Seko will probably wait till we're off the hills, around the 23-mile mark, to try to splinter off," Rodgers said. "Before, he couldn't stay with me on the hills. But he had a great time (1:29:32) at the 30-kilometer race in Ohme and that's a hilly course."

Seko set a world record at Ohme, running at a 4:47 pace (4:54 is world record pace in the marathon). "On a cool day, he could break the world record by 20 or 30 seconds," said Rodgers, whose 1981 record is also excellent (he has won seven of eight races this spring, including the Houston Marathon in 2:12:19). "I think I'm still physically capable of running as fast as I ever have."

Before coming to Boston, Seko talked of breaking Derek Clayton's unofficial -- and largely unaccepted -- world record (2:08:33). Now, he says, he is merely "determined to win."

No doubt, so are Hideki Kita, also of Japan (2:11:05); Kirk Pheffer or Colorado (2:10:29); Garry Bjorklund of Minneapolis (2:10:19), and world cross country champion Craig Virgin. Virgin, the American 10,000-meter champion, is running only his third marathon. His inexperience and his blisters are the only questions about his ability.

The odds of having a repeat champion among the women in 1981 are, Rodgers says, "about eight trillion to one." Ruiz stayed home. Nonetheless, race director Will Cloney is taking no chances."We're going to give the women's winner a saliva test and take her fingerprints to make sure we have the right one," he said.

The chances are it will be Patti Catalano, last year's runner-up, whose saliva he will be testing. "Patti looks like a pretty sure thing," Rodgers said. "She'll have to have a real off day to lose. But she'll have to work pretty hard to win."

Catalano set eight separate road racing records in 1980, everything from five miles to the marathon (2:29:33), becoming only the second woman in history to run under 2:30. In the last month, she beat her two top rivals here, 1980 champion Jacqueline Garreau and 1979 champion Joan Benoit, at 10 and 15 kilometers (Catalano set American records in both races).

Catalano, 28, says something happened to her on the hills of Boston last year, when she knew she was too far behind Garreau to catch up. "I didn't quit, that was the difference," she said. "I was strong. I was chasing Jacki over the last six miles. It told me something. I didn't ever want to be second again."