NEW YORK _ As a first-time participant in the New York City Marathon, Despina Pittas considered every millisecond a highlight.
Pittas, a wraparound clinician at Boonton High School, reeled off moment after memorable moment. The start of the marathon in Staten Island... Crossing the Verrazano Bridge... The bands in Brooklyn... Her family members and strangers hugging her and friends cheering her on in Queens... The struggles she endured over the last 2.2 miles...
"It was all so amazing," said Pittas, who completed the 26.2-mile race in 5:50.47 on Nov. 5, 2017. "It's tough to pick out one thing. Maybe Brooklyn, with all of the bands on the corners, was the best part. It was like a big party. It was definitely the most festive part of the marathon."
Pittas decided to run the "unforgettable race" after witnessing her cousin, Vicki Grapsas, do it three years ago.
"I loved the whole atmosphere," Pittas said. "The fact that my cousin could run more than 26 miles impressed me. It was so inspiring. I thought 'Can I do it?' I wanted to try."
So, Pittas, no stranger to 5Ks, 10Ks and half marathons, began preparing for the NYC Marathon in May of 2016, just two months after the birth of her daughter, Elli. Not long after, she suffered a stress fracture to her tibia and suspended training until Sept. 1. Pittas had two months to prepare but her orthopedist advised her that "it wasn't time for 20 miles."
Pittas, disappointed, set her sights on 2017. She entered the lottery and gained one of the coveted spots. She trained on the streets of Morristown and ran on Patriots Path. Pittas often ran 18 miles from Morristown to Chatham and back.
Prior to half marathons in Brooklyn, New York City and Asbury Park, she considered herself "a runner, not a racer," yet made herself into one. Pittas thought back to the years after college when she returned to running to cope with the stress of teaching at Jamesburg Prison, a maximum security facility.
"I ran because it felt good," she recalled. "It was for fun. A friend influenced me to do a half marathon and that's when I fell in love with racing. I loved everything about it."
While growing up in Randolph, Pittas, a talented athlete, ran for St. Andrews Greek Orthodox Church Youth Organization. She also competed in basketball, softball and swimming for the church organization or recreation programs. Pittas was a sprinter for the Randolph High School track team. Her father, James, taught her mental toughness.
That mental toughness enabled her to persevere during the NYC Marathon last fall. Pittas did not hit "the wall" at the 20th mile. The 24th mile was the toughest. It was there that Pittas, who would like to run the Marine Corps Marathon, began to feel intense pain but she kept her legs going.
"I considered walking but I didn't do it," said Pittas, a resident of Morristown. "I came to run. Finishing is one of my greatest accomplishments. It was an amazing feeling."
For three days after the marathon, Pittas' entire body ached.
"I could barely get up the stairs. It was tough to move," Pittas said. "The mental part trumped the physical. Pain really is weakness leaving your body. Fortunately, I had that toughness."