Mariana Morrison remembers the moment she realised her grandfather, Sir Howard Morrison, was famous. She was seven years old when she laid eyes on a Bic lighter pack – a product the legendary entertainer had endorsed – and noticed her koro’s face on it.
“I freaked out, because I saw him as my koro, and not someone who was famous. That was the first time I realised he was this big public figure.”
Soon after, Mariana (now 28) discovered her grandmother, Sir Howard’s widow Kuia, was just as impressive.
A young Mariana was standing on the back of a truck, with her koro and her dad, Howard Jr, and wondered why they were watching people run. She then recognised her nana in the group and was enthralled to see her cross the finish line of a marathon.
“I was in awe of her. I’d never seen my nan like this before. She was someone I could look up to.”
Last year, Mariana decided to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and compete in long-distance running. She’s currently training to take part in a slew of ultramarathons – each one is up to 100km in length.
Lady Morrison is renowned for her fitness regime, and at 76 years old is still as active as ever. In the family home she shared with Sir Howard, situated behind Rotorua’s Ohinemutu marae, her sports medals are displayed just as prominently as her late husband’s many entertainment accolades. And now the great- grandmother is pleased to have Mariana carrying the torch.
“All my mokopuna can sing, but it’s nice to be able to help Mariana in her fitness, which has always been a passion of mine,” says Lady Morrison, who was once a champion squash player.
Shortly after Sir Howard’s death in 2009, Lady Morrison followed through on her pledge to walk the New York City Marathon and has since competed in many long-distance events, both here and overseas. She recently joined Mariana, walking part of the Rotorua Marathon while her granddaughter ran the full course despite injury.
“She’s teaching me the fundamentals of fitness,” says Mariana. “She’s like my coach. Now we’ve got something more in common and it’s drawn us closer together.”
Mariana, who spent five years in the navy and has also worked as a corrections officer, is new to long-distance running but no stranger to physical activity. She’s played touch and netball, and is a member of the family kapa haka team.
But when Lady Morrison brought her a brand new pair of running shoes last year, Mariana knew her nan had plans for her to try something new.
“I told her to run in the forest – it’s free,” Lady Morrison recalls. Despite her initial reluctance, Mariana rose to the challenge.
“I’ve always hated long- distance running, it’s never been my forte. But I remembered that moment when I saw my nan running in the marathon, and knew I could do it. I just had to adapt.”
Mariana’s very first event was Relay for Life, a fundraiser for cancer in March, in which she planned to run 100km. But a knee injury sustained during training forced her to pull out after 70km. She’s now training to compete in an ultramarathon in November, pending recovery.
Lady Morrison is impressed with Mariana’s tenacity, but thinks that she should take it a bit easier.
“Even horses have a rest,” she laughs. Mariana says her koro would be happy to know that Lady Morrison is inspiring one of their grandchildren to challenge themselves.
“It’s been five years since his passing, and we miss him dearly,” says Mariana. ”I think he’d be chuffed to know my grandmother and I are working together like this.”
Lady Morrison says she’s dealing with her loss by keeping herself busy – continuing to enter marathons, helping her mokopuna and travelling abroad to watch musicals, for which she has a passion.
“I’m my own boss, it’s a nice change,” she says.
Mariana has a four-year-old daughter, Kahurangi, and says it’s important for her to see the close inter-generational bond.
“I was inspired by my nan when I was a child, and I hope Kahurangi can be inspired too. She needs to have a role model, to see positive behaviours. Nan is a lot of things to me – she’s my rock and my best friend.”