Niva Retimanu: On the run

By Kim Knight

Niva Retimanu is better known as a radio newsreader than an athlete. Kim Knight talks to the 48-year-old about what motivated her to start pounding the pavements.
Newstalk ZB news reader and marathon runner Niva Retimanu. Photo / Dean Purcell
Newstalk ZB news reader and marathon runner Niva Retimanu. Photo / Dean Purcell

Spoiler alert: Niva Retimanu comes last.

Don't be sad. Her life is not a destination. It's a journey - with burger stops.

Ten years ago, Retimanu sat on the couch and realised she couldn't tie her shoelaces because her stomach was in the way. "That was my moment of truth," she writes in her new book, Leading From Behind. Today, Retimanu runs marathons.

Okay, sometimes she misses the official cut-off time. Sometimes she actually does come last. But she is a runner. And if you'd told her that a decade ago, she would have fallen off her bar stool, laughing.

Hear her before you see her. Retimanu with the big earrings, and (her words) an even bigger gob. The newsreader whose name is known to radio listeners across the country, but whose face is not. Putting it on the cover of a book took some convincing.

"What if nobody buys it and I end up in a bargain bin for $1.50? Oooh, shame, how can I hold my head up and go into Newstalk ZB? All the hosts have written books!" And then, she says, she thought: "Niva, you shallow biaatch!"

Because, "I'm a realist. And flipping heck, if anyone was going to write a book, I ticked all the boxes. Brown, big, a loud-mouth with a drinking problem, depressed, an orphan - woe is me - but I knew my life could be better."

Leading From Behind is about getting better, fitter, stronger - and happier.

Retimanu writes like she talks. She buys extra-wide sports shoes for her "hobbit-like feet". Her mail order, as-recommended-by-Oprah sports bra is "like putting on a straitjacket".

On deciding to run in Lebanon: "Who do you know from New Zealand who has run the Beirut Marathon? Exactly no one. I'd be a Samoan legend!"

On portaloos: "The stench is unbearable. I'm crying on the inside. This is the only time I regret not being fast. Hordes of runners have already been through here."

And, on reaching the end in Paris as officials are dismantling the finish line: "I'm not leaving without my medal. Off we toddle. They better not have run out. That would really rip my nightie."

In New York, she stops to do a radio interview and loses the Achilles New Zealand disabled athlete she is supposed to be running with. Her subsequent panicked to-ing and fro-ing adds an extra 4km (including that burger stop) to her almost eight-hour marathon.

In Queenstown, a storm tears through the course and runners are pulled off. Retimanu keeps going, wrapped in a heat sheet, the final participant across the line, with seven seconds to spare before the official cut-off.

Who should read this book? "Anyone who has ever thought about running. But if I'm honest, who I really want to read it is anyone who is sitting on that couch with a bag of chips in their hand who weighs over 100kg and thinks 'oh my God, a marathon, 42km, no way', because that's how I felt."

The 48-year-old, who looks at least five years younger, is holding court in the iHeart radio lounge, downstairs from her Newstalk ZB newsreader job. No coffee ("thanks, I've already had two!"), just a boxed salad for later.

That moment on the couch?

Retimanu (left, centre front) with her family.
Retimanu (left, centre front) with her family.

"I was in denial. I knew I'd put on weight, but I didn't know how much and I didn't know how bad it was. I thought, 'okay, I've got to look in the mirror now. What size am I wearing?' You put on weight in your chin, but you don't actually know..."

That day, she cried. Then she went to a counsellor and cried some more.

"I couldn't stop," she writes. "It was that awful sort of cry that when you try to talk, nothing makes sense." Retimanu was finally grieving.

It was 1960 when her parents met on a boat from Samoa to Auckland. They married, two years later, and moved to Invercargill where her dad had a job at the Ocean Beach Freezing Works, near Bluff. They raised four kids in that southernmost city, nearly 1200km from the country's main Pacific Island settlement. Money was tight, the church was important and education paramount.

"That was Dad's legacy, his parting gift," says Retimanu. "He never wanted to see his children have to work in the freezing works."

Her father died of cancer in 1990. A decade later, her mother died of heart disease. Retimanu was 32. She was also about to discover she had been born with one kidney, two uteruses and an abnormal bladder that meant constant trips to the loo.

"As I processed all this information, I continued with my bad habits. Eating, drinking, smoking and partying. When I look back on it now, I was depressed after my diagnosis. The two people I wanted to talk to about this - my parents - were gone."

In hindsight: "I felt like I was robbed. I was still in mourning and I didn't deal. I didn't deal with their deaths, I didn't give myself that grieving process. What I did was drink myself silly and partied, and kind of switched off."

I kept telling myself, 'I'm not competing with these runners. I'm competing with myself. Now shut up, stay focused and stop feeling sorry For yourself'.
Niva Retimanu, in Leading From Behind

Everybody has a different motivation for finally getting off that couch. Retimanu was at rock bottom and ready for change, but she had an added incentive. As a Samoan woman working in the news media, she didn't just know the statistics - she literally read them out loud, on the hour. And she wasn't alone.

"There's this particular group of Pacific women - we're friends and we're all round the same age, all in the media - and we'd meet once a month. It was always around food and it was always at my place.

"There'd be cream puffs, and I'd be having KFC and the table would be groaning and I'd be 'yeah, what about her? She's so obese now' and another chicken leg would go in my gob, and it would be, 'Get her, she's so fat' and I'd be, 'Mmm-mmm, girlfriend!' and then someone else would hog half a cake..."

Deep down, says Retimanu, they knew. "You don't have to be rocket scientists to know what the statistics are for Pacific and Maori, but for those girls in particular, we all knew. It's like, 'they come across as intelligent, they're obviously leaders' ... And we just thought we've got to get on board, we've got to be role models."

Saturday walks. Boot camps. And, eventually, clinics and coaching with GetRunning, the company founded by Gaz Brown after he trained Retimanu's colleague, Kerre McIvor (nee Woodham) for three marathons. It was McIvor's book, Short Fat Chick To Marathon Runner, that initially inspired Retimanu to set her sites on the long-distance discipline.

"Marathons give me a goal I can strive for. When I'm training for a marathon, I'm disciplined and committed. I love that. And I love running outside, in the fresh air. I've never been a treadmill runner."

Crossing the finish line of her first marathon in Marlborough, 2012 with coach Kiri Price.
Crossing the finish line of her first marathon in Marlborough, 2012 with coach Kiri Price.

At GetRunning, she says, she's inspired by a shared goal. "I could be sitting next to the chairman of Air New Zealand, and a high-falutin' lawyer, but we're all the same, we're equals at that moment when we're training."

It took Retimanu a while to get into that headspace. She recalls her first Saturday morning walk. Regular exercise gear didn't fit her, so she went to The Warehouse and she decked herself out in black, extra-large, men's trackpants and T-shirts. "I probably looked like a burglar, but I knew black was slimming."

In the carpark at Panmure Basin, she looked out the window. "I couldn't see any obese people." And then she began. "I started sweating like a bush pig. My breathing became laboured. And I was wheezing terribly. Flippin' heck, the last 20 years of smoking had really come back to bite me in the arse. I got a taste of how unfit I was. And a clear picture of what a long road I had ahead of me. It sucked."

Today, Retimanu is 31kg smaller, all clearly defined waist and individual muscle groups. Her eyes are clear. She has only one chin.

"You've got to put yourself first," she says. "When I was doing boot camp, you got women of all shapes and sizes and ages. They'd say 'I'm here for my child' or 'I've put on weight, and I want to look good for my husband'.

"You've got to do it for you. That's when it becomes a lifestyle. This story has got to be sustainable for the rest of my life. I want to be running till I'm 70. But do I want to be running super-quick four-minute kilometres? No!"

Actually, she says, it is tiresome when people ask about her run times (roughly three hours longer than the 4.44hr female average for marathons).

"It does get annoying - what's your time, what's your time - but, you know, I'm shock factor and I don't care."

What she would care about is not finishing.

"That would really piss me off. If I got to 35 or 36 kilometres and just thought 'this is too hard'. I think that speaks volumes about my mental toughness."

It was still dark that first morning she went to a GetRunning session.

"I'd never seen so much Lycra in such a small space," she writes. "I kept telling myself, 'I'm not competing with these runners. I'm competing with myself. Now shut up, stay focused and stop feeling sorry for yourself'."

Hill runs. Interval runs. Five-kilometre runs. They were separated into pace groups. Retimanu was team 11, last and slowest-paced. "It was a small team. Just me. By myself. And I loved it!"

The book chronicles a transformation. Big stuff, like learning to cook, quitting smoking, cutting back to just the occasional glass of red wine, sleeping more, counselling, and tackling stress. And the even bigger stuff - the joy of running alongside disabled athletes from Achilles New Zealand.

Underpinning it all are the marathons. She's done six now. New York was to be her first, but in 2012, she was the one who took the call from a Newstalk ZB reporter confirming the New Zealand contingent's worst fears - the event had been cancelled because of Hurricane Sandy.

Niva with Achilles Foundation athlete Maryanne hooson and guide Rebecca Drage after the New York Marathon, 2013.
Niva with Achilles Foundation athlete Maryanne hooson and guide Rebecca Drage after the New York Marathon, 2013.

They retired to an Irish bar. Retimanu started with a Cosmopolitan cocktail and finished the night with a handbag full of mini-burgers and fried fish. She had also, she realised when the fog cleared, committed herself to running the Marlborough marathon one month later.

Perhaps, she thinks now, it was meant to be. Her first marathon was conquered on home soil.

When did Retimanu believe she was a marathon runner? Officially, it was after that Marlborough event, when she picked up her first medal. But maybe the seed had been planted a few weeks earlier.

After New York, Retimanu took a side-trip to Los Angeles with a friend. They'd just toured Warner Bros Studio when they spotted Australian broadcaster Rove, on a break from filming.

"Andrea and I bolted over," writes Retimanu. "I said, 'We're from New Zealand. We went to New York to run the marathon. But it didn't happen'."

Last week, posing for photographs in the Newstalk ZB studio, she hoots at the memory.

"He said, 'Really? You're running a marathon?' I thought, 'Is he saying that because he's looking me up and down, saying 'this heavy bitch?'

"I looked at him, and I thought, 'Rove, you're smaller than Mike Hosking. I could tackle you and wrestle you and slap you down.' So that was going through my mind. But then I thought, 'Yes. I am a runner'."

Leading From Behind by Niva Retimanu (Random House $40) is out on April 1.

She will co-host a new daily video and digital show, NZ Herald Focus, starting soon on

- Canvas

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