Today we learnt the very sad news of the passing of an inspirational legend of our club and Wellington icon — Bernie Portenski. Her brave battle against cancer ended peacefully surrounded by her family. Our thoughts are with her family at this difficult time.
Bernie, an internationally celebrated masters’ athlete, was known as the “Iron Woman” of New Zealand marathon running, and has long been synonymous with Wellington Scottish Athletic Club. Bernie is that rare individual who not only was a legend in running circles, but transcended the sport into the public consciousness with her unique combination of inspirational story, running prowess and gregarious personality.
Bernie’s running story began in the early 1980s when she decided to have a go at the Fletcher Rotorua Marathon in 1981, a life-changing departure from her self-proclaimed “party lifestyle”. She quickly got the running bug and demonstrated a phenomenal capacity for racing and recovery. Along with her sister Michele, she was also an early trailblazer of the new-fangled sport of triathlon, although her first love ultimately was the marathon.
In 1983 she joined Scottish Harriers with her sister Michele and this marked the real turning point of her running career. She won her first Fletcher Rotorua Marathon in 1987, and was selected to represent New Zealand on four occasions in the following years (Perth, Seoul, Los Angeles and Milan). She also ran Rotorua four months pregnant in 1990, prior to the birth of her daughter Marie-Jo.
In 1992 Bernie, aged 42, ran a sensational 2:34 marathon in the Mountain to Surf Marathon, Taranaki, running under the qualifying time for the Barcelona Olympics, but was controversially overlooked because the selectors thought she was too old.
Bernie’s following years defied that decision, as she continued to churn through multiple marathons, culminating in a superlative spell in 1998, when at the age of 48, she won the Rotorua Marathon for the third time in a stunning time of 2:43 (placing 19th overall). Of Bernie’s total of 114 marathons, 33 were at her beloved Rotorua, where she has become a symbol of the event. This was one of six marathons that year, which included a two-week stint in which she won the New Zealand Marathon Championship outright in Auckland (2:44), then jetted to New York to win her age group (3:03), and back to New Zealand to win the Canterbury Marathon (2:55). She again won the Auckland Marathon outright at the age of 52 in 2001.
Moving past marathons, Bernie also dominated the track. Between 1994 and 2010 Bernie set New Zealand and world records and marathon bests in all master’s grades from 40 to 60-plus. By 2011, aged 62, Bernie held four 55-plus age-group world records for middle- and long-distance running, and five world records in the 60-plus age group, including for the half-marathon and marathon. She was most proud of her 60-64 age group records, particularly her 3:01 at the Gold Coast marathon in 2011 – another fantastic achievement.
To celebrate her 65th birthday she ran 65 kilometres from her home in Miramar to Eastbourne and back with her running mates and supporters.
Bernie is recognised nationally as an icon of Masters sport – referred to in Te Ara The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, and internationally as a master’s running legend. The longevity of her running career and her uncompromising approach to training led her to be an inspiration to experienced and beginner runners here and around the globe. Bernie also secured a long-term athlete sponsor contract with ASICS, another impressive achievement for a master’s athlete.
Bernie was a force of nature with a personality that was loud, tough, honest, uncompromising, fun-loving and infectious. While a focused elite athlete, she always made time to encourage fellow athletes and weekend warriors. She had the earthy authentic ability to connect with anyone. Her inspiring running career, amplified by her larger than life personality meant she was widely recognised across the running and broader community. In addition to being named as Wellington Sportsperson of the Year, and Wellington Sports Personality of the Year she also was named Wellingtonian of the Year in 1998, a Wellington Treasure.
Bernie was a fiercely loyal member of Scottish Club over her 35 years with the club. She noted that except for the times she was proudly wearing the silver fern she almost always raced in her Scottish singlet. An ongoing rivalry and source of amusement in the club was her ability to often run down her male counterparts in marathons, including many of the top senior men! She also enjoyed strong friendships across the Wellington running community, including close links with the Kapiti running community during the 15 years she lived on the Coast, and particularly with close friends and training partners Gabby O’Rourke and Vicki Humphries from Wellington Harriers, and many many others.
Throughout Bernie’s extensive running and triathlon career there was a constant running companion, her sister Michele. The two training and racing together over that thirty-five year period. As recently as 2015 the two sisters both qualified in their respective age-groups at Taupo Ironman to compete in the famous Hawaii Kona Ironman, a remarkable joint achievement.
Bernie’s running had taken her away from her hairdressing businesses in Wellington and Kapiti to races and adventures across the world, even getting to run with President Bill Clinton after winning the prestigious Boston Masters race in 1993. Bernie’s name is on a plaque of Boston marathon legends placed at the famous Boston finish line in Copley Square. A fitting, permanent recognition of the global reach of a very special individual. Someone who inspired and touched many through her wonderful life as the Iron Woman of New Zealand marathon running.
Bernie is survived by husband Pete, daughter Marie-Jo and stepson Phillip.
Grant McLean, Wellington Scottish Athletics Club
01 February 2017
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