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by Grant McLean

In 1985 I was competing in a 10k race in the Hutt when my senses were suddenly assaulted by a huffing and puffing behind my shoulder, followed by the flash of a vivid yellow Scottish singlet.

This singlet promptly moved into the distance to the calls of “Go Bernie” and “Go Scottish.” One Bernie Portenski beat me by a considerable margin that day. I think from that moment the yellow singlet stuck in my head, as did that woman’s energy.

When I decided to join a Wellington running club many years later it was that early image that drew me to the Scottish club.

Much has been written about Bernie Portenski – referred to as the Iron Lady of NZ distance running by NZ Runner in 1987. With her running prowess, inspirational story and gregarious personality Michael Jacques rightly noted 10 years later that Bernie was not just an icon in running circles but one of those rare individuals who has transcended the sport. She has been acknowledged as a Wellington treasure (Wellingtonian of the Year in 1998) and recognised on the national scene for her remarkable age-defying feats featuring on national television and in popular print such as North & South and New Zealand Women’s Weekly.

So where to start then as we celebrate Bernie’s charge towards another milestone – turning 60. After 30 years in running what has changed, remained the same, what part has Scottish played in Bernie’s inspiring and ever-evolving story – what’s next?

The Scottish Connection

In the 1987 NZ Runner interview it was noted that joining Scottish was the turning point in Bernie’s running career. The club became a major inspiration and the Scottish singlet a source of immense pride. Bernie takes up the story:

“I joined Scottish harriers around 1983 with my sister Michele Allison after a two year apprenticeship with Wellington Marathon Clinic.

Yes, Scottish was the turning point for both of us. We learnt how to race and met fellow- minded runners all caught up in the amazing world of heaps of races and marathons as it was the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s. Except for the occasional lapse of loyalty almost all my racing photos have one particular singlet well advertised – Scottish in about 100 of my 106 marathons. The others were NZ singlets.”

If you wonder where Bernie is on club Saturdays it is the demands of her ‘other’ career as a hairdresser. Bernie explains: “Unfortunately I work all day Saturday so very rarely make it to Scottish runs and races. Also I don’t do cross country but what I see when relay season comes about is a strong Scottish club with great female numbers compared to the 1980s. It’s obvious from our numbers at events that as other clubs die and merge we are growing stronger and stronger. This is thanks to the hard work of the core people such as the life-members.”

That was then, this is now

Twenty years ago NZ Runner was rather bemused by Bernie’s transformation from non- running, smoking party girl to distance legend, as she managed this despite “doing everything wrong!” Since those days Bernie’s approach has gone from all wrong to all right and from low to hi-tech.

“Thirty years ago there was no coach, no schedule, and I just picked up training ideas from generous male runners.”

“In 1980 I went out for long runs decked out in men’s running shoes (women’s weren’t made then), old socks, shorts, old bra (sometimes), t-shirt, any old parker/jacket, knitted hat and gloves (pink) and an old watch. I went out the gate for two hours or so, with no structured run and at any pace.”

“Thirty years ago there was no coach, no schedule, and I just picked up training ideas from generous male runners who we talked to on the long runs. Now I organise a group of fellow runners for a certain length run at a certain time and pace according to a specific schedule from my coach Matt Dravitzki. This run must be achieved or else Matt will find out!”

“Back then it was trial and error. Our speed-work was only races that is why I did so many! If you made a mistake it didn’t matter. I was young and strong! Now I am in survival mode: survive the next training session, next marathon and assess the damage, recover and pray.”

Bernie picked up a sponsorship deal with ASICS in the late 1990s which endures and has added an element of professionalism to her running. She now goes out for a two hour run in lightweight trainers (ASICS of course), orthotics, double-layed blister free socks, compression tights, polyprops, designer bras (or Scottish crop tops), peaked running caps, designer gloves (pink of course!), high tech stopwatch and fluro jacket.

Bernie does appear to have remained remarkably injury-free during her long career, and this is down to learning along the way. “Thanks to Paula Radcliffe and Gabby O’Rourke I have discovered amazing recovery techniques and aids. The core things I do now include gym-based strength training specific to running, Pilates and stretching . Recovery techniques I swear by include ice baths after long runs and speed work, compression socks and tights (not recommended in marathons). I pick my races very carefully for damage control. I try not to let slower, age-related, race times kill my motivation. I have also changed my diet, most recently avoiding gluten and wheat before marathons.”

What has really remained the same over 30 years is a love, passion and sheer addiction to running, especially the marathon distance.

Long a source of inspiration to others, Bernie has also been inspired by such running luminaries as ex-Scottish marathon legend Graham Macky (2.14 marathoner and the male equivalent of Bernie), Paula Radcliffe, Michele Allison, Gabby O’Rourke, Matt and Max Dravitzki and Johnny Hines.

When asked about what 30 years of running has given Bernie she is blunt on the fundamental gift: “Probably my life – as it forced me to quit smoking. Then there is travel.” Bernie explains: “Because I bought a business at 21, I never did an OE or travelled when I was young. But that  changed with running which has taken me all over the world – many times. Running has also given me real strength, both mental and physical.”

“Running is so basic and simple yet extremely demanding. No other sport came before running, it is the bottom line.”

Bernie is clear on what marks out running as special and unique compared to other sports. “Running is so basic and simple yet extremely demanding. No other sport came before running, it is the bottom line. Its simplicity has always attracted me.”

National recognition

Bernie has a massive back catalogue of running achievements. She has made the cover of what was our sport’s version of Time magazine, the former NZ Runner in 1999. This could make isolating some favourite memories difficult, yet Bernie can list her fondest memories to date:

  • Running Rotorua marathon in 1990 when pregnant.
  • Winning the 1998 Rotorua marathon in her fastest time on the course of 2.43.38 at age 48. To top that off she beat the
  • entire Scottish men’s team, including Todd Stevens (Ed. Ouch!).
  • First Rotorua marathon (1981).
  • Running New York City marathon (1998) Qualifying for the 1992 Olympic marathon
  • Winning Masters at the 1993 Boston marathon

60 and beyond

Bernie is not sitting

back with 60 beckoning. Of course, there are new records to pursue: “Well I want as many 60-64 records as possible.

There are the half marathon and marathon record attempts in November (Auckland and Invercargill). Then track records over summer. Something I have learnt as I get older is you have to do the records in the first year or two of your new age group. Otherwise they may not happen.”

Now the first real goal for Bernie on turning 60 in late August is to run 60k from Miramar to Eastbourne and back. Everyone is invited to join and celebrate with Bernie our Golden Girl as she lines up the next chapter in this remarkable life….a life that reminds us all to have a go, have some guts, you may be surprised what you achieve.

The stats:

Marathon count = 106

Bernie has set eleven World Age-Group records so far from the mile to the half marathon.

Personal Bests

All at age 43!

Marathon2.34.39Mountain to Surf Marathon, New Plymouth1992
Half Marathon1.13.29Christchurch Half Marathon1992
10k Road34.17Back Bay 10k, Boston1992