Michele and Bernie: Sisters, Rivals, Friends

Sisters Michele Allison and Bernie Portenski are two of our club greats. Here, Michele recounts their long history of competition and friendship.

With the passing of what would have been Bernie’s seventieth birthday, and undoubtedly a ‘bloody long’ run to commemorate the occasion, it seems like an opportune time to talk about our very long rivalry. We were sisters and great mates, but there was always a strong element of rivalry in the mix. 

From the time we started running back in 1981 there have been many times that we have clashed, laughed and simply been astounded at our competitions together. 

Although Bernie completed her first marathon before me, in early 1983 I surpassed her best time with a 3h13 at the Wellington Marathon. I held this great honour for exactly 11 months before, after five attempts, Bernie bettered it with a 3:08 at Masterton in November. That was the last time I would have a better marathon PB than her!

Having three children held me back considerably, while Bernie continued to improve dramatically over the next few years. But in between marathons we often faced off in other events, where I sometimes had the advantage. One of my favourite memories was the rivalry we had over the two-day Kapiti Running Tour. This was a five-stage race over different distances and terrains. I remember being surprised with my win over her in the King of the Mountain section over the Manga’tuks.

Another great race was in our Club Cross Country run over the hills in Pauatahanui. It was a very hilly course and I took the title. I was so pleased with myself I ended up rolling around in the mud! It was great to be a master over Bernie on hills and cross country but such a shame that she gave up this type of running. Her marathon and road running career was taking off and something had to go.

After 1990, when we both had children – Bernie her first and only and I my last – we moved through a phase of running a number of marathons a year. Bernie would run up to seven and I would run up to five, but (apart from Rotorua) we hardly ever raced the same marathons. Bernie had big fish to fry overseas and I got to go wherever she didn’t. In some cases, we actively avoided each other on the basis that two people can’t win the same race.

In October 1994 we considered the Auckland marathon and the Riverton to Invercargill marathon, which was going to be the Veteran Marathon Champs. Bernie opted for Auckland, so I went to the other end of the country. The races were held on the same day and at approximately the same time. As soon as we had a chance after finishing, we spoke on the phone to see who had beaten whom. She had run 2h50 to which I replied: “Same!” And 52 seconds… “Same!” How the hell did we do that? Exactly the same time, at the same time, at different ends of the country. 

In 1994 we had one of our fairest clashes ever. It was the Wellington Road Champs, held on a waterfront course. As usual, Bernie and I decided we would run both the vets and the senior race. (A disclaimer: the course was deemed to be a bit short afterwards.) First up was the senior race, which I won in 36:01 with Bernie second in 36:19. Then we fronted up for the vets race and reversed the positions, with Bernie winning in 17:25 and me second in 17:37. Of course, I rubbed it in that I had won the senior race, not the ‘old girls’ race!

Roll on to 1999, and prize money was getting hard to come by. Bernie encouraged me to come up to the Fiji marathon. She said it was the best-kept secret; it had US$3000 prizemoney and hardly anybody would compete because it is too hot. I accepted her offer and headed up to Fiji and shared her lovely room at the Sheraton at Denarau. Race day was indeed hot, but I hadn’t realized that running in the heat, as with hills and mud, gave me an edge. By halfway Bernie was struggling and I cruised on to win in 3h01 with Bernie 4th in 3h06. That was a nice payday!

Then there were the triathlons. In the early eighties triathlon was a fledgling sport. There were only about five women competing in Wellington, two of whom were us. Bernie was the successful businesswoman and I didn’t have much money, so she went out and bought herself a flash new bike and kindly lent her old ‘dunga’ for the DB triathlon. 

I remember it being pretty rough in Oriental Bay that day, but when I got to the bike rack, I was surprised to see Bernie’s bike still there. I jumped on the ‘dunga’ and was just heading out of transition when she got to her bike. I assumed she would come flying past me on the new speed machine, but she never did. I powered on with the ‘dunga’ and managed to make enough ground to ensure that she wouldn’t catch me on the run. 

It wasn’t until many years later that I realized her swimming and biking prowess was a far cry from her running. The rest of our early triathlon days followed pretty much the same pattern until we both gave it away, with Bernie pursuing her running and me having a family.

Bernie filled in a number of years attaining an array of world records, compared to my zero. Then her second foray into triathlon began in 2015 with her completion of both the Taupo and Hawaii Ironman events. Despite the fact that she finished a number of hours behind me, it was far from a victory as we were to find out later that she completed those races already ill with cancer.

We had such fun and laughter over those 35 years of friendly rivalry, with so many trips away to running events, relays and the like. There’s a huge void now, where once there was a legend.