Bernie Portenski: Running Legend

Like her hero Paula Radcliffe, Bernie’s got plenty of guts and determination. She’s also a hoot, irreverent and tells “it as it is”. Bernie’s been trimming hair and cutting records for years. Women Running

Celebrating gold card status with a 65 km run

By Roger Childs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShe is one of the greatest athletes New Zealand has produced. You won’t find her name in the ranks of Olympic and Commonwealth Games medallists, however the list of records she’s held and the titles she’s won is longer than your arm. When Bernie turned 60 five years ago she ran her age in kilometres on a cold, wet Wellington day and although she was not well did an out and back from Miramar to Eastbourne. This time, on August 25 2014, the weather was fine and the health good.

An extraordinary career

BernieBernie Portenski started running at the age of 31 to give up smoking and the following year ran her first marathon at Rotorua. She has now completed 110 over the 42.2 km distance and next it’s the new Queenstown Marathon in November.

Although she started serious running much later than most of her contemporaries, Bernie quickly showed she was a natural. Whether it be on the track, in triathlons, over cross country or in road races and relays, she has always been fiercely competitive and frequently a winner.

In 1992 she ran a world class time for the marathon beating the New Zealand qualifying time for the Barcelona Olympics. However in an appalling decision based on age, a younger athlete was picked ahead of the 42 year old Portenski. The preferred selection pulled out of the race after 10km.

A dominant Masters runner

It has been in Masters (Veteran) running where Bernie has been a world class performer. She ranks with fellow Kiwis Derek Turnbull and Ron Robertson as one of the greatest ever veteran runners. Over distances from 1500m to the marathon she has been very competitive in her age group and has broken many records.

Here are some of her achievements:

  • 3 time New Zealand Marathon Representative
  • Over 30 Marathon Victories (Open & Masters)
  • Completed 110 Marathons
  • Over 20 Age Group World Records (mile to 10,000m)
  • 1st Masters 1993 Boston Marathon
  • 1st Masters 1993 Twin Cities Marathon
  • Numerous New Zealand Masters Records (1500m to marathon)
  • New Zealand Masters Athlete of the Year Award (2006)

The Kapiti Connection

Bernie lived in Waikanae for fifteen years and had a hair salon in Paraparaumu. Her daughter Marie-Jo was born here and has followed her mother into the hair dressing craft.

P1010935It was when she was expecting her daughter, that Bernie ran the Wellington Cross Country Championships in Masterton. Normally a front runner, the eight month pregnant mother-to-be jogged along at the tail of the field giving encouragement to the back markers!

While living on the coast Bernie has close links with local runners, but despite a lot of pressure to join the Kapiti club she remained loyal to her beloved Scottish Harriers.

She had hoped to take part in the first running of the In The Footsteps of the Marines event in 2012, but couldn’t because of a foot injury. However, she still came out to Whareroa Farm and enthusiastically supported the participants. (See the photo above.)

A postive approach to life

Chat to Bernie Portenski and you’ll soon be laughing out loud. Women Running

Those who know her will echo this view. Bernie is a real character with a generous heart, a positive attitude and a wicked sense of humour. She is always very encouraging to other athletes and happy to share training tips and the many stories, often hilarious, of her experiences in New Zealand and around the world.

For a short time in the late 1980s and1990s Bernie and I were rivals, especially in half marathons. It was an honour to be in the same field and she always gave it heaps and never lost her wit and humour. On the odd occasion when I beat her, with a great grin on her face she would ball out Bloody Roger Childs!

She has been a fantastic role model over the years and a greatly respected character in the capital. Her selection as Wellington Personality of the Year a few years back was richly deserved.

Running her age

So on Tuesday 26 August it was out of the gate in Miramar and off to Eastbourne. The scenic harbour-side course included

  • Cobham Drive
  • Evans Bay
  • Oriental Parade
  • The Wellington waterfront
  • Hutt Road
  • Petone Foreshore
  • Seaview and
  • The Eastern Bays.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA quick lunch in Eastbourne then back the same way.

She had plenty of company over the various sections, including her talented younger sister, Michelle Allison (pictured below), and the writer. A Camper Van was part of the cavalcade and money was raised for Parkinson’s disease.

It was great catching up and as expected Bernie’s humour was to the fore and she was prepared for everything. Her Plan B was

… if things are really bad when I get to Eastbourne, I’m going to pull out my Gold Card and come home on the ferry.







(Photos by Pam Childs)

Paul Mulvaney, another athlete originally in Greymouth then Wellington, ChCh now.

I’d like to respectfully ask have you an email or contact of the legend that is Bernie Portenski.