The Inspirational Bernie Portenski

 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

Bernie in the Scottish colours

The loss of a legend

By Roger Childs

The running, hair cutting and cheek have sadly come to an end. The seemingly indestructible, larger than life Wellington personality has passed away after a nine month battle with cancer.

She is one of the greatest athletes New Zealand has ever produced. You won’t find her name in the ranks of Olympic and Commonwealth Games medallists, however the list of records she held and the titles she won is longer than your arm.

When competing Bernie always gave a hundred per cent and took no prisoners, but afterwards there was always plenty of chat, humour and good-natured banter.


An extraordinary career

The women’s marathon in Barcelona: Bernie should have been there

Bernie Portenski started running at the age of 31 to give up smoking, and the following year ran her first marathon at Rotorua. She went on to complete 110 over the 42.2 km distance, and competed in hundreds of other events.

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 was always 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, something Bernie would never have done.

The Kapiti Connection

Bernie lived in Waikanae for fifteen years and had two hair dressing salons in the Kapiti area. Her daughter Marie-Jo was born here and followed her mother into the hair dressing craft.

Bernie speaks to the crowd at the In the Footsteps of the Marines event in 2012. (Photo by David McCrone)

It 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 had close links with local runners and ran in the Kapiti Kountry Kanter, the Kapiti Harriers’ 5km Series and the Kapiti Joggers’ Half Marafun.  Despite a lot of pressure to join the Kapiti Harrier 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.

A postive approach to life

Bernie was a real character with a generous heart, a positive attitude and a wicked sense of humour. She was 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 and early 1990s 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 bawl out Bloody Roger Childs!

She was 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

Back in 2009 she ran 60km on her 60th birthday, so five years later it was time to celebrate getting Winston’s card  in the same manner.

Running with Bernie was always an honour

So on Tuesday 26 August 2014 Bernie was out the gate of her Miramar home and off to Eastbourne. The scenic harbour-side course included

~ Cobham Drive, Evans Bay and Oriental Parade

~ Wellington Waterfront, Hutt Road and Petone Foreshore

~ Seaview and the Eastern Bays.

A 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 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 there were plenty of laughs and recollection of races and experiences gone by. 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.

Wellington, New Zealand and the World have lost a great athlete and personality.



Thanks you so much, this is a great tribute to a fantastic woman. Bernie was my hairdresser for nearly 20 years and when she left Kapiti I followed her to Miramar. All the things said about her as an athlete apply to her as a hairdresser. She was upbeat, positive, and always on her game and wanted to be the best. She was always keen to try something new and encourage clients to do the same. She was a great conversationalist, and could talk about anything in an interesting and funny way. Above all, she was a great human being, a great woman, a great coach and a really hard worker who never lost an opportunity to live every minute of her life with purpose and joy. Who she was in life influenced so many of us. She was on my case to exercise, get fit, eat well and loose weight. She was always interested in what was happening in my life, celebrated the good stuff and remembered to ask about the tough stuff. Bernie Portenski you were simply the best!