Bernie Portenski, the ex-smoker party girl who became a much-loved marathon legend, sought a new challenge in her early sixties - the triathlon.
[Published VO2Max magazine (New Zealand), 2012]
I was halfway in the Levin Forest Half-Marathon, maybe fifteen years ago, in the time when my stuffed knee was letting me race in a lopsided way on soft surfaces. That day, on the sandy trails through the pine forest, with no one in sight and the age-group seeming safe, I was beginning to ease back on the pace. Then, over my own breathing and the scrunch of pine needles underfoot, I became aware of a noise behind me, kind of like a distant chainsaw, somewhere among the trees on the curving sandy trail I’d just run.
The hoarse rasping sound got steadily closer. When the course straightened out, I shot a quick look back. There, fifty metres behind, was Bernie. In yellow Scottish club crop-top and pink gloves, her blond-auburn hair flying wild, Bernie Portenski came gasping and gutting herself along as she always does, charging after me like a runaway truck with brake failure.
It’s one thing, as a friend and a writer, to admire and describe Bernie’s indomitable chutzpah and daily eagerness to thrash herself and everyone else; but it’s another thing for a once-elite runner with any lingering pride to find himself on the getting thrashed end of it.
So I dug in. She came after me. I tried flight. She became the hunter. I hammered the uphills. She hurtled the downs. I surged immediately after rounding each tree-lined bend, to grab a disheartening break before she saw it. But Bernie doesn’t know for disheartened, as they say in New York. She’s 90% heart. Gaps are there to be closed, in her mind. For ten kilometres, I used every cunning old harrier wile, and each time, as the panting rusty chainsaw drifted faintly away, I thought, “That’s fixed her – you’re toast, Bernie.” Two minutes later, it was back again, hrrrffff-hurrrr-hrrrfff-hurrrr, grinding louder and closer.
I managed to hold Bernie off that day, just, but I’ve been scared witless of her ever since. She never gave up. She doesn’t know what giving up means. We’re long-term mates, but that day I was a potential scalp. Tasty prey. She would have spat me out with a wine-taster’s relish, and then chortled merrily afterwards about how tough I made it. She is a rare mix of competitive determination and zestful generosity.
Beating me happened to be the challenge that presented itself that Sunday. Portenski craves and consumes challenges with a relish that most people feel for ice cream or coffee. Last time I wrote about her, in 1998, I had to explain to puzzled American running fans why her come-back-from-the-dead win in the 45-49 age-group at New York City happened to be the second of three fast marathons in three weeks. It was Portenski’s personal plan for spicing up the challenge of breaking the world mark for 49-year-olds (which, of course, she did, in two out of the three races). In 2009, her choice of festivity for celebrating her sixtieth birthday was to run sixty kilometres round Wellington Harbour, at one go, despite suffering the effects of what was later diagnosed as a severe thyroid problem.
“My 60km run was loads of fun. I wanted to prove that sixty-year-olds can still do it. We can exercise! We can live! And the thyroid problem was treated for 18 months and is now in remission. YEAH!!” she explained in a typically exuberant email.
This year she’s found herself a new challenge, and it’s a two-shot expresso one - the World Triathlon Championship in Auckland on October 22. At 62, with 110 marathons behind her and at least twelve world age records on the track (“It’s hard to find them all,” she confesses) Portenski is a relative novice at triathlon. Her sister Michele Allison, 56, is the family tri star, a top ten Ironman finisher in 2006 and 2010, previously 13th at world champs, and current New Zealand age-group champion.
“I talked Bernie into doing the Contact Tri race in Wellington in March to try to qualify for Auckland, since it’s the Worlds and in New Zealand. It’s hard to know what the competition is like from overseas – there are about 18 in her age group. Not much chance of a medal. I think the experience of participating will be the highlight. Triathlon is not really her love,” said Allison.
That’s for sure. During the 10km run in the Wellington race, Portenski was overheard to gasp out, in that unmistakable husky voice, “Not doing another of these [highly decorated] things again.”
But she still gasped and gutted through, passed two other “old ducks” to qualify for Auckland, and quickly refocused on the new challenge. Portenski between races is no mindless obsessive. She manages to combine her high-rev vigour with careful and intelligent preparation. Right now, in the last weeks before the world champs, she is working intensively on swim and bike, “training her butt off,” according to her friend, marathoner Gabrielle O’Rourke.
“Bernie’s doing awesomely. She honestly has a chance of a medal, subject to getting some decent road bikes in. Her swimming has come on in leaps and bounds,” said O’Rourke.
Allison concurs about the improvement.
“Bernie has worked really hard at her swimming, which has been her Achilles heel.” Portenski’s version of the story is characteristically breathless, astute, and funny.
“This tri stuff is a huge rediscover experience for me. My first in twenty years. I got persuaded by my sis, who’s a great triathlete. I always swim and spin-bike as cross- training for the running, but cold ocean swimming? I get sea-sick for starters. And a real bike and road! I was pathetically slow. I did the Wellington qualifier on three weeks’ training, and the women in my age-group were the toughest looking, most energised bunch of oldies you would ever see. Plus they had all this expensive gear, and I rocked up on the day with Michele’s spare wetsuit, bike, helmet, and instructions!
“After dodging ferries in the harbour, and swallowing a fair amount of its contents, I was dead last out of the water, and my hands were so cold that my transitions were slow, and I couldn’t get running shoes on my numb feet. That pathetic effort motivated me, and for six months I’ve had crash courses in swimming and cycling. Multiple workouts are the norm. And I thought marathon training was hard! I refuse to be last out of the water again, and hopefully can do better on the bike, and then slay them on the run, numb feet and all. I think Michele will place high in her age-group.”
“Bernie’s a bit of a machine,” says her sister admiringly. That’s the truth, but doesn’t do full justice to a complex woman and accomplished athlete. The story has often been told of how a drinking, smoking, party-loving, out-of-shape, suburban hair-dresser made a bet one half-cut night that she could run a marathon. Thirty-two years later there’s another story to tell, a more important one. It’s the life-story of a seemingly ordinary kiwi woman of no obvious athletic talent, who took up running in her thirties, and turned herself into a near-Olympian, and then a long-term global phenomenon of masters running.
It takes discipline and enthusiasm to combine two high-level and contrasting careers. In races Portenski charges along like a rugby forward, and she’s out hammering Wellington’s bays every morning at 5.30am, but then she transforms into a sharply dressed, elegantly groomed businesswoman with expert views on hair style and colouring. She has established and sold five successful salons, and now works independently, six days a week. She did my wife Kathrine’s hair (as unruly as her own) for our wedding. When we had a close friend dying of cancer who wanted a morale- boosting hair-do, it was Bernie we turned to, for life-affirming vigour mixed with skill and sensitivity. On top of all that, she was a devoted solo mother for many years, and lives with the supportive and almost equally vigorous Pete Horan.
“Marie-Jo lives in Brisbane and is almost a qualified hairdresser – another, oh dear! – and Pete is still hangin’ in there as my partner,” is Portenski’s brisk summary of her private life. Add some special close friends, and a zillion club-mates and other admirers, all inspired by the youthful zest, the habitual husky chuckle, and the warm spontaneous support of others.
As athlete, how good really is she? First, Portenski has carved a lasting place in the history of masters running. Her career is crowded with accomplishments, but here’s one simple way of looking at it, comparing her world all-time ranking in different age-groups. In the 45-49 marathon, her 2:43:38 now ranks 28th; at 50-54, she ranks 12th (2:51:40); at 55-59, she’s 6th (2:59:23); and at 60-64, she’s world-record holder, Number 1 all-time, with 3:01:30. The same pattern applies in track 5000m, 10,000m, and the road half- marathon – her ranking improves as she gets older, until at the longer distances she is now the fastest 60+ woman in the world of all time, and at 5000m second fastest.
Interpreting those stats, two things stand out that make Portenski remarkable. One, she has extraordinary range. She features on the world lists for 800m and 1500m, she holds New Zealand age records from 3000m to marathon, she runs a mean cross-country, she can do triathlon, and she can run 60km.
Two, by global standards she gets relatively better as she gets older. Or she is slowing down slower, whichever you prefer. She says the loss of time running because of triathlon training has affected her times, but that will be a temporary blip, given her overall record.
“My 10km is down by a minute. Yes, I’m finally slowing down, Roger, but like you will never want to stop. Stuff the doctors, I say, you keep running,” she wrote encouragingly in September.
She also had her time as an elite international runner, despite starting so late. She represented New Zealand three times in World Cup marathons, in Los Angeles, Seoul, and Milan. She placed well in the Taipei and Sydney marathons, and won the masters at Gold Coast, Twin Cities and Boston. That one got her an invitation to meet President Bill Clinton at the White House.
One opportunity was denied her - she should have been in the 1992 Olympic marathon. She would have gone close to a medal. That’s an informed and considered opinion. At age 42, in March of Olympic year, she ran a 2:34:39 marathon, her lifetime best, and a qualifier for the Olympics. Four New Zealand women qualified, only two got selected (why not three?). In Barcelona, on a hot day and a hilly course, Lorraine Moller claimed her place in New Zealand sports history by taking the bronze medal, in 2:33:59.
That’s only forty seconds better than Portenski’s time, which would have put her fourth by nearly two minutes. Yes, yes, I know, she ran her 2:34 on the downhill Mountain to Surf New Plymouth course, Barcelona was hot, the race was tactical and slow, it was the Olympics, blah, blah, blah.
But Portenski is above all consistent. Her last bad marathon was in 1990, sixty-four marathons ago, when she was four months pregnant. She did two other sub-2:40 times in 1992, on very different courses, Boston and Gold Coast. She is immune to nervousness and has no patience for slow tactics. She is weather-proof and hill-hardened (she lives in Wellington). She slurps up hot, hilly races.
It’s one of my fantasy rewrites of history, Bernie Portenski, chainsaw going full blast, gasping up that long Montjuic hill to the Barcelona stadium (“I’m always good on the last 10km,” she told me in 1998, and she’s right), Portenski hacking down Madina Biktagirova (who was anyway disqualified later for testing positive) for fourth, and then – who knows? – thrashing herself up the steepening hill, hrrrffff-hurrrr-hrrrfff-hurrrr, in hot pursuit of Moller (who wrote in her book that she was “deadened...by knowing I had blown my chance for gold”). It’s a mouth-watering idea. I wouldn’t envy Moller if it had been real.
Kiwis 3rd and 4th? Pity it’s only fantasy. The sad reality is that the 1992 selectors pooped away a historic opportunity. They were right about one thing, of course - athletes never run well in the Olympics if they’re not selected.
Even without being an Olympian, running and its challenges have reshaped Portenski’s life and won her friendship and respect round the world. She won’t be overawed in Auckland. The Olympics would not have overawed her. Nothing overawes her. If King Kong and Ghengis Khan were ten yards in front, Bernie Portenski, gasping and grunting, pink gloves twinkling, wild hair flying, would run them down.
Footnote (May 2016): In the world triathlon championship in October 2012, Portenski placed 5th in the 60-64 group, running the closing 10K in 45:22, two minutes faster than anyone else in the field. In the next age-group down, 55-59, the only 10K faster than hers was run by her sister Michele Allison, who placed 4th in that group.
The last time I saw Bernie was in a 10K on Wellington’s waterfront in March 2016. She helped me to my feet after a fall, urged me on (“You’re tough, Rog, you can do it”), and ran a relaxed 48:40. That was a tempo run for her. A month later she ran 44:26, her best recent time, at age 66. Three days later, incredibly, she was admitted to hospital for advanced ovarian cancer, and is now receiving chemotherapy treatment.