Bernie Portenski has been slowed at last; the legendary Kiwi runner is consigned to a Wellington hospital bed, planning her own funeral.
In May, the 67-year-old was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a condition that has rapidly worsened.
On Monday, the site of a bald, sickly Portenski in the local newspaper was a sad and shocking contrast to the vibrant and healthy blonde of yesteryear.
New Zealand running history is decorated with legends, and while Portenski doesn’t quite enjoy the same recognition as others – she never craved it – her feats make for impressive reading.
In 1984 Portenski quit her party lifestyle to take up triathlons and marathons. Smokes were blown away and beers reduced to a premium, as diligence and talent saw her reach the qualifying standard for the marathon at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games.
She was 42 years old. She was too old. The selectors left her at home.
Unperturbed, Portenski went on to fashion a formidable reputation in masters running. Her considerable feats include:
- Winner of the 1993 Boston masters marathon
- Winner of the 2001 Auckland marathon
- Winner of over 30 open and masters marathon titles
- Completed over 110 marathons
- Broke over 20 age-group world records (mile to 10,000m)
- Winner of the 2006 New Zealand masters Athlete of the Year award
- The fastest 60-plus woman in the world of all time over 5000m, 10,000m and the marathon. Portenski is ranked among the top 30 women in the world at every age group in those disciplines from the age of 45.
Portenski was a machine. To celebrate her 60th birthday she ran 60km. To celebrate her 65th birthday she ran 65km. Such was her popularity as a competitor and a contributor to her sport and community, she was bestowed the 1998 Wellingtonian of the Year award.
On a personal note, Portenski was the source of one of my most satisfying days in radio broadcasting. At Newtown Park, in Wellington, she smashed the 5000 and 10,000 metres 55-59-year-old age world records, and I was behind the microphone as an 18-year-old rookie.
None of the senior reporters were willing to take their precious weekend off to cover what one reporter disgracefully labelled a “menopausal marathon”. I took up the challenge and the item led the Monday sports news.
More nervous than a small nun at a penguin shoot, I interviewed the triumphant Portenski shortly after the race. She could not have been more accommodating and humorous.
When she crossed the line to break the 10,000-metre record I bellowed, “Bernie you are a golden oldie” – always have been, always will be.