Article by: Kevin Cassidy
I can still remember it as if it were yesterday. The day was Sunday May the 8th 1993 when I left my West Preston home in the early morning darkness to run down to the Sri Chinmoy fun run at Richmond. My mind was already focusing on an ultra race that I had planned later in the year as I shuffled my way down Hoddle Street, passing the site where Julian Knight gunned down innocent people back in August 1987. As I neared the Fun Run start, an old blue Falcon station wagon pulled up beside me just as the daylight was starting to shine through, "Excuse me" said a woman as she jumped out of the car and flung back her long mane of blond hair, "Are you going to the fun run? because I am lost", "yes" I replied as I gave her some quick directions while the two young children in the back seat looked on in bewilderment. The blue Falcon then roared off down Swan Street and I continued running. Arriving at the Fun Run, I was met with a nervous like "Thanks for that, my names Bernice and I have never been to a run before". At the completion of the Fun Run, I mentioned to her that if she wished to continue with her running then the Coburg Harriers may be worth joining. As I refilled my water bottles, Bernice looked at me rather strangely and asked "Are you going for another run?" "I will probably do another 30km" I mumbled as I quickly departed before getting all those tedious questions about why I run so far.
Two days later at the Coburg Athletic Track, there was Bernice being decked out in proper running attire and ready to roar. Bernice, by her own admission, was not of the classic athletic build and was not well gifted with physical talent but in almost no time at all she was to prove to all that met her that what she may have lacked in natural ability was more than compensated for by a heart as big as Phar Laps and a sheer dogged determination to succeed. It was never hard to find Bernice amongst a field of runners, all you had to do was look for the one who was trying the hardest. 10kms, Half Marathons and an excellent first up Marathon of 3.38 seemed to happen in such a short period of time. Bernice would run with her left leg swinging wider than her right, shoulders hunched over and grunting louder than Monica Seles could ever do, although it was not a textbook technique, her guts and determination were amazing. As people got to know Bernice and her situation, the levels of admiration rose. A single mother of two young daughters, Bernice lived in the small community of Whittlesea some 45km north-east of Melbourne and worked as a teacher at the local primary school. She never tried to hide the fact that her financial position was not exactly flush with funds, but it never stopped her following her goals.
Pretty soon, Bernice was into Triathlons and Duathlons and started to win various prizes. The genuine look of delight and surprise on her face when she picked up a trophy would make the whole room light up. Bernice soon featured in the local newspaper and it was only then that people actually discovered to what extent her sporting life had reached. She received an award for clocking up some huge number of laps at the Reservoir swimming club and then, a few weeks after, completing a full length Ironman Triathlon, Bernice may have finished last in 16 hours plus but it was an effort that was pure guts.
Nothing could stop Bernice. She couldn't afford a replacement when her car engine finally blew up, so she would ride her bike to her events [sometimes 60-80km], do her event, then ride home again. I will never forget the time that she arrived at the start of the Coburg Half Marathon with blood running down her leg after crashing her bike on the Tram Tracks, she was insisting that she could run but common sense prevailed and she was marched off to the hospital to receive several stitches in her knee, she was still hoping to run the race but finally realised the seriousness of her injury when the doctor wrapped her knee in plaster and handed her a set of crutches.
I have already mentioned Bernice's incredible determination several times but my respect for her toughness was to rise many notches with what was about to happen next. Needing to get back to her Whittlesea home I started to lift her bike into the back of my ute and almost gave myself a hernia, "Gees, Bernice" is this the bike you do your triathlons with? I asked. "Yes" she replied inquisitively. "How, on Earth, do you manage to ride this ten ton contraption?" "I can't afford a new bike" was her blunt answer. Amazingly, Bernice was competing and winning trophies against competitors riding super light, wizz bang, state of the art bikes. Just how well could she have done with a $5,000 bike is anyone's guess.
A stitched knee was not going to stop her for long. Sundays for Bernice were basically an entire day of training, an hour in the pool was followed by a running event somewhere in Melbourne before spending the entire afternoon on her bike. Bernice was very much a "bump into" friend, I seemed to meet her in all sorts of unusual places. I was once coming home down the Whittlesea road from a friends places at midnight when a familiar figure appeared in my headlights, sure enough, it was Bernice on her bike!!. I was running a lot of miles myself and it was not uncommon to be running along in the early morning darkness somewhere in Melbourne [sometimes a long way from home] when I would be met with a "Hello" in that familiar slow drawl as she appeared from the darkness on that heavy old bike.
Bernice swam, ran and cycled everywhere and anywhere, she competed in every event she could find on the calendar as well as juggling the responsibilities of being a single mother to two young daughters and holding down a full time career as a primary school teacher.
It was Sunday the 13th of August in 1995 that things were to come to a tragic end when Bernice collided with a car whilst riding her bike on the winding Kinglake road, the fact that it was my 35th birthday seemed rather insignificant. I remember the telephone call "Hello, this is Bernice's brother Paul, there has been an accident" the rest of the conversation remains somewhat fuzzy but I still remember the phrase "The police said that she would have been killed instantly."
It was only at the funeral that I was to become fully aware of her popularity, the church was standing room only as the Coburg Harriers, the Reservoir Swimming Club, the Triathlon club, her school and what seemed like the entire population of Whittlesea crowded into the aisles. There is a certain amount of acceptance when someone passes away during there declining years but for someone to be lost at only 38 is an irreparable tragedy. Whenever I look back at Bernice's achievements, I always wonder about that first meeting I had at the Sri Chinmoy Fun Run with the first time runner, did meeting an ultranut like me at her first event influence her in anyway to train and race so much? I guess I will never know, but I did regret the fact that the Sydney-Melbourne run had faded away because I would have moved heaven and earth to put a support team together as I firmly believed that Bernice had what it took to out class many runners in this type of event, both male and female.
In the space of just over two years, Bernice Lynch packed in more than a lifetime of living and achievements and never ceased to amaze all those whose paths she crossed. Whenever you spoke to Bernice, she just bubbled with enthusiasm about whatever her next challenge was, her guts and determination were a lesson to all. While her sporting achievements were many, Bernice had a quality that we can all learn from in that she never had a bad word to say about anyone. Only weeks before her death, Bernice was enthusing how she would like to take her children on a holiday, "I wouldn't be able to afford to go very far or for very long, but I am planning something" she said. Sadly, that holiday never happened.
For the next three months after the funeral I ran like a man possessed, I trained flat out and culminated with a huge PB at the Brindabella Classic in Canberra. I didn't realise it then but I know now that I was being subconsciously inspired by the incredible courage and character of Bernice Lynch. It is hard to believe that it is almost four years since Bernice was killed, it still seems like yesterday. In recent years, I have spent many hours training in the mountains outside Melbourne and I can still remember an incident in May of 1997 when I was nearing the summit of Mount Donna Buang, I was miles from anywhere and anyone, but for a brief moment I could have sworn that I saw Bernice thundering down the trail on her bike with her shoulders all hunched over and grunting as if there were no tomorrows. As the anniversary of her untimely death falls on my birthday, I am guaranteed of never forgetting the incredible spirit that was Bernice Lynch.
Kevin Cassidy Melbourne, Victoria