At first glance, it might seem unusual that a runner from the Philadelphia area, home to the three counties with the lowest highest elevations in the state, would be a day away from racing in the World Mountain Running Championships in Argentina.
However, Lydia Russell is not your average runner, and despite the relatively flat terrain in and around the City of Brotherly Love, the Friends' Central senior loves to run hills. The Oregon commit will line up with the U.S. junior women's team Friday in Villa La Angostura for the 35th world championships.
"Aside from over the summer, I've never really done any official mountain running," Russell said. "I've always been really into hiking and stuff. There are a lot of trails around my house. So ever since I started running, I've been running on the trails near my house."
READ MORE: USA's Full Junior Mountain Running Team
Selected to the U.S. junior women's team on the basis of her strong runs in 2019 on the track and her first and only mountain race this past summer in France, Russell will be the mountain novice on an experienced Team USA that takes on the 6.6-kilometer challenge in the Andes.
"I really like uphills," Russell said. "Downhills are not difficult for me, but they kind of scare me. I'm afraid to really let myself go because I am kind of afraid I'm going to go tumbling down the hill. Luckily a lot of my teammate at Friends' Central are really confident on the downhills so I just let them take the lead on those and that has definitely helped me a lot in my running, just following my teammates down the hill and watching them let themselves go. I have learned over time to do that, too."
According to the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA), the best mountain runners in the world will take on the courses in the scenic Patagonia region of Argentina, with 450 athletes expected from 42 countries. The junior races are first up Friday, with their course including 393 meters of ascent.
The WMRA site describes the course heading into a forest for a "steep and technical climb," hitting the highest point before starting a "steep descent" before navigating a stream crossing with ropes and a "fast, runnable descent" to the finish.
For Russell, a running camp she attended this summer in France that just happened to be in a mountainous area opened her eyes about those who are serious about running races without an all-weather track or groomed XC trail.
"For me, it's definitely the footing and stuff," she said of her biggest concern initially with her new pursuit. "If I'm alone, it's not an issue but I think in a race, it's kind of crazy to me to have all these other people around me who know how to do this, who do this on a regular basis.
"In France, at one point, we got to a downhill, it wasn't a path through bushes. It was literally just running ... through bushes. Like there's no separation between them. You're just going straight through the bush. It didn't even phase guys around me. They just went sprinting down. I was kind of taken aback for a second. Oh this is really where we're running. There is no trail here, but then it was fun."
Looking forward to an eye-opening experience in the world of mountain running in South America, Russell opened the eyes of track fans and college recruiters earlier this year with a pair of track races. Her 9:37.65 for second in the Penn Relays 3,000 in April was followed by a 16:18.72 third-place run in the 5,000 in the New Balance Nationals Outdoor in June.
"They were definitely big confidence boosters for me," Russell said. "We go to a lot of smaller independent school meets or our Friends' school championships. I have always done well in those, and when I do all those, my coaches always are really excited and I think they saw my potential a lot more than I did.
"In those big races, they caused me to realize, 'Oh yeah, my coaches are right. I really can hold my ground against these other girls who the whole country knows who they are.' I was excited about running in general before, but I think that has gotten me even more excited about it. To see that I can do all these things that my coaches say I can."
The most recent race for Russell was the Pennsylvania Independent Schools (PAISAA) Championship on the Belmont Plateau course in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park. Bookending her freshman 3K title she won back in 2016 in dominant fashion, Russell cruised to victory in late October in 18:06.4.
"The big competition for me was all people who I've been running against a lot this season so I was pretty confident going into it," she said. "That was just kind of fun for me because it was last race at Belmont Plateau ... ever. I was really just trying to go out there and enjoy it. Even though I was pretty confident in what the outcome would be, even if I didn't win, I just wanted to enjoy that race because I knew it was a special race for me."
As part of her summer camp, Russell competed in her first mountain race, following the suggestion of her camp coaches and opting for the 15-kilometer event instead of the 7-kilometer race that the other campers contested. She enjoyed the longer challenge, finishing fourth overall and as the first woman.
Starting out as a dedicated youth swimmer before developing into a nationally ranked prep runner, Russell is looking forward to this first experience on an international team at a mountain running event.
"I think it will be fun to run with them, especially since they know what they are doing," Russell said of her USA teammates before she hopped a flight to Miami and then Argentina. "I think it will help me have a bit more confidence.
"I want to have fun. I'm excited to meet the other girls on the team and also meet the boys team. I've never run against any of them before (because) they're all from out West."
Russell also noted she is looking forward to interacting with the senior mountain runners and "just kind of see where this could take me in the future" as a professional athlete. Years before up-and-coming American steeplechaser Allie Ostrander turned her focus this past summer to pro track and field, she won the World Junior Mountain Running title, becoming the second American to do so with her victory in North Wales in 2015.
"Lydia just towers over everyone up the hill so when she gets to the hill she kind of attacks it," Friends' Central coach Venetia Ricketts said of the skill set of the tall, long-striding Russell. "And running down the hill, she has the same momentum going down the hill. Up the hill, she's kind of like a monster. It's kind of amazing."
Ricketts is accompanying Russell and will assist the coaching staff of the U.S. junior women's team. She believes Russell will be up to the new challenge for several reasons.
"Just the fact that she loves running and she's very passionate about it, I think that's her advantage," Ricketts said. "She doesn't really take it too seriously. It's kind of strange that she doesn't get nervous in big races. She's really calm about it. She just wanted to go out and have fun and see what she could do. Her biggest thing was I just want to run with the best so I can see if I can keep up with them. That's really her mentality."