For Lydia Russell, it might as well have been just another stroll in the park.
Sure, the park was Philly’s famous Fairmount Park, home to the majestic Belmont Plateau cross-country race course. And Russell’s “stroll” was the championship 5K race of the Briarwood Invitational, a major Mid-Atlantic cross-country event with high-school students from over 70 schools competing in its boys and girls’ events.
But that didn’t matter much to Russell, who’s gone from a cross-country newcomer to one of the best distance runners in Pennsylvania over the last few years. A swimmer throughout middle school, she took up cross-country in the fall of her freshman year, and never stopped running.
“Such a big part of running for me was the fun of it,” she said. “It was never about how good could I be, or what big personality can I be in the track world. Just, can I go out there and have fun.
“She. Loves. Running,” her coach, Venetia Ricketts, agreed. “She loves running up valleys, hills, mountains, she just loves running in general. Trails, she’ll run on the street, she runs everywhere.”
Russell must have been enjoying herself at the Belmont Plateau course on Sep. 14.
By the initial climb up the first hill, the lanky FCS senior was already several paces ahead of the field. When she rounded the baseball fields to finish her first of two laps, the lead was a good 20 seconds. Coming out of the woods after the exhausting Parachute Hill climb, with just under a mile to go, it was clear there wasn’t a soul on the 3.1-mile course that could catch her.
Russell’s final time was a staggering 17:57, a personal best in the event for the Phoenix’s best runner, and the second-best time ever at the Briarwood Invitational, which began as the Philadelphia Textile Championship in 1981 and has gone by its current name since 1991.
Nobody else in the field broke 19 minutes.
“I feel really good about it,” Russell said after receiving her championship medal and trophy. “I was kind of shocked at my time, because just on Tuesday on a pretty flat course at a dual meet, I ran 18:16. So I was thinking with some competition, some more adrenaline here, but (also) with the hills, I would run something similar. So to run so much faster, I’m really excited about that.”
“We were kind of on the same page where we thought the time would be,” Ricketts added, “and she crushed that time.”
Russell paced a Phoenix squad which was going up against tough competition in the championship varsity race, racing in the “big school” classification against some of the bigger public schools around, most of which had seven-to-nine runners in the 123-girl race.
With Russell pacing the field, the rest of her teammates ran strong, finishing fifth overall as a team. A trio of her teammates – sophomores Micah Trusty (10th) and Miracle Price (22nd) as well as junior Natalie Neuhaus (27th) – all medaled, with junior Morgan Cook-Sather rounding out the scoring group in her first varsity cross-country race.
They weren’t the only Phoenix to medal. Freshman Sadie Forman came in 22nd in the freshman 3K to start the day-long event, the first major meet on the 2019 schedule.
“It’s the start of a great season, I feel like,” said Ricketts, who’s been coaching the FCS girls’ cross-country teams in some capacity since 2002. “Everyone ran really well, they were so strong, and I feel like we have a great season ahead of us.”
The four-time defending Friends’ Schools League girls cross-country champions will get their chance to defend their title on Oct. 15. Before that, they’ll compete in several dual meets, plus larger events in the George School Invitational (Sep. 24) and the Paul Short Invitational (Oct. 5) at Lehigh University.
While the Phoenix have been the class of the FSL of late, breaking what had been a 13-year Germantown Friends stranglehold on the league in 2015 and staying on top, FCS hasn’t had an individual league champion since Emily Burd in 2016.
That figures to change this fall.
At 5-foot-10, with a graceful stride, Russell has cemented herself as one of the best high school girls distance runners in the country. At the New Balance Nationals outdoor track championships in June, she came in third in the 5K, following up on a second-place finish in the 3000m at the 125th Penn Relays in April.
The switch from swimming had finally paid off.
“It was about learning fundamentals and how to run, what to run, what events she was good at,” Ricketts said. “It took us a long time to figure that out -- two years, pretty much, two-and-a-half years, and in March she finally figured it out, she’s like ‘oh, this is not that bad, I am talented, I can do this, I’m confident, I’m hanging out here with the best girls, I can do this.’ And so it’s really all about her confidence, it just boosted and turned her into a monster runner.”
“Coaches at that point were like ‘see, Lydia, we told you, we told you that you were good,’” Russell said. “And I was like ‘oh, I guess, I guess I am,’ but I never really let myself believe it.”
As would be expected for one of the top runners in the country, several of the best college programs have already taken notice. Russell’s being recruited by the likes of Stanford, Northwestern, Princeton, UConn and Oregon, all of which she’s planning to visit. She was also selected the USA Track & Field’s Junior US Mountain Running Team, where she’ll compete for her country at the World Mountain Running Championships in Argentina this November.
Not bad for a girl who wasn’t even on the collegiate radar this time a year ago.
“It’s exciting,” Russell said. “It’s kind of stressful, because there’s a lot I have to do, and I have to make sure I’m keeping people updated, but it is really fun – and it’s just fun to get to know these college coaches, too, because the majority of them are really nice people, so it’s just been fun getting to know different people, and on my visits I’m sure I’ll get to know a lot of runners.”
In the meanwhile, Russell will be helping her team prepare for those FSL and PAISAA meets next month, both of which take place on that same Belmont Plateau. That placement is a big reason Ricketts placed FCS in the Briarwood for the first time in her tenure, to get her athletes familiar with the course and into a big-meet atmosphere.
Russell hopes her performance at Briarwood will serve as inspiration for the next few times around.
“I hope that through my win in this race, they’ll see me and they’ll think again when they’re out here at FSLs, like ‘oh I want to run like Lydia in that race,’” she said. “They’ll remember me running here, they’ll remember me winning and that’ll motivate them to run faster.”
If so, the sky’s the limit for the Phoenix.