Most people would think Jeff Pajak has been running under pressure for two years and two months at Annandale High.
As a freshman, he made the varsity cross country team by the second big meet. As a sophomore, he was thrust into the lead position for the Atoms last year when then senior captain Bill Boatright missed most of the season because of an ankle injury.
Now a junior, Pajak has become one of the most respected runners in the Washington metropolitan area and in the state of Virginia. He admits there is pressure on him to perform, but it doesn't seem to bother him.
"There is pressure," said Pajak after running an easy five miles the day before last Saturday's University of Virginia Invitational, in which he finished eighth despite severely spraining his ankle in a ditch while leading with a mile left. "I just have to worry about going out fast."
But he worries about more than that. His concern mainly lies with the team, a squad that won the Potomac District and Northern Region cross country meets last year and came within points of upsetting favored Woodbridge in the Virginia AAA state meet. And with Pajak, not Boatright, at the helm.
As a quarterback guides his football team, the No. 1 man on a cross country team paces his teammates. The 5-foot-9, 135-pound Pajak, though naturally shy, leads by example: two invitationals this year, two victories.
"I like the leadership role," Pajak said. "I like the responsibility. The team listens to (senior captain) Dan (Smith) and me. I keep telling the team that they have to work hard."
Pajak has been a dedicated athlete for years. A national-caliber swimmer for seven years, Pajak just missed the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Nationals while in junior high school. Inspired by his older sister Mindy and his eighth-grade physical education teacher to run track in high school, Pajak left the pool and turned to the trails.
"My sister ran cross country at the University of Virginia, and she told me to go out and try it," said Pajak, who ran the mile in 5 minutes 30 seconds in eighth grade. "I went out and I really liked it. I like running outside and running on different terrains. You can't do that with swimming. But the swimming really helped me. The endurance and all that."
Pajak ran as fifth man on the varsity team for most of his freshman season.
"Coach (Bernie) Forte thought I was a good freshman runner and that I had potential," he said. Pajak's first big meet was the Pallotti Invitational in Laurel, and by the time the state meet rolled around, he had moved up a spot.
But Pajak served notice in the Northern Region cross country meet last year when he placed a surprising second to then Robinson senior Mark Lambert with his fastest time and best finishing position.
"I didn't think about it before the regional meet," Pajak said. "I just went out to run my best and hoped everyone would follow." They did, and Annandale won the meet at Burke Lake Park.
Pajak augmented the performance with another superb effort in the state meet, coming in fifth on the difficult 5,000-meter course at Piedmont Community College in Charlottesville.
It was during last season that Pajak evolved as a competitive distance runner and leader while Boatright was working himself back into shape. After a mediocre indoor track season, Pajak rebounded to place third in the 3,200 meters in the state outdoor track meet in a fast 9:40.
He worked hard all summer and has attended morning as well as afternoon practices since school began last month. It has paid off. His first big invitational this season was the Northern Region Athletic Directors' Meet three weeks ago. Pajak won easily with teammate Smith second.
Then Pajak went to Pallotti two weeks ago. He won in 14:48, four seconds faster than the course record.
Said Pajak: "The outcome of that race (Pallotti) surprised me a great deal. I just wanted to run the same or better than last year." His time last year: 15:15.
Pajak says his main competition in the area comes from junior Andrew Hudson of Woodbridge. The last cross country meet in which the two competed was the 1984 state meet, where Hudson placed third ahead of Pajak. They would have met at last Saturday's University of Virginia meet had the Vikings not traveled down South instead.
While Pajak is not a speedster -- his best quarter-mile last year was 57 seconds, and Coach Forte jokingly says it's 59. It is his consistently hard pace that has made him one of the best in the nation in cross country, but if he wins the state meet this season, will Pajak stay motivated during competition next year?
"I just like running with the guys," Pajak said. "It's a lot of hard work but it keeps me motivated."
He hopes to run in college -- maybe at the Naval Academy -- and he hopes to study sports photography. Maybe, someday, he'll work for a newspaper or magazine and shoot pictures of high school cross country runners.