Cairo offers runners some interesting challenges: donkey carts, dust, crazed drivers and, for the last 10 years, an annual 24-hour relay marathon. For that last challenge, each runner on a 10-person team runs a mile at a time, about once an hour, for 24 straight hours. The team that covers the most miles wins. Although I had lived in Cairo since July 1986, I did not hear of the event until U.S. Embassy counselor Ryan Crocker asked me to join his team for the October '87 race.
At 37 I'm not the runner I was in high school, when I competed on the varsity cross-country and track teams. Some days all the running I do is up the stairs to my office. Still, I accepted Crocker's invitation. What better way to get into shape?
Once I had started training, the idea of running a mile every hour for 24 hours, with little food or rest, seemed rather daunting. But I carried on, and for four weeks ran regularly, until one day I awoke with a sensation I had not felt for 20 years: My stomach was filled with butterflies and my legs felt rubbery. It was race day.
The quarter-mile dirt track at Cairo American College, a local primary and secondary school, was bustling with runners as race time approached. At 7 p.m. the gun went off, and the crowd of runners from 48 teams surged forth like a herd of wild camels. I was the fifth runner on my team, and when my turn came, I grabbed the baton and took off in an adrenaline-fueled sprint. Soon I settled into a more sensible pace and finished my first mile in 6:25.
The teams, including the Flying Pharaohs and Crocodile Run-Dee, had each been assigned a tent. Ours was between those of two Egyptian teams: Freddy's Nightmare (although a long way from Elm Street, the tent was decorated with a plastic leg and a banner depicting a claw) and Midnight Express.
We were the Country Team, the embassy's term for the senior staff. Most of my teammates were embassy personnel and American citizens, and most were over 35. All we wanted to do was finish, and everyone had a different strategy. Jesse Gloe, 23, a Marine guard from South Dakota, brought along a supply of MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat), the modern C ration. Another runner smoked a cigarette after each mile.
By 10 p.m. most of the spectators had gone home, leaving the participants to face a long night of running. After three more miles, in 6:20, 6:30 and 6:35, I wasn't that tired, but I began crawling into my sleeping bag between appearances on the track. By 2 a.m. we had lost our first two runners. Every team was allowed two alternates, but any team with fewer than eight runners had to quit. Nonetheless, we were in good shape, and I felt fine.
Shortly before 6 a.m. the black sky lightened into a cold, misty dawn. One of our runners had slowed to a walk, but we were still going and felt better than we looked. By 11 a.m., however, everyone's legs had turned to cement. Worse, we had lost another teammate.
An hour later, after my 14th mile (6:55), I was having trouble. My left knee was swelling fast. Bill Mitchell, a teammate, was having his own problems. "I hate being 40," he growled, packing his right foot in ice.
By the end of my next mile (7:35) I was in bad shape. Mitchell, reluctantly, had dropped out. We were now down to eight. At 4 p.m. I ran my worst mile, a limping 7:55. But the end was in sight.
Finally, at 6:20 p.m., I hobbled through my 19th and last mile and crossed the line in 7:10. At 7 p.m. the gun sounded, and teammate Don Schuller finished his last lap.
As a team we didn't do badly. With a total of nearly 178 miles, we placed 12th overall. We were far behind the winners, the Hash House Harriers, who ran an astonishing 244 miles, a meet record. But ours was a sweeter victory: We beat Freddy's Nightmare by 66 miles.
David Jackson is a TIME magazine correspondent based in Cairo.