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Winning the Sahara Marathon: 'A spiritual journey back to who I am'

In the search for her origins and her people, Inmaculada Zanoguera became a marathon winner and found home
Twenty-four-year-old Inmaculada Zanoguera is the winner of the 2018 Sahara Marathon (MEE/Pablo García)

TINDOUF, Algeria – It was a journey back to her roots in Western Sahara that ended in triumph for the first-time marathon runner, Inmaculada Zanoguera.

In three hours, 48 minutes and 11 seconds, Zanoguera, 24, conquered the very first marathon she participated in and came in first place in the women's division of the race, amid the harsh environment of Algeria's western desert. 

“It is a spiritual journey back to the origins of who I am, who my mother and my ancestors were, and above all, a journey back home,” declares the former NCAA university basketball player of Ohio's Toledo University, in the US. 

Inmaculada Zanoguera as she runs through the Sahara desert (Courtesy of Sahara Marathon)

Zanoguera beat another Spaniard, Sonia Bernal, by six seconds. Italy's Marina Graziani came in third place when she crossed the finish line one hour later. 

Zanoguera, who is an athlete by training and a former member of the Spanish under-20 national basketball team, had very personal reasons for participating in the race.

Sahara desert marathon winner Inmaculada Zanoguera smiles as she wears the Sahrawi flag on her back (MEE/Pablo García)

She was adopted when she was only three years old, along with her brother Adrián, 32, and sister Aisha, 29, by the same Spanish family, after her family fled their Sahrawi homeland during the Western Sahara War in 1975.

“I had never asked too much about this matter, but [two years ago] Aisha showed me a document with three lines on it: the name of my biological mother, her date of birth and her nationality - Western Sahara.”

Zanoguera explains that her mother and father had to flee the Western Sahara War and received asylum in Spain in 1975, after which they had to give their children up for adoption.

"Even though I still don’t know why or how it happened, but, in that moment, I felt that I had to do something,” Zanoguera said.

An exhausted Inmaculada Zanoguera crosses the finish line (Courtesy of Sahara Marathon)

She decided that the best way to get in touch with her roots was to run the 2018 Sahara Marathon in February.

However, the challenge for her went beyond the run and the unforgiving conditions of the Sahara Desert.

It is a race that symbolically connects the refugee camps surrounding Tindouf, Algeria, a route where runners endure the harsh conditions of the land that is now home to Sarahawi refugees.

Two Sahrawi women sit in protective clothing at one of the refreshment points where runners can drink water and eat oranges and dates (Courtesy of Sahara Marathon)

More than 500 runners from 23 countries participated this year in the 42-kilometre race, which is also the number of years 165,000 Sahrawis have been living in exile in the area surrounding Tindouf.

The runners of the Sahara Marathon at the start of the solidarity race (Courtesy of Sahara Marathon)

Sahrawi refugees fled the Western Saharan War when Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975. They are still awaiting a referendum on independence, promised by the United Nations when a ceasefire with Morocco was brokered in 1991, following Spain's failed decolonisation in 1976.

Connecting with the land

Zanoguera was born on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, which is part of Spain's Balearic islands.

She holds a degree in Business and Communications from Toledo University, where she is currently enrolled in a master's programme in English.

The marathon is a symbolic route that connects the Sahrawi refugee camps of Laayoune, Auserd and Smara (Courtesy of Sahara Marathon)

In 2013, Zanoguera won the European Championship U20 with the Spanish national basketball team. She had to train for the marathon, but as an athlete, she was already halfway there.

“On the long [training] runs, I listened to rap songs and I thought about what I want to do next. I thought a little about my basketball career and use what I learnt for the marathon: hard work, endurance and determination to accomplish your goals.

Inmaculada Zanoguera ran the first marathon of her life and won the women's division (Courtesy of Sahara Marathon)

"The Sahara Marathon is not even that much about the run. The run is my commitment to something bigger. It’s about connecting with the land and, obviously, with the people that are there. I was excited about the physicality of it, but it has been only part of it,” she said.

During the week the event takes place, the competitors live with the Sahrawis in typical tents called haimas or adobe homes, and eat couscous and camel meat while learning about their culture, their conflict and how the Sahrawi refugees survive. 

“I can’t explain how I felt in the camps with just one emotion. It’s a mixture of many,” she said. “I had been waiting for this journey so long that, when I arrived, once I set foot in Tindouf, I felt relieved. Afterwards, everything was smooth.”

Zanoguera recalls that all of the Sahrawis she met were kind and full of energy, “even though they don’t have their basic food, health and drinking water needs covered.

“The refugees are such a generous people that they give you everything, even what they do not have,” she said.

‘I felt gratitude’

“When I crossed the finish line, I just felt gratitude towards the Sahrawi people and I think this is a great way to support them,” Zanoguera said.

Inmaculada Zanoguera won the Sahara Marathon with a final time of 3 hours, 48 minutes and 11 seconds (Photo courtesy of Sahara Marathon)

“The memory of a mother that I never met has pushed me to the victory. She gave me the strength when my legs didn’t want to keep moving. I was exhausted and suffering from lower back pain caused by an old hernia,” she recalled.

Both of Zanoguera’s biological parents died in Spain, but she doesn’t know how or when.

“The fleeing of my family, including my grandparents, aunts and uncles was very abrupt and many people and many documents were lost. I only discovered the name of my biological mother, her date of birth and her nationality, but nothing about my father,” she said.

She only managed to locate a relative in Mallorca – her biological mother’s uncle – who is helping her find the rest of the family, but she said that there is very little information.

Running Home

Zanoguera partnered with Canadian filmmaker Michelle-Andrea Girouard to make a documentary tracing her journey, titled Running Home. Through a crowd-funding campaign, they managed to raise $6,315 for the trip and the documentary, $1,475 of which will go to Sahrawi refugees.

“The world needs to know about their fight to return to their homeland and this documentary wants to show it. Visiting refugee camps touches your heart. It's magic. I'm excited,” she said.

Zanoguera regrets that she could not find any of her extended family members in the refugee camps. She recalls going around asking the oldest refugees about her family’s tribe but to no avail.

“Neither cousins, nor aunts nor uncles. I’ve tried but no way,” she said.

People who participate in the Sahara Marathon face very hot weather and unforgiving sun in the desert land (Courtesy of Sahara Marathon)

She does not know when she will be returning to the refugee camps, but she is adamant about finding her Sahrawi origins. “I will continue searching for them, in Mallorca, at the refugee camps or wherever they are.”