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Sahara Marathon brings former UT athlete Inma Zanoguera home

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    University of Toledo guard Inma Zanoguera (23) pulls in a rebound against Idaho during a basketball game at Savage Arena in Toledo in December of 2014


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    Former University of Toledo basketball player Inma Zanoguera talks about making the transition from basketball to running a marathon in the Sahara Desert.

    Blade/Andy Morrison

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    Michigan forces Toledo's Inma Zanoguera to lose the ball during 2nd round of the WNIT tournament at the University of Toledo's Savage Arena in Toledo, Ohio.

    Blade/Lori King

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    Toledo head coach Tricia Cullop gives her sole senior starter Inma Zanoguera a big hug after pulling her out of the game against Michigan during the 2nd round of the WNIT tournament at the University of Toledo's Savage Arena in Toledo, Ohio.

    Blade/Lori King

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    UT's Inma Zanoguera shoots for two of her 12 points in front of WSU's #15, Symone Denham. March of 2015

    Blade/Jetta Fraser

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    Inma Zanoguera shoots around Western Michigan's Michelle O'Brien during basketball game at the University of Toledo's Savage Arena in Toledo of February of 2015.

    Blade/Lori King


Inma Zanoguera isn’t sure what she’ll get out her first marathon.

The former University of Toledo basketball player has eagerly awaited this moment, and now it’s just days away. Though she’s returned to UT for graduate school, she has tirelessly trained since the summer. Once she was sure she would run, she even had the marathon’s logo tattooed into her left arm.

But she’s not just passionate because it’s a challenge — it will be unmistakably challenging, especially given that the race is in the Sahara Desert. Ms. Zanoguera is bringing awareness to a refugee issue in Tindouf, Algeria, that turns out to affect her far more personally than she ever grew up wanting to know.

“The thing about the truth is that it always comes out,” Ms. Zanoguera said. “If you don’t find it, it’ll find you and it’ll eat you alive.”

WATCH: Former UT basketball player Inma Zanoguera talks about running the Sahara Marathon

During the Western Sahara War that spanned 15 years, Sahrawi refugees fled from Moroccan forces and set up various camps across the region. Today, it’s estimated that more than 100,000 refugees still live with limited resources in the middle of an unforgiving desert. The war ended in 1991 with a cease-fire and plans to discuss a referendum on independence from Morocco. It still hasn’t happened.

Two years ago, Ms. Zanoguera discovered her biological mother was one of these refugees. Ms. Zanoguera always knew she was adopted, but she didn’t know that when she was 3 years old her mother fled to Spain and put the children up for adoption before succumbing to poverty, emotional trauma, and cancer. Ms. Zanoguera never asked about her ancestry growing up — she was afraid she’d learn that her mother lived a rough life. Even worse, what if she was supposed to live the rough life with her mother but just got lucky?

As it turns out, a text from her sibling picturing Ms. Zanoguera’s adoption papers confirmed her worst fears. 

“I kind of wanted to sweep all of that under the rug, and of course that works for a while,” Ms. Zanoguera said. “But then you realize that there’s another part of who you are.”

Ms. Zanoguera’s whole marathon process will be documented by Canadian filmmaker and journalist Michelle-Andrea Girouard, who met Ms. Zanoguera last summer by pure happenstance. They’re raising money for their campaign online and have surpassed $5,800, some of which will be donated to Sahrawi refugee camps. 

Ms. Zanoguera doesn’t know what she’ll find when she gets to Tindouf, Algeria, where the race is held. She has no idea what to expect from her visit at three refugee camps or her stay with these people. She said she’s just ready to approach it all with an open mind. 

“Many come just for an exotic race,” said Mattia Durli, a communications director with the marathon. “When they get there, they discover this whole new world of 200,000 confined in the most inhospitable desert on Earth.” 

The marathon

When she found out about her mother, Ms. Zanoguera spent hours researching online, learning about the refugees and how both sides are trying to resolve the conflict. It was during this phase that she found the Sahara Marathon, which started in 2001 as a way to bring international media attention to the conflict and to give refugees something fun to look forward to hosting.

Ms. Durli said the refugees are gracious hosts of the event, even allowing participants to stay overnight in their camps. Ms. Zanoguera said she’ll be there for five or six days, and in that span, the marathon officials like to bring runners out for guided walking tours and history lessons at the Museum of Sahrawi History. 

“[They’re] happy to have visitors,” Ms. Durli said, “because having visitors means that they are not forgotten.”

This year, the 42 kilometers necessary to complete the marathon coincidentally reflect the 42 years Sahrawi refugees have lived in the desert. According to the Sahara Marathon website, that means this edition of the race will have an extra focus on the history behind their camps. 

“We’ll try to improve even more your experience, but we know that we can’t beat the most beautiful one, the life with a Sahrawi family, enjoying the tea and the company in their home, in the slow Sahrawi time,” the website reads.

The documentary

In the middle of one of Ms. Zanoguera’s exhausting training runs this fall, the idea seemed so good — film the Sahara Marathon and increase awareness about these refugees. 

Meeting Ms. Girouard was pure happenstance, but now that they were connected, perhaps they could collaborate. Ms. Zanoguera ran into Ms. Girouard a few months prior at a linguistics conference in Canada, and they kept in contact after she left. But by the time Ms. Zanoguera got back from her run, she suppressed her documentary idea. There was no way her new friend would drop everything and accompany her to one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. The idea kept resurfacing on her runs, and finally Ms. Zanoguera just decided to ask.

As it turns out, Ms. Girouard said yes. The opportunity to tell a meaningful story was too good to pass up.

“It’s a very undercovered region, and nobody really talks about it, especially in this angle,” Ms. Girouard said. “It’s very unique that you have an American student going to look deeper into her personal experiences and her heritage, her ancestry. As a result of that, viewers will get a glance at these refugees.”

Ms. Zanoguera will wear a GoPro camera while she runs and Ms. Girouard will follow along in a vehicle, though some of the logistics are still being worked out. Ms. Zanoguera said they may even return to Tindouf if they need more content. So far, they’ve been working on the documentary for six months.

“What makes it relatable is that we all have stories, we all have issues, or things about our identity that we’d like to discover,” Ms. Girouard said. “Inma has gone the extra step to ask those questions that some people don’t want to ask about. It takes a person to be brave enough and to be courageous enough to want to ask those questions and physically go there.”

Her love for Toledo

Ms. Zanoguera is one of UT’s most accomplished basketball players in team history. She finished her career as a three-time All-MAC selection and scored 1,424 points, snagged 781 rebounds, and managed 375 assists. She led her team in all three of those categories her senior season, and eventually she played a brief stint of professional basketball in London. 

In other words, Ms. Zanoguera’s rooted in the team’s history. UT coach Tricia Cullop still has a picture above her desk of the team’s preseason trip to Spain in 2015, where they visited Zanoguera’s adoptive parents. Her dad cooked dinner for the whole team, and they got to do some sightseeing of Mallorca, Spain’s notoriously scenic landscapes. 

Ms. Cullop saw firsthand the world Zanoguera left behind for Toledo, and it was what she described as a wonderful, fostering environment. But she’s not surprised Zanoguera is seeking answers, visiting these camps to discover what her life could’ve been like.

“I think it’s an incredible journey to help people but also find out more about where she came from,” Ms. Cullop said. “Inma loves a challenge, and this is one of the greatest challenges that she’s done yet.”

While she was still in Toledo, Inma organized an international student night to get those students at the game. She wanted international students to feel as comfortable at UT as she did from her very first visit, and how she still feels today. 

“I’m appreciative to the community of Toledo because the response has just been incredible,” Ms. Zanoguera said. “They support women’s basketball, and a lot of people personally support me in what I do as friends, but I didn’t expect this much support or curiosity about the project.”

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