‘I’m choosing to be visible’: Anchorage trans athlete runs marathon in heels to raise awareness

a person wearing sportswear, high heels, and a cape jogs by in front of a body of water
Justin Dickens, jogs by at Westchester Lagoon on Friday, the day before Mayor’s Marathon in the attire they planned to wear during their race on Saturday. Dickens wears a cape that reads “BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER”. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon on Saturday had its share of oddities, including a black bear that blocked the trail and held up dozens of racers.

Perhaps an even more extraordinary sight was a runner completing the race in a pair of black 3-inch heels.

That runner was Justin Dickens, who ran in that non-traditional footwear in order to increase the visibility of transgender people in Alaska.

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Running long distances is as much a mental challenge as a physical one, said Dickens. They know from experience, having run two marathons, a 50-mile ultra-marathon, and a 100-mile ultramarathon.

“I did lose a toe nail on that run,” Dickens said of the 100-mile distance.

But for the Mayor’s race, Dickens decided to take it up a notch by running in a pair of heels.

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“I’m pretty sure that running 26 miles in heels is going to feel worse than running 100 miles in my goodwill running shoes … or similar.”

Running this way is part of their coming-out story, one that’s been a decade in the making.

“I enjoy when people use they/them pronouns to refer to me because I see myself as trans and nonbinary, and maybe more specifically, trans feminine,” Dickens said. “I just said a lot of words that a lot of people don’t know the connection and relationship to and that’s okay. For me, it’s been a 10-year journey in figuring those out.”

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Dickens is aware of only two other people who have run marathons in heels before, and they were inspired.

a person wearing sportswear, high heels, and a cape that reads "BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER" poses in front of a body of water
Justin Dickens, ran Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon in high heels. On the day before the race, they posed for a photo at Westchester Lagoon with their cape that reads “BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER”. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

“I was like, okay, that’s a loud way to come out to the world. I’m gonna do that.”

The shoes are black, and Dickens would have preferred something more colorful. But the shoes took several trips to Goodwill to find and had the best fit, structure and comfort.

“But that’s okay, there’ll be a great contrast to the Injinji toe socks I’m wearing that are pink,” Dickens said.

Dickens also wore a handmade cape — a sparkling blue, white, and pink transgender flag with black lettering that read ‘Black Trans Lives Matter,’ representing the additional barriers that trans people of color face.

They said the shoes, the socks, the cape — it’s all an effort to come out physically and mentally.

Recently, a friend of theirs was violently attacked in Anchorage for being out and trans, Dickens said. It really shook them up.

“So that happened and I realized I was afraid to go outside in heels,” Dickens said. “It hit home.”

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After a difficult year, which also included a divorce from a long-term partner, having a goal like this gave Dickens something to focus on.

“I had to return, in a way, to the part of me that I kind of set aside. When I was in California and Washington and other states slightly more welcoming to the trans community than Anchorage, Alaska, I did wear heels every day,” Dickens said. “So some people up here, they don’t know that, because I literally had to not do that when I got a job back here.”

a person wearing sportswear, high heels, and a cape jogs by a biker in front of a body of water
Justin Dickens ran Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon in high heels, goes for a jog at Westchester Lagoon, wearing their cape that reads “BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER”. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Dickens put a couple miles on the heels before the marathon and carried petroleum jelly and other items to take care of their feet during the race.

But, prior to the race, they did have other concerns.

“I’m choosing to be visible and I want to be out. But there’s always fears in that,” Dickens said. “I’ve been passed over for jobs, and I know (it was) because of my transness in other states, in progressive states. And it’s happened here. So I’m aware that violence is a threat.”

But, Dickens said getting over that fear of visibility is already a win. More than anything they hope it sparks a conversation.

“When someone does something like this, what I want people to know is there is a real good reason,” Dickens said. “Ask questions about your own gender, your own sexuality. Ask questions about why someone wouldn’t want federal protections for other humans. Ask questions about why there’s so much violence toward the trans community worldwide.”

Dickens said this won’t be the last time Anchorage will see them in heels. For them, the marathon is just one of many steps — or 26.2 miles of steps — in a new lifelong journey.

Dickens finished the 26.2 mile race with a time of 6 hours and 39 minutes.

Reach reporter Mayowa Aina at maina@alaskapublic.org

An editor’s error incorrectly identified Dickens’ pronouns in a photo caption.