In summer 2021 James Armour concocted and completed an almighty challenge: the Selkie. The swim, run and bike adventure took him across the length of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, from the Barra Head Lighthouse to the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse. It comprised 20 miles of swimming, 52 miles of running and 112 miles of cycling.
At a time when outdoor swimming has become increasingly commercialised, James’ adventure embodies much of the wholesome, idiosyncratic spirit of outdoor swimming that drew many of us to it in the first place. Here, Swimstaman chats to James before and after the Selkie to hear all about the thinking behind the challenge, his preparation, and how it went.
Swimstaman: How did you come up with the idea?
James: I was travelling home from Copenhagen and looked out at the landscape of Scotland and thought, what a cool adventure that could be to traverse across a set of islands.
Swimstaman: Why undertake such a thing?
James: The beauty of the Selkie was to create something within my own country that was a personal challenge but also a way to explore an area so iconic for its history, landscape and wildlife. Of course you want to test your own boundaries and capabilities but this is a way to do that with more meaning, and is also why I am fundraising for wildlife conservation. The charity I am working with, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, work to monitor and protect whales, dolphins and porpoises in areas of critical habitat on the west coast of Scotland.
Swimstaman: Could you see it becoming an established event like the XTri series? (Swissman, Celtman etc)
James: I did at first, but for mainly safety reasons I think one person should do it at a time, like a Channel swim. I’m also not a fan of the crazy amounts of money people are paying to travel around the world just to benchmark themselves against other people. Why not be creative with your own events and make it something to give back?
Swimstaman: Did you think of several ideas for the name?
James: No, Selkie jumped out straight away. It’s a big theme in many island cultures like the Faroes and Iceland too. (Selkies are seal/human shapeshifters popular in Celtic and Norse mythology).
Swimstaman: What kind of stuff did you do prior to this that lead you to the Selkie?
James: I did sort of quantum leaps between quite big events and then periods of nothing. I only really started running in 2017, ran a marathon, rested for 6 months, then an Ironman, then 6 months off, ultramarathon.. until 2020 when I needed another goal. The Selkie was spawned from that need to do something new and adventurous. I love taking leaps with my goals, just having a thought pop into your head of something that seems so out of reach and just going for it. To quote Ross Edgley, “Being naive enough to start and stubborn enough to finish”.
I’m not a fan of the crazy amounts of money people are paying to travel around the world just to benchmark themselves against other people. Why not be creative with your own events and make it something to give back?
Swimstaman: With lockdown and so on, you had to change your training a bit, resulting in you shortening the running segment and adding cycling. What are your thoughts on that now?
James: I was sad at first because it was no longer primal. No longer me versus the land. Saying that however, it changed the feel of the route in a good way because it became a faster pace and something that could actually be taken on in one sitting. With enough training I’d like to put the running route back in, maybe in 10 years!
Swimstaman: You were telling me about some of your big swims during training. 10km, 15km. How do you get enough fuel? What’s your nutrition in general?
James: The Nutribullet was a game changer! I make loads of smoothies. Lots of avocados. Lots of oats. I try to make sure I have the right balance of fats, sugars, proteins, carbs and can’t go wrong feeling full.
Swimstaman: Do you have any ideas of what to do next? Next challenge?
James: I’d love to do something more self sufficient. I only really eat plants but I would like to try something that involves living off the land (even hunting if need be!). Imagine something like JOGLE (John O Groats to Lands End) but you start naked with absolutely nothing and you have to make your way to the other end.
Swimstaman: What do you think about on longer swims? And do you have any fears?
James: I flit between thinking about how to solve issues in my life, or staring into the abyss and letting random thoughts flow. Being a better person. Helping those around me. Random thoughts that drift by and then leave. Sometimes if I have too much caffeine I do have the odd irrational fear pop into my mind. If I give you an example from my latest weekend swimming at Loch Lomond, you might know that there are some wallabies on an island in the loch which were released years ago by an aristocrat. So of course my thoughts swimming back from this island at 11:30pm in the dark are “what if this eccentric also unleashed a few freshwater crocodiles too!? I could be swimming into open jaws now and no one would find my body”. “No one is coming to save you!” was my mantra for getting on with it.
Swimstaman: Firstly, congratulations James! Amazing achievement!
James: Thanks a lot!
Swimstaman: Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way. What was your worst point in the water? And on land?
James: The beginning of the third swim, I felt tremendous seasickness. What was weird was, I felt fine on the second swim, although that was no wind, no chop. The third swim was swell and white tips. I was gritting my teeth trying not to throw up. For some reason I had thought to myself, if I throw up in the water, I will drown! I told my support in the kayak that I needed something for motion sickness. The two worst points on land were looking up at the 800m ascent on Harris from across the final 9km swim stretch on Uist and feeling absolutely drained. I sat in my friend’s van for 5 minutes, he gave me some baked beans. I remember crying. There was also a point on the ride. I thought, why am I doing this? I felt completely alone. I was shivering with the wind chill and generally felt depressed.
Swimstaman: What did you do to get through those patches of difficulty?
James: Early on in the race, after the first round of short swims were over I was greeted by the main crew who told me we were up from 3k to 9k which was massive. I was skipping my way over that first big hill. I just had to think let’s do this. I tried to enjoy it instead of thinking of it as a race. Just get through it. It can only get better, I thought! It became a question of not if I could do it, just when. Just finish. I aimed to keep a steady pace like perpetual motion. I also just felt immensely privileged to have such a crew with me. There were actually a lot of people there at certain stages offering food or just chatting. I’d mostly zone out and just listen to whatever they were talking about: MMA, Connor McGregor. They didn’t ask me questions. Other people became my super-power! In that sense the solo swims were the loneliest points but I also feel most at home in the water which helped massively. I told people to basically force-feed me and make me do it and not to entertain any negative thoughts.
Swimstaman: What would you do differently if you were to do it again?
James: In terms of the course, I’d run and scrap the cycling. Keep it natural. Although, the bike was tougher than I thought. Otherwise, something to help seasickness and/or a change in nutrition. After being so sick, I couldn’t eat any of the smoothies I’d prepared. So something else easily consumed when racing and nauseous would be good.
Swimstaman: In retrospect, do you think you could have managed without the cycling parts?
James: I’ll never know. The 90km blew me away but actually my achilles didn’t flare up. I think eating and staying warm would have been easier during a run.
Swimstaman: Did the whales personally come and thank you at the end?
James: I actually saw an otter and my first Minke whale that morning before the start. Definitely a good omen. They’re such smart animals, and we don’t even know it.
Swimstaman: I read about your top three game. Can you tell us more about it? What else did you think about?
James: Yeah, it was just thinking about the top three on a certain topic. Top three smells, top three sounds. Some of mine were: New tennis balls (and I don’t even play tennis), fresh coffee and for sounds: certain car engines, a clean bike chain when you’re freewheeling. Some were definitely not PG! I had a lot of thoughts around gratitude and that everything had fallen into place.
I just felt immensely privileged to have such a crew with me. There were actually a lot of people there at certain stages offering food or just chatting. Other people became my super-power!
Swimstaman: What were your favourite moments?
James: At the start, I’d slept on this deserted island. All the stars were out. I’d pulled everything together and this was happening. There was almost total silence. I heard the engine and saw the light of the boat coming out to escort me. I touched the lighthouse and then made a start. It felt so epic! Also coming in on the last swim, was the first time I thought I’ve done this. Finishing it and going to this little cove at the end to clear, beautiful water. I really didn’t feel like it but everyone jumped in the sea. Really fun but I had to get out as I felt I was going to die. Overall I like being tested. I like that feeling. It’s in our DNA to push ourselves.
Swimstaman: Any equipment failures? And successes?
James: Other than the needing a warmer wetsuit at the end, but I planned that in and it worked. Lack of socks was the only thing! And I needed more towels!
Swimstaman: Would you have trained at all differently, with the knowledge of the reality?
James: No! I actually think my training was perfect. I am really erratic normally, but the variation of training kept me interested. Hiking Munros, mountain running, swimming in my surf suit, lots of climbing (as in running elevation) which really helped with quads. I gave up on pool swimming after one swim in chlorine which completely poisoned me. I was so glad I had this patchwork of training.
Swimstaman: I asked before, but maybe it’s changed. Do you have any ideas for the next challenge?
James: Another long swim, maybe a pipe dream. I need a solid crew for that one. I’ll reveal more later! It’d be like “Avengers assemble!” We need Ross Edgley, Lewis Pugh, Adam Peaty….and of course you Swimsta!
Swimstaman: Finally, I know you do quite significant shifts sometimes between areas of interest. Do you have any burning desire to undertake another sport, or a different type of challenge?
James: Yes! Rowing actually, and mountaineering. I’d love to construct my own boat, like a Clinker boat. It’s the old nordic style with wooden planks overlapping each other. I’d want to test it out on a long haul in the ocean! I’d also love to get better at climbing but I have a bit of a fear of heights. I only found out in Norway. There’s a famous boulder wedged between two cliff faces called the Kjerag. There were tourists there and children. Walking on it with ease. I just couldn’t do it. Sweaty palms, weak legs. So I want to overcome that.
Swimstaman: Well done again and looking forward to seeing what comes next!