By Nate Widom
What do you get when you combine musician Lil Nas X, pouring rain, grueling obstacles, and one “dumb” idea? You get the 300 League, HAC’s obstacle course training program focusing on camaraderie and team spirit. HAC personal trainer Charmaine “Cardi” Davis is the leading force behind the program, which at its core is inspired by her own fitness journey encompassing failure, accomplishment, and a whole lot of self-realization. And much of the inspiration of the program comes from the “dumbest thing” she’s ever done.
Cardi’s love for fitness and competition began when she was young. In middle school, she started cheerleading but quickly realized it wasn’t for her. “I despised it; I’m a hardcore tomboy,” she says. “I do not like wearing skirts. I do not like wearing heels, and I do not like wearing makeup.”
Thankfully, Cardi found a better fit with basketball, bowling, and track in high school. She even became captain of her school’s basketball team in her junior year and won the state championship senior year! Post-college, Cardi continued to ramp up her fitness routine through bowling and fitness competitions in her 20’s. In her 30’s, Cardi played in the lingerie football league, softball, ran master’s track and field, and participated in many fitness and figure competitions.
Throughout this period of her life, Cardi worked as an elementary school teacher. However, she didn’t find her 13-year teaching run fulfilling and desired a career incorporating her athletic roots. In 2015, her final year in the classroom, she obtained her personal training certification. At the time, she didn’t utilize it due to the difficulty of juggling a teaching and personal training job.
All of this changed when she got into a car accident. While the accident wasn’t serious, it did leave Cardi with serious thoughts about her future.
“When I got into that car accident, I was like ‘wow…what if I left this earth today?’ I would’ve left not pursuing personal training,” mentions Cardi. “I loved the kids and I loved teaching, but it wasn’t my passion.” That next week, Cardi left her teaching job and began to look for personal training work.
After speaking with HAC personal trainers Damon Marable and Ron Shoop, she applied to HAC, becoming a personal trainer in February 2016. Around this period, Cardi also passed a physical education teacher test and took a second job at Linden Hill Elementary.
Cardi’s athletic plans later shifted when she became pregnant with her son William. “I knew I couldn’t go back to the fitness shows because they were so demanding with the training and the eating…that’s when I started getting into obstacle course racing.”
For those unfamiliar, obstacle course racing is nothing like an elementary school gym class running around a series of cones and climbing ladders. Competitive obstacle course races, or OCRs, can run several miles long and include challenging obstacles that test your mental and physical prowess.
According to the International Obstacle Sports Federation, over 2,500 OCRs are held worldwide and range anywhere from about 2 to over 30 miles.
Cardi’s obstacle course racing journey began in 2016 as her good friend Elsa convinced her to join her at a Spartan OCR in Palmerton, PA. Cardi accepted her friend’s invite without any hesitation or knowledge of the event.
“When someone mentions something that’s an adventure and is challenging, I don’t really ask too much,” mentions Cardi. “I’m just like ‘Yeah, I’ll do it!’” Since Cardi loves to challenge herself, she purposely went into the race blind. She only knew it took place on a mountain and that she needed trail shoes and would deal with some obstacles.
Participants in Spartan’s Palmerton course scale Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountain in the Poconos and must conquer steep, rugged forest terrain. According to the 2021 event map, the Spartan Super was just under 7 miles long and included 29 challenging obstacles.
Unsurprisingly, Cardi didn’t do well going into such a tough race with limited knowledge and training. However, the failure motivated her to come back for more. “I just love the fact that I did the race and I failed obstacles,” she mentions. “I’m the type of person where I love challenges and I love getting my butt handed to me because I’ll go back, I’ll train for it, and then I’ll do it again. That’s what really pulled me in—because it was hard.”
“The terrain is really what gets you with some of these Spartan races. It’s not really the obstacles,” states Cardi. “I mean, just imagine you’re ascending up a whole mountain for a mile. There are moments where it’s so steep that you’re on your hands and your feet.”
But the challenge wasn’t the only thing Cardi appreciated about such a grueling event; it was the sense of community and the frequent encouragement of everyone involved. “The people on the course never met you, but they were so nice, so helpful. People were cramping and strangers would come up and give you mustard packs and ask if you needed hydration. You’re out there with strangers, but you feel like you’re out there with family.”
Even though the experience was difficult, Cardi was grateful for Elsa’s invitation. In fact, to Cardi’s surprise, Elsa suggested she become an OCR coach. “I didn’t even want to race, and I didn’t even know what I was doing,” Cardi explained. After speaking to a vendor, Cardi ultimately decided that being an OCR coach would be valuable to her personal training specialty.
That November, she traveled to Boston to become a Spartan SGX coach and completed more obstacle course races in her free time.
However, Cardi’s most difficult OCR challenge occurred when she decided to race in a Spartan Ultra in North Carolina in November 2019. This was like no race she completed before. The race was over 30 miles long and included over 60 obstacles. Thankfully, unlike her first OCR, she prepared with the proper gear, fuel, and training.
If the stakes weren’t already high enough, Cardi also had severe rain, flooding, and cold to conquer during the event. “You’re not only dealing with obstacles, but you’re dealing with wet obstacles,” she shares. “And it’s outside, so you’re having to deal with the mud and they’re having us go through water. I saw a lot of people face-planting, slipping off of obstacles. They have an obstacle called the barbed wire crawl. It rained so much before I got there the water was to my chin!”
Inevitably, the heavy rain and cold took a toll on Cardi as she ran the course. When she arrived at a transition area to take a break, she was exhausted, miserable, and contemplating her decision. After some time, Cardi snapped back into competition mode. She had traveled far to challenge herself and knew she needed to push on, so she changed and got back out on the course.
At this point, the rain was so heavy that the course was beginning to become unsafe, so much so that Cardi had to veer off course just to protect herself.
“When I went back out there, they had these tunnels that you had to crawl through. The thing is, I’m little, but I still felt confined. When I come out of the tunnel and look at the terrain, it looks like brown tomato soup. So, I made the decision to walk the second lap because it was so dangerous. People were surfing down the mountain.” The conditions were so severe that Spartan eventually re-routed the course to protect the runners.
At mile twenty, Cardi wanted to quit. “I really wanted to throw in the towel. I didn’t train for this. I don’t know why I did this. This was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.” She planned to tell the volunteer that she was giving up at the next volunteer station.
Thankfully, this didn’t go according to plan.
The volunteer station was playing “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, which was her son’s favorite song at the time. “I broke down crying because I’m thinking about my son. And then I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t quit!’ Even though my son has no idea what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, I was like, ‘No, I can’t quit. I gotta press on!’” explains Cardi. “I gave myself a pity party for a couple of minutes, gave myself some fuel, and I went along.”
Once back out on the course, the environment was pitch black even though all runners were required to wear headlamps. Nobody seemed to be around, and Cardi gave herself the goal to jog until she saw people. After jogging for a mile alone in the darkness, she finally found other participants.
Cardi started the race at 6:30 in the morning and eventually finished at 7:31 pm. “I finished and I was so out of it. They have a fire jump right before the finish line. I didn’t even jump; I walked through.”
Thankfully, since the fire was running all day, the flames weren’t burning as strong. At this point, Cardi only wanted to get her medal and go home. However, the awards were in a location unbeknown to Cardi. She wandered aimlessly until a volunteer had to put his hands on her shoulders and ask if she was okay. She told the volunteer she wasn’t and just wanted to go home.
Eventually, Cardi was escorted to where the medals were located and found out she placed third in her age group. Out of the seven participants who competed in her age group, four didn’t finish, proving the difficulty of the course and conditions.
Once the dust settled, Cardi realized that her experience made her learn a lot about herself.
“After that race, I was like, ‘Wow, you’re still gritty. Yes, you’re older, yes you have a child, but you’re still gritty. If you say you’re gonna do something, you’ll finish it no matter what!’” she proudly proclaims. “Having children can make you forget who you really are, so even though it was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done, I think I needed to do it to realize [I’m] still that tough person. [I’m] just a tough mom.”
Not only that, but Cardi realized the value in training others in obstacle course racing, especially women. During her first race in Palmerton, Cardi noticed an overall lack of diversity and many more male competitors compared to female competitors. Also, she noticed many of the women seemed to struggle more. “I noticed that on a lot of the hanging obstacles, a lot of the women were failing,” Cardi explains. “For women, a lot of our power comes from our lower body, not our upper body.”
While there may not be overall equal participation in OCR racing across gender, women are still present and always supportive and encouraging, according to Cardi. She fondly remembers a time in Palmerton when struggling to complete a bucket carry obstacle. A woman she was competing with shouts, “Let’s go girl, you can do it! We’re almost there!” Even though they were competing against one another, Cardi loved the support system.
For those reasons, Cardi created the 300 League program with her friend Elsa. “When I came up with my 300 League class, I was like, ‘I’ll train anybody,’ but I wanted to specifically target women and help build their upper body strength, build their confidence, and on top of that work together as a team.”
As a matter of fact, Cardi loves the movie 300, and the 300 League program incorporates themes of camaraderie and teamwork present in the film.
“I always get participants that have no idea about a Spartan, or they’re scared, or don’t have much experience training. I’m looking forward to them growing. I love seeing where they were before they started training and then seeing them on the course and seeing how they evolve. When you’re doing it open-heat (non-competitive), [I enjoy seeing] the camaraderie of everyone. It’s just amazing to see them blossom from February to our first race.”
In 2021, Cardi completed over 15 obstacle course races all over the country. In every race, she finished top five, and she won two first, second, and third-place medals for her age group.
Cardi believes that OCRs have changed her life for the better, and themes of the sport have affected her as a physical education teacher, mother, and personal trainer. “I have been able to incorporate the things that I have learned about myself into my regular life. It’s just amazing. I feel like becoming a coach and a competitive athlete just has brought me to a better phase of my life.”
In addition to the positive effects of OCR on herself, Cardi also sees positive impacts on her young son, William. “I don’t force OCR or exercising on my son, but he sees it,” mentions Cardi. After traveling to Boston to support her boyfriend during a race, William turned to Cardi and said, “Mommy, I wanna race.” After that, he ended up completing a Spartan race for kids.
“He’s developing all these healthy habits not because I’m telling him, but because he’s seeing it every day,” states Cardi. “I can’t wait to see how much he grows as an athlete.”
Cardi believes that OCR racing will challenge anyone and force them out of their comfort zone. “If it scares you and excites you at the same time, you should do it!” concludes Cardi.