Crazy True Story of Obstacle Course Racing (w/Matt B. Davis)

Today I’m talking to Matt B. Davis, the founder and driving force behind Obstacle Racing Media, the web’s number one source for all things OCR, Hyrox, and more. Matt and I have a lot in common: We’re both passionate about fitness, we both started sport-specific media companies, and we both started those media journeys at a time when a lot of folks said it was a bad idea. Like BarBend, Obstacle Racing Media has stood the test of time and grown from a one-man blog into a true source and home for its community online. If you want to know about the real history behind the rise and fall and rise again of OCR, Matt has a story for you.

Before we get into that, I want to give a quick shoutout to today’s episode sponsor, Protecht Wraps. Wrist protection is important for me — and as someone with wrist injuries in the past, I try and go the extra mile to protect them.

Do you wear a fitness tracker when lifting? Then you’ve probably experienced taking it off for bench press, kettlebells, or other exercises.

Introducing Protecht Wraps, the first and only wrist wrap for lifting, cross-training, and kettlebell workouts that are designed to work around your watch while keeping your wrists and watch protected.

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Matt Davis on the BarBend Podcast

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Tao talks to Matt B. Davis about:

  • “This sounds fun to me” — how a company without a business plan rose to the top of the niche media space (2:45)
  • The beginning of the OCR space, including its roots in “Tough Guy” (07:00)
  • “Oh, this is how you keep traffic” in a community (11:40)
  • How big is OCR? The real story behind the numbers (15:00)
  • “The growth of OCR…it’s a sport that social media built” (17:00)
  • The tension of elite OCR versus making it “fun” for everyone. Which won out? (20:00)
  • Where’s the REAL money in Obstacle Course Racing? (24:10)

Relevant links and further reading:



I thought, “All right, well, I’ll just take it digital,” and that’s as best as I can remember. I started cold calling to try to get advertisers.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend” podcast, where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented by


Today, I’m talking to Matt Davis, the founder and driving force behind Obstacle Racing Media, the web’s number one source for all things OCR, HYROX, and more.


Matt and I have a lot in common. We’re both passionate about fitness. We both started sports-specific media companies, and we both started those journeys at a time when a lot of folks said it was a really bad idea. Like BarBend, Obstacle Racing Media has stood the test of time and grown from a one-man blog into a true source and home for its community online.


If you want to know about the real history behind the rise and fall and rise again of OCR, Matt has some stories from the trenches.


Before we get to that, I do want to give a quick shout-out to today’s episode sponsor, Protecht Wraps. That’s P-R-O-T-E-C-H-T. Wrist protection is especially important for me. As someone with a history of wrist injuries, I try and go the extra mile to protect them when I train.


Introducing Protecht Wraps, the first and only wrist wrap for lifting, cross training and kettlebell workouts designed to work around your watch while keeping your wrists and watch protected. They just launched, and you can check them out at That’s P-R-O-T-E-C-H-T Now, let’s get on with the show.


Matt, thanks for joining me today. Let’s start at the beginning. You and I have been in our little corners of the sports world for a long time. We are in the decade-plus club at this point.


Woohoo. We made it.

David TaoDavid Tao

We made it. Well, surprising, a lot of people said we wouldn’t. Let’s put it that way at least for me. How did you get into your niche…or niche? I don’t even know how to say it at this point. I need to actually figure out the pronunciation. How did you develop a passion for the OCR world initially?

Completely by accident? I didn’t set out to build a media company. I didn’t really set out to do anything. Any business I’ve had that’s been successful or anything that I’ve ever done, any company I’ve started, I’ve started and stopped a lot of things. Any one that’s been successful, it’s because this sounds fun to me, is pretty much how it goes. Not “Let’s write out a business plan.”


I did not go to college, let me rephrase that. I didn’t graduate college. I went to a couple of different colleges. No one ever gave me seed money. I’ve never written a business plan. Maybe I tried once, I don’t know.


I’d done a few of these races. They seemed fun to me. I went up to Vermont to cover this crazy thing called the Death Race. This is all in early 2012, and when I came back from that Death Race and meeting Joe De Sena, who’s the head of Spartan, and these incredible athletes and the volunteers of that event, I thought, “I should talk to these…Somebody should do a podcast about these people.”


I was enjoying podcasts. I thought, “Why don’t I do that?” I googled how to do it and I started doing it, and that’s really how it began.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s talk about the Death Race. This is back…I remember over 10 years ago, like the OCR world, everyone…It seemed like everyone and their cousin had a new race with a different theme. There were a ton in and around New York. People were doing races. Some of them really cool in all sorts of venues and trying to do like urbanized versions.


There was like this arms race for who could get slightly more extreme, I think at the time. Maybe I’m misinterpreting that, but that was my perception as an outsider. What was the Death Race? What set that apart?

All right. The Death Race, which still exists…I guess the shortest version possible is this Wall Street guy named Joe De Sena had gotten to this thing in the ’90s called Adventure Racing. Adventure Racing was a very, very expensive sport where people would go to some crazy remote part of the world and try to navigate.


You’re going to ski, you’re going to have a boat, you’re going to run. This crazy, crazy sport. If you google Eco Challenge, that was kind of the biggest version. Adventure Racing is still a sport today, but Joe De Sena had done these races and he thought, “This is a really expensive sport and not everybody can do it. What if I gave people kind of a taste of this?”


So, he and this other guy, depending on who you ask, guy or guys, put together this race company where they did some regular trail races, which again still exist in Vermont. There’s a company called Peak Racing, which still exists. They have a 50K, a snowshoe race, some typical “ultras,” ultra marathons.


Then they had, the first year, it was just the Death Division where they just gave you a bunch of random shit to do and that eventually became the Death Race.


Joe’s pitch was what if when you got to the triathlon, what if when you came out of the water of a triathlon, instead of just getting on your bike, what if you had to build the bike first? Or what if they gave you the instructions to build the bike, but there was no seat? This idea of really taking you out of comfort like we’re not going to give you a banana every two miles. You got to figure this shit out.


The Death Race historically started with a very unconventional start. You show up and they go, “Cool. Do you want your bib? Go crawl under this half mile of barbed wire with your pack on,” because you’ve got a pack, and a list, and all this stuff. “Go crawl under that. That’s where your bib is.”


Then you do that and the race still hasn’t started. It went on from there, and it developed into this from one day to two days to three days to…It kind of lost its luster because it became too arbitrary.

David TaoDavid Tao

It was like too much random shit going on, basically.

There was sort of this magic that happened in the early days of like you can’t google anything. 10, 11, 12. There’s no blogs, there’s no YouTube videos about it. You just show up. Then once the word came out, and it just devolved into something else. That’s the best way I can explain it.


It still goes on. So, from that, Joe launched, “OK, that’s too much. Can we do, like a five, or six-mile version where you run and jump over things?” There’s a whole documentary, you can go look up, called “Rise of the Sufferfests” that came out in 2016, which explains in more detail there’s this thing in England called “Tough Guy,” and that’s where OCR has its roots. Does that makes sense?

David TaoDavid Tao

It does. Was there an inflection point when you realized that you’re doing podcasts with these folks, you’re talking to organizers, athletes, this early-stage community around this, where you’re like, “Maybe this could be my job potentially, or be a job potentially?”

Yeah, because I had another business. My first real business was a staffing company. We staffed trade shows and promotions, and it was making decent money, and I hated it. Like you would hate any nine-to-five. I hated my clients. I hated the people who worked for me. I hated everything about it.


I thought I was screwed because at the time, I was like 35, 37, and I thought, “Well, I don’t really have any other skills. I’ve started this company, but what am I going to do?”


I had started doing the podcast and was, again, not even knowing what I was doing. There was a guy in Australia that was launching a magazine, and he was like, “Can you be my American guy? Can I kind of pay you to help me build?” This is a magazine, by the way.


As bad as a magazine sounds starting now, it wasn’t quite as bad. 2012 wasn’t a great time to start a magazine, but it wasn’t as bad as say now.

David TaoDavid Tao

The question was, “Is print dead?” Not…

Right. Exactly.

David TaoDavid Tao

Not like, “Oh, print is dead.”

 knew I was in what I like to call a Daddy Warbucks situation, meaning this thing wasn’t going to be profitable anytime soon. This guy had a hobby — this rich guy in Australia — and it’s only a matter of time before he decides this isn’t a bad idea.


Now, I gave it in my mind, I think, a year. I said to my wife, I said, “Let’s maybe give it a run. I think I’m pretty sick of this staffing company. What if I could go all in on this thing?” She’s like, “Yeah. Let’s give it a try.”


That year became, I think, 90 days. I think 90 days later, he was like, “Yeah, I’m done with this.” I thought, “All right, well, I’ll just take it digital,” and that’s as best as I can remember. I started cold calling to try to get advertisers.

David TaoDavid Tao

What were the categories of company or companies you were targeting at that early stage? I also know that feeling, where you have this blog or you have this media, not even a media company, you just have this media presence, and you’re like, “Wow! I need to monetize this.”


I can think back to the early days, early advertisers or partners, we were just approaching being like, “Hey, do you want to take a flyer on this sort of thing?” Who were some of those brands, or what were some of those categories of brands?

Well, I called it “selling the dream” because there weren’t these real numbers to back up, but it was just, “Hey, these people are loyal. I’ve got their eyes and ears.” Someone else might have done far better than I did. I’ve kind of been a salesman my whole life, working for other people, and some myself.


So, I’m not afraid to pick up the phone and cold call. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but I’m decent at it. I just reached out to every race and pretty much any product that came down the pike. I would get on the phone with them, or they would reach out to me.


If you go back to our old…I guess you can’t see them anymore. I was going to say, “Where could you find them?” I guess in the podcast, but there was a ton of them. There was no shortage of them. I wasn’t getting a lot of money from them, but everybody was like, “Yeah, cool. You’re the guy.”


I only had one real competitor at the time. There was a lot of mommy blogs and whatnot, and a lot of podcasts that came and went, I’m sure you’ve seen it. People wake up one day and say, “I’m going to be the number one source for news and information.” They last somewhere between three months and a year, maybe six weeks.


I had one real competitor. They were the only ones I worried about, and we were both fighting for those eyeballs. I had an early partner who I’m still friends with, but he didn’t stick around. Who knew that content was the game. He’s like, “You have to…” He’s early SEO stuff. You have to remember it wasn’t automatic back then.


There was a big shift at one point where it’s like, “Oh, this is how you keep traffic. You actually write an article that’s not clickbait. You say what’s in the article, you have pictures about that article,” which became natural to me, that’s what we were doing. We were a race company, we were covering these races.


Anyways, the brands that we got, were just pretty much anyone that would give us money. It’s still the case today because it’s super niche sport. There’s very few brands that have stuck around this whole time.


There’s this brand MudGear socks who actually just partner with Spartan. They’re the only brand I can think of. They’ve been around since day one.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s cool to see those successes because you’ve seen them literally in the trenches, having to make their business work and fight through some tough times. I am curious when you talk about the addressable.


OK, this is something that we got early on in the early days of BarBend very frequently, which was like, “How big is the addressable audience?” when we were trying to raise money from venture capitalists. Spoiler alert, we raised zero money from venture capitalists, just to be clear.


Early on, it was like, “OK, what’s your total addressable market?” How big can your audience be?” We had some estimates. It turns out some of our estimates were very close. Some of our estimates were not so close to what it turned out to be years later. How big is this space, at least in the United States? How many participants a year across all these races? Do you have any data to give us a sense of scope?

I have Spartan’s data because they’re the most trackable. Spartan times everybody, even the open waivers. There’s this website called Athlinks where you can pull up these numbers. You can take that number, let’s say 5,000 people showed up for the race, 5,000 finishers, and then you multiply that by, I use 15 percent.


The no-show rate is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent. People that decide not to come because they’re too hung over, forgot to train, broke their leg, whatever that number is and that’s the number. Then we could ballpark the rest based on estimates.


Tough Mudder in the early days, they were massive events. Two-day weekends, massive events, but they didn’t time people. You had to guesstimate. You want to hear something really hilarious?


David TaoDavid Tao


Of course, that’s why we have a podcast.

This documentary called Rise of the Sufferfests, the guy who made it is this guy, Scott Keneally, who’s a friend of mine, became a friend of mine. I’m in this documentary, by the way. There’s a lot of talking heads that people recognize. There’s Tim Ferriss, and there’s the guy that does the “Manly” podcast, whatever his name is. A bunch of well-known people and me because I’m the one guy in the industry.


Anyway, he then from that parlayed that into a not 60 minutes, but 60 minutes sports, which was on Showtime for a short time. Anyway, Showtime sports called me to fact check this number that Scott came up with. I’m pretty sure I’m the guy that gave Scott that number in the first place. Nobody fucking knows is the point.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s this really weird little cycle of he said, she said. You’re basically the snake eating its own tail at that point.


Right. It was awesome. It was a very meta moment for me. They’re like, “Hey, I’m the fact checker, and we’re calling.” I’m like, “Yep.” Anyway, so the taught. Everybody loves to exaggerate. Tough Mudder was saying millions of people. Joe De Sena was saying millions of people.


The best I can tell you is that…They’re were all these races. They’re all these mom-and-pop races. There was a point for three or four years where, from the middle of March to the end of May, I could do a race every Saturday within an hour. Now, I can do three races around that same time because all these mom-and-pops went away.


At its peak, you could a couple million a year, let’s say maybe less. We know now that Spartans’ numbers leveled off at about 400,000 a year before the pandemic, still a lot of people.


I think I said to you last time we spoke people have been saying OCR is dead since 2016, when it did finally start to dip after this hockey stick growth for four years. People have been saying it’s dead ever since, and we’re still here.

David TaoDavid Tao

We see that with a lot of strength sports as well. What people on our end will often conflate is a slowing of growth with a contraction, which is not necessarily the case.


There are only so many people in the world, you can’t have exponential participation growth in a sport forever because it will outpace the number of people who exist at a certain point. Then you start from there, and you subtract people who have access, people who…etc.


The slowing of growth, people will look at and say, “Oh, it’s getting smaller or it’s dying.” In some cases, it’s still growing. It’s just not growing as fast. You can apply that across a lot of different sports that we cover. It sounds like the same might be true for OCR. A plateau does not necessarily mean a collapse.

Correct. People think about us. There are a lot of places in the world that do races and still do races. Again, that’s never going to happen again. The growth of OCR, one could say it’s a sport that social media built.


There’s this new thing called Facebook, and I can post a picture of myself jumping over fire, shirtless and muddy, looking really tough. That whole thing happened at the same time. It’s also the growth of super cheap social media ads, so customer acquisition was much cheaper. All that stuff was what happened at the same time.


If you were Joe De Sena or Will Dean, the people that did it well that were the early…Then you grew. Somebody was going to, and those were the guys that capitalized.


There’s another race called Rugged Maniac, which has been like a fun race. They just do their business. You never hear about them really in the media, and they like it that way. The guys that started it were a couple of lawyers or one was a lawyer. They were on “Shark Tank” at one point, but most people don’t even remember that. They got an injection of cash from him.


Then they were later bought by another race company that puts on marathons and whatnot. They put on their races, and they get 4,000 to 6,000 people on every market, and they’re doing it. 25 races a year is not small.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s talk a little bit about the competitive side of this because I think a lot of folks know OCR is something you do with your friends, you may be trained for. It’s what gets you off the couch. Maybe it’s a New Year’s resolution sign-up. You do it as a group.


They’re all these different ways to do it, but there is a group of folks who are hyper-competitive in this. I think we’ve seen the growth of HYROX — which is something we cover up at BarBend as well — being indicative of that and making it a little bit more measurable and comparable from one race to the next because all the factors are accounted for and is all more standardized.


When did the hyper-competitive elite divisions start presenting themselves in these as like, “Hey, people are really going after World Championships and trying to be the best at this.” Not just trying to be a little bit better than they were, but trying to actually throw down and compete.

I think if you look at Spartan, Tough Mudder are the Coke, Pepsi, Chevy, Ford of our sport. They were always the two biggest, and they went after different audiences, which clearly crossover some, but Spartan was…It literally, their signs said, “You will be timed, ranked, judged.” If you fail an obstacle, you’re in this horrible thing called 30 burpees.


That’s what Spartan is built on, and that’s very much Joe De Sena. That’s how he looks at the world. Not everybody gets a trophy, blah, blah, blah.


Tough Mudder was “We’re going to time you? That’s bullshit. That’s for bros. We’re just going to roll around in the mud, and you’re going to go through electricity, and we’re going to scare the shit out of you, and at the end you’re going to drink beer, and it’s a good time.” Completely different.


They hated each other, and there was a lot of competition, and that’s good for the sport. It grew it in these separate things. These guys literally really hated each other in a real way. You have two giant egos in Will Dean, who is the founder of Tough Mudder, and Joe De Sena, the founder of Spartan.


Joe’s idea was, “Well, if we’re going to be a sport, if we are going to time you, everybody, there probably should be like a pointy end. There should be an elite side. What if I create a pro team that people can look up to?”


Amelia Boone is the first name that a lot of people have heard of and still heard of. Her and Hunter are still the biggest crossover stars we’ve ever had in terms of you could see them on a magazine that wasn’t about obstacle racing. Whether it’s “Muscle and Fitness” or “Sports Illustrated” or whatever. That’s what he did, and he flew these people around to these races, and they’d win the races.


They got Reebok in year two of this pro team. Marriott was a sponsor. They had some decent sized sponsors. Then over the years, they realized, “Why are we giving these people this much money?” So, it’s like came down, but the expectation of these athletes went up. It’s been a point of contention and what I tell folks when I’m talking about it is, “Listen, it’s a tale as old as time.”


Management thinks their fucking workers are lazy and the workers think the boss doesn’t give a shit and aren’t giving them anything. Somewhere in the middle is the truth because some of the athletes did get like…I don’t know if diva issues is the word, but their expectations, right?


Having said that, Spartan also is not great about how they dealt with things. They’d make some sweeping change without really…I always say, “Why don’t you just pretend?” Why don’t you pretend to ask the athletes what their thoughts were and then still do what you’re going to do, but they don’t even do that. You know what I mean? Does that answer your question?

David TaoDavid Tao

It does. It seems like it’s still a little bit in flux. I’m curious how HYROX coming in and grabbing some of these athletes and saying, “Hey, do our races as well around the world.” How has that changed this ecosystem?

I think HYROX and the Spartan equivalent called Deka Fit or Deka is…We’re in this very interesting time. It feels a lot like early days of OCR. People are excited about it. People want to do them, they want to do more than one. They want to get better at it. Lot of coaching around it. There’s way more podcasts about this specifically than ever was about OCR.


So, that’s A sign. It’s not the sign, but when there’s 10 freaking HYROX podcasts just in the UK, lots of people making videos about it, how do you improve your HYROX time, etc. Like I said, it feels like early days of OCR and we’re still in the honeymoon phase, so we’re going to see over time.


This is HYROX’s third or fourth season in the States. They already took away prize money from the regular ones. This weekend you caught me at a good time, tomorrow morning I go to Chicago for the North American championships. Totally happy to help you bring some content from there if you’d like. I’ll be there all weekend. I’m talking to everybody.


Other than that, other than these big championships, they have a European one, an American one, and a world championship. There’s not money anymore. There used to be like 1,500 if you won your local one. They stopped doing that, and so it doesn’t seem to be slowing people down, the “elite athletes.”


You and I know people love that age group podium, you know what I mean? That’s where your real money is, right? “Look at me, I’m third best,” whatever in my age group.


They also have a lot of categories. There’s men, women, elite men and women, men doubles, women doubles, mixed doubles. They’ve thrown in this go rock thing. I don’t understand why companies do this. It’s such a small percentage of people, and one would say, “Well, who cares. It’s the cost. This doesn’t matter,” but it does matter.


You’re going to have seven people out of 1,500 do a wave, and you’re going to measure those people. I don’t know why they’re doing it, but they also be doing it. I don’t know. Do you know about that stuff, this like rocking category?

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah. I do. Basically, what you’re saying is for those who aren’t familiar with HYROX, there are waves of competition. There’s like a point in the schedule where it’s just going to be a division, but a very small division sponsored by a brand where you’re using some of their equipment, and…


David TaoDavid Tao

Right, maybe…And it might only be literally a handful of people. It’s just like for me, as a former event organizer, what I’m seeing in that just a point in the schedule where we have an inefficiency. You know what? For brands, it can create recognition.


I’m not going to be at this event, so I don’t know if that particular part of it will be a hit or a flop. Who the hell knows, right? You’ll be able to tell me afterward.


Yeah, I have seen that before. We see that in all sorts of things, especially on the strength sports side. You have a barbell sponsor that might be different than your weight plate sponsor. There are different…you have a special platform that’s like the elite platform.


Rogue does this at the Arnold. They do like the Rogue competition platform, which is different than all the other competition platforms for a lot of these strength sports. It works for them. To be fair, the Arnold’s also in Columbus. Rogue’s in Columbus. They dominate that event at this point because they’re like the local mega company. The local company that became the mega company.


I don’t want to go too deep into business weeds on that, but we could talk literally all day.


What do you think is next for OCR? What do you think? You said we’re at this really interesting time where it feels like the early days. Well, you’ve been through the early days once. Using your powers of prediction, what’s the space going to be like in five years?

Obstacle racing, Spartan, it’s very interesting. Oh, man, there’s just so much to say, dude. Things happened right before the pandemic. Was it right before? Yeah, right before the end of 2019. Tough Mudder was about to file for bankruptcy.


Now, I have to be careful what I say, but the guys in charge did things that almost put them to bankruptcy. You had a company with this hockey stick growth, beloved brand. Tough Mudder was always bigger than Spartan, at least in terms of…they got bigger sponsors, especially England and Europe.


They had massive sponsors, and they were printing money. Then how do you go from that to about to file for bankruptcy? You can speculate how that goes. Spartan’s in this position to buy Tough Mudder.


Why would Joe do that? Why not just let your competition go out of business? Well, he thought, the crossover’s not so direct, if there are still two audiences, why not keep it and own…Joe owns them both now, which is hilarious, and I would have never predicted that ever. Ever would I have predicted that.


If anything, it might have been the other way around in the early because, again, Tough Mudder was a bigger name, and was certainly getting more people per weekend.


The idea of, if I jump in ice water and get electrocuted, and I do all this bucket-list thing, do I want to do it again, that was fun. Next weekend, I want to go golfing with my buddies, or whatever, or go skydiving, or just run a marathon, or whatever.


How do you keep these people coming back and that’s what they’ve both been doing this whole time? It’s like, “Well, how do you repeat customers?”


Spartan, Joe also is a guy that can’t stop starting businesses, so he acquired a trail company and he has…like Deka started. This whole Deka comes out of Spartan, and he’s got a combat. There’s Spartan combat, which is something to do with…he loves wrestling because his sons wrestle. You might have seen that guy, Kyle, whatever his name is on the Olympic team was wearing a fricking Spartan uniform.


These things aren’t good for the race. If he just focused on the race company, I think they would do a lot better. What I can say is that after years and years, of doing 60 races a year, which he didn’t need, they finally contract a little bit, which is probably smart. Why do 60 races if the bottom 15 aren’t breaking even? Why don’t do 40 races in less cities?


People have been asking me my predictions since the beginning, and I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to give a real answer because it’s just like things constantly…the only constant is change. We’ll see over the next two, three years how HYROX and Deka handle the growth, or how they keep bringing people back.


The fact that you have a very specific measurable time, I think helps bring people back, because if I do a Spartan in my town this year, and I do a Spartan in my town next year, they’re not really the same. I think Deka and HYROX has a much more repeatable thing that it’s easy to go back to the gym, train, go back, “Oh, let’s do it again,” even though it’s not the exactly the same course, it kind of is.


If I could make predictions, I would be rich.

David TaoDavid Tao

On that note, where’s the best place for people to follow along with you so they can see future incorrect or inaccurate predictions? I’ve just joking. Matt, where can people find you?

Obstacle Racing Media, if you put that in any of your machines of Google-ness, there’s YouTube, there’s Instagram, there’s the website itself. The website itself, I used to write a lot more, but now I make much more video and podcasts and Instagram stuff because people read much less. Yeah, Obstacle Racing Media anywhere is where you can find more stuff about everything that we cover.


I was going to say we’ll be in Chicago this weekend, but you will put this up probably not this week.

David TaoDavid Tao


If people are time travelers, this will be useful. If not, thanks, Matt, really appreciate your time. Look forward to chatting again soon.

All right, man. Be good.