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Balloon racing in Nevada
Every September, the skies above Reno, Nevada become a blaze of inflated glory during the Great Reno Balloon Race. With three days of races, displays and challenges, this technicolour event – the largest free ballooning festival in the US – wows some 140,000 spectators, as pilots compete for a $20,000 first prize. But the high-altitude fun does not end with a simple race; also on offer is “Balloon Blackjack” and Reno’s famous “Hare and Hounds” event -- an airborne simulation of a traditional British hunt, during which 100 balloons chase down two hot-air “hares”.

Mongol Derby in Mongolia
If you really want to feel like a modern day Marco Polo, experiencing this 1,000km unsignposted romp through the Mongolian steppe is the way to do it. Far and away the world’s most arduous horse race, the derby sees entrants saddling up in much the same manner as the famed explorer did eight centuries ago, carrying all their gear and refuelling at homes of local families en route. It will just be you, your steed, your GPS (in case you get lost, which is incredibly easy) and kilometre after kilometre of remote, rolling plains.

Dakar Rally in Chile and Argentina
Despite having switched from the original France-Senegal route to South American Patagonia, this legendary race is most definitely still on the radar of serious offroad race enthusiasts, with trucks, bikes, quad bikes and cars converging to careen across thousands of kilometres of rugged terrain. Over the course 13 days, adventure hot spot Patagonia throws the Andes and swaths of the driest desert on earth into the path of participants, alongside an enviable palette of colour, from the lush greens of the Pampas to the fiery reds of the Atacama at sunset.

Badwater Ultramarathon in California
Taking its superfit participants from 85m below sea level to 2,530m above in a mere 217km, the Badwater course is every bit as “bad” as its name suggests. The world’s toughest road-running race gives entrants just 48 hours to make it from the depths of Death Valley, the lowest point in the western hemisphere, up to the slopes of Mount Whitney, one of the highest points in the United States. It is an arresting part of the planet; salt flats, dunes, canyons and monumental mountain ranges are all part of the package.

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© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘The greatest races to watch live’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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