The Canadians see it as Canadian-American competition. The Americans see it as part of man's eternal battle with bureaucracy. The principals see it as a formidable challenge.

It is marathon skiing.

The latest record was set the week before Christmas when four French-Canadian downhill skiers, all college students, skied steadily for more than five days. They regarded it as Canada's recovery of the marathon skiing crown, lost the previous March when two ski instructors at Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts skied for 123 hours.

These records remain unofficial, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The latest edition of Guinness awards the marathon skiing title to Pat Purcell and John McGlynn, who skied for 81 hours and 12 minutes at Holiday Mountain in New York in 1978.

The Jiminy Peak record, set by instructors Al Williams and Chris Ganong, was well-documented but, "Guinness lost the copy of the verification which they sent to England, and we have not gotten around to putting all the papers together again," said an official at Jiminy Peak.

Setting a record takes more than persistence, it takes a great deal of organization. Even Williams and Ganong, the Jiminy Peak pair, had to make their arrangements with the ski area several weeks in advance.

The four Canadian skiers--Rocque Tetrault, 18; Alain Labelle, 19; Francois Gagnon, 18, and Mario Dumas, 18--began their preparations last August after talking with Verot.

Their first step was to contact the Bromont Ski Area in Canada's Eastern Townships, a few miles from the Vermont border. Bromont is the closest ski area to Montreal (where the members of the team live and attend college) and one of the few Canadian ski areas to have both snowmaking and lights for night skiing.

Planning was critical. According to the ground rules for the event, established by Purcell and McGlynn, the original record-holders, the skiers could take only a 20-minute break every four hours. During that time, they were to be checked by doctors, worked on by the chiropractor and change their clothes. ("Our underwear and socks were always wet," Tetrault said.)

Every 12 hours, they changed skis so that one pair could be returned to the shop for tuning--filling and waxing the bottoms and filing the edges.

Every three hours, they ate a light meal--dried fruit, granola, soup or hot chocolate--and every few runs they took a hot drink. Not only did they avoid dehydration, the team members each put on a couple of pounds.

Escorts rode the chairlift with them to massage their legs or to wake them at the end of the 8-minute 4-second ride up the hill. Someone skied with them every time they came down Bromont's one open slope, a mile-long intermediate run. Tetrault estimated that they skied the slope 375 times in their 125 hours 11 minutes.

Bromont officials estimate that it took 150 people to bring off the record-breaking achievement.