The pre-race build-up had focused on the contest between the British double world and double Olympic champion and Ethiopians Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie. And the race did not disappoint.
In the end, it was Bekele who led the three runners home in a time of 1hr 9sec for the 13.1-mile course, holding off a late charge from Farah over the final 100 metres.
Farah, who finished one second adrift, felt there was no shame in losing out to such an illustrious rival.
"It was a good race, a great finish," said Farah. "When Kenenisa went with a mile to go I thought the pace was just ridiculous. I thought I'd come back and close the gap slowly, and I managed to close a little bit, but you can't take away what he has.
"He has great speed and it came down to the last 200 metres and right to the line, but it was a great race and Haile did most of the work and kept pushing and pushing."
With the runners battling wind and persistent rain, the lead trio pushed each other along until one mile from the finish in South Shields. Bekele, running his first competitive half-marathon, then chose a steep slope on the course to make his break, leaving Farah and Gebrselassie in his wake.
Farah managed to maintain a consistent gap to the leader, but the pace became too much for the 40-year-old Gebrselassie, who soon dropped off.
At that point, the race looked to be Bekele's until Farah made a spirited push. However, the Ethiopian was wise to the danger and did just enough to stay ahead of his rival, crossing the line with a slight smile of triumph on his face.
The women's race was won by Kenya's Priscah Jeptoo, who finished just four seconds shy of the course record in 1hr 5min 44sec.
British Paralympian David Weir was the winner of the men's wheelchair race, his fourth victory at the Great North Run, in a time of 43:03.
Compatriot Shelly Woods landed her fifth Great North title in the women's wheelchair event.